Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Crito: an overview

Somewhere in this procession the "Socratic Revolution" takes place: the warrior ethic of Achilles at Troy is superseded by the civic ethic of Socrates in Athens.

--from Grand Strategy: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order by Charles Hill (Yale University Press, 2010), page 32.

I had planned on a series of post about the Crito that would look at it a few paragraphs at a time because of its density—for a short dialogue it is packed with many levels of meaning. After starting a few of these posts I realized I was obscuring the overall flow of Socrates’ reasoning and arguments. It’s possible to cover both detail and the structure but that would take up more time and posts than I would like to spend…so I’m going to start with an overview of the dialogue and the arguments made. I have a few additional posts in mind on points I’ll highlight in the discussion.

I will mention one excerpt as an example of the richness of meaning in the dialogue. Socrates explains to Crito he had a dream which implied that the Athenian state ship would not arrive that day, delaying his execution. The dream involved a “comely woman dressed in white” that said: “Socrates, may you arrive at fertile Phthia on the third day.” (44 a-b, all quotes from the translation by G.M.A. Grube) The quote echoes Achilles in Book Nine of the Iliad where he tells Odysseus he will sail in the morning and reach home in Phthia on the third day. The meaning implies that Socrates’ soul will reach its “home” on the third day but takes on an ironic twist in a few pages when Crito suggests that Socrates escape to Thessaly (where Phthia is located). The dream could indicate either death or escape. Throw in the comparison, just as in the Apology, between Socrates and Achilles and this brief passage takes on multiple possible meanings.

The dialogue:

Crito tries to convince Socrates that he should escape before his execution date, laying out several reasons: Crito will be deprived of his friend, many people will believe Crito valued money over friendship (by not bribing the jailors to allow Socrates’ escape), the monetary damage (in fines or bribes) are not burdensome, Socrates’ actions are not just since he could save his life, and he betrays his sons by leaving them prematurely.

Socrates broadens the problem to declare that they must “examine whether we should act in this way or not, as not only now but at all times. I am the kind of man who listens to nothing within me but the argument that on reflection seems best to me”. (46b) The only argument of Crito that Socrates’ initially addresses focuses on the “opinions of men”. Both men agree that there are good opinions and bad opinions and that the good opinions are the ones to be valued. The two men also agree that good opinions are to be valued over bad ones, highlighted by Socrates’ example of a man in physical training—should he listen to the “opinion of any man” or to an expert, such as “a doctor or trainer?” (47b) There are some ancillary points occurring here that I want to note because they will be important later in this post and in future posts. One discussion focuses on the harm to the body done by not listening to the trainer (future post). Another point notes that there may not be an expert (later in this post).

Socrates changes the discussion in order to examine what such an expert on the laws (if one existed) would say regarding “justice and injustice…and the truth itself.” (48a) The men agree that “the most important thing is not life, but the good life…and that good life, the beautiful life, and the just life are the same”. (48b) In other words, if acting unjustly means escaping instead of being put to death, Socrates has not lived (died?) rightly or justly. The men also agree that “one must never do wrong”, which includes not inflicting “wrong in return” to being wronged. “Doing harm to people is no different from wrongdoing.” (49b, c) One last premise focuses on the rightness of keeping an agreement one has made. (49e)

From these premises, Socrates asks if people would be harmed if he left the city without permission as well as breaking an agreement? Crito claims not to understand so Socrates examines a hypothetical dialogue between himself and the personification of the laws of Athens. This personification accuses Socrates of attempting to destroy the laws, and thus the city, by nullifying the laws of the city (more on this in a separate post). Socrates draws the distinction between the laws of the city, involving an “agreement” between Socrates and Athens which is just, and the verdict that the city gave him. If the verdict was a ‘wrong’, then Socrates (following one of the premises) should not commit a wrong in return.

Socrates continues with his imaginary dialogue with the city/laws, which lectures him on how “your country is to be honored more than your mother, your father, … that you must worship it, yield to it and placate its anger more than your father’s”. (51 a-b) Continuing, the laws lecture Socrates that he had a chance to persuade them to change if he did not like them, yet he failed to try. The laws’ description of the relationship with Socrates to this point has been that of a master to a slave or father to a son since, as the laws state, they beget, nourished, and educated Socrates. As the conversation continues, the laws point out through Socrates’ actions–continuing to live in Athens after reaching his majority, having children while in the city, rarely leaving the city, and choosing death over exile at his trial—he has formed an agreement or contract, affirming his dependence and submission to the laws. By leaving now, Socrates would commit an injustice against the laws by breaking that agreement.

Socrates does not stop the laws’ conversation after it has considered the justice of escape but continues with examining the goodness of such an action, thus drawing (but not exploring) a distinction between the just and the good. The laws look at the burden Socrates’ escape will put on his friends as well as himself, concluding “Do not value either your children or your life or anything else more than goodness, in order that when you arrive in Hades you may all this as your defense before the rulers there.” (54b) We’ve gone from justice and goodness to the divine, with hints that Socrates will go on trial again after he dies and that earthly laws are related to the afterlife.

In a way we have come full circle in the dialogue and Socrates addresses the initial fears of Crito that he ignored when addressing only the concern about the “opinions of men”. Crito may claim that the sacrifices he and his friends make would not be a burden but Socrates points out such actions would not be for the good. In another sense we have returned to that earlier point of the dialogue since Socrates had said it would be wiser to follow the opinion of an expert over the opinion of the many, assuming such an expert can be found. Socrates has already cast doubt on the ability to possess true wisdom in the Apology, but here he does not even address whether there is an expert on what is best for the city except through the personification of the laws. Socrates’ argument seems to be constructed to imply that there is no such expert so we must rely on the “opinions of men” as expressed through the laws.

Exactly what position the laws and Socrates' personification of "the Laws" holds seems unclear but I think it safe to say they are not given divine status. They are shown on a higher plane than man, though. It’s a fun little dialogue that flows quickly (despite the density I mentioned) but it does have its problems. I realize I have glossed over several important points and ignored others completely, but I hope to fill in some of those gaps in looking at a few of these problematic points.

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