An Introduction to the Politics of Philosophy, Part 4: On Plato’s Crito, 46b-47a

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46b: Socrates begins questioning Crito’s argumentation with a declaration. If Crito’s enthusiasm is right and proper, it is a good thing. If not, the stronger the enthusiasm is, the more of a problem it is. The declaration is simply that Crito needs guidance if he has gone astray, as he cannot be trusted to correct himself. Crito himself has led Socrates to this conclusion, as Crito is wholly subordinate to public opinion at key points.

Is fraternal love, or even paternal love, usually dependent on public opinion? And is that a bad thing? Machiavelli will say in The Prince that a Prince can injure other members of a man’s family without regret, but he will pay dearly if he starts messing with people’s property. Our sense of “our own” is conditioned by what we are told can belong exclusively to us, and for many, “our own” is the precondition to love: i.e., what Crito wants is that sense of peace that he sees as exclusively belonging to Socrates. Aristotle will talk about the truest ground for friendship being the pursuit of virtue, and given the moderation inherent in virtue itself, we must wonder if possessiveness has dropped out of love somewhat when one is not being told how one can love, but is instead discovering with another the best way to love.

Socrates emphasizes the difference between the way he thinks and the way Crito thinks as follows: he will not merely take an argument from a friend just because a friend is speaking, but will only accept the argument that is best on reflection. In other words: even if the whole public were Socrates’ best friend, he wouldn’t listen to them unless what they said was true on reflection.

46c: Socrates emphasizes the difference between what Crito and he values when he lists the danger the power of the people can pose: he gives a threefold list of “chains, executions, and confiscations of our property.” It is quite obvious that Socrates has been chained up and is going to be executed, and that neither of these things has happened to Crito. The “confiscation of our property” is posed as the worst thing in the list – the literal final element – and it would only scare one person, who has brought it up repeatedly since the dialogue’s beginning.

46c-47a: Crito’s case rests upon how seriously one wants to take public opinion. Does it inform all sense of value? To that end, Socrates proposes that they investigate the authority of public opinion. He starts by asking “Should some opinions be taken seriously, but not others?” The question seems too general, since we can intuit that sometimes the public is wiser and at other times not-so-wise. But notice: if we make that move, we’re saying public opinion is fallible, and that there are more expert guides depending on the topic.

So Crito’s opinions actually rest on a rather narrow argument, that the public is always right. What’s interesting is that Socrates moves away immediately from this argument – he cites the fact he’s going to die at the hands of the public as the reproof. Implicitly he is saying “let the public have whatever it considers justice.”

Socrates instead moves to the topic of why it is we value some opinions, and not others. In going to the more specific line of argumentation, he’s moving away from the public to himself: if there is something he is expert in, he will show up as the authority unequivocally.

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