Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, February 05, 2016

PLATO: Crito (Philosophy and Patriotism)

In last week’s reading we met a woman named Vera who set happiness as her goal in life.  This week we read about Socrates, who had virtue as his goal in life.  Of course he wanted to be happy too.  But what happens when those two goals come into conflict?  One of them has to give.  Crito believes Socrates was unjustly accused and convicted of a capital offense.  He’s come to try and persuade Socrates to escape.  Crito is worried that most people will think he didn’t try hard enough to save Socrates from execution.  Socrates makes an interesting reply.  “Why should we pay so much attention to what ‘most people’ think” he asks.  For Crito the answer is obvious.  And it’s a good lesson for modern American readers as well.  How can anyone live in a democracy and not be affected by what most people think?  Majority rules.  It’s worth pondering how much our own civic and moral values are affected by majority opinion.  Tocqueville wrote that the “tyranny of the majority” is in many ways even more tyrannical than the rule of a single despot.  Most of us do care what our friends and neighbors think.  Socrates won’t be swayed by majority opinion and doesn’t care what most people think.  He says “they cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.”  This is not good news for our political system.  How can laws, even when passed by big majorities, make us better people? 

Which brings us to a second crucial question.  Socrates tells Crito “Let us look at it together, my dear fellow; and if you can challenge any of my arguments, do so and I will listen to you.”  Here’s the question.  Are we more likely to find wisdom in community with others or as individuals?  We may think we know right from wrong.  Crito did.  He saw nothing wrong with fighting injustice.  In fact, Crito thought escaping was the right thing to do.  Socrates takes this opportunity not so much to listen to Crito’s arguments as to educate him about the real value of philosophy.  Socrates asks one of the classic perennial philosophical questions.  “Do we say that one must never willingly do wrong, or does it depend upon circumstances?”  This is not an easy question to answer.  And Socrates takes it a step further by adding “one ought not to return a wrong or an injury to any person, whatever the provocation is.”  Remember majority opinion?  Let’s take a modern example.  Consider affirmative action laws.  Is it “right” that one whole class of people has to pay the price for things that happened before they were even born?  On the other hand is it “wrong” to level the playing field for those who have been disadvantaged by past wrongs?  There are good arguments on both sides.  Should majority rule decide these things?

Socrates says “between those who do think so and those who do not there can be no agreement on principle; they must always feel contempt when they observe one another’s decisions.”  Of course Socrates wasn’t talking about affirmative action programs but the lesson is the same.  Political disagreements can turn ugly.  Both sides view the other side with contempt and it’s always tempting to break laws we believe are unjust.  Socrates wants us to pause and consider what we’re saying.  He envisions The Law asking, “Do you imagine that a country can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?”  Socrates comes down hard on this point.  He says if you think a law is unjust you should try to get it changed, legally.  But “if you cannot persuade your country then you must do whatever it orders…if it leads you out to war, to be wounded or killed, you must comply, and it is right that you should do so…both in war and in the law courts and everywhere else you must do whatever your country commands.”  Most Americans won’t like this philosophy.  Socrates doesn’t care what most people think.  He just wants us all to think more deeply about what it means to love wisdom and to love our country.


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