When in Athens…

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens,’ (Joseph Roisman, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006) a book that conflates my (somewhat embarrassing) love of the history of the ancient Mediterranean peoples and (my proper and righteous interest in) Conspiracy Theories. Athenian history just isn’t as interesting as Roman history (which is probably a bit of odd for a philosopher to admit, seeing that Philosopher as we know it is very Athenian) but the Athenian treatment of Conspiracies has thrown up an interesting ‘problem.’

Athenian rhetoricians could conceive of co-conspirators acting alone.

Yay, verily, in Athens you could conspire without having to bring in anyone else to plot with.

‘To conspire’ is ‘to breath together;’ you plot in secret with others. Yet in Athens people were accused of conspiring on their own. Roisman suggests that this came out of a rhetorical want to use conspiracy terms in respect to individuals. You could make someone’s actions look all the worse if they could be made out to resemble the actions of conspirators. I suspect that there was also a ‘guilt-by-association move’ being made here; this person here, who poisoned his Mother-in-law, belongs to the group of secret plotters, and we have a name for such a group; conspirators. Thus, if someone acts like one of those conspirators then they probably belong to the group of actual conspirators, even if, in this instance, they are acting alone. So convict now, because they’re bound to start plotting with others of their ilk at any moment.

The prosecution rests, mi’lord.

It would be interesting to see whether any other cultures have had similar ‘aberrant’ definitions of Conspiracy. It’s a plausible rhetorical move on the part of the Athenians and so it seems likely that it has been tried elsewhere, although the prevalence of its use in Athens means that it went from being simply an attempt to impute guilt by association to be a charge you could bring against someone.

2 Replies to “When in Athens…”

  1. I am immediately reminded of 1984, where the act of keeping a secret diary was in itself an offence against the state. Secrecy being the other essential component of conspiracy.

    I’m sure we could dig up real examples from the recent history of totalitarian states.

  2. Wasn’t the case in 1984 even more dire; the act of keeping a diary was an offence against the state; that such a diary had to be kept secret was a further offence.

    Anyway. I suspect that if you take the rhetorician view from Athens there are lots of things people do that make them members of the group of co-conspirators. I sent a text this morning detailing a plot to kill John Keys via gelignite (it was part of a very weird dream about submarines). Now the text, if it hadn’t included details of the dream, would certainly put me into a group of potential plotters (those who want to kill John Keys, possible future PM of New Zealand) and the dream itself might indicate a want or desire to act in such a plotter-like way, which makes me a potential co-conspirator (if you take the Athenian view).

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