Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Platos’s Apology and Crito: summation.
Josiah Ober, edition of July 31, 2003
page 5 of 9
The Apology and Crito, taken together, may be read as establishing an “ethics of social criticism.” The Socratic code reflects Socrates’ own way of life, which had been lived according to unrefuted principles established in uncoerced conversations. These principles were hypothetical, but the aspiring philosopher would be expected to follow them unless and until he refuted them by logical argument. As we have seen, Socrates’ life was spent in attempting to improve his fellows by philosophical conversations held in public and private places. Socrates attempts to do good for his fellow citizens because he believes that has both a duty and a capacity to do so. His duty is implied both by his interpretation of the Delphic oracle’s comment regarding his unsurpassed wisdom as having the force of an order. It is further demonstrated by the contractual argument of the Laws in the Crito. While Socrates’ duty is not put in terms of a traditional obligation to return a favor for favors received, that is what every Athenian reader would understand the Laws of the Crito as driving at. The establishment of a duty to seek to do good (as well as to avoid doing harm) is the deafening “music” that Socrates hears as he listens avidly to the rhetorical arguments of the Laws, long after the assertion of the no-harm doctrine has made his choice clear. Socrates’ capacity to do good for his fellows is implied by the extended gadfly metaphor. He imagines that his critical sting really can awaken at least some Athenians and he refuses to regard anyone as ineducable. His conviction that he had a duty and a capacity to improve others was (or at least Plato supposed it was) why the real, historical Socrates chose to defend himself before the mass audience of Athenian jurors in
Plato, however, did not imitate Socrates’ own manner of life. He did not allow his private estate to fall into ruin in the philanthropic pursuit of the betterment of Athens, nor did he haunt the public square seeking philosophical conversations with passers-by. Instead, he withdrew to his private think-tank, the Academy, where he conversed with a few carefully chosen students, most of them non-citizens. He was not perceived as a public figure, as Socrates had been, and never had trouble with Athenian law. By choosing a quietist path and avoiding the opportunities for philosophical conversation in public places that had typified Socrates’ life, Plato seemingly disobeyed certain aspects of Socrates’ ethical code as sketched out in Apology and Crito. Assuming that Plato remained true to the injunction that we should live our lives on the basis of unrefuted philosophical arguments, we must ask: did he find a way to refute Socrates’ ethics of criticism?
I would suggest that he did, and that the refutation is to be found in the great dialogues Gorgias and the Republic. Of course I do not have the space here to work through the argument of those two massive texts, but by way of conclusion, let me pick out just a couple of passages that bear on the matter of Socrates’ role as a social critic.
page 5 of 9