Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Plato's CRITO


Blogger SMJ said...

Background:Socrates, having been condemned to death by the Athenian demos, waits in prison for the sentence to be carried out. Crito, a friend of Socrates (and possibly one of his students), has come to prison to persuade him to flee a corrupt Athenian government and save himself from destruction.

At his trial (cf. the Apology), two major charges were brought against Socrates: impiety and corruption of youth, both serious crimes with enduring consequences for the city. Impiety is a direct affront to the gods, without whose support Athens cannot prosper; corruption of youth undermines civic authority and leads to moral decay.

Without going into the merits of the case against him, the Crito concerns itself only with the results of the trial. Socrates, being found guilty, must suffer the punishment.

The Arguments:Crito's arguments for avoiding punishment and fleeing Athens are easily summarized:

It is better to escape from Athens because...

[--people will say that Socrates' friends (including Crito) did not care enough to arrange his escape;
--men in other cities will benefit from Socrates' teaching;
--by staying in Athens, Socrates allows his enemies to destroy him;
--by allowing the state to execute him, he is deserting his wife and children;
--in prefering death to exile, he is choosing the easy way out and abandoning the path of virtue.]

As usually occurs, Socrates has no difficulty in refuting Crito's arguments:

[thus, we should not concern ourselves with the opinions of others; I am old and not likely to live much longer; my friends and benefactors will care for my children; death is preferable to exile because no other city is comparable to Athens; to run away from Athens is to undermine its laws and cause injury to the city; it is dishonorable to avoid one's duty; death is inescapable so why prolong life by extraordinary means?]

Some of these answers are more persusive than others. The best reason, to me, is that avoiding punishment undermines respect for the laws of Athens, and invalidates a life devoted to truth and virtue. If the only way to save his life is by harming Athens, a city founded on the principles of law and justice, then the life of Socrates is not worth preserving.

The implication of this argument is that duty and honor are bound tightly to the notion of justice. And since to live unjustly requires one to abandon virtue, Socrates cannot "justify" escaping punishment. The moral force of this argument is felt by understanding that it holds true even if the punishment is unjust.

In Conclusion:In the Crito, Plato attempts to answer the question "what do we owe the state?" Yet, in this dialogue, the contrary question, "what does the state owe to its citizens," is not adequately addressed. At best, we have hypothetical answers to a different question, "what does the state provide for its people?" Plato's answer is "every good which the state (city) has to offer," including life, liberty, and pleasure. But this response is primarily economic; it speaks only to the social welfare of individuals. The good state should also encourage virtue. However, if the state is corrupt and its laws unjust, is it possible for virtue to survive? If not, are we still obliged to obey the laws of an unjust society? When laws are not obeyed, can the state itself survive? And finally, if the state dies, can man on his own find virtue?

Not all of these questions are explicitly addressed in the Crito. But they are implied by Socrates refusal to leave Athens, even to save his life. The dialogue requires a deeper consideration on the role of patriotism in civic life; it suggests that duty and honor to one's country are essential, not simply for survival, but to preserve a realm in which moral progress can occur.

2/03/2005 2:13 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10/27/2015 3:26 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home