Epictetus argues against the death penalty

(Epictetus' lamp? A second century Roman lamp, photo by the Author)

The ancient Stoics were ahead of their time in a number of ways. Their philosophy was truly cosmopolitan, recognizing one human community worldwide. While they were certainly not feminists, they explicitly said that women are just as capable as men to learn philosophy and be virtuous. They openly referred to slavery as evil. In this essay, I want to argue that Epictetus also pretty explicitly argued against the death penalty -- then very common practice in the Roman world -- in a famous passage of the Discourses.

Discourses I.18, entitled “That we should not be angry with those who do wrong,” covers a lot of territory in applying the basic notion of the dichotomy of control to a wide number of situations. It also includes one of the most charming passages by Epictetus, the story of how a thief stole his lamp and the philosopher’s reaction to it.

But what I want to focus on here is the bit that goes from the beginning of the chapter to I.18.11. Epictetus starts out by reminding his students of the Socratic-Stoic idea that people only provide “assent” (i.e., agree with) propositions that they genuinely perceive to be true. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we are always right, only that we are not wrong on purpose:

“If it is true, as the philosophers say, that it is for one and the same reason that all people give their assent, namely, because they feel that something is the case, or refuse their assent, namely, because they feel that something is not the case … why is it that we’re still angry with so many people?” (I.18.1-2)

The reasoning is clear. People don’t assent to propositions that they clearly perceive as incorrect. Try, as Epictetus says elsewhere, to go out in the middle of the day and convincingly say: “it’s night!” You simply won’t be able to agree with what you perceive as a wrong belief. In the case of Epictetus’ famous lamp alluded to above, the thief is under the mistaken impression that it’s a good bargain, for him, to lose his integrity while acquiring a lamp. Sure, the thief knows perfectly well that other people consider stealing to be wrong, but he obviously has good reasons to do it. Maybe his family is starving and he needs the money from the sale of the lamp. Or perhaps he thinks other people are mistaken about thievery. Or he considers stealing to be wrong for others, but, you know, he’s special.

“‘They’re thieves,’ someone says, ‘and robbers.’ What does that mean, thieves and robbers? That they’ve fallen into error with regard to what is good and bad. Should we be angry with them, then, or merely feel pity for them?” (I.18.3)

Epictetus is saying that “thieves” and “robbers” are labels we put on people who make mistakes, again, not in the sense that they are not conscious of what they are doing, but in the sense that they think that what they are doing is right (for them). Now, if someone makes a mistake in good faith, we should pity them, not be angry at them. And here is the crucial point:

“‘So this thief here and this adulterer shouldn’t be put to death?’ … What you should be asking instead is this: ‘This man who has fallen into error and is mistaken about the most important matters, and thus has gone blind, not with regard to the eyesight that distinguishes white from black, but with regard to the judgment that distinguishes good from bad -- should someone like this be put to death? If you put the question in that way you’ll recognize the inhumanity of the thought that you’re expressing, and see that it is equivalent to saying, ‘Should this blind man, then, or that deaf one, be put to death?’” (I.18.5-7)

This is a rather incredible passage, displaying more advanced thinking than even many moderns are apparently capable of, given how common retributive justice (as opposed to restorative approaches) still is. (See also this handy comparative table.) Notice the poignant reference to inhumanity, coherent with the fact that Epictetus draws a direct analogy between moral and physical health: just like you wouldn’t put to death someone who is blind or deaf, you shouldn’t put to death the thief or the adulterer. You should, instead, pity them for their mistaken ways, and help them, if possible, to get healthier.

Speaking of inhumanity, ever since I moved to the United States, the only Western country that still has the death penalty, I have been struck by a common practice: allowing the families of victims to observe a prisoner’s execution. Setting aside the intrinsic inhumanity of the death penalty itself, what is this spectacle other than the reflection of a base need for revenge?

None of this, incidentally, is to be taken as a license to accept or be idle in the face of injustice. The blind man needs to be guided around so that he doesn’t hurt himself or others. And the same goes for the thief. There is no contradiction in saying that someone is sick rather than evil, and yet taking measures so that he is in no position to keep stealing. In a number of Scandinavian countries criminals are isolated from society, for instance, not with the aim of punishing them, but with that of reforming them, if possible. And just in case you are wondering, the incidence of recidivism is lower than that of harsh retributive approaches like the American “justice” (really, revenge) system.

Epictetus goes on to question the grounds for the blatantly moralistic attitude of many:

“Put aside this inclination to take offence and give vent to hatred … how is it that you’ve suddenly become converted to wisdom, and are now in a position to be severe towards other people?” (I.18.9-11)

How is it indeed.

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