An Introduction To The Politics of Philosophy: On Plato’s Crito, 43a-44b

I am not using the Greek, nor am I looking at Plato’s Euthydemus, where Crito is a major figure. The purpose of this series of entries is to make good on obligations, and provide a brief sketch from which the thoughtful reader can explore more on his own.

If you want to follow along, the Crito is not a long dialogue – it’s about 10 pages – and I’m summarizing as I comment. The dialogue occurs between the time Socrates has been found guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth (Apology), and is about to be put to death (Phaedo). Here’s a link to the translation alongside the Greek.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

1. 43a: Socrates wonders what Crito is doing in his cell at such an early hour. It’s almost a polite way of saying “Why on earth are you here?” Crito doesn’t help his case by admitting the time is “just before dawn,” nor by saying that he’s been watching Socrates sleeping.

Neither of those issues – Crito’s earliness or strange attentiveness – are the main issue of this dialogue, though. They’re not irrelevant, but the real issue is what Crito did to get in the cell: he bribed/blackmailed a guard in some way (h/t Steve Thomason). It is that violation of the law, for an ostensibly just purpose, that is Socrates’ and our concern.

2. 43b: Crito says he’s sleepless and depressed, and that he enjoys wondering about Socrates, who seems to be taking his present misfortune rather calmly. Socrates is in a most “pleasant” state, and this is perhaps the clue to Crito’s character we need.

Some men are motivated by beauty, others by justice, still others by the truth. But what if someone just wants to get by and not be miserable? What if someone wants the security afforded by the modern state only – an avoidance of pain more than anything else, the feeling that one is doing one’s best within limits? In striving for beauty, or justice, or the Good one typically ends up challenging any number of norms. The teaching Socrates ultimately pushes on Crito, however, is “Obey the law no matter what.”

3. 43b-c: Socrates says it would be weird if he were scared of death at his age; Crito responds that lots of old men would gripe in Socrates’ position. We have to wonder, now that Socrates has wondered at Crito in his chamber, and Crito has wondered about Socrates sleeping pleasantly – why is Crito more seemingly attuned to the problem of injustice than Socrates himself?

4. 43c: Crito tells Socrates that the ship whose arrival ends a religious holiday allowing Socrates to be put to death will arrive that day. While saying this, he makes it sound like HIS grief matters more than anything Socrates might be considering.

Anyone who has parents is familiar with the character of Crito. It’s not that our parents don’t love us. It’s that love of one’s own, when coupled with a “I don’t ask for much, I just want to get by” attitude doesn’t really take into account how others feel. It takes into account how oneself feels, and then projects “the best” from there. There is an enormous self-centeredness in asking for less, in appearing to be generous in this way. No matter how much one gives, no matter how little one asks for, security is the one thing that can never be guaranteed. The world is characterized by failure and death. Hence the modern state does not hesitate in advancing the sciences, so both of those problems can be eliminated as soon as possible. Platonic/Aristotlean thought is characterized by moderation, which is intimately tied with virtue and self-knowledge: the idea is to make the most out of the finite without making insatiable demands.

5. 44a-b: Socrates claims he had a dream while Crito was watching him. In the dream a beautiful woman in white robes said he would go to the “pleasant land of Phthia” on the third day. He says that this means Crito is wrong, that the ship won’t land today and Socrates will be executed tomorrow, but that the ship will take one more day and Socrates will be executed the next. He insists to Crito this dream makes perfect sense.

Why does it make “perfect sense?” Consider what we’ve been toying with – what Crito’s character may be, why exactly he should obey the law given his character and how he can be exhorted to. The woman talks about pleasantness, something that Crito has mentioned before. She references Illiad 9:636, where Achilles professes a longing to be rid of the Acheans and the injustice towards him they represent and go to Phthia, where he has stuff already.

The key is that while Socrates doesn’t persuade Crito, he is making an appeal to piety here – he’s implicitly saying his calm comes from the gods. Now he knows this is not going to persuade: he’s been with Crito enough to know how practical Crito is, and heck, Crito has laid out an eminently practical argument for watching Socrates sleep. Can someone be happy with their lot in this life, and leave it at that?

The thing is, Crito professed an admiration for such, but he’s sleepless and mopey himself. Does he really have the character to be beyond the superstitious piety Socrates has raised?

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