Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Plato’s Crito.
Josiah Ober, edition of July 31, 2003
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The Crito opens with an elaboration of the “expert” argument that Socrates had used to demonstrate that Meletus had no concern for the education of the young. Crito has urged Socrates to escape from prison, on the grounds that if Socrates were executed “hoi polloi, who don’t really know you or me will think” (44b) that Crito had failed in his duty to save Socrates, given that saving him was within his power. Socrates’ notes that surely “we” should not be concerned with what hoi polloi think of us, and that “reasonable men” (hoi epieikestatoi) the only ones worth considering—would understand the course of events (44c). But Crito replies that the outcome of the trial had made all too clear “how necessary it really is to care about what hoi polloi think,” since they can accomplish nearly the greatest of evils when a man has been slandered among them (44d). Socrates demolishes Crito’s position by the analogical argument for technical expertise: just as in the case of physical training, he who hopes for self-improvement must pay attention to the knowledgeable few and ignore the advice of the ignorant many (46b-48b). Socrates scornfully comments that the considerations Crito has raised—Socrates’ supporters’ financial loss, the fate of Socrates’ own children, what people think—“are really fit topics for people who kill lightly and would raise to life again without a thought if they could: hoi polloi themselves.” In contrast, for “us” the choice of how to act is determined by justice, and justice is to be discovered only through logical argument (48c-d).
The escape urged by Crito is then shown to be unjust on the basis of Socrates’ remarkable premise that, contrary to popular belief, it is never right to commit injustice (adikein)/do harm (kakon poiein), even in response to injury (49a-50a). Since escape would constitute a harm, it is unjust, and so the substantive question has been settled just a few minutes into the dialogue. But Socrates then sets out to show, by an imaginary conversation with the reified Laws (nomoi) of Athens that a fortiori it is wrong to harm one’s own polis which had done one not harm but good.
The Laws as imagined by Socrates initially posit that escape constitutes injury because it meant breaking the law and the polis cannot continue to exist if the laws are without force (50a-b). Socrates asks Crito: how we are to answer that one? and he points out that “a good deal might be said, especially by a political orator on behalf of that law (nomos), now to be broken [by the proposed escape], which requires judgments judicially rendered (dikai) to be authoritative” (kuriai: 50b). The mention of the political orator is interesting. It signals that while Socrates and democratic politicians both believe that laws and judgments must be authoritative, they approach the matter quite differently. What then might an Athenian orator have said in favor of the democratic approach? In his speech Against Meidias, written in
Socrates’ position on the basis of legal authority is radically different from Demosthenes’ in that it bases the survival of legal authority on the individual’s private decision to behave ethically, rather than on the public exertion of power by the people acting collectively, as a citizenry. Thus, maintaining the rule of law is (for Socrates) an issue of ethics not politics, and it depends upon the behavior of the individual not upon that of the collectivity. The basis of the Socratic legal order is a just contract between the Laws and the individual citizen. According to the terms of that contract, Socrates had agreed to abide by the procedural forms of Athenian law and to obey the legal judgments rendered according to the procedural rules, even though those judgments might be substantively incorrect. His obedience was given in exchange for having received from the Laws specific goods: his birth (because of the laws regarding marriage), his nurture (trophe), and his education (paideia). Moreover, the Laws claim that because Socrates is the “son and slave” of the Laws, the parties to the contract are not on an equal footing, “We bore you, reared you, and educated you (egenou te kai exetraphes kai epaideuthes). Can you then say, first of all, that you are not our offspring and our slave—you and your ancestors before you? And if that’s true, do you think that justice is on an equal basis between you and us that it is right for you to do in return what we may undertake to do to you?” (50e).
Socrates has already explained that he cannot ethically do anything substantively harmful to any entity. In this passage the Laws demonstrate that for any citizen to break the law is manifestly to do harm to an entity that deserves special respect and gratitude. Therefore harming the Laws (even in response to an injury) is seen to be unjust even from the perspective of a traditional Greek help-your-friends/harm-your-enemies ethics. And thus, by escaping, Socrates who, in the Apology, had publicly announced his moral superiority, would sink beneath the ethical standard demanded of hoi polloi.
The demonstration that it is unjust for any citizen to disobey legal judgments that were procedurally correct whether or not they are substantially correct is now complete, but the Laws go on to make an a fortiori argument regarding Socrates himself, which slides into an overtly rhetorical appeal. Socrates, say the Laws, affirmed the contract more than anyone else, since he absented himself from the polis less than anyone, and thus he should feel particular shame (aischune) in breaking it. He did not even desire to gain first-hand knowledge of other poleis and their laws (52b), although he often asserted that Sparta and Crete were well governed (52e). Moreover Socrates will be an object of mockery (katagelastos) if he escapes (53a) and the whole “Socrates affair” will “appear utterly indecent” (53c). He will degrade himself by sneaking out of town dressed like a runaway slave and will live a slavish existence in foreign parts where he will amuse his audiences with the absurd tale of his clandestine flight in peasant costume. Moreover, if he ever offends his new hosts, Socrates can expect to “hear many a contemptuous thing said of you” (53d-e). If he brings his children with him, they will be raised and educated as non-Athenians (54a). The Laws’ peroration returns to the nurture theme: “be persuaded by us, for we nurtured you” (54b). They assure him that if he obeys the Laws, Socrates will die the victim of injustice at the hands of fallible men (i.e. the jurors who were misled into defining Socrates’ behavior as constituting impiety), not at the hands of the law (which prescribed only the procedure for prosecution of impiety, not its definition). Finally, they threaten him with posthumous punishment by their “brothers, the Laws in the Place of the Dead” if he disobeys (54b-c). The dialogue concludes with Socrates’ statement that “I seem to hear these things as the Corybants seem to hear the pipes, and the droning murmur of the words sounds within me and makes me incapable of hearing anything else. Be assured that if you speak against the things that now seem to me to be so (ta nun emoi dokounta), you will speak in vain. Still, if you suppose you can accomplish anything, please do speak” (54d).
Not surprisingly, Crito has no reply and so the Laws carry the day.
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