reasoning against harsh punishment

An anger-driven justice system doesn’t necessarily generate harsh punishment.  In ancient, democratic Athens, anger made a citizen’s case for public action against a wrongdoer. Yet anger-driven justice seems not to have supported harsh punishment.  Executions in democratic Athens were limited to means that did not draw blood; specifically, drinking hemlock and being crucified by being bound, not nailed, to a board.  Athenian themselves considered their city to have mild, even too mild, punishments.[1]  Anger was not a recognized impediment to a just public order.

Scholarly development set reason against emotion.  The relation between reason and emotion became a key issue among teachers (philosophers) competing vigorously for students.  Among most philosophers, the favored position was that reason should control emotion.  That’s the idea underlying Plato’s famous image of reason as a charioteer controlling conflicting emotions.

In the vibrant intellectual circumstances of the ancient Islamic world, a leading physician counseled an emir to administer punishment based on reason, not anger.  According to a history that the physician’s son wrote, the Emir said to the physician:

I want you to take care of my physical well-being and of something even more important to me, namely my morals, for I have faith in your intelligence, learning, piety and devotion. I am greatly distressed by the fact that anger often drives me to actions such as flogging and executions, which I regret when my wrath has subsided. I therefore request you to watch me, and if you detect any defect in my behavior, do not hesitate to tell me so and advise me how to rid myself of it. [2]

The physician reportedly replied:

I have heard the Emir’s order and shall obey it.  The Emir will at once hear some general rules from me as to how to deal with the failings he is concerned about, while details will follow as the occasion arises.  Remember, O Emir, that you occupy a position in which no man can gain the upper hand of you, that you are free to do whatever you please at any time you choose. … Bear in mind, therefore, that anger intoxicates a man much more powerfully than wine. A man drunk with wine is apt to do what he will neither understand nor even remember when he is sober again and will regret and be ashamed of when reminded of it, and the same applies, only more so, to a man drunk with anger. So, whenever you feel anger rising in you, then, before its effect becomes too heady and you are no longer master of yourself, make it a rule to defer punishment to the following day, since you may be sure that what you were about to do can be done just as well on the morrow. …  If you behave in this way, the fit of anger will pass during the night.  It will subside of itself and you will sober up.  … When recovering from your intoxication, reflect upon the matter which aroused your anger.

The physician encouraged the Emir to reason:

  • Think about God:”just as you would like God to forgive you, so other people hope for your clemency and forgiveness. … Great credit will accrue to you by being merciful. Remember the word of Allāh, the Most High: Let them pardon and overlook; do ye not like that Allāh should forgive you; Allāh is forgiving, compassionate {Qur’ān, XXIV, 22}”
  • Recognize that deterrence will continue to exist: “Neither the evildoer nor anyone else will think that you were too weak to mete out punishment or that you lacked power to do so.”
  • Think about proportionality: “mete out punishment commensurate with the crime, and no more otherwise you will be a wrongdoer and your prestige will suffer.”
  • Reason about your interests: “justice {is} much more profitable to the ruler than tyranny, as it leads to happiness in this world and the next.”

Such reasons have been continually discussed among scholars right through to present-day criminologists.

If emotions are recognized as an integral component of reasoned decision-making, then the Emir’s problem points to a different treatment.  What events caused the Emir to get so angry that he would have persons flogged and executed?  What could be done so that the Emir wouldn’t get so angry in response to those events?  Discussion and particular training experiences could well be effective treatment.

Unfortunately, actual human decision-making is difficult matter for scholarly writing.  Compared to abstract reasoning, actual human decision-making is much more contingent on persons and circumstances.  Abstract reasoning, presented within actual or fictive history, can be much more easily marketed across an expert’s clients.

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[1] On anger in relation to prosecution and punishment in democratic Athens, see Allen (2000) pp. 50-9, 148-51. The Athenian form of crucifixion was called apotympanismos.  Archaeological evidence indicates that apotympanismos involved strap bindings around the neck, wrists, and ankles.  It obviously was not a mild form of punishment.  Other forms of punishment were fines, loss of political rights, and banishment.  Citizens were not subject to corporal punishment, and imprisonment was rare. Given the limited evidence available, a good measure of the harshness of Athenian punishment doesn’t exist.  Yet much more physically brutal punishments have been common across the world and throughout history.  The Athenians apparently were proud of their mildness in punishment.  See Hall (1996) pp. 73-4.

[2] All the above quotes are from HP pp. 425-8.  The physician’s name was Abū Sa`īd Sinan ibn Thābit ibn Qurra.  His son’s name (the author of the text) was Abū al-Hasan Thābit ibn Sinān ibn Thābit ibn Qurrah.  The general thrust of the advice follows that of Galen, On the passions and errors of the soul, trans. Harkins (1963) pp. 42-3.  Seneca, Of Anger, Bk. 1, Ch. 1, described anger as brief insanity (brevis insania).  Fady (1998) interprets Sinan ibn Thābit as describing a case of Galenic psychotherapy.  However, the historical circumstances and the textual style suggest that the case is probably fictive.  Sinan ibn Thābit (the father) served as physician to three successive caliphs: al-Muqtadir, al-Qāhir, and al-Rādī.  The brutal behavior of rulers clearly was a important public issue in Sinan ibn Thābit’s time.  Consider, for example, the behavior of the caliph al-Qāhir:

With an outward affectation of godliness, al-Qāhir went to every excess of cruelty and extortion.  He even tortured the mother of al-Muqtadir and his sons and favorites, to squeeze from them the wealth built up throughout the late reign.  Many fled from his grasp.  Al-Qāhir had his nephew, who was to have followed him, walled up alive.  Thus relieved from immediate threat, al-Qāhir broke out into such tyranny, even against friend and foe, as to make his rule unbearable.

In fear of al-Qāhir, Sinan ibn Thābit at one point fled from Baghdad to Khorāsān.  HP p. 422.  Al-Qāhir was subsequently disposed, imprisoned, and blinded.  Under the next caliph, brutal punishments continued.  For example, the wazir ordered a wealthy, elite public servant, Ibn Muqlah (father of Abū al-Husayn), to be harshly beaten.  Thābit ibn Sinān recorded his first-person observations:

On entering his room I found him stretched out on a shabby mat with a dirty pillow under his head and wearing nothing but a pair of trousers. His whole body, from head to toe, was the color of eggplant, without a single clear spot.

Ibn Muqlah subsequently had his right hand cut off as further punishment.  Then his tongue was cut out.  He was left in prison and prevented from receiving care and help.  Thābit ibn Sinān records:

I heard that he even had to draw his own water, pulling the rope with his left hand and holding it in his mouth. He continued in wretched misery until his death.

For the details of Ibn Muqlah’s punishment, see HP pp. 430-3.  Thābit ibn Sinān also recorded a high official’s compassionate treatment of prisoners.  That text seems much more stylized than Thābit ibn Sinān’s first-person observations of Ibn Muqlah’s punishment.


Allen, Danielle S. 2000. The world of Prometheus: the politics of punishing in democratic Athens. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hajal, Fady. 1998. “Galen’s ethical psychotherapy: Its influence on a medieval Near Eastern physician.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 38: 320-333.

Harkins, Paul W, trans. 1963. Galen: On the passions and errors of the soul.  Ohio State University Press.

Hall, Margaretha Debrunner. 1996. “Even Dogs have Erinyes: Sanctions in Athenian Practice and Thinking.” Ch. 5 in Foxhall, Lin, and A. D. E. Lewis. 1996. Greek law in its political setting: justifications not justice. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

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