An Introduction to the Politics of Philosophy, Part 2: Plato’s Crito, 44c – 45b

See Part 1 for a brief introduction to this guide, and a link to the original text.

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

6. 44c: Crito implores Socrates to escape and not accept death. Socrates’ death would mean Crito loses a friend, but also that total strangers would hold Crito in disrepute for not spending the money to get Socrates out. From the Tredennick/Tarrant translation:

“What could be more shameful than to get a name for thinking more of money than of your friends? Most people will never believe that it was you who refused to leave this place when we tried our hardest to persuade you.”

This is the first set of arguments Crito deploys. In it, money is clearly subordinate to shame – honor matters most, public opinion matters. However, notice how close money is to actually being the sum total of the argument. If Crito didn’t have money to get Socrates out, and Socrates needed to get out, would public opinion excuse Crito? On this argument, the answer is “yes.”

Now Crito’s not some bad guy. Think of your parents here. He’s eminently practical: Why can’t love and security reconcile nicely and neatly? So much of life goes on without an overt conflict between the two, after all. “Money,” as a convention exchanged for other things conventionally good, hides the philosophic problem. It obscures all the evils that men did to found society in the first place, all the evils that go into production whether out of necessity or accident.

7. 44c: Socrates denies that Crito should pay attention to popular opinion. Given that laws both shape and depend on popular opinion, we have to wonder in what sense Socrates will eventually exhort Crito to obey the law. Socrates goes on to say that there are people who will see exactly that things played out the way they should have, and their opinion is more worthy.

8. 44d: Crito responds that Socrates can see for himself why popular opinion must be accounted for – he has unleashed the unlimited wrath of the mob, no?

Socrates responds that if the mob has an unlimited capacity for doing harm, they must have an unlimited capacity for doing good. They have neither: “They cannot make a man wise or foolish, they achieve whatever luck would have it.” The power of the mob is ultimately not educative or definitive: we have to wonder what Nietzsche and Tocqueville really have in mind when they worry about Last Men or the Tyranny of the Majority. In what way can popular opinion truly affect the soul, or is Socrates being glib?

9. 44e – 45a: Crito’s second set of arguments drops the linkage between honor and public opinion that is inherent in the idea of money. C’mon, admit it – you like thinking about rich people, we all do. I’m watching E! right now, in fact. No matter what the risk is, he and Socrates’ friends are willing to take it. This is a genuinely moral position, and notice Socrates’ response – he doesn’t dismiss the logic. (That an enormous amount of injustices are cited in helping Socrates escape we will get to later, I hope.)

In fact, if the Laws is set beyond the “death” of Socrates, and we consider that Aristotle consistently refers to the “Athenian Stranger” in the Laws as Socrates, one has to wonder if Socrates got away precisely because this argument does work. Strauss has noted that the Laws, much like this dialogue, is “sub-Socratic.” The exhortation to obey the law, a working through of proper laws that can last, is nothing like the life of reason or debates about the nature of eros. The aim here and in the Laws is practical; in other dialogues, the aim is theoretical, emphasis on “theo” – the issue is correct speech about what is divine.

10. 45a-b: Crito further exhorts Socrates, saying he shouldn’t be afraid (!). But now he backs off the moral absolutism – “we want to rescue you no matter what” – and starts listing practical details. Informers are cheap to buy off; we can arrange to get you a good sum of money, from fellow Athenians and foreigners who like you; the people who do want to “rescue” you aren’t asking for much. All you need to do is drop the argument that you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if you left the country (!), the one you mentioned in your public defense (Apology), and go to another country where you can be protected and taken care of.

In Thucydides, great men of Athens are routinely forced into exile – witness Demosthenes, Alcibiades, and Thucydides himself. In a deep sense, that’s the price for adeptness at political life: if the common man (idiotes) could understand the demos, he wouldn’t be a common man. Later on in the Crito, we’ll confront the personification of the Laws of Athens, and I submit that personification will make one argument – only one – that we can take seriously: that a philosopher cannot leave his home. This is a cryptic and difficult point, and I don’t understand it much myself.

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