[Up Next – Euthyphro]
As a senior in high school, in our “Great Books” class, and then again as a freshman in college, in a course called “The Moral Basis of Politics,” we read “Crito.” Every year with my junior AP Language and Composition students, I also read this text. I believe it’s one of the shortest – if not the shortest Platonic dialogue.
It’s actually two nested dialogues: first Socrates argues with Crito, and then Socrates imagines within that a dialogue he might have with The Laws personified.
In the first dialogue, Crito tells Socrates he can help him escape because he has done the guard “a kindness.” I always interpreted this as a bribe, but in our Thucydides seminar, Redfield suggested more that Crito is a wealthy person and the guard is a sort of client of his (the underlying word translated as “kindness” apparently has this implication). On this understanding, Crito did something like help this guard provide a dowry for his daughter – not in order to spring Socrates, but just in the ordinary course of his life prior to then. This client relationship would imply a reciprocal obligation on the guard’s part.
I have no evidence to support that interpretation, just passing along an interesting-sounding factoid. It suggests that Crito is the sort of person who calls in favors in an opportunistic way, which adds to his role as a foil to Socrates, who is entirely unwilling to do such things, even on pain of death.
Anyway, the reaction I remember having the very first time I read this was a confusion about the part when Socrates and Crito agree to listen to “the one who knows” and not “the opinions of the many.” Because, on the surface, and when I was 17, it made plenty of sense to say, “the many are the people who have wrongly imprisoned Socrates. The one is Socrates himself. If Socrates is ‘the one who knows’ about justice, then isn’t this enough to acquit him?”
Of course that’s not the argument at all, but it’s a misunderstanding that my students quite often have too. The question “why, if Socrates does not respect the opinions of the many, does he not escape from prison?” is one they have quite a bit of trouble answering, even though I think upon a little reflection the answer is clear enough. It’s one of those questions that serve to open up the text even if they’re deceptive in their framing.
Donald Moon’s “The Moral Basis of Politics” was the first really great class I took in college. It was liberal-arts to a tee: we read Antigone, “Crito,” something from Gandhi, Thoreau, Frantz Fanon, then watched The Battle of Algiers, and were asked to write about paper about whether it was ever right to break an unjust law. The question of civil disobedience wasn’t the only question covered in the class; we probably approached 5-6 different problem areas in political theory, but in a totally non-expertise-assuming way, reading texts from a variety of disciplines and rhetorical and historical contexts. We didn’t read anything published in philosophy journals. Even so, this course led me towards becoming a Politics major with a Political Theory concentration, and then onward towards the University of Chicago philosophy department (where the authors of this blog met).
This is a very short text, and I’ve read it many times – I’m never entirely comfortable with Socrates’ understanding of the state as his all-knowing father, but it does strike me that my anti-libertarian arguments in a series of posts last year share a similar premise: we wouldn’t be us, or at least, we wouldn’t own what we own, were it not for the state, therefore the state has some peremptory claims on some of what we seem to own.
I imagine there’s a whole contemporary professional literature around civil disobedience – in fact I think I remember David recommending a volume about it some time ago (though I’ve forgotten the reference).
I actually have no really clear idea where I stand on this question. Obviously MLK etc. provide compelling historical examples of times when intentional disobedience to law worked, but I can see how the distinction between respect for the law and respect for every law could be difficult to make without stepping into some obvious potholes.