Sense and Nonsense: The Worst Punishment

In the Phaedo, Plato tells of the punishment handed out in Tartarus for sins committed in this life. He pictures those swept along through the Acherusian Lake crying out to those they have “killed or misused.” It seems that “there is no relief for their suffering until they prevail upon those whom they have wronged; for this is the punishment which their judge has imposed upon them.” Already here, as so often in Plato, we see that some connection exists between our sins and the forgiveness of those against whom we have sinned.

Certain theories tell us that punishment should be “remedial,” de-signed only for the “reform” of the one committing the crime. The plot thickens somewhat when we consider the question of against whom sins are committed. Once in a while, on a basketball court, we see two offsetting fouls called against two players. This indicates that both are guilty of some violation. Usually, in such cases, the fouls are counterbalanced, so nothing happens. In most cases, however, we think of crime or sin as an act of one person (the guilty) against another person (the innocent). This seems to be what Plato had in mind.

Christian thought, and indeed civil penal law, adds the idea that sins and crimes, of their very nature, are not just one private person against another but also violations of the public order and of God’s law. In this case, our own efforts to repair any damage may not be enough. We may still have to go to confession, or appear before a court. The famous witticism that “No good deed goes unpunished,” in fact, stresses the original counterpart that this statement parodies, namely, crimes should be punished.

In the Crito, Socrates talks of his being banished to another “civilized” state—say, Thebes—rather than suffer death at the hands of Athens. The trouble with this alternative, he thought, was that the Thebans, being knowledgeable about such things, would not want a philosophic lawbreaker in their midst. So, Socrates really could not escape from Athens.

The popular opinion is, no doubt, that no one wants to be punished, even if guilty. One would do anything to escape punishment. This is not the view of Plato or Aristotle. They did not think that punishment by itself was unjust or to be avoided at any cost. Of course, they did not want punishment to be leveled at the innocent, or disproportionate to the crime. In itself, Aristotle thought that punishment was added to the law so that undisciplined youth (statistics hold most violent crimes are committed by young men between the ages of 16 and 32) could be restrained at least to the act of the law even if they would not follow its spirit.

In his Gorgias, a dialogue about a young, handsome, undisciplined, dangerous, democratic politician, Plato spelled out the purpose and nature of punishment as well as anyone has since. Students are always astonished at this dialogue. So are their teachers. Quite bluntly, Plato says that, if we do commit sins or crimes, we should want to be punished. At first sight, we brush this position off as a Greek exaggeration. But, on closer study, we see that the desire for punishment by the guilty is the only thing that can really safeguard the public order by restoring inner order to the sinner’s soul. The law, St. Thomas says, cannot reach to the inner soul, but only to the exterior act. But it is from within that our acts proceed, and if conscience, commandment, and law do not deter us, then the threat of punishment is the only alternative.

The acceptance of punishment—assuming, of course, that the law is indeed good—shows that the one who caused the crime now understands the law did have a reason behind it. He can only restore the law’s principle by accepting punishment. The crime with its results remains “done”; it cannot be changed as it is now a fact of history. But it can be acknowledged. The refusal to accept punishment continues to be a sign of the actor’s claim to be above the law, to be, himself, the law.

Plato goes even further. Let us suppose that we hate someone who has committed serious crimes or immoralities. Let us further suppose we wanted to do him the most damage possible out of spite. What would we do? In this case, Plato says, we would take every means we can to prevent his punishment/repentance. Punishment might bring the doer to see the wrong. But non-punishment will assure that the immoral actor remains in his sin. Hence, he will be ultimately subject to eternal punishment. Why, we wonder, does Plato seem so up-to-date?


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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