The Japanese police found the woman’s body buried in a steel locker on a farm. They arrested a man who knew the owner of the farm and was seen digging there immediately after the woman’s disappearance. Evidence mounted: the suspect had pawned the dead woman’s ring, and a friend of his admitted to helping him load a steel locker onto a truck. Seven days after his arrest…the suspect confessed to murdering the woman, and four other missing people as well. In Japan, apologizing is a social lubricant, and confession is considered the necessary first step for a return to good citizenship. Pressure to confess comes not only from the police, but also the family and society. Compare this to the U.S., where it is more likely that the murderer would have retained a good defense attorney in hopes of getting off on a technicality, or planting sufficient doubt in the minds of jurors as to his guilt, or a defense that the crimes were committed during a fit of insanity. Whether convicted or set free, the murderer might never have confessed, not even on his dying day.
Yet confession is good for the soul, they say. Some believe that accounts not settled here on earth are forcibly settled up through a stay in purgatory or hell on the “other side.” Others believe that unrepentant wrongdoers set up a chain of negative karma which must be dealt with during subsequent reincarnations—that the true meaing of “an eye for an eye” is that if a person puts out another’s eye, an incident of similar force will happen to the perpetrator during this or a future lifetime. Either way, criminals do themselves an eternal favor by confessing. So who benefits from the American custom of avoiding admission of guilt at all costs? Obviously not the victims, and surely not the overburdened judges; perhaps only the lawyers whose reputations are enhanced and fees doubled when oratory ability and knowledge of legal fine points get their clients off or sentenced lightly. But if, as people who have undergone near-death experiences assert, we review our lives on earth after death, one wonders how such lawyers will view their own behavior.
Plato (c. 428-347 B.C.) wrote about these issues over 2000 years ago. In Gorgias, his teacher Socrates talks with men skilled in oratory or rhetoric, which he defines as a form of persuasion that produces belief without certainty—as opposed to teaching, a form of persuasion producing knowledge. According to Plato, Socrates believed that the proper use of persuasion was to make us better; used improperly it furthered the worst possible ends. In particular, he decried the use of persuasion to escape justice, which he viewed as a bitter but necessary medicine to heal the soul:
“Socrates: [Is not the most wretched man the one] who, while committing the greatest crimes and practicing the worst sort of injustice, manages to elude correction and punishment and being brought to justice?...
“Polus: It looks that way.
“Socrates: It is a fact, my very dear friend, that such men have contrived for themselves much the same plight as that of a man who is afflicted with diseases of the worst sort, yet manages not to be brought to justice by the physicians for his bodily shortcomings and so is never healed, since, like a child, he fears cautery and the knife as painful. Isn’t this your opinion also?
“Polus: It is.
“Socrates: Such a man is ignorant, it seems, of the very nature of health and soundness of limb. From our present conclusions, in fact, Polus, it seems likely that this is the sort of conduct that characterizes those who try to escape justice. They perceive its painful element, but are blind to its utility and ignorant of how much more wretched it is to associate with an unhealthy soul than with an unsound body—a soul, moreover, which is corrupt and unjust and impious. To this end they provide themselves with money and friends and learn to speak as persuasively as possible, straining every nerve to avoid being brought to justice and rid of the greatest of evils…”
Socrates believed that the only valid use of oratory was in denouncing oneself and admitting to the crime. “Crime must not be concealed, but be brought to light so that the criminal may pay the penalty and grow well again. A man must force himself and his friends to grit the teeth without flinching and ignore the pain, bravely submitting to the physician’s knife and cautery in the pursuit of the good and the beautiful.” Through confession and punishment an evil man could become good again, he believed.
Perhaps we should be more concerned about a criminal’s eternal rights rather than his civil rights, and work to foster a social climate that encourages the admission of guilt rather than its avoidance.
Donna Nielsen Murphy, previously unpublished. Translation of Gorgias by W. C. Helmbold.