Friday, September 23, 2011

Crito: the last temptation of Socrates

As the beginning of the Phaedo relates, Socrates did not die until a month after his trial, which followed by a day the sailing of the Athenian state galley on an annual religious mission to the island of Delos; no executions were permitted during its absence. Crito comes to tell Socrates of its anticipated arrival later that day and to make one last effort to persuade him to allow his friends to save him by bribing his jailers and bundling him off somewhere beyond the reach of Athenian law. Crito indicates that most people expect his friends to do this—unless (dishonorably) they value their money more than their friend. Socrates, however, refuses. Even if people do expect it, to do that would be grossly unjust.

Unmoved by the claims of justice grounded in his private relationships to friends and family, Socrates appeals to the standards of civic justice imbedded in his relations as a citizen to the Athenian people and to the Athenian system of law. He claims that a citizen is necessarily, given the benefits he has enjoyed under the laws of the city, their slave, justly required to do whatever they ask, and more forbidden to attack them than to violate his own parents. That would be retaliation—rendering a wrong for the wrong received in his unjust condemnation—and retaliation is never just. But what if he chose to depart not in an unjust spirit of retaliation, but only in order to evade the ill consequences of the unjust condemnation for himself and his friends and family? As if recognizing that loophole, Socrates also develops a celebrated early version of the social contract—a ‘contract’ between the laws or the city and each citizen, not among the citizens themselves—with the argument that now, after he is condemned by an Athenian court and has exhausted all legal appeals, he must, in justice to his implicit promise, abide by the laws’ final judgment and accept his death sentence.

--from the introduction to Crito by John M. Cooper in Plato: Complete Works (Hackett Publishing Company)

Plato combines drama and philosophy (despite their quarrelsome nature) in his works so that the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo can feel like a three-act play covering the trial and death of Socrates. On the drama side of the equation, Plato creates a new hero, supplanting epic and tragic heroes with the ideal of Socrates, a hero whose journey and triumph is philosophical. At the same time he gives us tragedy without a tragic hero. Socrates makes it clear in both the Apology and Crito that it is all right for him to die, qualifying it with variations of “at this time”. The tragic flaw lies not in Socrates but with the people of Athens that convicted him and sentenced him to death.

In the Crito, Socrates looks at a citizen’s duty to the city by following its laws. I thought it might be helpful to look back at a few of Socrates’ comments in the Apology about the laws during his trial and sentencing. All quotes will be from the translation by G.M.A. Grube.

- Socrates says he would break a law if it were at odds with what he understands to be his directive from the god. (29 c-d) From Socrates’ defense speech:

[I]f you said to me in this regard: “Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die;” if, as I say, you were to acquit me on those terms, I would say to you: “Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy….”

At times it seems Plato wrote the Crito to walk back from this claim and show Socrates as a law-abiding citizen.

- (32 b-d) Socrates relays his experience of serving on a trial of the ten generals from the battle of Arginusae for failure to

pick up the survivors of the naval battle. This was illegal, as you all recognized later. I was the only member of the presiding committee to oppose your doing something contrary to the laws, and I voted against it. Theorators were ready to prosecute me and take me away, and your shouts were egging them on, but I thought I should run any risk on the side of law and justice rather than join you, for fear of prison or death, when you were engaged in an unjust course.

Socrates continues his defense by pointing out he ignored the orders of the Athenian oligarchy (when they were in power during 404-3 BCE) because it would have been unjust or impious. His wording provides a link between laws, justice, and piety. This exception to following the orders of oligarchy will be made clearer after going through the Crito.

- Odds and ends: At the end of his defense, Socrates notes that he has not performed “pitiful dramatics” in order to influence the jury’s decision, pointing out that the jury’s duty is to judge according to the law (35c). Socrates implies he approves of the law in other cities requiring a capital trial should last longer than one day (37b). Why has he not advocated a change to Athens’ laws? Survival—his daimonion prevents him from “taking part in public affairs” since a “man that really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time.” (31d – 32a).

After I return from a short trip I’ll begin a walk-through of the Crito.

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