Saturday, July 07, 2007


"The sense of shame is the beginning of righteousness" (Mencius, 4th century BCE)

Socrates' Comments on his Sentence (From: "The apology")

"You think that I was convicted through deficiency of words ... Not so; the deficiency which led to my conviction was not of words - certainly not. But I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to address you, weeping and wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hear from others, and which, as I say, are unworthy of me... I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet at law ought any man to use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death; and in other dangers there are other ways of escaping death, if a man is willing to say and do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me, and my accusers are keen and quick, and the faster runner, who is unrighteousness, has overtaken them. And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer the penalty of death, and they, too, go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong; "

I've been reading Plato's dialogues which describe Socrates' trial, for a discussion group that I was leading during the winter semester. What struck me most, and without even being prepared for it, is how important it was for Socrates to lead a life free of shame. And that meant that he refused to supplicate the jury that convicted him even when it meant that his death sentence could be annulled. He thought there was shame in betryaing values such as decent and correct thinking and inner honesty for some spurious gain, such as popularity or prestige. He did not walk around these issues in an attempt to reconcile an act of dubious morality with true morality. He thought justice is indivisible and cannot be a gift depending on the mood and good will of one or a few persons. Something was either right, or it was not. And for him to plead for his life would have meant a complicity in injustice. Why? because his indictment was unjust and unfounded. If he needed to sway the jury on his behalf, he would only do so due to persuasion based on truth. If he had to manipulate their pity by crying and asking for mercy, he would be telling them: Since reason fails to make you realize I'm innocent, I'll try to make you feel sorry for me as a human being. That would have meant giving up, or relinquishing his defence in favour of supplication and a de facto admission of guilt.

The discussion about socrates' sense of shame and righteousness clarified for me a certain question which had always puzzled me. I had encountered it in Terence Rattigan's play which was twice made successfully into a movie 'The Winslow Boy". In 1948 and then again in 1999, directed by David Mamet. The moral core of the play--which pivots around the story of a patriarchal family that refuses to accept the unjust expulsion of the youngest son from school on the grounds of dishonorable behaviour - is the question of the difference between right and justice. Right predates justice. And Right is about the insistence on the preservation of a virtuous, autonomous essence. Which, I think, can be more simply translated into preserving the dignity of a life free of shame, unclouded but the knowledge that some primary principle had to be subverted for some material gain (in which I include prestige).

In the play, we see the family going through self-inflicted deprivations, because they will not compromise on their son's right to repair his name. And not just the family, but the barrister who defends him, is asked to make a sacrifice, so that "right be done".

Here are the pertinent sections from the script:

DESMOND Well, granting the assumption that the admiralty, as the Crown, can do no wrong.

CATHERINE I thought that was exactly the assumption we refused to grant.

DESMOND In law, I mean. Now-er- a subject can sue the Crown nevertheless by Petition of Right.

CATHERINE Petition of Right? Yes?

DESMOND Redress being granted as a matter of grace and the custom is for the Attorney General on behalf of the Crown to endorse the Petition and allow the case to come to court.

SIR ROBERT It is interesting to note that the exact words he uses on such occasions are 'Let Right Be Done'.

ARTHUR Let Right Be Done. I like that phrase, sir.

SIR ROBERT It has a certain ring about it, has it not? Let Right Be Done.


CATHERINE I'm afraid I have a confession and an apology to make to you, Sir Robert.

SIR ROBERT Dear lady, I'm sure the one is rash and the other is superfluous. I would far rather hear neither.

CATHERINE I'm afraid you must. This is probably the last time I shall see you and it's a better penance for me to say this than to write it. I have entirely misjudged your attitude to this case and if in doing so I've ever seemed to you either rude or ungrateful, I'm sincerely and humbly sorry.

SIR ROBERT My dear Miss Winslow, you've never seemed to me either rude or ungrateful and my attitude in this case has been the same as yours: a determination to win at all costs. Only, when you talk of gratitude, you must remember that those costs were not mine but yours.

CATHERINE Weren't they also yours, Sir Robert?

SIR ROBERT I beg your pardon?

CATHERINE Haven't you too made a certain sacrifice for the case?

SIR ROBERT The robes of that office would not have suited me.

CATHERINE Wouldn't they?

SIR ROBERT And what is more I fully intend to have Curry censured for revealing a confidence. I must ask you never to divulge it to another living soul. And I'd like you to forget it yourself.

CATHERINE I shall never divulge it. I'm afraid I cannot promise to forget it myself.

SIR ROBERT Very well if you choose to endow an unimportant incident with a romantic significance, you are perfectly at liberty to do so.

CATHERINE One thing puzzles me, why are you always at such pains to prevent people knowing the truth about you, Sir Robert?

SIR ROBERT Am I, indeed?

CATHERINE You know that you are. Why?

SIR ROBERT Which of us knows the truth about himself?

CATHERINE That is no answer.

SIR ROBERT My dear Miss Winslow, are you cross-examining me?

CATHERINE On this point. Why are you ashamed of your emotions?

SIR ROBERT To fight a case on emotional grounds is the surest way to lose it.


SIR ROBERT Emotions cloud the issue. Cold, clear logic wins the day.

CATHERINE Was it cold, clear logic that made you weep today at the verdict?

SIR ROBERT I wept today because right had been done.


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