Thursday, January 12, 2012

Crito - Plato

I talked about Plato's 'Apology' here and these two pieces really do belong together. In the 'Apology' we got the trial of Socrates and 'Crito' follows that up. On one of the last days before Socrates' execution he is visited by one of his followers named Crito who urges him to escape. In fact Crito has set up a path by which to do so and has paid the money that would allow it to happen. Socrates resists and refuses.
There are two main focuses here, or at least two main questions. The first has to do with whether or not it is ok to sometimes do an injustice. Socrates believes that no, it is not ever ok. We should always strive to do the just thing.
The second question is the more interesting one to me: are you committing an injustice in trying to avoid an unjust sentence? We get this:
Soc. Then consider the matter in this way: Imagine that I am about to play truant (you may call the proceeding by any name which you like), and the laws and the government come and interrogate me: "Tell us, Socrates," they say; "what are you about? are you going by an act of yours to overturn us- the laws and the whole State, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?" What will be our answer, Crito, to these and the like words? Anyone, and especially a clever rhetorician, will have a good deal to urge about the evil of setting aside the law which requires a sentence to be carried out; and we might reply, "Yes; but the State has injured us and given an unjust sentence." Suppose I say that?

Cr. Very good, Socrates.
Soc. "And was that our agreement with you?" the law would say, "or were you to abide by the sentence of the State?" And if I were to express astonishment at their saying this, the law would probably add: "Answer, Socrates, instead of opening your eyes: you are in the habit of asking and answering questions. Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?" None, I should reply. "Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?" Right, I should reply. "Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?- you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? And will you, O professor of true virtue, say that you are justified in this? Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and if not persuaded, obeyed? And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country."
I'm fairly libertarian and this passage shocked me a bit. If you are a citizen of a country, enjoying all the privileges and rights of said country, must you really suffer in silence any punishment that your country gives you? Or may you speak out but if you can't convince your countrymen then you should simply drop the matter? That doesn't seem right to me.
I didn't mention this in the earlier piece but Socrates is certainly getting a raw deal here. He shouldn't be put to death for speaking his mind, even to young and impressionable youth. This is so far outside of our modern mindset as to be incomprehensible today. The sentence handed to Socrates is obviously unjust.
This was double striking to me because I've been reading a bit of Hugo's 'Les Miserables' lately. As we meet Jean Valjean we learn about his time in prison, specifically why he served as long as he did:
Towards the end of this fourth year Jean Valjean's turn to escape arrived. His comrades assisted him, as is the custom in that sad place. He escaped. He wandered for two days in the fields at liberty, if being at liberty is to be hunted, to turn the head every instant, to quake at the slightest noise, to be afraid of everything,--of a smoking roof, of a passing man, of a barking dog, of a galloping horse, of a striking clock, of the day because one can see, of the night because one cannot see, of the highway, of the path, of a bush, of sleep. On the evening of the second day he was captured. He had neither eaten nor slept for thirty-six hours. The maritime tribunal condemned him, for this crime, to a prolongation of his term for three years, which made eight years. In the sixth year his turn to escape occurred again; he availed himself of it, but could not accomplish his flight fully. He was missing at roll-call. The cannon were fired, and at night the patrol found him hidden under the keel of a vessel in process of construction; he resisted the galley guards who seized him. Escape and rebellion. This case, provided for by a special code, was punished by an addition of five years, two of them in the double chain. Thirteen years. In the tenth year his turn came round again; he again profited by it; he succeeded no better. Three years for this fresh attempt. Sixteen years. Finally, I think it was during his thirteenth year, he made a last attempt, and only succeeded in getting retaken at the end of four hours of absence. Three years for those four hours. Nineteen years. In October, 1815, he was released; he had entered there in 1796, for having broken a pane of glass and taken a loaf of bread.

This was a man who committed the true crime of theft. Was he committing an injustice to the state when he tried to escape time and again? Or was the sentence so out of step with the actual crime that escape was justified? This is an easy call for me.


  1. While your libertarian streak caused you some heartburn with Crito, the political scientist in me found it refreshing to read support for the idea of a social contract and the individual's obligation to the community. If you enjoy the rights and benefits of the state, you should accept being subject to it. It does seem obvious in Apology that Socrates accusers were unjust and using their social status to deliver a deathblow (literally) to their gadfly. But I think in Crito, Socrates points out that it isn't the motivations but the institutions that are preeminent. My favorite phrase in the whole essay is "do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and trampled upon by individuals?" I have had business and government experiences in foreign countries that are weaker because the laws are selectively administered based on social status, rank, or relationships. Granted, the great majority of the weakening of the state and its institutions are by the bad guys and not the innocent Socrateses, but Socrates' point is the same nonetheless.

    I also like Crito because it includes themes such as the social contract and Kant's imperative (which if I am thinking about correctly, Socrates refusal to evade his sentence would fall under Kant's imperative) over a 1,000 years before they are more fully developed by the writers who we attribute these ideas creation to.

    1. I totally get the respect for the social contract there. And I'll agree that is refreshing. And you've got a great point about selective punishment and how that weakens the overall structure.
      But what do you do about an unjust sentence then?
      I'll admit that I don't have the answer here. There may be no perfect answer and the danger of deciding case by case let's the selective tiger out of the cage. But I can't really dismiss the prospects of civil disobedience or jury nullification and other measures that try to correct injustice from the state.
      I wonder what our positions will be on these matters ten years from now :)