An Introduction to the Politics of Philosophy, Part Final: On Plato’s Crito, The Personification of the Laws, 50a onward

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

50a-b: Socrates tells Crito to suppose the “Laws and communal interest of Athens” were to confront him, and ask him whether he would deny that he is injuring the Laws and the City if he attempted to escape.

Now we noted that from 48b-50a, Socrates conflated injustice with injury purposely – he said it is wrong to injure anyone for any reason, since all injuries are injustices. He got Crito to agree to this logic and its consequences. From there, the word “injustice” dropped out entirely out of Socrates’ statements – Socrates argues that he is injuring the city only: that is the true argument Crito is assenting to. Whether or not Socrates is committing an injustice depends on whether you think all injuries are unjust or not.

So at this point Socrates is personifying the city to show that yes, the City is a person like you or me who could be hurt or killed. This move hearkens back to the beginning, somewhere around 44b, when Socrates described his dream. Perhaps the Laws and communal interest are a beautiful woman dressed in white, arguing that Socrates’ private interest could nullify and destroy her, the public interest of Athens.

What it takes to make this argument is an explicit identification of the public with the divine. This will not hold if the divine and the public are at odds about what is just, hence, 50c: Is the City not guilty of an injustice, as it gave a “faulty judgment” at the trial?

50c-51c: The Laws of the City argue that Socrates is bound completely to its judgments because:

  1. The Laws gave Socrates life, as they married his father and mother.
  2. The Laws gave Socrates an education in “music and gymnastics.”

This creates a hierarchy that Socrates is bound to (50e). All his ancestors and him are bound to the Laws because they were born and brought up through it. They are all “children and slaves” of the Laws. Socrates has no “equality of rights” with his father, why would he imagine he has any with the Laws?

Since Socrates is “the true devotee of goodness,” he should recognize that the Laws are “more precious, more venerable, more sacred, and held in greater honor among both gods and among reasonable men” (51a-b), and quit trying to “destroy [his] country and…its Laws” just because they’re trying to put him to death (51a). The anger of his country is greater than his father’s anger, and Socrates is therefore bound to “respect and placate” it (51b). Persuasion is Socrates’ only recourse, and obedience is necessitated in all other cases: after all, it is just to go to war with one’s country. Anything else Socrates attempts, it is implied, is violence against his country.

If you have a suspicion that you have heard these arguments before, you have. The opening salvo of the Laws about bringing children into the world and rearing them echoes Crito before. Like Crito’s argumentation, Socrates is accused of being unjust, except this time the issue is not his having kids. Rather, the issue is his own existence. His very existence is unjust as he owes the Laws for it, but since a part of existing is wanting to exist even when confronted with death, he is in tension with the Law.

Because Socrates wants to live rather than obey, he is inherently not good and therefore misunderstanding his own quest for goodness – again, see the comparison with Crito’s rhetoric in Part 3 of this commentary. This time, though, instead of being accused of betraying his friends for the sake of his enemies’ wishes, he is being accused of betraying the Law for the sake of self-interest. The general charge is that he does not recognize who has genuine authority.

Finally, Socrates’ inability to persuade mirrors the dishonor he caused his friends before: going to court, making that awful defence, and then not being willing to escape. Whereas in “war and in lawcourts,” if you do what your country says, you’re fine, right?

Socrates is forcing us to see beyond Crito’s emotional state, and ask where his logic is really coming from. The truth is that public opinion both supports the bully that is the Laws of the City and Crito’s gushier argumentation (“we can get you out at no cost! That must be just!”). Is this a public opinion that is open to persuasion?

The darker teaching is readily apparent: public opinion is as good as divinity in the majority of cases. This explicit contradiction can be ignored by many – like Crito – and yet their lives can still said to be “just” in the sense of “justice is avoiding knowingly doing injury.”

51c-end: The Laws argue that once any Athenian citizen is fully grown, he can leave the city if he so chooses and go anywhere. The argument is completely disingenuous: if that’s true, how come ostracism for the most prominent Athenians is a punishment? Plenty of great Athenians – Themistocles, Aristides, Thucydides, etc. were forced into exile and got better positions working with other countries. Somehow, they weren’t really happy about this and a few tried to destroy Athens. Furthermore, how Athens treated her colonies in the latter half of the Pelopennesian War, i.e. completely enslaving them, is not some small point that the Laws can argue away.

The Laws say that leaving the city is OK, but then at 51e say that because the city brought people into this world, raised them, and then got them to pledge obedience (which they did, by staying; yes, Locke’s argument about consent is vulnerable to everything we’re discussing), it can do whatever it likes in terms of the administration of justice if one wishes to stick around. The contradiction is that open and bizarre. It does appeal to its “mildness” – it does not issue “savage commands,” and does allow one to persuade if he feels something is unjust. But I think that same description can be used of Oedipus’ rule, which was absolutely a tyranny. Tieresias got his attempt to persuade Oedipus, after all.

At 52b, Socrates describes his own emotions towards Athens, and puts them in the Laws’ mouth to indict himself. He says he stayed in Athens, and lets the Laws assume that meant Athens was pleasing to him – he never attended a festival (except for the one trip that resulted in the Republic, where Socrates convinces Glaucon to not be a tyrant), he only went out on a military expedition (see the Laches for the story of Socrates’ bravery in combat), and he has never “felt the impulse to acquaint [himself] with another country or other laws” (this the Laws is assuming. What are the laws of the heavens?). Socrates has raised children in Athens, the Laws say, and he chose not to be exiled when punishment was offered. Therefore, Socrates is a slave if he tries to break the “contract” the City made with him and he “agreed” to.

At this point in the argument, obviously, Socrates is making it very clear when a city is wholly unjust, when its argument is based on nothing more than having power and being fearful. What is the City fearful of?

At 53a, the Laws assert that Socrates thinks that Sparta and Crete are his favorite models of good government. See Plato’s Laws – set after this dialogue – for a complete trashing of that claim. See also criticism of Sparta in the Laches (Nicias, according to Strauss, is Thucydides’ Spartan in Athens), the equation of Sparta and Persia in Alcibiades 1, the thorough and complete ridiculousness of the guardian class in the Republic, the class that most resembles Spartiates. The list goes on. Liking one aspect of Sparta does not make one a Spartan, and the only aspect of Sparta Socrates likes, perhaps, is the “moderation” inasmuch as it is conducive to peace. Sparta’s warlike ways are in no way a model for emulation.

From 53b-54d, the Laws outline all the bad things that will happen to Socrates’ friends if he tries to escape – they can be banished (wait a second. I thought that wasn’t so bad?) or have their property confiscated (the Laws argue earlier that they usually don’t mess with people’s property. Funny, that). Socrates’ own credibility will be hurt in other countries, and he’ll look to them a danger to their Laws. If Socrates talks about goodness and justice, no one will take him seriously, because a reactionary Athens that lost a war and has a mob mentality clearly has Laws that demand respect under any and all conditions. He will not be able to raise children, even, in all the lawless places he could escape to. The Laws, from 53d-54d, assume they are superior to the Laws of every other country and that Socrates’ power to persuade others is just as terrible outside of Athens as it is in Athens. Their argument is weakest at its conclusion, that the next life will see Socrates as having done an injustice for leaving a clearly unjust Athens.

And yet, this argument persuades Crito to at least be silent. This is why there is a distinction between courage and philosophic courage. Crito has the former but none of the latter: if Socrates does escape with Crito’s help, it is because Crito really is a very good man despite his utter lack of wisdom. It is what is not spoken in this dialogue, as we have seen, that matters most. The divine can give sanction to just laws, not necessarily every instantiation of the law. And the divine can work in unexpected and marvelous ways, even as tragedy unfolds before us, to make sure our efforts are not in vain.

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