While punishment as a social practice is used extensively today, it has deep historical roots. The philosophy of punishment emerged in the ancient times and has supplied the social practice of punishment with its underlying principles across centuries. In Ancient Greece, the philosophy of punishment was generally rooted in two concepts of punishment timoria and kolasis. When translated, timoria stands for vengeance or retribution, whereas kolasis has the meaning of chastisement and refers to corrective punishment (Koritansky, 2011). Aristotle in his Rhetoric describes these types of punishment in the following way, “Timosis and colasis are different. Kolasis is for the sake of the one punished; timoria for the sake of the one punishing, that he may receive satisfaction” (Aristotle in Koritansky, 2011, p. 36). This paper looks into the historical use of retribution and assesses its effectiveness compared with other ways of punishing criminals, i.e. corrective punishment.
Retribution is by far the oldest and the most widely used justification for punishment. It is generally based on the principles of revenge, i.e. it equates the punishment with the crime’s gravity. Historically, retribution flourished in the times of King Hammurabi and later in the Judean tradition based on the Old Testament laws fixed by Moses. The Deuteronomy Chapter Two is frequently referred to as the justification of revenge in the Bible (Newton, 2005, p. 7). The key principle in Mosaic understanding of punishment was “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Recinella, 2004, p.35). Under that philosophy, criminals got what they deserved with punishment considered justifiable on its own grounds.
As a penal philosophy underlying the nature of punishment, retribution flourished in the form of corporal and capital punishment in Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman societies, as well as was extensively used throughout later eras. In Greece, Draco’s laws written in around 621 B.C. justified the application of capital punishment for a series of crimes. Same about the Romanian society (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013). In the Middle Ages and up to the Age of Enlightenment, both corporal and death penalty retributive practices were extensively used in Europe as a generalized punitive measure with reference to various crimes. According to Ledford (1998), at that time executions were public and rather brutal, for example, breaking with the wheel, branding, and cropping. They reflected the societies’ need to establish the concepts of honor and dishonor. In this, the religious component was strong, so confession remained an important part: in criminal law it created certainty of the final penalty before the execution itself; in religion, it created the feeling of security of everlasting life of the condemned. While with the emergence of the natural rights concept and with the bloom of rationality thought during Enlightenment, new, rehabilitative rather than retributive ways of punishment were advocated, they did not replace retribution. Modern criminal justice (in particular, in the United States) heavily relies on retribution. The most debatable example of retribution today is capital punishment.
Assessing the effectiveness of retribution, one should say that retribution works well as the basis of certain non-criminal legal practices. However, in criminal justice, application of retribution as the most widely used principle of punishment has serious flaws. This is based on the uniform sentencing guidelines that focus on the seriousness of crime rather than on the offender. In this case, the degree of blameworthiness and each offender’s culpability is neglected. Also, it is impossible to achieve the adequate proportionality of the crime and literally apply the principle of “an eye for an eye” (Luste, n.d.). In the context of the imprisonment boom and capital punishment application in the United States, more effective practices of punishment should be practiced (Weisberg, 2012). Retribution, as it is clearly seen, does not perform any curative role and thus is ineffective for the society (Weisberg, 2012). Thus, the emphasis on kolasis rather than timoria may be an effective way to replace excessive use of retribution.
- Encyclopedia Britannica (2013). Capital punishment. Retrieved September 22, 2013, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/93902/capital-punishment.
- Recinella, D. (2004). The biblical truth about America’s death penalty. UPNE.
- Koritansky, K. (2011). The philosophy of punishment and the history of political thought. University of Missouri Press.
- Ledford, K. (1998). Review of Evans, Richard J., Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany 1600-1987. H-German, H-Net Reviews. Retrieved September 22, 2013, from http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=1657.
- Luste, M. (n.d.). Philosophies of punishment. Retrieved September 22, 2013, from http://marisluste.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/soda-filozofijas-3.pdf
- Newton, B. (2005). Punishment, revenge and retribution: Historical analysis of punitive operations. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Army Command and General Staff College, School of Advanced Military Studies.
- Weisberg, R. (2012). Reality-challenged philosophies of punishment. Marquette Law Review, 95 (4), 1203-1252.