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Making Necessity of a Virtue: Hidden Value Judgments in Forensic Suggnōmē

Ted Parker

University of Toronto

My talk examines a few exceptional uses of the value of suggnōmē (“pardon”) in the speeches of Demosthenes (19.238-9; 21.74-5; 24.67, .200). What sets these passages apart from more typical deployments of suggnōmē in Athenian forensic oratory are the strong, pointedly extra-legal value judgments they imply. Whereas other requests for suggnōmē in the forensic context are either rhetorical (“pardon my ineloquence”) or fall under an established canon of excuses (suggnōmē for the unintentional, unwitting, drunk, etc.), these are more tendentious and value-laden. In particular, they posit “loyalty to family” and “regard for one’s personal honor (timē)” as acceptable reasons for breaking the law. Besides their exceptional status, these instances of suggnōmē are of interest for two reasons. First, they expose the larger potential of suggnōmē to disguise value judgments as judgments of fact—yet another misrepresentation that scholars of Athenian forensic oratory should be aware of. Second, since the extra-legal value judgments in question are aristocratic in origin, Demosthenes’ attitude towards them has important implications for our understanding of the ongoing clash between aristocratic and democratic values in fourth-century Athens.

My argument builds on the work of David Konstan, who offers an elucidation of Aristotle’s theorization of suggnōmē. On this model, suggnōmē is only granted to those who have committed an offense unintentionally or involuntarily. In view of this unintentionality or involuntariness, the “offense” is no longer deemed an offense, and “pardon” (rather than “forgiveness”) is granted to the offender. The logic behind this model is that, since the offender lacks moral agency, he is also free from moral responsibility. In Athenian forensic oratory, a relatively established canon of uncontroversial prophaseis (“excuses”)—ignorance, drunkenness, anger, etc.—marks off the zone of unintentional or involuntary action. I push this model one step further, arguing that the determination of what qualifies as unintentional or involuntary can itself be a value judgment, and sometimes a very fraught one. 

After setting out this model, I will turn to our passages of interest in Demosthenes. While conforming to Konstan’s model in assuming the involuntariness of the offender, these instances of suggnōmē rely on a tendentious metaphor of compulsion. They claim that the offender “had” to break the law due to the “compulsion” of familial loyalty or personal honor.  Through this metaphorical compulsion, requests for suggnōmē have the potential to misrepresent value judgments—“family and honor are more important than the laws”—as judgments of fact—“the offender acted involuntarily (and therefore deserves pardon).” Thus, these examples reverse the normal logic of “making a virtue out of necessity”—that is, imparting moral value on what one would have had to do in any case. Instead, they “make necessity out of a virtue,” hiding the moral content of an act under the name of “compulsion.” In this way, speakers can smuggle extra-legal value judgments into the courtroom, laundering them through requests for suggnōmē. I will suggest that this same dynamic also applies to other prophaseis—e.g. anger, poverty, and “following orders”—where a metaphor of “compulsion," while less overt, still works to conceal a value judgment.

Finally, I will consider the importance of the aristocratic nature of these particular values—i.e. the valuing of family over state and honor over law. Demosthenes demonstrates a highly ambivalent attitude towards these cases of suggnōmē. In these passages, he either rejects their validity, accepts them in principle but not in this particular application, or accepts them only to supercede them. Most importantly, Demosthenes never fully commits to or identifies himself with any appeal to suggnōmē that conceals an aristocratic value judgment. In Demosthenes, these appeals exist to be rejected, undermined, or overcome. Thus, I conclude by relating this anti-aristocratic gesture of Demosthenes’ to recent work that sees him as a democratic theorist (Christ), as well as to the longstanding discussion of the negotiation of aristocratic and democratic values in fourth-century Athens (Ober: 259-66, 289–92, 338-9; Loraux:172-220).

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Public Life in Classical Athens

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