Francis Bacon began his essay “On Truth” with, “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” An interesting opening, but it assumes that Pilate was joking, when it is evident that he was not. He was simply stating what, for him, was a fact: that truth was of no relevance to what concerned him the most.
What concerned Pontius Pilate the most? Maintaining his social and economic position. When the mob threatened to report him to the emperor as “no ‘friend of Caesar’,” they were directly threatening everything that, to him, made life worth living. “Friend of Caesar” was a quasi-official title that indicated a high degree of official favor in Rome . . . whether or not anyone there could actually stand the sight of you.
|Don't look at me!|
The upshot was that Pilate, who stated quite clearly that he considered Jesus innocent of any crime, was willing to go along with the Galilean’s condemnation because it was expedient for him. Not surprisingly, Pilate unconsciously echoed what Caiaphas the High Priest had used as his justification for engineering Jesus’s execution: “Neither do you consider that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” (John 11:50.) Jesus’s innocence — the truth of the matter — was irrelevant.
Closer to our day, the play and the film Judgment at Nuremberg raised the same issue. In times of national or personal (or any) emergency, is it better that innocent people suffer than that our concerns, projects, hobbies, interests, or whatever, come to nothing or be marginalized or destroyed? After all, what’s more important here? The lives and concerns of a few (or six million) unimportant, defective, or simply irritating people, or what we want?
|The value of a single human life. . .|
Pilate is often depicted as the quintessential moral relativist, but maybe he wasn’t. He was just being practical. He had worked all his life to get even a lousy post in a provincial backwater of the Roman Empire. If he managed to do well there, he might go on to bigger and better things where the graft and bribes were more suited to a man of his station.
Pilate wasn’t being dishonest, not really. The Romans, after all, had a slightly different view of public officials than we do. They expected them to steal, skim the cream, accept bribes and graft, and so on. It was a perquisite of public office. Just don’t be too obvious, don’t commit injustices against individuals (bribery in handing out public contracts was one thing; bribery in the courts quite another — to a Roman, anyway), and don’t tick off Roman citizens (especially real friends of Caesar).
Above all, make a lot of friends who will support you when your term of office is completed and the Senate puts you on trial for corruption. This almost always happened, but you were usually acquitted if you hadn’t been too greedy about your thefts and there hadn’t been too many complaints from the right sort of people.
|Frontinus also wrote a book on tactics|
Still, the Roman ideal was honesty. Sextus Julius Frontinus, Rome’s Curator Aquarum (Water Commissioner) under Domitian astounded everyone and gained a place in the Roman civil service pantheon by personally inspecting miles of waterways and aqueducts with his slaves instead of delegating the task to them or simply taking the fee and not doing the work. He is credited with setting in motion maintenance and repair work that kept Rome supplied with adequate water for the next thousand years. His report to the emperor, De Aquae Urbis Romae (“On the Water [Supply] of Rome”), while as boring as any other public works report, has been preserved for nearly 2,000 years, largely as a tribute to the honesty and integrity of Frontinus.
Yes, honesty and integrity are good and all that, but, well, boys will be boys. Frontinus didn’t have to worry about making his pile. He could afford to be honest, already being a respected senator and, later, consul of Rome. Someone like Pilate had to be practical.
|Better that one man suffer|
Of course, this sort of thing can backfire. At the conclusion of the film Judgment at Nuremberg, Burt Lancaster as the German judge Ernst Janning insists to Spencer Tracy as the American judge Dan Haywood, “We didn’t know it would come to this!”
Haywood answered, “Herr Janning, it ‘came to this’ the first time you condemned a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
As for that Pilate fellow . . . he doesn’t seem to have had much of a career after he allowed Jesus to be crucified. Nobody seems to know too much about him. Of course, that might mean he got away with it, secured his retirement, and lived happily ever after. He might even have been able to live with himself afterwards. After all, he had slaves to shave him, so he didn’t have to look at himself in the mirror every morning.