18 April 2023

With Bias Toward None

    I'm sure I'm unique with this problem. While I searched for one thing, I got sidetracked. I distracted myself by reading about something else. 

    Some light research for a project led my browser to an article about ancient Greece. I clicked on it. There, the original work quickly became forgotten. I got pulled aside, musing about a question. The art of medicine has Hippocrates, their symbolic Greek forefather. But what about the practice of law?

    To think about ancient Greece is to think about the written and spoken word. The Greeks had lawgivers. No single toga-clad figure, however, stands over the legal profession like Hippocrates. Most of my fellow lawyers likely couldn't claim an ancient Greek to whom we are heir. Perhaps that's a bit of an overstatement. Since there is no standard pre-law curriculum, many of my brothers and sisters in the bar were liberal arts majors. We all likely have a smattering of ancient Greeks at the ready. If pressed, most would likely glom onto Socrates. The Socratic method, after all, is the standard pedagogical tool for most law schools. 

    But he was a teacher and philosopher and not really our legal ancestor. 

    Demosthenes, famous for his persuasive oratory, might be the candidate. You might remember the stories of him reciting verses with pebbles in his mouth to enhance his enunciation. Or speaking on the seashore, forcing himself to be heard over the roar of the waves. 

    Another contender is Themis. Originally the organizer of the communal affairs of humans, her ability to foresee the future got her promoted to one of the oracles at Delphi. She became the ancient Greek goddess of divine justice. Themis was not portrayed as blindfolded. As a seer, covering her eyes was unnecessary. Neither did she carry a sword because she represented common consent and not coercion. She has, however, largely been pushed aside by Iustitia, or Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice. 

    Iustitica, by the way, was originally not blindfolded either. She usually carried a double-edged sword, and her scales may date back to the Egyptian god, Maat. 

    I nominate as our standard bearer, Bias of Priene. He was renowned in ancient times as the wisest of all the Seven Sages of Greece. A skilled advocate, he famously represented only righteous defendants. He did so, the legends report, without charging a fee. 

Vatican, Public Domain

   An advocate up to his final days, one story of Bias of Priene has him arguing a cause on behalf of his client. After he finished speaking, Bias sat, leaned back, and rested his head on the chest of his grandson. When the advocate on the other side had finished his argument, the judges hearing the case sided with Bias. It was then discovered that he had died during the opposing counsel's argument. 

    Lest we think him naive, his most famous saying to come into our time is the simple epigram, "All people are wicked." 

    A model of wisdom, Bias recognized the wrong but crusaded for the right. He fought on behalf of the just cause to his dying breath. Bias of Priene deserves to have a better place in the lineage of justice than he currently occupies. 

    Perhaps it's the name.

    Bias, the systematic deviation of results or inferences from truth, is a perceived enemy of justice.  

    Does the ancient Greek have anything to do with our modern word "bias," the term for a prejudice sewn into our contemporary legal codes and scientific journals? The rabbit hole I had started down just got deeper. But now I was engaged, so I plunged into it. 

    Does our current usage have anything to do with the ancient Greek? 

    Duncan Hunter, in the online British Medical Journal, repeats a story reported by Herodotus. Croesus, the ancient king of Lydia, planned warfare to expand his influence throughout Greece. He consulted with the wise Bias about the best way to deploy his warships against the Ionians. Bias, hoping to avoid the death and destruction of war, deliberately misled Croesus. He advised the king that the Ionians were preparing a land assault against Lydia. Croesus stopped building warships and instead turned his attention to developing his defenses. Bias later confessed that he had lied and honestly reported that the Ionians were also building warships. Croesus, instead of being angry, learned instead that the better course would be to make peace with the Ionians. Bias of Priene may have provided misinformation. Some may see an early example of a "Reporting Bias." 

    Etymonline, the online etymology dictionary, offers an alternative and more modern explanation. This one dates from the 16th Century. In the game of bowls, "bias" was, apparently, a technical term. It is related to balls made with a greater weight on one side. This caused them to roll not on a true line but instead to curve in one direction. The figurative use became the one-sided tendency of a mind to bend in a particular direction. 

    Bias of Priene should be more renowned as the law's Greek ancestor. He symbolizes both the good and the bad in the modern practice of law. He is forever associated with forceful advocacy exercised until the last breath. His name, however, also serves as a cautionary tale against the pull in an unjust direction. While he should be Hippocrates, he rests in relative obscurity, unknown to most. 

    Crime fiction writers might adopt him. The maxim, "All people are wicked," means that anyone might be a suspect. 

    Until next time. 


  1. Thanks for the historical tour of Justice. I'm going to read more on Bias when I get a chance. Re war, my favorite is Pyrrhus, who kept fighting wars with such results that even he said, "One more victory like that will destroy me." Louis XIV did the same thing, except he never grasped that he was bankrupting himself. All for glory!

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn18 April, 2023 13:02

    There was a basketball player named Len Bias who died of a cocaine overdose.

    1. The same year he was chosen in the NBA draft, my local Dallas Mavericks selected Roy Tarpley. Another amazingly talented player who could not stay away from cocaine.


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