Crime and Punishment: Zeno’s Paradox

The Zeno I speak of is not the philosopher from Elea, famous for his paradoxes; rather it is Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. According to an ancient chronicler: “We are told that he was once chastising a slave for stealing, and when the latter pleaded that it was his fate to steal, ‘Yes, and to be beaten too,’ said Zeno.” That, it seems to me, is the perfect rejoinder to all those people who say they “can’t help” doing bad things.

Apparently this dodging of responsibility is not a modernist construct after all. But whether in ancient times or now, Zeno offers a witty retort to disingenuous excuses for improper behavior. Either the sociopathic individual (and his enablers) must accept an explanation that operates according to their rationale or else they simply have to shut up.  To appeal to any other standard would admit of a transcendent notion of right and wrong and thus personal free will and responsibility. They are backed into a corner.

So, when criminals say they have no control over being dishonest or violent, we reply that we just can’t help punishing them. We were born that way.

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