This is a draft chapter for a book on Socrates, Plato, and civil disobedience. It has been some years in the making. Comments are welcome:
Sunday, October 23, 2016
The Crito: on reading and Socrates’s agency
This is a draft chapter for a book on Socrates, Plato, and civil disobedience. It has been some years in the making. Comments are welcome:
Chapter 3: The Crito: on reading and Socrates’s agency
A habit of Anglo-American specialists in Plato is to dismiss the notion of any hidden meanings for his longstanding students in the dialogues. This dismissal often accompanies an odd refusal to see the dialogues as a whole or consider the relationship between them. And the zeal for this dismissal is exacerbated, even made visceral, by a feud with Leo Strauss and his followers. Ironically, many of these philosophers a la Popper agree with Strauss that the philosopher-king, as the best ruler, one who rules over a heavily stratified warrior society but often arbitrarily, i.e. without laws, is to be taken seriously as Plato’s approach. Strauss is actually, on this point, an acolyte of Martin Heidegger whose major role as a teacher/interpreter of Plato as a supposed forerunner to Heidegger’s counseling Hitler is largely unknown in the United States.[i] Heidegger is a more subtle and creative interpreter of Plato.
One of the themes of the dialogues is, however, as we have seen, the distinction in Phaedrus between ordinary readers for whom writings are like statues – when you ask them a question, they have no father to defend them – and students of philosophy, en voyage with Plato, who can achieve as sustained and intense a happiness as human beings are capable of (Phaedrus, 275d – 277a) A primary site for this distinction is the first book of the Republic where Polemarchus, initially a democratic bully, wakes up, follows argument, and becomes, admirably, as reported in Phaedrus, a "philosophical youth." In the latter, Socrates contrasts Polemarchus with his brother, the rhetorician and Phaedrus’ lover, Lysias. Socrates takes apart a speech of Lysias, demonstrating, subtly, for students, the difference between argument and fine but empty rhetoric.
About the Republic in part three, I will argue that Thrasymachus, the rhetorician, who is also void of argument, begins to throw Socrates’s argument about justice off track – to make it unphilosophical - and that this direction is continued in book 2 by the clever Glaucon who imagines a city of “relishes,” of luxuries and war rather than a Pythagorean city, a city of Socrates. Thus, the city in speech, despite a shadowy philosopher-king, is, psychologically speaking or in terms of soul (psyche) as Plato envisions it, Glaucon’s ideal and mainly a subject of satire.
1. Is the Crito rhetoric or philosophy?
Like Socrates’s dialogue with Polemarchus, the Crito is also a way in to beginning to philosophize. But this is not because Crito is good at argument. Instead, the dialogue offers hints to Plato’s longstanding students about how to reason about confusing arguments, Crito’s and those of the democratic laws of Athens which are conjured by Socrates. As we will see, what Socrates argues in the person of the laws, is contradictory, offered for a specific rhetorical purpose (to convince Crito), and pretty plainly, not what Socrates himself, let alone Plato, actually believes.
Crito, a wealthy friend of Socrates, forgets himself. He is so frantic at the possibility that Socrates will die, that he will lose the pleasure of listening to good conversation as well as losing his friend, that Athenians will think badly of him for letting his friend go to his death when he had plenty of money to organize an escape, that he speaks, rhetorically, in a very panicky way. Though often attending Socrates, he is not much of a philosopher himself. Like Cephalus in the Republic, he likes to be entertained, though Cephalus, going further, wants Socrates to be what a medieval might call a court jester. But to read aloud Crito’s statements is to see how off they are.
Just before Socrates introduces the speech of the laws, Crito concludes his harangue by saying: "be persuaded by me" (line 46a "ἀλλὰ παντὶ τρόπῳ, ὦ Σώκρατες, πείθου μοι καὶ μηδαμῶς ἄλλως ποίει."). As a kind of sophist - those who teach for pay how to argue in court assemblies - he speaks as a lawyer. Crito rhetorically presents the defenses and remedies Socrates chose not to use at his own trial: do I not have children? Can I please go into exile?
In the person of the laws, Socrates answers, using this same phrase (54d)
In this sense, Crito also represents or speaks for the democracy, the considerations that move most of those who condemn Socrates but who would have been happy enough to see him go into exile. That punishment he had, once again, refused at his trial.[ii]
Before offering the speech of the laws, Socrates goes over, for interested students, how the argument (ought to) work. He insists on their mutual starting point that it is wrong to return evil for evil. That principle founds nonviolence; Socrates shares this principle, in the history of political thought and action, with Gandhi, King and Jesus. Socrates insists that the arguments which convinced himself and Crito in a state of calm – when Socrates did not have to go to his death – must now be tested again and cleaved to if true rather than thrown aside in panic.
What this signals to Plato’s students is: follow argument. Do not be persuaded by fear or rhetoric. Let your passion for justice adhere to, flow from what is true.
Though comparatively brief, this difficult dialogue requires the same careful assessment as the Republic (it is but 11 lines, 43-54). The music of the argument is not stated fully in the dialogue. Like a Corybant, as himself a Corybant – consider also his advice to Meno, who is from Thessaly, to be initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries (Meno, 77e) – Socrates hears this music. But what he hears is not made clear in the dialogue itself. For here he takes on the persona of the democratic laws of Athens - “Socrates” is but their interlocutor - as he takes on the persona of “Diotima” in speaking of love and, by the by, blaspheming Eros as non-divine, in the Symposium.
Each student must think this speech through for herself.
“Be well assured, my dear friend, Crito, that this is what I seem to hear, as the Corybants seem to hear the flutes, and this sound of these words re-echoes within me and prevents my hearing any other words. And be assured that, so far as I now believe, if you argue against these words you will speak in vain
Note that Demeter and Persephone, the powerful women/goddesses who led the Corybants and opiates in the Mysteries, and nurtured law-givers, underlined in Part 1, probably figure in this understanding.
2. The Contradictory Arguments of the Democratic Laws
The bookends of the speech of the democratic laws of Athens, a seeming idea of laws in the mouth of Socrates, are, on the one hand, Socrates’s indication of the importance of following argument exactly and not being convinced by rhetoric and on the other, his unusual invocation of the power of a particular, unstated argument that moves him:
Socrates: “Speak, Crito, if you have anything more to add, but you will not convince me.”
Crito: I cannot.
Socrates: Then let us so act since so the God leads."
As Plato’s indication of Socrates’ deeper piety, the Crito ends (the second to last word: theos) as, once again, the Apology does, on the word: the god…
But given this sharp framing by Socrates, what he - or Plato at a triple remove, invoking Socrates invoking “the laws of Athens speaking to ‘Socrates’ - depicts the laws as saying is disappointing. As I have emphasized, the laws conclude their contradictory and rhetorically persuasive but logically unconvincing speech, with the emotional, competitive statement, echoing Crito: “be persuaded by us.” (ἀλλὰ μή σε πείσῃ Κρίτων ποιεῖν ἃ λέγει μᾶλλον ἢ ἡμεῖς. 54c-d) They echo the law courts in response to Crito’s plea: be persuaded by me. These are, after all, “the laws” of democratic Athens governing trials in courts with several hundred jurors.
This echo of the courts is, however, Plato’s signal that both the laws and Crito are, in some way, on the wrong path. They are sophists, rhetoricians, Crito moved by, giving voice to the concerns of and speaking to the democracy as it stands, not a regime, as Socrates envisions it, which would make space for questioning, dissent and philosophy. Crito and the laws argue to persuade the other, demagogically, but not in search of the truth. Once again, the final line is Socrates telling Crito to speak, but then saying, in this one instance in the dialogues – he is further along the path of arguments than Crito, hidden ahead in what is unstated in the dialogue – that Crito will not persuade him…
"Be well assured, my dear friend, Crito, that this is what I seem to hear, as the Corybants seem to hear the flutes, and this sound of these words re-echoes within me and prevents my hearing any other words. And be assured that, so far as I now believe, if you argue against these words you will speak in vain. Nevertheless, if you think you can accomplish anything, speak.
Crito: No, Socrates, I have nothing to say." (54d)
ταῦτα, ὦ φίλε ἑταῖρε Κρίτων, εὖ ἴσθι ὅτι ἐγὼ δοκῶ ἀκούειν, ὥσπερ οἱ κορυβαντιῶντες τῶν αὐλῶν δοκοῦσιν ἀκούειν, καὶ ἐν ἐμοὶ αὕτη ἡ ἠχὴ τούτων τῶν λόγων βομβεῖ καὶ ποιεῖ μὴ δύνασθαι τῶν ἄλλων ἀκούειν: ἀλλὰ ἴσθι, ὅσα γε τὰ νῦν ἐμοὶ δοκοῦντα, ἐὰν λέγῃς παρὰ ταῦτα, μάτην ἐρεῖς. ὅμως μέντοι εἴ τι οἴει πλέον ποιήσειν, λέγε.
Κρίτων ἀλλ᾽, ὦ Σώκρατες, οὐκ ἔχω λέγειν.
If we ask what in the speech of the laws convinces Crito and makes him fall silent, the answer emerges quickly.[iii] Socrates refers to Crito pointedly at a number of junctures in his speech, particularly warning that having bought off the jailer and gotten Socrates to escape to Crito’s friends in Thessaly (the “unruly” Thessaly from which Meno comes), Crito’s wealth would be forfeit in Athens. Crito, a rich and powerful man, is a little high on himself and not very bright. He has bought the jailer; he has come in to persuade Socrates to escape with ordinary appeals that will not convince Socrates. He initially acts with fear for Socrates, fear for his own reputation, and in a certain way, hubris. He has thus not recognized the danger to himself.
"For it is pretty clear,” the laws/Socrates say, “that your friends [Socrates’s] also will be exposed to the risk of banishment and the loss of their homes in the city or of their property.“
"ὅτι μὲν γὰρ κινδυνεύσουσί γέ σου οἱ ἐπιτήδειοι καὶ αὐτοὶ φεύγειν καὶ στερηθῆναι τῆς πόλεως ἢ τὴν οὐσίαν ἀπολέσαι, σχεδόν τι δῆλον.“ (53b, 54b-c)
Crito is braced by the icy wind of this – for him - chill possibility. His thoughts turn from the benefits he receives from Socrates’s conversation and care that Socrates be alive to fear for loss of standing and property. What Crito fears is precisely what Socrates does not. Having undergone the trial and sitting in the jail, Socrates hopes to influence the far future of which one can have but little picture, not to make a short-term impression.
In addition, Socrates equips Crito with the contradictory arguments of the laws. Crito can tell the people of Athens both that Socrates, though refusing to give up questioning, is the slave of the laws, bowing down to them even more than to the beatings of irate fathers. Recall the charge in Aristophanes’ The Clouds that after going for help to Socrates, Strepsiades is beaten by his son Pheidippides who also threatens his mother. It was a comic cliché among Athenians that Socrates’s questioning, in some sense, challenged ancestral pieties and was dangerous, not just a particular theme of the trial. Now of course, the aim of every speaker in court - every lawyer, every sophist - is to make the worse argument the better. That, in The Clouds, is a charge against Socrates. But that is what Socrates does not do in his defense at his trial and in asking questions to seek the truth. It is why, despite his superior rhetorical abilities, Socrates is, in fact, an anti-sophist.
But as a longterm, devoted follower of Socrates and an Athenian, that Crito would have been convinced by the laws' argument that Socrates was "their slave" would have been amazing. He could never have listened to a single conversation of Socrates…But it was something for him to say later to others.
Note that many scholars read Crito sleepily, think that this argument of the laws, along with the rest, is compelling philosophically...Were it true, there would be no philosophy, no Socrates in the first place.
To reject such slavishness is the point of Socrates’s questioning of Cephalus in the initial conversation in the Republic. Cephalus means the head or brain. He was an arms manufacturer and a fierce loyalist to Athenian traditions making sacrifices to the gods as he was dying, even though he was also an immigrant (a metic). Monied immigrants are, psychologically, sometimes the most zealous, foolish defenders of the ways of their new city or country.[iv] Cephalus is the father of Polemarchos, the leader of the democrats; Polemarchus’s name means “war leader” and “the head” is an arms manufacturer…
He is also the father of Lysias, the rhetorician. A war merchant, the “head” Cephalus had a penchant for grim names: Lysias means destroyer or dissolver. Plato’s image in Phaedrus of different psyches having different loves is incarnate in Cephalus and the names of his sons…
Before Polemarchus becomes philosophical in book 1, he is but a democratic bully and arrests Socrates, a counterpart to Lysias' rhetoric in the courts. Both think they know - and ornament or make war for - what they do not. The Apology here is axial for the Republic and Phaedrus in the sense that one will not understand these dialogues without it.[v]
Being a metic though a rich man, Cephalus lives down in the Piraeus with the sailors, not up on the heights of Athens with Glaucon, Adeimantus and Plato (sons of Ariston or the best, line 327a)
Preparing to die, Cephalus is interested in Socrates for entertainment, recalls poems and flowery thoughts to brush away fear. But Socrates is no more Cephalus’s slave or jester than he is that of the democratic laws in Crito. Socrates must drive Cephalus out to begin philosophy.[vi] He asks Cephalus if, in paying his debts, he is trying to buy the gods’ favor. Cephalus has, after all, money for the sacrifices, not a concern for virtue, let alone an interest in a dialogue which Socrates molds to ask about justice.
Cephalus retreats to his sacrifices, a prerequisite for the philosophical questioning and answering which marks the discussion with Polemarchus in contrast to the fierce exchange of epithets with Thrasymachus, punctuated by argument from Socrates, or for that matter, the joking at the expense of/toying with Glaucon.
Cephalus bequeathes his opinion - that justice is paying one’s debts, which becomes justice is benefiting friends and harming enemies – to his son Polemarchus, and exits.
Now Crito, ”my old and dear friend,” participated with Socrates in many philosophical discussions, including in the Phaedo. As his body stiffens from poison, Socrates’ last, ironic word – ironic also in memory of Crito’s plea in this dialogue - is to Crito is to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, the god of health.
Socrates is known for asking questions and “making [the interlocutor’s] words get up and walk away from me,” like the statues of Daedalus. These are opinions, perhaps true, but not knowledge (Meno, 97d). If Crito did not understand this about doing philosophy, he understood nothing.
In addition, Crito might think that a philosopher may seek rule if the
Republic is taken superficially, but a philosopher is certainly no one’s slave. No one would describe Socrates’ paradigm speech of defiance at his trial as “slavish.” So once again, Crito may have used this opinion to persuade other Athenians, but cannot have, at least on becoming less frightened for himself, believed it.
In contrast, the second argument of the laws – that Socrates has, as a free man, made a contract with them, that he has left Athens less than others, going abroad only to the Isthmian games and following the laws, as a soldier – is the opposite of Socrates’ purported subservience to them. But remarkably, these democratic laws do not appeal to their own justice. Whatever the merits of the democratic laws which they do not speak to, Socrates has, by living so long in Athens, they say, assented to them.
This is a serious argument and one which is part of the reason why Socrates, in following his own nature, adheres to these laws in accepting his sentence and exemplifies or founds what Gandhi later calls satyagraha or civil disobedience.
But this argument, too, is surrounded by superficial and panicky rhetoric. For the laws say to Socrates, personally, unnecessarily and arbitrarily – they have already provided the reason that he stayed as a free man, a party to a decent agreement – that he has left Athens less than any other, going abroad only to the Isthmian (Olympic) games.
Worse yet, the laws speak of what is by nature just at a single point,[vii] but their appeal to Socrates here is about their agreeableness to him. We gave you the chance to leave, and you didn’t. Therefore we must be pleasing to you, they say, unctuously, over and over. (52e-53a)
"Are you then' they would say, 'not breaking your compacts and agreements with us, though you were not led into them by compulsion or fraud and were not forced to make up your mind in a short time, but had seventy years, in which you could have gone away, if we did not please you and if you thought the agreements were unfair? But you preferred neither Lacedaemon nor Crete, which you are always saying are well governed, nor any other of the Greek states, or of the foreign ones, but you went away from this city less than the lame and the blind and the other cripples. So much more than the other Athenians were you satisfied with the city and evidently therefore with us, its laws; for who would be pleased with a city apart from its laws? [τίνι γὰρ ἂν πόλις ἀρέσκοι ἄνευ νόμων].
This is a feeble appeal. For the “laws” or better arbitrary decrees in a tyranny are, in some sense, pleasing to the tyrant and perhaps his coterie, and sometimes, the people (Xenophon, Hiero). Even in the latter case, they are often defective, unjust, repulsive (consider the “popularity” in the Jim Crow South of “white” family picnics to see a lynching…).
As the Republic suggests by way of contrast, laws are only “pleasing” to a philosopher only in the light of their justice. In some respects, though perhaps not from the point of view of tolerating questioning and philosophy, the laws remind Socrates that he thought Sparta and Crete "well governed." One must also recall Socrates' irony here, since, after all, such cities did not allow space for...him.
But the democratic laws of Athens neither speak of their own justice nor even, comparatively, that they mandate good governance…
But though they do not speak directly of their goodness or justice, the laws do powerfully invoke Socrates’s agreement as a free man; that is, in fact, part of the justice of a democracy, particularly compared to authoritarian regimes, including the supposed rule of a philosopher.
They also say that Socrates must persuade the laws to change or obey them. The latter point, too, the capacity of ordinary citizens to get the laws changed, to have a say about matters of great moment – matters of conscience in a modern idiom – without a revolution is an important element in the larger justice of a democracy. Still, to win such changes, it usually takes a movement from below, often involving revolution or availing itself of civil disobedience, for instance, the American Revolution, the movements against slavery, for women’s suffrage, for unions, for civil rights, against homophobia, against aggression, to challenge deep injustices.
But Socrates has already answered their thought, as Crito might have heard, in the Apology. A just man, Socrates suggests, cannot participate in politics without quickly being put to death. For once again, he said, when he was in the Prytany and judged the case of the sea captains, who had during the battle of Arginusae, neglected, against the custom, picking up the dead because they were still locked in combat, and he said they should not be put to death, the people, resenting these aristocrats who had survived, called for their death as well as for Socrates's.[viii]
The second time was when he refused to bring Leon of Salamis to be murdered by the Thirty, who were led by Socrates’s student and Plato's cousin, Critias.
And the third time was this trial in which Socrates would be sentenced to death under the democratic laws. But here the justice of what Socrates was trying to do, what he himself brought to the trial, is left unstated. The laws’ case for the justice of what is happening to Socrates, why he must go to his death is, as offered, weak and unpersuasive. Surely a Socrates at 50, having more than “a short time" to live (38d) might, given these arguments, have departed.[ix]
Now Socrates conjures the voice of the democratic laws speaking to “Socrates.” So a careless reader may assume, given the power of this metaphor, that the laws speak for Socrates, that they are the Platonic idea of democratic laws. Instead, they are, in their confused, rhetorical way, just a device to convince or silence Crito. Socrates indicates at the end, unusually in the dialogues, that he is further along the path of arguments, the way through the woods (Heidegger), than what he has said to Crito. But Crito offers no response.
The “Socrates” in this speech is like “Socrates,” the interlocutor who stumblingly answers Diotima’s account of love in the Symposium, once again, in a speech of Socrates. There, as we have seen, the desire to avoid charactizing Eros as not divine - as driven, combining poverty and resource, ever fading, ever reviving, but no god - is put seemingly in the mouth of Diotima. But what is the argument here?
In these complex mirrors, what Socrates thinks and what Plato thinks – Socrates, from a standpoint of greater understanding invoking “Socrates,” Plato invoking a more complex Socrates invoking a dummy “Socrates” -may slip away.
Thus, Socrates, for his own reasons, again ones not explicitly stated in the dialogue itself, does not leave.
To underline the merit in the laws’ argument: there is an appeal to Socrates, the free man who consented. They are the laws of a free regime.
And these laws say: we leave each person an out – each can take his property and move to a colony, for example. That is a further appeal to free men.
Being democratic, they add: persuade us to change or obey us. Here, again, they invoke persuasion in the assembly - trials were a form of assembly, not a separate thing - as the argument between Crito and the democratic laws, not yet including philosophy, involves persuasion. But such persuasion is mere rhetoric, useful for the occasion, unconcerned with the truth. These arguments of the laws by themselves would not have persuaded Socrates, among other reasons, because of the constant threat of death when he entered public life.
Nonetheless, this third argument - persuade us - contributes to Socrates’ founding of civil disobedience or satyragraha. It is profoundly why Gandhi and King (and Jesus) are right about Socrates as a defender of/questioner or dissenter in Athenian democracy who is loyal to it and its laws taken as a whole, and Heidegger and Strauss – that Socrates is a would-be ruler on the model of a “good” gymnastics coach, reinforced by tyrannical power - are wrong in a fundamental way, the way of admiring the Fuehrer’s rule over “racially deficient” others or, in the U.S. recently, advocating “commander in chief power” for aggression and torture.[x]
For Socrates breaks the unjust law against questioning the gods (when the gods do evils for example, Zeus in the form of a swan raping Leda, or more subtly, in the Symposium, about whether Eros is a god).
Now as I have underlined, the setting here in Crito is graphic, the let down in what the laws say, as philosophical argument, sharp. Ro the laws’ speech, even in the better second argument appealing to a contract, is, unsurprisingly, rhetorical, and mirroring Crito, fairly panicky, down to the phrasing. Their speech, once again, Socrates’s, shows that Socrates can perfectly well speak in the manner of the courts, despite his ironic comment about being a stranger to this scene at the beginning of the Apology, and pokes fun - Socrates does this quite a bit - at Crito’s rhetoric. Yet it does not, if one pays close attention, reveal what it is that persuades Socrates. The careful reader must follow the argument out, see the contradictions and fill in what is missing, ask questions, think beyond what is stated.
3. Is it better for the laws of Athens that Socrates escape?
This need is made stark if we recall a further argument from the Apology. For as Plato tells us in Socrates’s speech about his punishment, but for a scrap of life, you, the majority in Athens, will become the city that murdered its wise man. (38c)
“It is no long time, men of Athens, which you gain, and for that those who wish to cast a slur upon the city will give you the name and blame of having killed Socrates, a wise man; for you know, this who wish to revile you will say I am wise, even though I am not.“
Instrumentally speaking therefore, it would be much better for the democratic laws if Socrates had slipped off, disguised as a slave. They mock this possibility, making a theme in their speech of the issue of bondage and yet contradicting their previous assertion: he is their slave, they had said, though somehow, he should feel badly about slinking off as - a slave…
Through lack of moral character, Socrates could have saved the democratic laws from becoming the killers of a just man. But Socrates had integrity. He obeyed the laws. And in a heavy spiritual burden, a kind of curse, the Athenian democracy is remembered to this day for murdering its philosopher.[xi]
The ruins of old Athens stand on hills above the modern city; the Athenians were slaughtered in the Acropolis by the cruel Roman Empire in 88bc. The punishment of and scorn for Athens are real as is the absence, in modern times, of the splendor of that democracy except in the great protest movements recently occurring from below (only their fascist opponent, Golden Dawn, receives much publicity in the corporate press).
Plato was already aware of this coming fate when he wrote; Socrates, too, may well have foreseen it.
So again instrumentally speaking, that is, in terms of reputation, Socrates injures the laws through his seeming fidelity to them. These democratic laws talk themselves, as it were, into their own defeat.
This disgracing of the democracy leads Leo Strauss to think that Socrates went to his death sneering at the laws. As an atheist and a reactionary, Strauss imagines, Socrates cannot have heard their voice as the Corybants hear the flutes. He was a would-be philosopher-tyrant - and Plato more so - striving, to the last, to ridicule and destroy the democratic laws of Athens, nursing, as Xenophon’s Memorabilia suggests, a passle of aristocratic followers to implement this result.
But to follow Strauss’s reasoning, Socrates would then be full of anger at the Athenian laws, wanting only to play, with his death, a last, nasty trick on them, thinking in dyring but of them, not himself, shunning his daimon or inner voice, steaming with resentment (Strauss purports to be a follower of Nietzsche – whom Freud could not bear to read because he superstitiously thought all his psychological insights were already there - but is remarkably, psychologically obtuse).
This is so psychologically implausible a way of talking about Socrates’ dying that it is amazing that Strauss and his followers - those few who see this subtlety - do not turn away from Strauss’s account. If that was the way he left this life, Socrates would not be an ironist but rather a poor, deflecting, demented fellow. Instead, Socrates’s inner voice or daimon does not warn him against this course. There is precisely no evidence in the way Plato depicts him for Strauss’s conclusion.
Fortunately, this is not how Strauss himself died. His letters in volume three of Gesammelte Schriften are dignified and striking in the wonder of what he recalls. But Strauss did not rethink, when he was dying, what he had said about the death of Socrates.
As opposed to Strauss’s fantasy, the Crito shows the calmness and even cheerfulness of Socrates, his dreams of a woman in white saying that on the third day he must go to fertile Phythia.(44b) This is Achilles’s homeland in Homer’s Iliad (ix, 363), that he knows, when speaking with Priam after killing his son Hector, he will not see again.
In contrast, Socrates’s or philosophy’s homeland is death, and at the end of the Phaedo, he makes a comparable remark, stiffening with poison, that Crito, poor loyal Crito, must pay, too late, Socrates’ debt: sacrifice a rooster to Asclepius, the god of healing the body.[xii]
One can also attempt to read the Phaedo and this remark in the Apology as simply a personal account of dying. Socrates had cultivated philosophy, and in Montaigne’s famous later phrase, to “philosophize is to learn how to die.” But there is, of course, something more than personal here, a defense of philosophy. For Socrates is, through and through, a philosopher.
In addition, there is a decisive political or democratic element in Socrates’ decision, one which King, in his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" and Gandhi in his 1908 translation and commentary on the Apology deeply understood. This is an intrinsic good about a decent or good regime, and not something merely instrumental. At 70, Socrates makes the judgment that it is better for him to die, honorably, defending questioning, than to escape, grovel or live in exile dishonorably. The most important point is that Socrates himself fights for the freedom to ask questions of those who think they know, point out if they do not, and not be killed for it. This not only founds philosophy. It is also, contra the usual, superficial interpretation of Socrates as an anti-democrat, ingredient to a common good-sustaining or robust democracy.
Note, however: that Socrates sees questioning as ingredient to a decent or common good-seeking democracy does not mean he has a full conception of the justice of such a regime. It would take 2100 years before the ideas of equal freedom of conscience and freedom of speech would be named – contrary to the Inquisition, St. Bartholomew’s Day in France and murderous English kings – in the public sphere in Europe.[xiii]
Mob rule is often the tyrannical rule, in Aristotle’s idiom, of a particular interest (the rich and powerful stir up right-wing movements of a Klan or McCarthyist sort).[xiv] In contrast, a common good-sustaining movement, say the union movement or anti-war movements or the American civil rights movement or the women’s movement or the abolitionist movement or the Revolution or the indigenous movement or the movement for gay and lesbian and transgender equality, are democratic movements from below. Without questioning and sacrifice, such movements are not possible. For mirroring the fate of Socrates, many others, like my friend Andrew Goodman along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, would be martyred for asking questions to segregationists and acting for justice.
King invokes Socrates three times in his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” written on the back of a New York Times. To complacent white ministers who denounced him as an “outside agitator,” King responds:
"In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock?"
King then analogizes the nonviolence of the movement against segregation to Socrates’s image of a gadfly irritating a great horse:
"Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men [and women] to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."
Finally, as I emphasized in chapter two, King speaks of resistance from below to great injustices:
"Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience... It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.”[xv]
Preparing for his death, Socrates goes through many arguments, including with the Pythagoreans Simmias and Cebes in the Pheado about the soul’s immortality and a war with the body. He takes the poison with politeness even toward his guard. He does not wait for the last moment; he finishes the arguments with the others, fashioning what he needs to say on that day in his accustomed manner, and then to spare the jailer waiting - the jailer is in tears - drinks the poison almost as Gandhi says, as one would quaff a cup of sherbet…[xvi]
This is not someone aflame to bring down the democratic laws…
For Socrates does not speak or act instrumentally with a view to his own or the laws' reputation. He is not trying to curry favor with a McCarthyite majority opinion, those who lightly kill and would as lightly, were it possible, bring him back to life. Socrates is fighting for questioning – dissent – in the democracy as well as for the practice of questioning which is philosophy. Founding what Gandhi names satyagraha and standing up against the corruption of his own people, Socrates dies to make a space for a decent democracy as well as for philosophy.
And the laws he speaks here to modify: obey us but you may also “persuade us to change,” would be those of an idea of democracy which can honor questioning. Such a democracy would go beyond Socrates's long life – 70 years – for Athens had been a dominant power which allowed the emergence of questioning, whereas an authoritarian regime, the supposed city in speech or Sparta or Crete, would not tolerate questions, would not tolerate…a Socrates. Such a democracy would come to be beyond Socrates’ life, in fact, hundred of years later. Socrates seeks to practice and portray the idea of the democratic laws, not the existing, sophistic and excitable - like Crito! - laws of the Athenian court.
By this actions, Socrates seeks to transform the latter, to make them more thoroughly democratic - in the sense of a common good-sustaining democracy - through his death…
Some modern scholars are confused by Socrates’s insistence on reasoning with only one witness, not deferring to the views of the many. That Socrates opposes, through argument, the deficiencies of sometimes tyrannical democracies does not mean that Socrates cannot aim to advance questioning and affirm a deeper democracy.
Sustaining questioning is the political purpose of his speech as much as creating a space for doing philosophy. For Socrates’s (and Plato’s) philosophy is not, as it appears superficially, anti-democratic, but rather genuinely democratic, making deliberation about a common good possible within a democracy.
But that idea of questioning would be realized in laws – for the first time, just laws – nearly 2000 years in the future in regimes which, on paper, to some, began to guarantee individual rights to - or equal freedom of - conscience and speech. The regime, as the particular laws, would be a very different kind of representative democracy (or what Plato or Aristotle might have more aptly called: an oligarchy with parliamentary forms).
4. Acting for a future aspect of justice
In the Apology or the Crito, does Socrates have the idea of such a regime? Not remotely. “I know that I know nearly nothing” about that idea is a plausible way of imagining/recalling what Socrates might say. He understands certain major features of justice, that philosophy and questioning should be allowed, not subjecting the questioner to death or exile. But those features of justice are in the far future (in Cordoba and Granada, for practitioners of minority religions, in fourteen hundred years, in England and France, as a named individual right, in 2000 years). As Gandhi and King say, Socrates also thus founds the practice of civil disobedience to remedy glaring injustice.
But the question: what is justice? in book 1 of the Republic has no full answer at any given time. Specific practices to achieve aspects of justice - establish questioning and dissent/disobedience for particular purposes – are clear and the subject of Socrates’s action, but no overall vision is possible.
Even freedom of conscience or freedom of speech is a limited, though important institutional reform, for some, as Hegel says, 2100 years later. In America, to work out a decent democracy in the twenty-first century with the survivors of genocides – indigenous people, African-Americans – is not yet available in more than name. Nor is how to organize democratic and rights-sustaining institutions under a novel, predatory dispensation of finance capital and militarism.
Thus, nothing like a city in speech is true of what Socrates (and Plato) contribute, as Socrates repeatedly hints in the Republic. For instance , he says the ordering of a just city is clearer than, must reflect and cast light on, the right ordering of an individual psyche. That this analogy is doubtful is obvious on a moment’s thought, even if one has not read carefully Glaucon’s shifting Socrates’s argument from proposing a just city to sketching a fevered city and its “ideal,’ a city built to make war and acquire/steal things from others, a city which the city of guardians – kallipolis – makes somewhat more refined.
This authoritarian city in speech ruled by a philosopher for military men (and women) - who have all the same feelings, the same customs - cannot be Socrates’ vision of justice. For it does not underpin – instead, it bars - Socrates’s fateful foreshadowing/enactment of what are later named equal individual rights of conscience and speech and civil disobedience. Those who take the philosopher-king literally – Heidegger who sought to cozy up to Hitler and Leo Strauss never heard of civil disobedience - despise questioning in a democracy. They abjectly betray – are self-consciously enemies of - Socrates’s remarkable contributions in speech and action to the nature of a democratic regime and the practice of disagreement and conflict within it. Theirs – and common and less scholarly interpretations a la Popper and even I.F. Stone – are a terrible mistake.
Thus, the covert meaning of the Crito is that a genuinely Platonic idea of democratic laws needs to protect questioning against the brittle Athenian charge, not untrue, that Socrates questions everything including the gods. Socrates is pious, but not in the way of believing as those who do not question believe. Piety without questioning is not admirable…And so, Socrates was sacrificed to a pseudo-democratic fanaticism. But the protection of questioning which would belong to, Socratically or Platonically, genuine democratic laws – again, the idea of democratic laws if they came to exist– would, some 2100 years later, begin to be realized in freedoms of speech and conscience.
What the dialogue also implies is that Socrates defends his own honor or virtue as someone who questions, affirms and strengthens the decency of Athens. Socrates is caught, as he says, only by the slower runner death, while his accusers have been caught by a swifter wickedness for accusing someone of committing crimes merely for searching for the truth, questioning the powers-that-be…
And by that questioning, Socrates seeks to improve Athens, not to make an ideal city of justice, a city in speech, for that city does not exist (and is harmful if applied, the object of satire in the Republic). It is Socrates who upholds and would make the democratic laws better, more just, more inclusive of opposition and decency. Socrates’s internal relation to the laws – not an instrumental relationship about their reputation - upholds their justice more explicitly than, in the imagined speech, the actual laws, who cannot speak of justice and appeal to “pleasing,” do.
It is Socrates who seeks, by dying, to make the democratic laws more just.
For his students or careful readers, Socrates is thus the agent, in action and implication, of a non-rhetorical or philosophical idea of the laws, just as, in the speech, he is the agent of the rhetorically persuasive but contradictory law-courts/assembly version of the democratic laws he summons to persuade Crito. Crito needs sophistry. Socrates does not…
Listen again to the speech of the laws. If you go to your death, obeying us Socrates, we will honor you here and our brothers in the place of the dead will receive you with honor. Hades here represents the far future.
And that thought does motivate Socrates who is looking to the place of philosophy in democracy and to a more decent democracy – an idea of democracy in Plato’s idiom, - in the future. We still read the Apology, thanks to Plato, for otherwise Socrates’s words or perhaps, more broadly reasoning for accepting his martyrdom, would not have survived. We can take in what Socrates fought for in the democracy including being able to philosophize. But writing does not explain itself – has “no father’ to defend it, as Phaedrus reveals of the dialogues – and so, misunderstandings of the Apology and the Crito, not to mention the alleged authoritarianism of the Republic, are common. For instead, it is to advance questioning and the search for the truth - allowing questioning, opposing the unfairness and injustice of this form of discrimination or of this war, and the like - which become the task of each generation, down to, and but incompletely realized in, slowly expanding universal or human rights 2100 years later.
It would have been arrogant for Plato to say that Socrates seeks to reshape the laws of Athens, democratically and philosophically. But that is exactly what the Crito implies. That is Socrates’s gift to the far future. It took his willingly going to his death or martyrdom to bequeath it.
It would have been less arrogant to say, what the Apology does say, that one can have, in practice, but a specific direction of justice, an important fragment of the idea of a just democratic regime, but no such conception as a whole.
Democracy, in Athens and in its new forms, is often a sad thing, killing people and at its best, later wishing them back alive.[xvii] What Socrates and other martyrs for freedom and decency do – Gandhi and King, among them – is to challenge and change the greatest evils within a (in Gandhi’s case, potential) democracy.[xviii]
Socrates warns in the Apology – would-be students, take heed – that he has only a human wisdom – anthropine sophia - and is wiser than others only in this: that others think they know and do not and he neither knows nor thinks that he knows. He improves the democratic laws by, through personal questioning or protest, forcing them to recognize this way of life, philosophically and politically. He acts powerfully for what turns out to be a very long-run change.
Though the dialogue conveys Socrates's agency on the surface - it is, after all, Socrates who speaks to Crito in the voice of the laws - what he does in the undercurrent or implication of the dialogue is to shape the laws of decent democracies – in this central respect - for the far future.[xix]
He thus makes democracy better through questioning and protecting philosophy at the cost of his life. This central point resembles Hilary Putnam’s or Amartya Sen’s conception of justice or Karl Marx’s: one can achieve more just regimes given particular starting points, but a model of justice, for instance, communism, is, as it were, a long away off, and not something whose details dreamers/modelers are likely to capture. Again, Socrates’s ideas on dissent would wait 2100 years for an institutional/legal development as equal individual rights, the American Bill of Rights, for example, and to be still unfolding 2500 years later.
In Marx, this is the notion of the “real movement” or democratic, from below, upsurge for change which will create a better regime in specifiable ways, one that is not a utopia, not to be sketched as a blueprint beforehand.
And by acting honorably, Socrates honors the laws as if they were, in fact, what their speech pretends but drifts away from: defenders of freedom and justice. For the verdict of men is unjust and beyond this, the law that permits death for questioning the gods of Athens, even if one is, as Socrates is, impeccably externally and even internally pious, is profoundly unjust.
And of course, the laws’ appeal about “pleasing” him is base.
That is where further questioning of the dialogue leads and the death of Socrates gives rise, as Martin Luther King says in his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail," to freedom of speech and conscience as well as academic freedom. In a still to be created decent regime, one cannot, upon further reflection, put people to death for opinions or even lock them up, even if the powerful do not like them…
But now let us consider again Plato’s and Socrates’ counsel to students. Even under pressure of imminent death, one should follow out arguments and stick with those that, upon reflection, seem true. An apt dialogue is the assent of one witness, following the argument, not the opinion of the many. The latter is what Crito throws against the wall, hoping that his passion and fear will stick for a Socrates about to go to his death, since Crito does not engage in reasoning. Many dialogues, including this one, are not philosophical or apt in this sense; they do not follow out arguments to the truth, but are in some way, deterred by the interests of - or Socrates’ interactions with - particular characters. In the Meno for example, Meno coquets with Socrates when he is lost for an argument. Socrates repeatedly points this out, flirting, in return, with Meno. In the dialogue, only Meno’s question about whether virtue can be taught, without a specification of what virtue is, is “answered” mistakenly.
In the Crito, Socrates’ speech of the laws is faulty. Crito is deterred rhetorically by his fears to be exiled, his property seized, as Socrates underlines, as well as his fear of what the many may think of him. The contradictory claims of the laws supply Crito with things to say to pacify others’ questioning or contempt.
Note that Thrasymachus, Callicles, Phaedrus, Crito, Meno and Glaucon are all imaginative – Glaucon even conjures the resonant image of the ring of Gyges which inspired Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray and J.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. But they have no interest in doing philosophy. They are a lot like Dionysius the younger in the Seventh Letter, who will not follow Plato’s curriculum starting with geometry, and instead writes a very likely, foolish book about laws….
Dialogues, thus, rely on the ironic Socrates to drive them through questioning but sometimes achieve mistaken results, depending on the particular argument and interlocutor (the Meno, for example, but we will find many other examples in the Republic). At the conclusion of the Republic, Glaucon salutes justice and does not become a tyrant. Unlike Alcibiades, Glaucon is unknown to history. But it is not as if Glaucon reasons along with, follows Socrates. Rather, he falls all over himself trying to please/impress the philosopher. When exclaiming that “you don’t mean the idea of the good is…pleasure,” Glaucon is told by Socrates to “hush” (lines ).
As we will see, only Polemarchus, starting as a bully (many democrats do), thinks out arguments, becomes a philosophical democrat and is murdered by Critias and the Thirty.
Dialogues often point to, imply questions or further arguments which Socrates and Plato encouraged students to take up for themselves.
The latter could seem elitist, inviting haughty aristocrats and soldiers like Glaucon, to be lured, at quite a distance, into honoring philosophy. Leo Strauss’s or Heidegger’s view gets stuck at this seeming. For many of those whom Socrates and Plato talked with were anti-democratic, aristocratic boys with a lurking, sometimes not even hidden – Alcibiades - aspiration for becoming, themselves, tyrants. But in fact, the complexity of arguments and the difficulties of philosophizing - eccentric when Socrates does it alone - could also be a spur to democracy. That Polemarchus, leader of the democrats, becomes a young philosopher is remarkable, as is Chaerophon, mocked in Aristophanes’ Clouds, as Socrates’ best student, who left with the democrats to oppose the Thirty. (Apology, line )
Once again, to oppose “the many” sounds anti-democratic. But democracies often do bad things, the KKK and McCarthyism being important examples. Aristotle, Plato’s student and aficionado of Alexander the Great and one man rule, nonetheless defends majority rule, to some extent. Sometimes, he says, the opinion of a large number is better than that of an expert; one might say, always in terms of unconstrained, one man rule. But sometimes, Aristotle says, there is no difference between a majority and a “herd of beasts.” Wise majority rule embodies a common good, something which benefits the whole society. In contrast, a "herd of beasts" is the tyrannical rule of a particular interest.
It is the latter and only the latter that Socrates' questioning fights, tries to correct. So Socrates defends the democratic laws of Athens and seeks to strengthen them, even as he dissects and denounces frivolous, grandiose, ignorant though “authoritative” opinions as, for instance, that of the majority which puts him to death…
In the Meno, one gets an inkling of what Plato means by ideas from the theorem in Euclidean geometry that the slave gradually proves under questioning. For it is an abstract idea about a diagonal, not a particular line in the sand which they investigate. And these theorems are not visible to the naked eye, just as many of the findings of modern science such as quarks are not.[xx]
In an obvious sense, Plato's ideas are a counter to empiricism, particularly in today's social “sciences,” where as with IQ testing, bad methodological doctrine has run amuk, with enormously destructive social and moral consequences.
But many seeming Platonic ideas – like that of the good, likened grandly and metaphorically in The Republic to the sun in the noetic universe, are only to be figured out, if they are, through a long journey of subtle readings of the dialogues. The metaphors surrounding them are as suggestive and unclear as ideas in geometry are clear. And here especially, one may feel that one knows not much…
What then should we make of the laws in the Crito? They are, in one sense, deficient, merely rhetorical. But improved as Socrates implies with protection for democratic questioning, the laws could become better. Socrates’s sacrifice of his life makes the laws of the democracy approach justice, approach, and over 2500 years, incorporate a central aspect of the idea of a just democracy. They thus move from the sophism of the courts, as exhibited in a sophisticated form in Socrates’s speech, through actions for specific goals – Socrates’ emblematic courage, his sacrifice, his disobedience to injustice in the context of overall fidelity to laws (John Rawls), towards Platonic ideas. But they never reach such ideas which are, in one important sense, as a practical project or in their full realization, unknowable. That is a secret of the Crito...
[i] Revulsion at Heidegger’s Black Notebooks is at last rightly spreading in America. But the connection between his philosophy and teaching – concentrated on the ancients – and his views on Plato is a further mountain to reach…
[ii] h/t Sol Malick.
[iii] as my student Bryce Allen pointed out.
[iv] Marco Rubio.
[v] Arguably, it is axial for the Laws - the Athenians Stranger is a not-Socrates, one who does not take the poison (phobonpharmakon – fear drug, again an inflection of Aesclepius’s snake medicine) and lives – and most other dialogues as well.
[vi] Peter Steinberger, Political Theory, .
[vii] Strauss mistakenly says that they do not at all. Pp.
[viii] Xenopohon, Memorabilia,
[ix] Rightly dissatisfied with the Crito, Reggie Rivers once wrote for me a further 30 page dialogue, making a case that Socrates should live. Unique in my teaching of Plato, what Reggie did by his own lights is, I suspect, what the Academy asked…
[x] That neither the philosopher nor the commander in chief automatically “knows” is revealed, for instance, about Iraq, by Socrates’ question to Thrasymachus: what if the stronger mistakes his interest? (line ).
[xi] As Franco’s Granada is remembered for murdering its poet, Federico Garcia Lorca.
[xii] Does loyal, unsubtle Crito get the joke?
[xiii] In Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy, ch. 5, I name, with John Rawls, the good regime, as one that upholds individual conscience in opposing particular unjust wars. That is the 2400 year-extension of Socrates’ thought, what Hegel rightly referred to as a principle of individual freedom seeking to break through, be named and realized, in Hellenic political life. See Hegel, Elements of a Philosophy of Right, additions .
[xiv] Aristotle’s idiom here names a thought of Plato.
[xv] James Washington, ed., The Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, pp. 291, 294-95.
[xvi] Gandhi’s translation of the Apology, "The Story of a Soldier for Truth," Collected Works, 1908, part 1 and here. Note that Gandhi is, interestingly, more wedded to death than Socrates or Plato, neither of whom would have offered such a formulation.
[xvii] Even Obama, with the drones has done much of this, including to Americans like the 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki
[xviii] Gandhi often conceived himself as the citizen of an Empire which was not a democracy. He also thought of a genuine Indian democracy made up of villages – panchayats – which voted (a more Athenian-like democracy than modern India, modern democracies and one without outcastes or slavery).
[xix] The citizens of Athens debated peace and war, as Thucydides shows us; the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic took an oath to fight each particular war. That is a large merit of ancient republics compared to modern representative/parliamentary oligarchies where delegates, as in the US, rarely debate war, and as in the case of Obama’s wise nuclear agreement with Iran, speak out only for Imperial domination (ironically, it is an Imperial Congress here against Obama and the American people – see .)
[xx] Dudley Shapere, .