Monday, October 03, 2011

Crito: age, epic and tragedy

In the Crito Socrates repeatedly refers to doing what is right as compared to doing what is expedient or what will placate others. The point he arrives at in his reasoning for following the laws provides an early example of a social contract, but he deliberately avoids examining possible conflicts (such as a concern he raised in the Apology) between obedience to the state and care for the soul. Before I leave the dialogue I wanted to look at a few additional topics.

Socrates constantly mentions his age, both during his defense in the Apology and in the Crito. Plato’s Socrates does not use his age as the reason for wishing death but he say it is all right for him to die now. But what if Socrates were younger? Would he have antagonized the jury in the same manner he did in the Apology? Would he have stayed in Athens after his death sentence? By the reasoning he follows in both dialogues the answer would be yes to both questions, but with the constant reference to his age he introduces some doubt.

During his conversation with the personification of the laws, Socrates imagines the state would tell him he was attempting to destroy both the laws and the city by nullifying the verdicts of the courts. (50 a-b) Socrates makes it clear he cannot use the excuse that the decision reached was incorrect since the laws were just. Socrates seems to be the only man intent on upholding Athens’ flawed justice system. During the Apology he pointed out that citizens, even members of the jury, avoid guilty sentences because they weep, beg, or parade their families before the jury. The underlying reason for the Crito—it is cheap and easy to escape from jail—highlights additional problems with Athens' justice system. Socrates stands out because he submits to the laws and the sentence, making him an odd, or maybe a new type of tragic and epic hero.

Socrates alludes to Achilles in both the Apology and the Crito, but the allusion seems laughable on the surface. Achilles’ choice of fates was between going home and living a long, forgettable life or winning glory at the cost of an early death. Socrates can escape his sentence of death but he makes it clear that whatever city he goes to he won’t be able to engage in conversations like he did in Athens, plus he is “likely to live but a short time more”. Or he can stay and die, defending…what exactly? His integrity? His concern for the state of his soul? Plato paints Socrates as winning honor and glory on the scale of an Achilles for doing just those things. Socrates’ odyssey involves staying in one place and asking questions—Plato has given us a new type of epic hero (to be continued in the Phaedo), one based on philosophy. He gave us a new type of tragic hero, too, one condemned to death not because of his flaws but because of the tragic flaws of the jury and the city. The men that condemned him will have a “vengeance will come upon you immediately after my death, a vengeance much harder to bear than that which you took in killing me.” (Apology 39c)

I’m going to end my discussion of the Crito here so I can move on to other works. The non-plan for the next few weeks includes posts on Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (and the BBC’s dramatization—download now, comrades!), Book Six of Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander, and Plato’s Phaedo.

(Quotes are from translations by G.M.A. Grube)

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