An Introduction to the Politics of Philosophy, Part 5: On Plato’s Crito, 47a-50a

So far in this commentary we have covered the opening of the Crito and all of Crito’s arguments for why Socrates’ choosing to face execution is “unjust.” We are now in the midst of Socrates’ investigation with Crito into the truth of the matter. I want this commentary to end in the next post I make on this, so all of 47a-50a will be commented on here with far less summary than before. Please read over those 3-4 pages before reading this. I am using the Tredennick/Tarrant translation, it’s nothing special – just a book I had lying around.

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

47a-c: Socrates says some arguments are sound, others flawed. He then brings up the issue of physical training, and whether one listens to anyone on the subject, or a doctor or trainer. Criticism and praise from the qualified person is to be taken seriously, and there will be regulation of “actions, exercises, eating and drinking.” Disobeying the one who knows for the many who don’t will result in harm to the body.

What is crucial is that Socrates isn’t holding “truth itself” to be what the person training obeys. It is quite conceivable one of the many might be right about a fitness issue, and a trainer might be wrong. When we realize that what the trainer or doctor counsels is a sort of moderation, we realize something about the law: inexpert promulgation of the law by experts can still make men moderate and prevent harm in the majority of cases. One doesn’t need truth as much as true opinion in order to make things work well, and true opinion is less about the truth itself and more about authority.

47d-48b: Socrates says that the logic employed about the body might be a general rule, applying to issues of “just and unjust, honorable and dishonorable, good and bad.” He asks if he and Crito should be “guided and intimidated” by the the many or the one, “assuming that there is someone with expert knowledge.” “Respect and fear” of the one will prevent damage to that “improved by just conduct and ruined by unjust.” Socrates does not mention the word soul, not even when he says the body, “improved by healthy actions and ruined by unhealthy ones,” can be wrecked such that life is not worth living, and this is the same as the part “impaired by unjust actions and benefited by just ones” – without that part, which is more important than the body, life is not worth living.

Socrates goes on to say there is an expert in justice and injustice, “the single authority and with him the truth itself.” This means popular opinion about what is just, honorable and good can be irrelevant, despite the people’s power to put others to death. The issue is not life, but living well.

Please note the divergence of body and that “part” which concerns justice/injustice: one is more important than the other, far more important. With that divergence in mind, we see that the “just” isn’t the “good,” and that “honor” might be the meeting ground between the two. This doesn’t mean that justice isn’t good – it is wholly good, since it is a part of the good. The one who knows the truth of everything knows justice/injustice wholly.

The question is: if not everyone is an expert in justice, then what are the grounds for an inexpert being just? Back when the issue was training, utility could be appealed to: “Do this, it’ll make your body better, or at the very least help you avoid harm.” Now that the topic is justice, honor is what is appealed to: “living well” means putting yourself in a position where public opinion will either respect you, or be of so little account that it will be held shameful by others – either those who know or the ages to come.

I want to state the obvious at this point: politics is the meeting ground of the few, the balance between one and many, and therefore where philosophy and necessity meet. Modern philosophy, in trying to deduce what is ethical without political considerations, is doing something rather peculiar: it is either wholly beholden to politics (and some very vicious academic infighting), or resides on a plane where it creates completely artificial objects and rules a world where it is supreme and unchallenged. Also, a political science that thinks itself separate from philosophy is condemned to be democratic in the worst way – it will justify putting people to death, just because.

48b-50a: After having brought up the distinction of expert/inexpert via body, and the distinction of living well/living via soul, Socrates moves to his own case. He states the public think nothing of putting people to death, and would bring them back to life if they could. He does not say who the one who knows what is just is, but moves back to the question of whether he should be just towards those trying to rescue him, or whether he is committing an injustice trying to escape.

Socrates then grills Crito, because he wants to secure Crito’s approval for his course of action completely. He makes Crito say that in no circumstances one must do any wrong. “Injustice is in every case bad and dishonorable for the person who does it.” No must even return an injustice, if it is done to them. An injury is an injustice, too, and cannot be returned no matter what the provocation. Since one must fulfill all agreements made, one must persuade the city (polis) to let Socrates go,or else one is causing an injury to the city. Crito does not concede the argument to Socrates; asked to approve all this, he states “he is not clear in his mind.”

How peculiar the lines around 50a are! Socrates does not mention that he is doing the city an injustice by escaping, not at all! He uses the injury (bodily)/injustice conflation in his argument before to say he is doing an injury to the city if he leaves, an injury caused by agreements he (purportedly) has already made.

Poor Crito is crying his eyes out at this point while we puzzle. The appeal to Crito to obey the laws is made by moving from justice to honor, but in the background is power over life and death, obligations and injuries. How does life/death move to obligation/injury? The political (society is smaller than this) changes the way an individual views even the most basic categories – we have discussed in more recent entries death as a metaphor for failure, perhaps injury. But tying life and obligation together? Man as a learning animal is what one is when one is expert; “obligation” is a lower category, and we have to wonder why Socrates is being so cruel to Crito in a way, given that Crito really does mean well, and we do many stupid things in our own lives purposely for the sake of friendship.


  1. Hmmm… Well the obvious distinction between justice and “good and bad” is that “might makes right” in concrete terms. The death of Socrates was a foregone necessity for Athenian society. Stability demands sacrifice.

  2. @ Daniel: Thanks for the comment. I’m not clear exactly how “might makes right” explains how justice is separable from what is good (or even what is bad), but I’ll work on it.

    How did you find this blog, btw?

  3. Pascal:

    “Justice is subject to dispute; might is easily recognized and is not disputed. Thus it is not possible to attribute might to justice, because might has often contradicted justice, and said that it itself was just. And thus not being able to make what was just strong, what was strong has been made just.”


    “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun.”

    Marx, Gramsci and Foucault went into this I guess, though I aint familiar with the last two.

    I think I found your blog looking for fellow Nietzsche fans.

  4. I understand the might/just distinction and interplay. But you said this has some bearing on good/bad, and I’m not clear on that.

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