Ancient and modern

What Socrates and Harriet Harman have in common

A refreshingly classical approach to apology

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

8 March 2014

9:00 AM

Since apologising has recently been all the rage, refusing to apologise, as Harriet Harman has done over the NCCL’s connection with the Paedophile Information Exchange, comes as a very pleasant surprise. Ancient Greeks would have understood exactly what she was doing.

Socrates’ Apology (written by Plato) had nothing to do with apologising. Quite the opposite, in fact: apologia in ancient Greek meant ‘defence speech’, and Socrates’ apologia was Plato’s account — there were many others — of Socrates’ defence of his life and conduct against the charge of corrupting the young and introducing strange new gods. When he was found guilty and, as was the custom in cases where there was no fixed penalty, the prosecution and defence both made suggestions for punishment, Socrates proposed free meals for life at state expense, on the grounds of the benefits he had brought the city. The jurors voted for the prosecution’s proposal of the death penalty.

Mutating the mutanda, that is precisely what Miss Harman has done: defended herself by giving an account of her dealings, or rather lack of them, with PIE. So in Greek terms she has indeed ‘apologised’, though it is not all clear that her apologia has met with approval. And here we get to the point.

Socrates did not feel sorry for his actions, which Greeks expressed with unemotional phrases like ‘change my mind’, ‘repent’, ‘invite understanding’. But saying sorry has humiliating public overtones, suggesting behaviour in which you ought not to have indulged, admitting that you had compromised your honour, your public standing. That was shameful — anathema to Greeks. But Socrates felt that his standing in other people’s eyes had not been impugned by the verdict: he had done what was right. Nothing to say ‘sorry’ about.

Like ancient Greeks, no modern politician can endure humiliation. They have their ‘honour’ to uphold. Clearly Harman feels she did what was right with PIE. One speculates what honour Harman imagines she is upholding.

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