Do We Need the Police?
What happens when citizens feel they no longer ‘serve and protect’?
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
Apparently in America the police are deserting their posts in droves.
The public has turned against them, there’s no respect (or funding) for their positions, and the popular refrain is that the whole system, to its very core, is ‘rotten’.
As reported in the Free Press:
A 2021 survey showed that police departments nationwide saw resignations jump by 18 percent—and retirements by 45 percent—over the previous year, with hiring decreasing by five percent. The Los Angeles Police Department has been losing 50 officers a month to retirement, more than the city can replace with recruits. Oakland lost about seven per month in 2021, with the number of officers sinking below the city’s legally mandated minimum.
The list goes on: Chicago has lost more cops than it has in two decades. New Orleans is backfilling its shortfall of officers with civilians. New York is losing more police officers than it has since such figures began being recorded. Minneapolis and Baltimore have similar stories. St. Louis—one of the most dangerous cities in America—has lost so many cops that there’s a seven-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide pile of uniforms from outgoing officers at police headquarters called “Mount Exodus.”
Now, why exactly are we talking about American police in these humble pages, which are dedicated to a time period thousands of years ago?
Well, one of the aims here at Classical Wisdom is to illustrate how ancient wisdom can be helpful in our modern era. Too often folks dismiss the Classics as a subject for dusty libraries and ivory tower classrooms, fit solely for nostalgic out of touch intellectuals... but we history lovers know that’s not the case.
After all, the root causes of many of our contemporary issues have not changed in the millennia... corruption, violence, the abuse of power... plagued the ancients as they do us now. As such, it’s always worthwhile to take the debates of the day to the virtual floor to discuss, ponder and pontificate.
Which brings us to the concept of police.
It is, like most things, steeped in ancient history. Indeed, the name itself derives from the Latin politia, the romanization of the Ancient Greek πολιτεία (politeia) 'citizenship, administration, civil polity'... however, its original manifestations were very different from today.
While in Babylonia, law enforcement tasks were entrusted to individuals with military background, known as paqūdus, who were responsible for investigating petty crimes and carrying out arrests, in ancient Greece, policing was a job taken on by publicly owned slaves.
In Athens, for example, a group of 300 Scythian slaves (the ῥαβδοῦχοι, "rod-bearers") was used to guard public meetings to keep order and for crowd control. They dealt with criminals, handling prisoners, and making arrests. However, other aspects associated with modern policing, such as investigating crimes, were left to the citizens themselves.
Meanwhile in Sparta, a secret police force called the krypteia existed to watch the large population of helots, or slaves.
The slave police arrangement did not continue into the Roman empire. Rather than a dedicated police organization to provide security, the Romans employed the army and other duties related to police work were shared out. For instance, cities hired local watchmen for extra vigilance and magistrates, such as procurators fiscal and quaestors, investigated crimes. Victims of crime or their families organized and managed prosecution, as there was no concept of public prosecution at the time.
These informal systems evolved with the size of the city. Once Rome had grown to almost one million inhabitants under the reign of Augustus, 14 wards were created. Protected by seven squads of 1,000 men called "vigiles", they acted as firemen and night watchmen. The vigiles caught thieves and runaway slaves, guarded the baths at night, and more generally, stopped disturbances of the peace. While the vigiles mostly handled petty crime, violent crime, sedition, and rioting was handled by the Urban Cohorts or the Praetorian Guard.
Augustus then went on to create the cohortes urbanae, who were commanded by the urban prefect and served as a proper police force, in order to counterbalance the enormous power of the Praetorian Guard.
It is clear that there is always a demand for some sort of policing, but how it takes shape differs greatly, especially considering the size of the population, the technology and weapons at their disposal or the specific issues (such as slave revolts) that might take place.
So considering the wide variety in duties, expectations, and formality that encompassed the job of ‘police’ found in the ancient world, we return to our modern question:
Do we need Police? How can we protect our communities? And what happens when citizens feel they no longer ‘serve and protect’?
As always, you can write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to this email. You can also leave a comment!
Now, for today’s mailbag: death, letting go and our philosophical approach (read Plutarch) to learning, below.
All the best,
Founder and Director
Classical Wisdom and Classical Wisdom Kids
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On Absurd Deaths:
I just want to thank you for the article on Absurd Deaths in the Ancient World! It's one of my favorites that you posted. All too often we take subjects like death way too seriously and shroud them in darkness. Bringing to light funny deaths sheds some humorous light on the subject so we can not only fear death less, but in some cases actually laugh. And like you said, brings a human aspect to otherwise great and revered figures.
I was a paramedic and coroner for about a decade so I saw lots and lots of deaths. The article exemplifies one of the main ways my coworkers and I coped with it....humor! Seeing what we saw daily could be pretty rough and the only way we got through the day sometimes was being able to laugh at things like funny deaths. It shows that the same coping mechanism has been used for millennia. You know Diogenes Laertus chuckled when he wrote the story of Chryssipus!! I know I did when I first read his "Lives"! There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a laugh. Laughter is sometimes truly the best medicine and I've seen it work time and time again. Countless times I also used humor on the job, not only at the ambulance shed after calls. I can't tell you how many times I was dealing with distraught people in horrible situations and making them laugh changed their whole attitude towards what was going on.
So, thank you again Anya for the wonderful and therapeutic article. Take care!
How do we ‘let go’? Can we nurture our ability to forgive, to forget? Should we strive for aphesis? With all the pressure to remember, what’s the value of not- remembering?
Once upon a time, long ago, there was a song that said "let it be". I wonder if anyone heard it from their great great great grandfather?
Forgiveness is the cornerstone of the Christian faith practice. We have been forgiven our sins, so it is our responsibility to forgive others. You may forgive and continue doing so until you are dead to the offense or wrong committed against you. The Bible also says we are to be gentle as lambs but wise as adders. After forgiveness we can choose to not have further relations because trust has been violated.
Gelassenheit: A spiritual journey | Anabaptist World
I have, over the years, seen “letting go” as a spiritual inner movement from Anabaptist history. (Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites) The attached article captures this beautiful German word.
The article broadens the scope beyond my simplistic take. I have lived in this tradition for many years. Stoicism has swept me away.
The very very best to you.
All of us are far from perfect. Yet so much is shame-based in our civilization and culture. As a creative writer I appreciate this lesson more than ever with the roll out of my new book. As with all publishing no matter how many times and people who proofread your manuscript, there are always typos and missed errors. Embarrassing as this is - it is all too human and does in no way invalidate the substance of your thoughts.
However, as an undiagnosed dyslexic I struggled with my blind spots and often was not able to pick them up but my editors were. It was only in my seventies that a friend picked up on this and asked me if I was dyslexic because her brother was and she immediately recognized the problem.
What a relief to finally be able to stop beating myself up for something I was born with.
So your classical wisdom came as a welcome reminder that nothing and no one is perfect.
On Classical Wisdom Kids:
We are very excited about our newest project, Classical Wisdom Kids!
While we are still working hard to make sure we create something enjoyable, valuable and educational, I’m very happy to report we are already getting excellent feedback. Nicole T writes:
I am so glad to have found an approach and method so congruent with my own path as a home educator though the simple means of a search on the Substack app on a weekend morning. I am happy to be here and I hope that, as your community grows, there will be a space for meetings and discussion. Thank you!
I really love this! I homeschool a 3rd & 4th grader so I think I’ll read the story while they try to do the hard maze then have the discussion.
And this one is from Sahar:
I read the Minotaur one to my son. He was excited about the mention of Daedalus since he listens to Iron Maiden and I guess they have a song about Icarus?? We did get into a very interesting discussion about what is a monster and how someone who is presumed to be a monster can have a terrible life etc etc.
He liked the printout maze and all in all, I think it was great! Easy to read, not too long, and I think making a Labyrinth activity is great for smaller kids.
If you haven’t checked out Classical Wisdom Kids, please feel free to do so here!
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In 1829 Sir Robert Peel introduced a bill that was passed by the British Parliament. It created the Metropolitan Police, what would become the famous Bobbies, named after Sir Robert. What was novel in the new law and organization was the establishment of what was termed Community Policing. The idea had existed previously but this was its’ first institutionalization. The idea was that policing should become part of the community, that the community should invite their protectors into the community to be a part of it, much like the teachers or health care providers or mail carriers. Prior to this public safety had, if it existed at all, been “imposed” on a community. The police were often viewed as outsiders and were as often not wanted or at best tolerated. Sir Roberts ‘novel idea was that public safety would be best served by making it community based. It was equally vital that police officers be wanted and accepted by the community. This is in fact what the new concept was all about. The idea was adopted by every city in the western world within 50 years. That’s how successful it was, and that’s what we have lost
We need police but we need much better oversight on police, the issues are when power is abused and laws are broken but there is no discipline. I work for the government in environmental enforcement and we have insane amounts of oversight and accountability. Often it's annoying because I can't bend the rules to investigate things that I know are happening, but everyone is better for it. People aren't mad when police do their jobs, they are mad when they abuse power.