Justice and capital punishment–then and now.

Justice, even if slow, is sure.
~ Solon (c.638 BCE – c. 558 BCE) 

Whatever one may think about capital punishment, yesterday’s events were extraordinary. Two men were put to death by governmental bodies in America–one, in Texas, was a white man convicted of killing a black man in a hate crime, and the other, in Georgia, was a black man convicted of killing a white off-duty police officer. In the first, the family of the victim, James Byrd, went on the record saying that they were against the death penalty in the case and his eldest daughter said,”I want the world to know that I have forgiven him and I don’t hate him.” In the second case, the family of the victim, Mark MacPhail, was in favor of the execution and several were on hand to witness it.

In the twittersphere, on cable news, and on blogs, people were debating the merits of capital punishment. Is it just? Is it moral? Can we ever know beyond a reasonable doubt if someone is guilty and what does “reasonable doubt” mean? Can you be for small government and yet use that same government to kill a man? Can you be pro-choice and anti-death penalty–or vice versa? Can we, as US citizens, call ourselves modern and civilized if we stand with nations like North Korea, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen when it comes to executing our own.

According to Wikipedia:

  • 2010 – The following 23 countries carried out executions in 2010: Bahrain (1), Bangladesh (9+), Belarus (2), Botswana (1), China (2000+), Egypt (4), Equatorial Guinea (4), Iran (252+), Iraq (1+), Japan (2), Libya (18+), Malaysia (1+), North Korea (60+), Palestinian Authority (5), Saudi Arabia (27+), Singapore (1+), Somalia (8+), Sudan (6+), Syria (17+), Taiwan (4), USA (46+), Vietnam (1+), Yemen (53+).[2]
  • 2011 – As of 5 May 2011 executions have been reported in the following 9 countries during 2011: Bangladesh, China, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, UAE, USA.

So what is it about Americans and capital punishment? Why does it remain so overwhelmingly popularI don’t know. The concept of an eye for an eye seems so archaic to me. But I wonder if there’s something deeper going on. Something beyond simple blood payment or revenge. I wonder if part of the reason Americans favor the death penalty is because they believe it can never happen to them or to anyone they know. It always happens to “the other”.  After all, we’re all law-abiding citizens. Only murderers (and their families) will pay the ultimate price for their crimes, so it doesn’t have anything to do with me or anyone I know. America is a nation of laws and, as Javert might say, the law is the law.

But we know that the law is a product of humans and humans are infallible. Have innocent people been put to death in America? Yes. Did it happen last night in the Troy Davis case? I don’t know. But the risk that it could have and the fact that it has happened before makes capital punishment–for me–an untenable practice in a modern society.

In Ancient Greece, as in my other ancient societies, capital punishment was carried out for all sorts of crimes. In fact, until Solon reformed Draco’s laws (circa 650 BCE, which were very harsh, hence draconian), in Athens minor crimes such as theft and even adultery were considered capital offences (although it appears that the punishment was seldom carried out). In terms of adultery, dealing harshly with the man who came into your home and had sex with your wife was permitted because it was essential for men, who owned/controlled all a family’s wealth and property, to know that their heirs were indeed their own. It is interesting to note that some sources refer to odd punishments such as the insertion of a radish into the anus of the man who committed adultery and a prohibition against wearing jewelry or entering into any temples or holy places by women.

Radishes aside, after Solon’s reforms, homicide was the only crime for which an Athenian could be put to death by the state. Today, Greece is among the community of nations that have abolished capital punishment. When will it be America’s turn to join that community?

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If you wish to be a writer, write.*
~Epictetus (AD 55 – AD 135)

For at least 2,000 years, the best advice for aspiring writers was to just do it. Just write. Write every day. Like any other habit or exercise, the writer who writes daily will get better at his/her craft. And the writer who reads incessantly–and who reads great writers–will inevitably internalize what looks right on the page and learn what sounds right to the ear.

We all know we should write every day. The problem is not the want of writing, but making the time for writing (and/or blogging, tweeting, editing, marketing, promoting, working the day job, eating, sleeping, exercising)…. As I start looking over a long-neglected manuscript and filling in the outline for my next Aithera novel, I have to keep Epictetus’s advice in mind and know that if I want to be a writer, I must write. Period. No excuses.

* Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher who was born into slavery in Hierapolis, Phrygia which is present day Pamukkale, Turkey. He lived much of his life in Rome as a slave for a wealthy freedman (former slave) and secretary of Nero. His owner apparently encouraged his studies and eventually he gained his freedom and began to teach philosophy. Sometime around 93 AD, the Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome and, ultimately, from Italy. Epictetus left Rome and founded his own philosophical school in Nicopolis in Epirus, Greece. He believed philosophy is not merely a theoretical discipline to be studied, but a way of life to be lived.

By words, the mind is winged.
– Aristophanes (446 BC – ca. 386 BC)

I started my first blog in 2007 as a sort of online journal in which I recorded my thoughts and reactions to current events, book reviews, some poetry (mostly bad), and song lyrics which, along with their basic chord patterns, were all less than good and all sounded like the same knock-off quasi-political protest songs I grew up with in the 1960s-1970s. Over time the blog grew more political and less about books and writing. After the 2008 election, I was exhausted and the blog fizzled out.

But now that I’m attempting to become a published author, I keep hearing that I should have a blog to promote my work. After all, that’s what I told my own authors. As a co-founder of Blank Slate Press, a small press devoted to discovering, nurturing, publishing and promoting new voices from the greater St. Louis area, I urged our debut authors (Fred Venturini and Anene Tressler) to not only blog, but to get Twitter accounts (@fredventurini and @AneneWrites – please follow them!) and to use them to connect to others in the writing community and to potential readers. So, it is seems only fair that I should take my own advice.

The problem is that, GAH!, I don’t want to add one more thing to my plate. I’m already behind at the Blank Slate Press blog and I’ve got manuscripts to read and edit, marketing for my authors, and I’ve got two novels of my own in progress. So…I’ve come up with a partial solution.

While I may blog here about writing, reading, publishing, and marketing, my main focus is going to be on Ancient Greece. I’ll include what I think are fascinating tidbits about the culture, the people, the myths, the wars, and whatever else about Greece that strikes my fancy. But most of all, I’ll be posting quotes and/or passages from the works of many of the greatest thinkers in the history of civilization. My aim will be to post quotes and passages that inspire, provoke or that serve as “food for thought.” So welcome, return often, and, above all, remember that “By words, the mind is winged.” So, let’s take flight together.