Plato Project #3: Crito

[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.

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7 Responses to Plato Project #3: Crito

  1. Nates says:

    That’s interesting about the Crito / kindness thing. I hadn’t heard this before, but I trust pretty much anything Redfield says.

    I don’t know if this is well known or not, but the ship whose arrival opens the dialogue–and signals Socrates’ impending execution–is the famous Ship of Theseus used by so many philosophers to discuss puzzles of identity over time! Apparently some Athenians still believed that this was the very ship Theseus had used to sail to Crete and kill the Minotaur, which shows the interesting ways in which mythology and history were intertwined for them.

    On the issue of civil disobedience, I too was reminded of our libertarian discussions from the past year. I’m also sympathetic to the state-making-us-who we-are argument, so it’s troubling to see Socrates taking this to such an extreme. But his hard line position is also tricky to square with some things he says in the Apology. For example, somewhere in there he declares that he would refuse to stop philosophizing even if they passed a law banning it. That sure sounds like civil disobedience to me!

  2. David says:

    Ok, back on track. Crito is certainly more interesting than Charmides!

    I’ve read the Crito many times, since I’ve taught it over the years in Political Philosophy courses and in a Philosophy of Law course. I’ve always thought it served as a nice illustration of what Whitehead’s quip that “all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato.” The main philosophical arguments in the literature on legal obligation can all be found, albeit in germinal form, in the Crito. We have:

    *The Voluntarist Argument (51 d-e)
    *The (Rule)-Utilitarian Argument (50b)
    *The Argument from Gratitude (50 d-e)

    On this most recent reading, though, it’s not these general arguments that strike me as Socrates’ principal reason for accepting the punishment of death. His main ‘argument’ is much more personal, it seems to me–viz., escape would be a fate worse than death, since he could no longer practice his philosophy as he understands it. It would be ‘humiliating’ for Socrates to go about accosting his fellow citizens, enjoining them to not fear death and to always act rightly, when in the eyes of most Socrates himself would have acted wrongly out of fear of death. Socrates’ refusal to escape has more to do, I think, with his sense of personal integrity than with a general or abstract conception of legal obligation. (This raises another interesting tension that in my view is just beneath the surface in this dialogue: Socrates is clearly attuned to what people will think of him, even while he counsels Crito not to worry about what people think of them.)

    Nates raises an interesting point about Socrates’ claim in the Apology that he would not stop philosophizing even if Athens passed a law banning it. How does this square with Socrates’ apparent position on civil disobedience in the Crito?

    One relevant difference, I think, though I don’t know whether the difference is important enough to remove any feelings of tension, is that in the Crito Socrates is not claiming that he must follow the law, however unjust. I don’t think in this case Socrates thinks the law is unjust–either the law he is said to have broken, or the law that stipulates banishment or death for those convicted of breaking it. What Socrates thinks is wrong and unjust is the decision of the jury to convict him of breaking that law.

    A final thought: are we to understand that Socrates was a pacifist? At 49 d-e, he suggests that “it is never right to do a wrong or return a wrong or defend oneself against retaliation by injury.” That list bit sounds a bit extreme. Is Socrates claiming that it is never permissible to do wrong in the name of self-defense (plausible), or is he claiming that self-defense, itself, is wrong, if/when it ever ascends to the level of physical violence (doing injury to one’s attacker(s)).

  3. Josh says:

    I’ve got a tangential question David – how would you phrase the problem of civil disobedience in more abstract terms? I’m thinking something along the lines of “is it possible to justify breaking at least some laws while still acknowledging that one has an obligation to obey at least some (other) laws?” Is this sufficient to make it relatively independent from the problem of justifying political authority in general? And then my next question is, how does one begin to answer a question like that?

  4. David says:

    Hey Josh-

    A few different questions are regularly packaged together under the ‘problem of civil disobedience.’ For example: (1) what distinguishes acts of civil disobedience from other acts of law-breaking? (2) Under what circumstances is civil disobedience morally justified? (3) How should the State respond to civil disobedience? As with so much in political philosophy, this way of packaging the problem owes a lot to Rawls’s famous discussion of civil disobedience in TOJ. I’m sure you remember this: Rawls starts with an old-fashioned ‘analysis’ of the concept of civil disobedience, whereby he tries to identify necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for civil disobedience. Once he’s fixed the meaning of civil disobedience to his satisfaction, he introduces and defends several conditions on morally justified acts of civil disobedience: (1) Ordinary means of changing the target law have been exhausted; (2) the target law is egregiously and transparently unjust; (3) disobedience is likely to be effective–i.e., lead to legislative change. The upshot of Rawls’s analysis is that the law has a kind of prima facie, content-independent authority–assuming it is the product of reasonably well-ordered democratic processes–and law-breaking, if it is to be justified, is going to have to somehow pay tribute to the prima facie authority of the law while at the same time it works against it. In other words, the issue is pretty much as you described it–viz., how does one claim a right to break the law while at one and the same time acknowledging a general obligation to obey the law? But notice that this way of putting the question assumes that issues of civil disobedience only arise once the problem of political authority has been resolved in the affirmative. Anyone who rejects the idea of a general obligation to obey the law probably doesn’t recognize a ‘problem’ with justifying civil disobedience. Yet they do seem like distinct issues.

  5. Josh says:

    I’m embarrassed to say I’ve actually never studied Rawls’s answer to the question. I may have at one point read that whole book, but all the work I did centered on the first third of it (and random sections later, mostly the “Kantian Interpretation” section and then the final heading about Justification).

    The reason I ask is I’ve got a unit about it in my AP class, and I’ve always had trouble getting kids to do anything other than writing middling papers defending Martin Luther King’s argument in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Now at a very intuitive level I identify with that argument, and so I understand where they’re coming from, and I also remember that they’re in high school, and their paper is supposed to be just 3-6 pages – but it’s tough to get them started in a direction that leads beyond generalities about injustice, effectiveness, etc. I’ve tried in various ways to get them to respond to Socrates’ argument, and also Henry David Thoreau’s (those are the 3 big texts in the unit). But it so often dissolves into “the civil rights movement made big strides using civil disobedience, so Socrates is wrong. So maybe I’m asking a pedagogical question more than a philosophical one, but I’m wondering if it’s one you’ve also wrestled with?

  6. David says:

    Yeah, one of the things I was getting at in my previous comment is that the so-called ‘problem of civil disobedience’ is really only a problem for those who believe in a strong sense of ‘legal obligation’–roughly, those who believe that we have an obligation to obey the law simply because it is the law, and not because the law prescribes/proscribes actions that we take ourselves to have independent reason to perform/not perform. If one rejects the idea of strong legal obligation, then civil disobedience will look relatively unproblematic whenever you’re dealing with laws that are plainly unjust (Socrates will seem a bit crazy and MLK will seem saintly). And my guess is that high schoolers–even AP high-schoolers–find the idea of strong legal obligation a bit remote. So….

    Pedagogically, what I’ve done is really try to motivate the idea of strong legal obligation as best as I can, before turning to civil disobedience. So, for example, I’ll ask my students to think about what THE LAW is for–what purpose is it supposed to serve–and then I’ll suggest that, at first glance, anyway, it could hardly serve its undeniably important purpose if individual conscience were king, and citizens were free to ignore the law whenever they believed its commands were unjust. And I’ll talk a bit about democracy, and democratic regimes in which THE LAW provides for its own revision through peaceful, political means, and how opting for other means can look, at first glance, like opting for the use of power over the use of politics. And I’ll go on in this way until students seem to have a modicum of respect for the law as such and the crucial purposes it serves (security, most obviously, but not exclusively–the ‘well ordered society,’ ruled by law, is of course not just about safety, but also about instantiating a certain moral vision of how to live together, settle disputes, etc.). THEN I’ll raise the questions about what the right thing to do is when THE LAW seems to go very badly wrong, and, specifically, the question about whether it is possible to, at one and the same time, break THE LAW and yet respect it. It’s that weird ‘double act’ which is the meat of the problem of civil disobedience, as I see it. But here I follow Rawls over someone like Thoreau, who, if memory serves, was profoundly skeptical of ‘authority’ in just about all its forms, and certainly skeptical of the State and its laws. Thoreau seems to represent the ‘individual conscience is king’ camp, while Rawls strikes me as really trying to show that we can have it both ways–i.e., healthy respect for the law as such while also allowing for justified noncompliance. I hope this helps! It’s really a great topic….

  7. Josh says:

    It does help. It makes a lot of sense. In terms of my classroom I think it means I just need to spend much more time developing respect for Socrates’ argument, somehow modulating it towards a defense of democracy as the law, rather than just as the defense of the paternalistic state it appears to be. Thanks.

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