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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

PLATO: Crito (The Obligation to Disobey Unjust Laws)

In last week’s reading Sophocles showed us why we sometimes have an obligation to disobey unjust laws. (Antigone, GB1)  Antigone chose to disobey a law she believed was unjust in order to obey a higher law.  This week we find Socrates arguing the opposite point of view in Plato’s dialog on Crito.  Socrates (via Plato) says we should normally obey the laws, even if we think some of them are unjust.  Of course there are crucial differences between Sophocles’ Antigone and Plato’s Socrates.  Antigone was a young woman; Socrates was an old man.  Not all young women think we should disobey laws we don’t like.  Not all old men think we should obey them anyway, even if many people think the conviction was unjust in the first place and even if we’re sentenced to death.  But Socrates thinks “it would scarcely be appropriate in a man of my age to be distressed if he now had to die.”  He’s not too concerned about getting the death penalty.  He says “If it so pleases the gods, let it be so.”  Not all old men are that wise or that calm in the face of death.  King Lear (GB5) is a good example.  Shakespeare shows his tragic downfall and by the end of the play Lear laments: “Pray, do not mock me: I am a very foolish fond old man, Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less; And, to deal plainly, I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”  There’s nothing wrong with Socrates’ mind.  Because of his long apprenticeship in philosophy he seems sharper at seventy than he was in his prime and Socrates ultimately decides to reject Crito’s advice to escape.  He decides to stay in prison and take his medicine (the hemlock poison which was the Greek form of capital punishment at that time).

Crito tries to persuade Socrates that it’s perfectly reasonable to disobey an unjust law and makes three good arguments for him to escape from prison.  He knows Socrates can’t be swayed by emotional pleas.  We’ve already seen that in Socrates’ trial in the Apology (GB1).  Only the truth will persuade Socrates.  So Crito points out three major obligations Socrates should consider.  Obligation 1: the obligation to one’s self.  Underneath Crito’s argument lies one foundational belief: the trial was a sham.  Everyone knows it, even those who voted to convict Socrates.  No one would be surprised if Socrates walked away from the injustice of a false conviction.  That way he could continue his philosophical speculations in the safety of, say, Thessaly.  Since that argument didn’t work Crito goes to plan B.  Obligation 2: your friends.  Rather than appealing to Socrates’ own self-interest Crito asks him to consider his friends.  Crito says, in effect, think about us: “People won’t believe that you refused to escape even though we were eager to help.”  The truth is, people will think that we abandoned you when we should have stood by you.  Antigone didn’t abandon her brother, even in death, and we don’t want people to think we abandoned you.  Socrates doesn’t buy this argument.  He replies: “Why should we be concerned about what people will think?  Those worth considering will believe that things happened as they did.”  Crito tries one more argument, kind of a philosophical Hail Mary attempt.  He tells Socrates “You betray yourself when you could be saved” and you won’t escape for the benefit of us, your friends so consider Obligation 3: your family: “… in addition, I think you’re betraying your sons… Either a man shouldn’t have children, or he should accept the burden of raising and educating them.”  Crito’s main point is this.  Socrates has put the interests of philosophy ahead of everything else; his family, his friends, his own best interests.  Crito is asking Socrates to consider being a little more pragmatic.  Don’t be so stubborn and dogmatic about abstract philosophical principles.  Compromise.  Live to fight another day.  By staying and facing execution you’re only justifying the actions of “the many” and you yourself said “they cannot make a man wise or foolish.  They only act at random.”  Why let a random act of violence stop your pursuit of wisdom?  Your obligation right now is to fight injustice by disobeying bad laws.


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