Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

PLATO: The Crito 2011

The tenth anniversary of the attack of 9/11 is a good time to pause and reflect. We start with this question: what good are Great Books today? Can reading the classics help us come to terms with what happened on 9/11/2001? Our reading this week is Plato’s The Crito. There were no airplanes in Plato’s world. There weren’t any skyscrapers. This was long before there were Christians or Muslims. So how can ancient philosophy possibly help us understand 9/11? Let’s take the old lessons that Plato taught and adapt them for today’s world. For starters, Crito comes to Socrates in a good cause. Socrates was wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted, and wrongfully sentenced. Crito sincerely believes that it’s his duty to help Socrates escape. Crito does this with the best of intentions. Socrates is his friend. More than just friendship is at stake for Crito. He also believes it’s his patriotic duty to free Socrates for the good of the Athenian city-state. Socrates doesn’t see it that way. He appreciates Crito’s efforts but tells him bluntly: Dear Crito, your zeal is invaluable, if a right one; but if wrong, the greater the zeal the greater the danger… Here’s our first lesson. What Socrates calls “zeal” we would now call devotion to a cause. And this can be a good thing. Modern Americans are devoted to freedom and civil rights, for example. Socrates wants us to pause and consider: devotion is fine but what if we’re devoted to the wrong cause? Then what? Then our devotion to do something good might actually become an intense fierceness to do evil. Crito was devoted to the fate of Socrates. But so were Socrates’ enemies. Lesson one: Passion that can be used for a good cause can also be misused in a bad cause. Here’s a second lesson we can learn. Consider the following exchange. CRITO: But you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, for what is now happening shows that they can do the greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion. SOCRATES: I only wish it were so, Crito; and that the many could do the greatest evil; for then they would also be able to do the greatest good; and what a fine thing this would be! But in reality they can do neither; for they cannot make a man either wise or foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance. As modern Americans how does this conversation relate to us? Here’s how. Instead of the term “the many” use the term The People and see how it sounds to modern ears. The People? That would be us. Politicians from both sides claim to speak on behalf of “the American people.” The very foundation of American government is based on the idea that The People represent our greatest source of political wisdom. Not so, says Socrates. The People can’t make us wise or foolish. They can’t make us good or bad. The People only react out of blind instinct. So lesson number two from Socrates is this: The People are not a good source of wisdom. Now take that ancient Greek idea and place it in historical context: United States of America, morning of September 12, 2001. What do we do now? We’re scared. We’re angry. Many Americans want to wage war but others want to “wage peace.” We need wisdom. Fast. What would Socrates advise? Strike back? Turn the other cheek? Socrates says this: Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father… if she lead us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may any one yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just… Read carefully. Our shared vision as a nation is more important than any single person or family. We should follow our nation AS IS RIGHT. Do the right thing. Pursue justice. Socrates poses a simple question: what is justice? He takes a public event, such as his own trial or our tragic attack, and makes it personal. What is justice in this case? The People can’t tell. So what do YOU think? Philosophy is personal. Ten years after 9/11 and 2500 years after Socrates we still need to talk about justice. Welcome to Great Books.


Blogger SMJ said...

First of all, let's not assume that Socrates, in THE CRITO, is a spokesman for Plato's own views. The trial and execution of Socrates happened after a brutal war in which Athens was defeated by Sparta. Not surprisingly, Sparta imposed its own rule over Athens using a puppet regime of tyrants which were overthrown in 404 BC. The regime that took over in place of the Thirty Tyrants was not exactly open to philosophical dissent. Socrates had a tendency to speak his mind, even when a little discretion might have been a more prudent course to follow. But Socrates is not concerned here with prudence; he is only concerned with justice. His argument against leaving Athens is that justice (as embodied in the law of Athens) will not be served if everyone thinks only of himself. This is true; but does this mean we are obliged to obey all laws in all circumstances? What if the regime in power is evil? Is justice served by obeying law or by adhering to the dictates of one's conscience? The argument against escaping punishment is clear: Socrates was given the choice of banishment or death. He chose death. A counter argument might be made that one's ultimate duty is to serve justice, which is not necessarily the same thing as obeying the law. If the law (or punishment) is unjust, then to obey an unjust law is to harm the cause of justice. Crito feels that the charges against Socrates were not proven and therefore his sentence to death was invalid. Socrates' counter argument is that the law of Athens is above the interest of any single man. He seems to imply that the law of Athens is just because law and society are more important than the individual. But there is no logical reason why this should be true. Otherwise, when evil men assume power (e.g., Hitler or Sadam Hussein), then whatever they do is made lawful simply because they are in charge. But this is naive. Law and justice soon part company when men are guided by the lust for power or emotion rather than reason.

Crito is guided partly by his love for Socrates and partly by his fear of what his friends will say if he does not help Socrates escape. Thus, his argument is unreliable. Socrates, on the other hand, is guided solely by reason, but here his logic is faulty. He adheres to a kind of contract theory of citizenship: that all his life he has benefited from Athenian law, therefore he owes a debt to Athens which must be paid with his life. But as we have seen in the APOLOGY, the charges against Socrates were never proven. Therefore, his punishment is a violation of justice. Yet Socrates insists that he must obey the law, even if the law, as it applies to him, is unjust. The truth is that Socrates is unwilling to live anywhere else. He turned down the option of exile. He, correctly, anticipates that his legacy would be tarnished if he were to save himself from punishment. But if he is not concerned with the opinions of mankind, then why should he care about his future reputation? Things might be different if there were another city to go to like Athens. But the truth is that Athens is unique. There is no other place in the world quite like it. It is Socrates' home and the prospect of living in Thebes or Crete just does not appeal to him. He is an old man (about 71 years old) near the end of his life, and he cannot bear the thought of leaving all that is familiar to him to start over in a strange land. So he accepts his punishment, and it is not for us to say he is wrong. But it would be foolish to accept his argument that we are obliged, at all times, to obey the laws of our city or our government. Neither Jefferson, Patrick Henry nor Thoreau would ever agree that every law is just. Sometimes, the path of civil disobedience is necessary to put an end to unjust laws or an unjust war. History shows that in democratic regimes, this is the only way that freedom can survive the tyranny of the majority.

9/15/2011 11:03 AM  

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