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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

PLATO: The Crito

Let’s say you were framed. You went to trial to clear yourself but incredibly the jury found you guilty. To add insult to injury, they’ve sentenced you to death. Some of the media applaud your conviction but others are outraged. One of your friends has come to your prison cell with a proposition: arrangements have been made for you to escape. A new home is waiting for you in Cuba. All you have to do is give the word and Fidel Castro will protect you from any further persecution. The problem is you’ve always been a good, solid American and a strong defender of American freedom. You believe in America and its ideals. You love living here. In fact, the only time you’ve ever left the country is the stint you served in the armed forces. This is a tough decision. What should you do?

This is the sort of situation Socrates faces in Plato’s dialog called The Crito. Socrates is sitting in prison waiting for the day of his execution. One of his student-philosophers (Crito) comes to try and talk him into escaping to some place like Thessaly. Arrangements have already been made. All Socrates has to do is give the word. Socrates says no. At first Crito can’t understand why. He’s not just worried about what will happen to Socrates. Crito’s also worried about himself. What will people think if they feel he didn’t try harder to save Socrates? A lot of people would blame him for letting Socrates die without a fight. So Socrates tries to explain it more clearly to his student: why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many?... the truth is, that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.

Socrates is clearly not your average prisoner. Most inmates would argue this point: I didn’t get a fair trial so I’m going to escape. Why should I care what people think? Socrates argues the opposite: we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him. In other words, even if I’ve been convicted unfairly, that was the jury’s decision. My trial may not have been “fair” but it was legal. They followed the laws of my country so I’ll submit to them. Socrates admits that most prisoners wouldn’t agree with this line of reasoning. He says that this opinion has never been held, and never will be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point have no common ground, and can only despise one another, when they see how widely they differ.

So Socrates stays in prison and is, in fact, executed. By staying and dying Socrates became a martyr for philosophy. He put Western philosophy on the map and his student Plato has been a guiding star for Western philosophers for nearly 2500 years. Plato didn’t have all the answers but he asked the right question: How important is philosophy? Socrates thought it was worth dying for; otherwise philosophy is just a verbal game we play and we can quit playing when it isn’t fun any more. But to Socrates philosophy wasn’t just a game. We can’t quit whenever we want. We have to see it through to the end. He took philosophy seriously and advised his students to do the same. When the chips were down Socrates had to choose. He chose; and his message has never wavered. Philosophy isn’t about thinking; it’s about doing the right thing.


Blogger SMJ said...

I couldn't disagree more with this last statement. You are confusing action with inquiry. Inquiry, or rational deliberation, is what ought to precede action. Otherwise, we end up acting like children, letting emotions be our guide, instead of our moral judgment. Any knucklehead can run around doing all sorts of things. A rational man, guided by the love of truth, will only do what is required by the principle of justice, which is the kind of life Plato believed we ought to live. Philosophy may or may not lead to "doing the right thing." But you cannot do the right thing until you first discover the nature of what the "right thing" or "the good" consists of. Knowledge must come before action. Otherwise, we have people like Crito leading us down the wrong path to ignorance.

7/10/2009 8:43 AM  
Anonymous RDP said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/31/2009 6:41 AM  
Anonymous RDP said...

You have a point, up to a point. I agree that we should look before we leap and think about what we’re doing. But as Rudyard Kipling once wrote in a poem: If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim… Thinking is a tool, not an end in itself. The purpose of philosophy is not to learn how to think but to learn the best way to live. Someone who thinks about ideas is a scholar; a philosopher is someone who lives out those ideas. I disagree with your statement that Philosophy may or may not lead to "doing the right thing." If it doesn’t lead to doing the right thing then it’s not philosophy. By definition philosophy means the love of wisdom. Wisdom means doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. Anything else is just talk.

8/31/2009 6:43 AM  

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