Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, June 25, 2012

PLATO: The Crito 2012

In our last reading we heard a passionate defense from Antigone.  She claimed her conscience was obeying a higher law than the law of the State.  In this reading we hear an equally passionate defense from Socrates that we should obey the laws of the State.  What are we to make of this?  Briefly, this was Antigone’s argument for breaking the law (of the State): CREON:  You broke the law.  ANTIGONE:  I did.  But it wasn’t God’s law.  That final Justice which rules the afterlife makes no such laws.  Your edict was strong but all your strength is still weak against the immortal unrecorded laws of God.  Those laws are not merely for now; they were there before we were born and will still be in effect long after we’re gone; forever.  In other words, Antigone says God’s law is higher than man’s law.  The two shouldn’t come into conflict; but if they do, I’m obeying God’s law, not yours.  Now here’s what Socrates has to say about that.  He puts words into the mouth of law, as if law were actually speaking to us: Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? Socrates believes that disobeying the law is equivalent to destroying government.  In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Modern readers may disagree that the State brought us into this world.  But Socrates is making the point that without the State life would become very difficult or even impossible.  Because the State exists we’re born into a relatively safe environment.  Living under the law of the State is infinitely better than living under the law of Nature.  Law goes on with its argument: Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?  Many modern readers do, in fact, have an objection to the State regulating marriage.  They believe that relationships should be left to the privacy of the people involved.  Socrates doesn’t believe that.  When asked if he has a problem with the State regulating marriage he simply says: None, I should reply… Socrates is conceding that marriage is not just a private matter.  It’s a social institution that must be preserved by law.  The law continues making its case: since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? Most modern readers definitely have an objection to this line of thinking.  The modern view is that the State derives its power from the individual citizens.  The citizens aren’t slaves of the State.  They’re free individuals with individual rights.  But Socrates seems to be implying that with freedom comes responsibility.  The responsibility of the citizen is to defend the State and, if necessary, die in defense of that freedom.  To stay free we may have to occasionally give up some of our individual freedoms.  Finally the law summarizes its case in these terms: And if all this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you.  The State may sentence you to death.  You may not think it’s fair.  But you still have no right to strike back at the State which gave you everything.  Again, not all readers agree with Socrates on this point.  Many people (Antigone included) believe human rights come from God, not from the State.  This leads to a very interesting question, especially for citizens living in a democracy: who knows more about justice, the individual or the State?  This is the dilemma of both Antigone and Socrates: the State says justice is one thing but they believe it’s something else.  How do they respond?  Antigone chooses to break the law; Socrates chooses to obey it.  Why?  Because Antigone follows the wisdom of God’s law; Socrates follows the wisdom of philosophy: 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 or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? In the end they both die at the hands of the State, but as Socrates put it: it is not living which is of most importance, but living well.  Socrates was a wise man.


Post a Comment

<< Home