RETHINKING PLATO'S CRITO
Joel Warren Lidz, Ph.D.
Note: Greek characters have been omitted.
"whoever places a friend above the good
of his own country, he is nothing."
Creon in Sophocles, Antigone
At Theaetetus 161a, Socrates says to Theodorus: "You are truly (or "artlessly") a lover of argument and a fine fellow, Theodorus, the way you take me so facilely for a sack full of arguments ... "(1) This statement should serve to remind us that it was not Socrates' mission to formulate and posit doctrines in that manner which has come to dominate the (professionalized) Western academic tradition. Of the influences on Plato, that of the playwrights seems to be the most profound, as drama - "that stately and marvelous creature" (Gorgias 502a) - is the medium best suited to grasp the totality of human experience.(2) Dramatic encounter between individuals of diverse demeanor provides the matrix within which the speech of the dialogues takes place. This means (inter alia) that the choice of characters is to be regarded as an integral part of the setting, the dramatis personae being, that is to say, more than mere placeholders.
Most English-speaking commentators, however, focus upon the dialogues' propositions and their truth-values by means of what I prefer to call the "jigsaw" method. That is, they treat the dialogues' propositions as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which need to find their proper place in relation to one another such that an intelligible - and presumably logically defensible - whole might thereby be revealed.(3) By contrast, I will proceed on the assumption that Plato did not write with the intention that his dialogues should serve as translucent windows to the contents of his mind. Rather, the dialogues are mimetic, multi-layered presentations which aim at educing and to some extent, guiding, thought: the dialectician "plants and sows in a receptive mind considered thoughts ... which yield seed from which there spring up in other [minds] other [thoughts]" (Phaedrus 277a). Nota bene: the dialectician expects the seeds he plants to produce "other thoughts," not to reproduce his own.
The discursive content of the dialogues, unlike that of a treatise, typically occurs within a lived, narrative context in which the dramatis personae speak spontaneously. Moreover, most of the dialogues are named for a person, not a subject matter, so it might not be unreasonable to entertain the notion that, more than arguments per se, the dialogues are intended to reveal something about the title characters. Plato's characters, as Harry Berger has said, should be considered something to look at and not through.(4) That they have been looked through, i.e., treated as nothing but vehicles for the conveyance of ideas from one mind to another, is consistent with the downplaying of rhetoric in modern philosophy. Indeed, a fundamental failure on the part of most commentators is that of not recognizing the place of rhetoric (not to mention humor) in the dialogues.
Socrates' Delphic mission was to improve the souls of his fellow Athenians, setting an example for others (Apo. 23a) by helping them to examine their beliefs - in the present case, Crito's unquestioned belief that it would be just for Socrates to escape - without regard to any dangers to his own life (Apo. 28b-d). Thus I propose to read the Crito on the assumption that it is less concerned with what Socrates should do about escaping than with what he should do about the philosophical shortcomings of an old and dear - but intellectually unsophisticated - friend. Given his mission, Socrates' decision as to what he should do must be made in the light of what that decision will mean to Crito and the Athenians in general.
Like most commentaries, Richard Kraut's Socrates and the State, the lengthiest monograph on the Crito in English, proceeds on the assumption that: "What we find in the Crito is the legal philosophy of Socrates...."(5) Kraut's attempt to discern Plato's doctrine proceeds by an examination of alternative readings of the speech of the personified Laws, presumably because of his belief that that speech "forms the philosophical heart of the dialogue,"(6) though I would suggest that the speech of the Laws is so regarded by him only because of unexamined, historically conditioned presuppositions about what it is to philosophize, and thus what counts as genuine philosophy - presuppositions which would, in turn, influence what Kraut would expect Plato to be doing in his works.(7) Moreover, what one regards as an issue worthy of being addressed will reflect one's own biases as to the proper parameters of philosophical inquiry, parameters which I construe as liberally as I am able so as not to prejudge Plato's intent.
Whereas Kraut focuses exclusively on the propositional content of the dialogue, I regard it as centrally important that the Crito is not a dialogue between any two de-individualized persons - not a medium whereby Plato addresses us directly, but a medium whereby he depicts a certain philosopher in discussion with a certain non-philosopher.(8) In this way, not only what is said is placed at issue, but also the nature and effects of dialogue, and the character of various sorts of interlocutors. We ought therefore reflect not merely on what Socrates says, but also on why he says what he does, when he does, to whom he does.(9) As Peter Euben explains: "Socrates must respond not only to Crito's arguments but also to his impatience with argument. He must deal with his friend's practicality, depth of caring, and moral confusion. And he must do so without forcing Crito into false agreements or bad faith. Finally, he needs to keep Crito from disobeying the laws, and buying justice where justice by law has, in Crito's opinion, failed."(10)
In sum, we should not expect a dialogue between Socrates and Crito to shape up in the way one between Kraut and Quine would, as rhetoric - the purpose of which is "to implant the conviction or virtue which you desire, by the right application of words and training" (Phaedrus 270b) - is an integral element of the Crito. Euben reminds us that: "many analyses of the Crito and Apology [are] in danger of being ahistorical in the sense of assuming that Socrates' arguments are intended to 'convince any rational man at any time and in any place',"(11) while according to Richard McNeal, the "overriding concern" of modern commentators: "is with logic, in particular, analytic logic, and the demonstration of what is presumed to be the logical argument of the dialogue. The modern age is unsympathetic to rhetoric, which was anciently known as dialectic, or argument from opinion.... In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the rhetorical side of Plato, when it is not actually denied, is just ignored."(12) If (as I believe to be the case) the arguments of the Laws are intended as rhetoric, then the propositional content of the dialogue must be assessed differently than would be the case were the arguments meant as logical discourse simpliciter. Rhetoric is indispensable to philosophical instruction because an intellectual and moral hierarchy of individuals is a fact of life. The liberal-egalitarian notion that all have a moral obligation to say the same to all is alien to Plato.(13)
If Plato's purpose in the Crito is not that of presenting a theory of law, but rather that of depicting the reformation of Crito's character by means of philosophical rhetoric, then the proper standard for judging Socrates' speech should be, not its degree of logical consistency, but the degree to which it edifies the individual, Crito, in a manner well-suited to Crito's character. Crito, of course, cannot help but represent a human type, and the primary issue at hand is (as in any literary work) the development of the character(s), those deeds which the dramatis personae perform and undergo, and the consequences thereof for themselves and others.
Clearly, what one regards as an issue worthy of being addressed will reflect one's own biases as to the proper parameters of philosophical inquiry, and one's presuppositions concerning how the dialogues are to be read will influence how one identifies a dialogue's subject matter. For Kraut: "The Laws [of the Crito] are trying to reconcile two antagonistic ideas: (a) citizens owe a certain form of loyalty to the state, and without such loyalty the state cannot survive; (b) there is a moral standard by which a city is to be judged, and when it fails to meet that standard, the citizen must disobey."(14) In my view, by contrast, the tension which animates the Crito flows not (as Kraut would have it) from the tension between the abstract principles of loyalty to state vs. loyalty to moral standards, but from Socrates' three competing commitments to, on the one hand, the best logos (46b), to Crito (committed to the preservation of his reputation and of Socrates' life), and to the city (committed to its own preservation). Each of these commitments would seem to possess some measure of legitimacy, and so the issue becomes how to balance them.
Like most Platonic dialogues, the Crito is named after a person, and it thus seems reasonable to assume that the primary focus of this dialogue is the person, Crito, his character and Sitz im Leben.(15) We learn from the dialogue at least two important things about Crito, which would surely influence Socrates' relation with him: He has not considered the implications of lawbreaking, and he is unwilling or unable to question arguments which are obviously and radically incomplete. Kraut aptly describes Crito as "a less than brilliant conformist whose devotion to Socrates conflicts with his acceptance of traditional Greek values."(16)
As he often does, Socrates uses his own situation as a sort of case study whereby he can edify (and at times mollify) his interlocutor, here Crito. But Socrates must also bear in mind the effects of his actions on the thought of the general citizenry, to whom his Apollonian mission is dedicated; he remains, as it were, the embodied Form of the wisdom-lover, while all of his interlocutors appear by comparison to be in need of something he has found, though only some of those recognize their neediness and thus maintain a personal relation with Socrates in hope of satisfying those needs. To fulfill his mission of therapeia Socrates must be able to identify the needs of the other. Wherein lies Crito's need?
Crito is a lifelong friend of Socrates (Apo. 33b; Xenophon, Mem. 1.2, 48), despite which Crito (as we are soon to learn) has not internalized the Socratic ethic,(17) and time is now about to run out on their friendship. Whereas Crito seeks to insure Socrates' bodily freedom, Socrates wishes to free Crito's soul from the bonds of the Many's ideological tyranny.(18) Though one may possess the physical capacity to escape prison, there are other constraints - both logical and moral - from which one cannot escape, regardless of one's whereabouts. Ironically, in order to liberate Crito's soul, Socrates engages in the philosophical activity which imprisoned his body, and the result of this disobedience is Crito's admission that the law is not to be disobeyed. Socrates can no longer hope to effect a psychogagia, so he will instead remind Crito of certain principles - especially the (Hippocratic) principle to do no harm - to which he had in past discussions agreed, thereby enabling Socrates to have the personified Laws argue that for him to break the law by escaping would harm Athens and thus be unjust.(19)
Prologue (43a-c). As with many of Plato's dialogues, the Crito's dramatic setting symbolically reveals some of the work's themes. One such theme is the imprisonment of Socrates' body and of Crito's soul, the latter being largely subservient to popular morals, despite his attachment to Socrates. He is, as R.E. Allen says, "a good and decent man, speaking the language of popular morals; but popular morality was many things, not one, and in its incoherence combined surface decency with sinister depths."(20) It is because Crito shares the shame-oriented (heteronomous) morality of the Many that he is led to attempt the illegal freeing of Socrates.
Crito arrives early at Socrates' jail cell and resists the temptation to convey urgent bad news, thereby revealing the depth of his concern for his friend. Crito is surprised by Socrates' peace of mind, while Socrates is "surprised" (µ) that the guard permitted Crito entrance to the cell.(21) Crito offers two explanations for his admittance: first, the guard is "accustomed" to his presence, and the Greek term suggests also "common habits," which reminds us of how easily our habits prevent us from considering the rightness of what we do. Second, Crito says that the guard "has been done a good deed by me," which puts us in mind of the fact that both Crito and the guard act on the basis of debts due for services rendered, thus anticipating the later argument of the Laws, according to which the polis, by virtue of providing Socrates with various good things, has established an implicit reciprocal agreement with Socrates.(22)
Socrates' equanimity in the face of impending execution contrasts sharply with Crito's desperate attempts to convince Socrates to escape, which Socrates later suggests reflect fears comparable to those of children (46c), a comparison which would seem intended to capitalize on Crito's concern with his self-image. Socrates has knowingly jeopardized his life by virtue of his modus vivendi, and Crito seems not to understand that Socrates' situation is but the logical culmination of the tension between his commitment to a transcendent standard (viz., the best logos) and the city's commitment to an immanent one (viz., the law). Nor does Crito seem to appreciate the connection between Socrates' ability to cope so pacifically with his present "misfortune" (43c) and the way he has lived his life, which Crito describes as "of good fortune (eudaimonisa) throughout (43b)."
Socrates' Dream (44a-b). Crito informs Socrates that the ship from Sunium will be arriving, at which time the execution may be carried out. Socrates rejects this prediction on the grounds of a dream he had had, in which he "saw a gloriously beautiful woman dressed in white robes,(23) who came up to me and addressed me in these words: 'Socrates, to the pleasant land of Phthia on the third day thou shalt come'." This passage puts us in mind of the Iliad, wherein Achilles (whose home was Phthia) considers himself wronged and must choose what to do about it, thus paralleling Socrates' situation, in that Socrates too has been wronged and must consider what the appropriate response would be. Like Crito, Achilles is overcome with resentment and therefore retires from battle, at one point even disrespecting a god (Iliad 22: 15-20), much as Crito would have Socrates disrespect the verdict. Not until his friend Patroclus is killed does Achilles rejoin the battle. This too seems to parallel the Crito: Despite having been (forcibly) removed from Athenian society, Socrates renews his battle for the soul of his friend - not, like Achilles, for the sake of revenge, but more in the manner of what we might term "passive resistance." Unlike Achilles, Socrates does not allow resentment toward the injustice of his sentence to drive him from his post, i.e., his mission of educating his fellow Athenians, thus showing himself to be superior even to the archetypal heroism of Achilles. Socrates' dream serves not only to compare and contrast him with Achilles, but suggests that the dialogue is about contending ways of life: that of the Many, who act in habitual consonance with conventional morality (which is exemplified by their heroes) vs. that of the philosopher, who seeks to act in accordance with the best logos.
Crito Argues for Escape (44b-46a). Given that Socrates has made clear that he does not fear his imminent death, Crito presumably recognizes that any appeal to that fact would be to no avail, so he alludes instead to the losses he and others will suffer should Socrates choose to remain in prison. Crito gives the following reasons for escaping:
(C1) "I shall ... lose a friend whom I can never possibly replace."
(C2) "A great many people who don't know you and me very well will be sure to think that I let you down, because I could have saved you if I had been willing to spend the money. And what could be more contemptible 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 although we tried our hardest to persuade you.... I am ashamed, both on your account and on ours, your friends'. It will look as though we had played something like a coward's part.... Besides the suffering there will be all this disgrace for you and us to bear."
(C3) "I don't even feel that it is right for you to try to do what you are doing, throwing away your life when you might save it. You are doing your best to treat yourself in exactly the same way as your enemies would...."
(C4) "You are letting your sons down too. You have it in your power to finish their bringing-up and education."
Note Crito's concerns for himself (loss of a friend and loss of reputation) and for Socrates (loss of honor and shameful failure to accept filial obligations). Crito's speech is replete with the language of superficiality and shame: "people will think that," "contemptible," "reputation," "ashamed," "disgrace." Now if this harangue reveals anything, it reveals that Crito has little clue as to the nature of the man, Socrates. Crito has, like Athens, leveled a number of serious charges against Socrates, who must defend himself yet again. Most of Crito's charges have to do with helping friends or harming enemies, the conventional basis of Athenian morals.
Crito wants Socrates to "obey"(24) him because "the Many will not be persuaded" that he was unwilling to leave. This reference to obeying and persuading anticipates the later demand of the Laws that Socrates must either "persuade us or do [what we command]" (51e-52a). The main body of the Crito divides quite neatly into three parts, each of which presents an attempt at persuasion: (1) Crito seeks to persuade Socrates to escape by appealing to what friends owe friends and parents owe children. (2) Socrates seeks to persuade Crito to attend only to the best argument when considering what is to be done, appealing to (seemingly axiomatic) principles which the two men had accepted in earlier discussions.(25) (3) Finally, the Laws attempt to persuade Crito that escape would be wrong by appealing to what a citizen owes the fatherland (viz., respect and not harm, due to the benefits which it has conferred). So Crito and the Laws share an appeal to indebtedness in order to make their respective cases. But the indefeasibility of such indebtedness is precisely what is placed in question, as the fact that Crito's debt to friend and fatherland have come into direct conflict makes clear.
Since Crito exhibits greater concern for his own potential losses of his friend and reputation than he does for the law, one of Socrates' primary aims becomes that of persuading Crito of the importance of law vis-à-vis family and friends. (Of course, this is not the same as arguing that every law must be obeyed no matter what.) Like Antigone, Crito places filial obligations above obligations to the city. The Laws' arguments make use of Crito's emphasis on filial ties by inducing him to think of Athens in filial terms. Socrates too is like Antigone, in that he is bound ambiguously both to the city and to a higher order; and like the tragic heroine, Socrates chooses to die so as to do what divinity demands. However, Plato does not present Socrates' death as tragic, as Sophocles depicts that of Antigone, for Socrates will leave a legacy of others who will continue his work (Apo. 39d). Socrates does not die in vain.
In Crito's eyes the failure to act in such a way as to provide what one "owes" is thought to merit feelings of shame and thereby to suffer harm. Moreover, Crito attempts to persuade Socrates by inducing feelings of shame in him, appealing to what is - from the standpoint of his conventional morality - good for Crito himself. Crito's self-image is but a reflection of how others view him. By contrast, Socrates insists that the moral standards which elicit shame must be adopted autonomously.(26)
Crito feels that Socrates owes it to him as his friend to save himself, and thereby to act in such a manner as will save Crito's reputation. Thus, Crito seeks to save his reputation and Socrates' life, while Socrates seeks to save the true and the good. For Crito, the mere fact that the Many have the power to inflict (physical) harm is sufficient that one should act so as to preserve oneself, while for Socrates the best reasons may require that one place oneself in the way of physical harm (Apo. 28b). Socrates' task is, accordingly, to have Crito reconsider his view by having him reflect upon what it means to do harm. Socrates does this by drawing an analogy between the body and the soul, an analogy meant to suggest that only the few possess knowledge of what truly benefits and harms the soul, that part of ourselves most worthy of our concern. Socrates makes it clear that for him, doing good or harm has to do with effects upon the soul, not the body.
Socrates' Rejoinder to Crito (46b-50a). As is typical in Plato's dialogues, the issues to be discussed arise out of a concrete life-situation. In the present case, Crito claims that he and his companions would be just(ified) in attempting to rescue Socrates (45a). This is, of course, the fundamental premise of Crito's argument, which will shortly cue Socrates' discussion of the principles by which he has always lived and their application to the present situation. Socrates begins his response in typical style by saying that "we must examine" (, 46b) the issue of escape, and then faults Crito for tailoring his moral principles to suit the requirements of the moment. He further adopts Crito's tack of attempting to elicit shame by suggesting that as an adult, Crito should be ashamed of his childish fears. By impressing upon Crito that moral principles are not contingent upon favorable circumstances, Socrates reminds us that our principles are only as dependable as our courage. Ignoring (C1), Socrates posits the following principles (here paraphrased) to which he gains Crito's assent:
(S1) Why should we pay so much attention to what most people think? Only what the reasonable people think matters. It has always been my nature never to accept anything other than that argument which seems best according to reason. (This principle is of course meant to refocus Crito away from opinion and toward reasoned discussion.)
(S2) The really important thing is not to live, but to live well, which is to live honorably or rightly.
(S3) Living rightly means avoiding the doing of harm, even in return for harm done to oneself.
(S4) One ought to fulfill all one's agreements, provided that they are just. (This principle raises the question as to whether one need abide by an agreement one later determines to be unjust.(27) Obedience to agreements, in short, is in need of justification beyond merely having entered into them.)
Integrating these principles, Socrates then tells Crito to:
(S5) "Consider what follows. If we leave this place without first persuading the state to let us go, are we or are we not doing a harm to some - indeed to those whom it should least be done? Are we or are we not abiding by our agreements, whether they be just or not?"
Crito does not understand. Given Socrates' limited time and Crito's limited intellect, Socrates resorts to philosophical rhetoric, "the art to which we must assign the task of persuading the general mass of the population by telling them suitable stories rather than by giving them formal instruction" (Statesman 304c).(28) The suitable story which Socrates devises for Crito's sake is one in which Crito is visited and interrogated by the Laws personified. Especially significant here is the fact that Socrates has the Laws employ the rhetorical appeals earlier used by Crito, but in such a way that Crito is forced to consider the wider social implications of his exhortations to Socrates. Crito is now to be outdone by his own brand of rhetoric as employed by the imagined Laws to the city's (alleged) advantage.
The Laws Personified (50a-54d). Rather than arguing against escape in his own voice, Socrates personifies the Laws. "What if," he asks, "the Laws and the community of the city ( )(29) should come and stand before us who are about to run away, or whatever it should be called." According to Kraut, by personifying the Laws, Plato can thereby "represent the dialogue's political philosophy as the theory a city ought to propound to its citizens, and not merely as a theory Socrates proposes to Crito."(30) But the distinction between Socrates' voice and that of the Laws raises the question of whether his own (private) views coincide with those of the Laws. That Socrates ultimately acts in accordance with the Laws does not in itself show that he is in agreement with their arguments proscribing escape. And while it is true that the Laws are depicted as addressing Socrates, this is only because it is Socrates who is considering escape. Nonetheless, the speech of the Laws is made for Crito's benefit, which is why Socrates immediately asks Crito for his opinion of what the Laws have said.
The Laws' speech bears some similarity to the chorus in Greek plays, especially in the way in which the chorus was used in comedy. Indeed, the earliest function of the chorus was to play the role of an interlocutor for the actor present,(31) much as the Laws do here. Typically, the chorus represents the community's perspective, and such is also the case here in the Crito, wherein the Laws appear as if they had been listening all along and can no longer bear to remain silent in the face of Crito's arrogant disregard of them. They excoriate the two actors for even daring to consider violating the court's verdict.
Destruction of the City (50a-c). The Laws address Socrates: "What do you have in mind to do? By the deed that you are attempting, what do you think you are doing if not destroying us laws and the whole city, so far as you are able? Does it seem possible to you for a city to exist in which the judgments reached have no force and are annulled by private men?"(32) The Laws then (hyperbolically) suggest that were Socrates to escape, he would be destroying the law that gave authority to the courts.(33) Whereas Crito's main concern was for the harm his reputation and Socrates' life will suffer should he fail to assist Socrates in an escape attempt, the Laws shift to the city's perspective and its concern with actions on the part of citizens which (allegedly) harm it. In doing so, they seem to be instructing Crito on the importance and justification of law, but because they overlook the distinction between just and unjust laws, they fail to note that if everyone violated only laws which were truly unjust, then the city would not be destroyed. Socrates is trying to make Crito cognizant of the city's perspective by allowing the city to speak in its own behalf, thereby inducing Crito to consider that he has taken the city's laws too lightly. For the Laws, harm to the city results from disobedience to them, not from failure to abide by the best logos.
Now Socrates had earlier rejected the causing of harm as categorically wrong (49a-c) and argued that it consists in acts which "corrupt and maim that thing which ... becomes better by the just and is destroyed by the unjust" (47d), not in acts which destroy the laws or the city. For Socrates, one should act according to the best logos (46b), "upright opinions" (47a), the "one who knows" and truth (48a), and these may not harmonize with what the Laws demand. Moreover, it would seem that if no harm were to result from escape, then escape would not be wrong. While Socrates would presumably not suffer harm to his soul were he to escape, it would seem that the same need not be true for those Athenians (including Crito) to whom Socrates is the paradigmatically wise man - which is to say that while Socrates does what the best logos requires of him, many others simply do what he does - as interpreted by them.(34) As a lover of wisdom dedicated to the common weal, Socrates must consider not only what is good for himself and/or Crito, but also what is good for the Athenians in general.
In response to the Laws, Socrates notes that someone might claim that the city has done him an injustice, and Crito responds: "Yes, by Zeus!"(35) Socrates at once rejects this hypothetical suggestion by noting that the Laws might ask: "has this been agreed to by us and by you [viz., that verdicts can be rejected as unjust] or to abide by whatever verdicts the city reaches in trials?" That Socrates must represent Crito's position for him, and that the following deluge of rhetorical questions presented by the imaginary Laws goes unanswered by Crito, only serves to underline his lack of philosophical sophistication.
The Laws are correct in asserting that no agreement has been made to the effect that unjust verdicts may be disobeyed, but it is equally true that nowhere has it been shown that any agreement exists between Socrates and Athens, and Socrates has already implied that one is not obligated by unjust agreements. On the one hand, Socrates consistently rejects the judgment of the Many, saying that he attends only to that logos which seems best to him on reflection. Yet the verdict against Socrates reflected the judgment of the Many, and therefore in order to believe that the Laws present what Socrates believes, one must assume either that Socrates accepts the jury's verdict because it represents the best logos, or that Socrates is convinced to accept the verdict on other grounds.
The Laws' concern with the city's destruction competes with Crito's concern with having his reputation and friend destroyed; it would require little on Crito's part to see that the destruction of the entire city is a much graver matter. Whereas Crito spoke of the dangers of not escaping, the Laws counter with the dangers of doing so. Socrates next plays devil's advocate by posing a hypothetical rejoinder which accuses the Laws of injustice: "the state wronged me by passing a faulty judgment at my trial." Socrates probably does this not so much to anticipate an argument Crito might think of - he thinks of nearly none - but to add to Crito's certitude. Socrates makes the Laws ask: "Was there provision for this in the agreement between you and us, Socrates? Or did you undertake to abide by whatever judgments the state pronounced?" Never mind that this reference to an agreement comes out of nowhere - Crito has no questions.
Citizen as Offspring and Slave (50c-51c). Next the Laws appeal to Crito's sense of loyalty to family. As Crito reminded Socrates of his duty to his sons, so the Laws remind Crito of his duty to the fatherland, which it seems is the father of fatherhood itself. The Laws ask: "Did we not give you life in the first place? Was it not through us that your father married your mother and begot you? Tell us, have you any complaint against those of us laws that deal with marriage? What charge are you bringing against us and the city that you are trying to destroy us? Didn't we beget you? Do you blame the laws concerning marriage and education?"(36) The Laws go so far as to compare that harm to the harming of a parent, one of the most grievous acts imaginable to an Athenian, Oedipus' slaying of his father being the paradigm case.(37) But does the fact that the law accounts for the city's unity, the nurturing of Socrates, etc., provide sufficient warrant for its being obeyed? Might not laws provide such services even in the most unjust state? Moreover, Socrates had argued in the Apology that he is a great benefit to Athens; if that is so, then Athens presumably owes him a debt as well.
Next, the Laws ask: "Could you say that you are not ours, both our offspring and slave ( )?(38) If so, do you think that justice is equal for you and for us? Do you suppose it is just for you to do in return whatever we attempt to do to you?" Here the Laws attempt to shame Socrates into staying in prison, insinuating that escape would be a shamefully ungrateful act of hubris (insolence), while Crito, who shares their method of shaming others into submission, never challenges them. For Crito, Socrates ought to act in the light of what he owes his friends; he does not consider the possibility that justice might require that one give up something of great value, such as a friend. For the Laws, on the other hand, Socrates should act in the light of what he owes the city, not what he owes friends; the city considers itself more important than friendships.
The Laws' notion of what citizens owe the city is based upon an analogy between citizens on the one hand, children and slaves on the other, though Crito fails to notice that children honor their parents by obeying, while adults honor their parents in a different manner. Since the Many in a democracy frame the laws, they are in effect both parent and child, imposing laws upon themselves. So the Laws in effect demand that the dissident persuade the Many, the same Many who establish the laws with the expectation that they be obeyed, but who also expect friends to help friends circumvent the law. The Many demand obedience to the law only so long as it suits their perceived self-interest; otherwise, they tend to revert to disobedience. So it is hardly surprising that Socrates says that the Many do good only by chance (44d). And while the Laws suggest that they should be obeyed because they are comparable to one's parents, Socrates made it a habit to ridicule the authority qua expertise of Athenian parents, as in his interrogation of Meletus which implied that just as only that minority of persons who best understand horse-nature are by nature best qualified to raise them, so only that minority of persons who understand human nature are best equipped to raise children (Apo. 24c-25b).
The Citizens' Purported Agreement with the Law (51d-53a). The Laws now argue that whoever chooses to live in Athens "has thereby entered into an agreement with us to do what we command."(39) One who disobeys does wrong because the Laws "are his parents, nurtured him, and because after agreeing to obey, he neither obeys us nor persuades us that we are wrong." Crito fails to question the Laws' claim that an agreement exists between citizens and the polis, so Socrates himself notes that one might be "surprised" at this assertion (50c). The Laws evade that wonderment, and imply that the agreement which the Laws claim exists between citizens and the polis follows from the benefits the Laws have conferred on citizens. The Laws here present themselves as benefactors owed a debt. Everything then would seem to hinge on the nature and extent of that alleged debt. Like Cephalus and Polemarchus in the Republic, Crito sees little problem in determining what one owes others. Whereas he believes that Socrates ought to act in the light of what he owes his friends, for the Laws, Socrates is to act in the light of what he owes his city.
Note that the Laws (unlike Socrates) do not consider that an agreement might be justly abrogated for unforeseen reasons, as in the Republic (331c, ff.), where Socrates clearly implies that a weapon borrowed from a sane person need not be returned should that owner request it when not in his right mind; the avoidance of unnecessary harm trumps ownership priveleges. Nor does Crito consider that a dilemma might arise should the laws demand that one commit injustice and one fails to persuade them otherwise. In such a case, it would seem that the Laws' demand of obedience would be in direct conflict with Socrates' demand that one do no harm.
Further Consequences of Escaping (52a-54d). The Laws now in effect imagine themselves prosecuting a fugitive Socrates: "These are the charges, Socrates, to which we say that you will be liable if you do what you are contemplating, and you will not be the least culpable of your fellow countrymen, but one of the most guilty." The Laws also adopt Crito's concern with reputation, suggesting that Socrates will gain a poor reputation as a laughingstock if he chooses to escape.(40) But why should Socrates care what the Athenians' opinion of him is? - unless, of course, he is concerned for their well-being, which can be affected by their opinion of him. Finally, the Laws review the concerns and suggestions earlier expressed by Crito, reassuring him with prudential rather than moral considerations that it would be sensible for Socrates to remain in prison. No longer do the laws accuse or threaten Socrates; instead, they aim at pacification, presumably so that Crito might finally partake of Socrates' uncanny tranquillity in the face of his impending execution.
Coda (54c). Expressing ironically what Crito must have felt at this point, Socrates says: "Know well, my dear comrade Crito, that these things are what I seem to hear, just as the Corybantes seem to hear the flutes, and this echo of the speeches is booming within me and makes me unable to hear the others" (54d). Note how un-Socratic this seems; it reminds one of the opening of the Apology, where Socrates says (with transparent irony) "I nearly forgot myself" because of the persuasiveness of his accusers' speech.(41) That Socrates cannot be taken seriously here (as many authors assume) is further suggested by the fact that elsewhere, he refers to the Corybantic dancers as being out of their senses (Euthydemus 277d-e; Ion 533c-534b).(42)
The arguments which the Laws give Crito as to why Socrates must not escape were (given Crito's limitations as a philosophical thinker) intended to make a better citizen of Crito and others like him who find the Laws' arguments persuasive, but seem far too fragmentary and insubstantial to account for why Socrates chooses not to escape. What, then, were his reasons for remaining in prison? Just as the Laws in the Crito personify the viewpoint of the city, so the Apology (23a), as noted above, makes it clear that Socrates personifies philosophy: "It appears [the god] is using my name in order to make an exemplar (µ) of me." As an exemplar embodying the philosophical way of life, Socrates' life must be governed first and foremost by a concern with the examined life, not with life as such (46b) - a principle demonstrated in deed by his discussion with Crito. Whereas the Many and the Laws seek to evoke shame for failing to preserve one's reputation (53a), Socrates' exemplary life seeks to educe shame for the failure to live up to rationally justified principles and thus, to what it means to be fully human. Socrates' deeds might persuade where his words could not, for the Athenians believed that by putting Socrates to death they would be taking something of supreme value to him, though both his words and his deeds indicated otherwise.
Just as a good teacher must consider how his words will be understood by those he seeks to instruct, so must he consider the same of his deeds.(43) Socrates' words and deeds teach Crito that respect for law can take precedence not only over love of one's friends and family, but even over love of one's own life. As Ann Congleton writes: "Crito should obey the law because to do so is better than to obey the considerations of money, reputation and favoritism which would otherwise determine his actions. And Socrates should obey the law so that Crito will."(44) Socrates remains in prison, then, not so much because escaping would harm Athens, but because remaining would benefit the Athenians. "[T]he particular irony of the Crito," Congleton writes, "is that it is Crito and his associates asking Socrates to disregard the court and run away who are the very reason why Socrates must obey the court and remain."(45) His decision to die was entirely consistent with his mission of providing philosophical therapeia to his fellow Athenians: "[A] man who means to be great must care neither for self nor for its belongings, but for justice, whether exhibited in his own conduct, or that of another" (Laws 732a). Thus, while the arguments of the Crito's Laws now seem too fragmentary and inconsistent with what Socrates says elsewhere to have persuaded him to remain in prison, his mission of providing a moral example to his fellow Athenians led to the same course of action as that of the arguments of the Laws.
1. My translation. "Sack" can also connote "windbag" and most likely does so here.
2. It is characteristic of most Anglo-American scholarship to downplay the dramatic element in Plato. For example, Terence Irwin divides his article, "Plato: The Intellectual Background," into sections discussing natural philosophy and religion, metaphysics and epistemology, political developments and moral questions, political issues, the sophists, rhetoric and Socratic inquiry, while hardly mentioning Greek literature. In The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), pp. 51-89. The important role of drama in Athens and its seemingly obvious influence on Plato is almost entirely ignored. For Benjamin Jowett, "Some resemblances to the Greek drama may be noted in all the dialogues of Plato." Introduction to the Phaedo, in The Dialogues of Plato, fourth edition, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1953), p. 405.
3. They also seem to assume (from an egalitarian point of view) that one can expect others to say the same to all, a point controverted by Socrates (Phaedrus 277b-c).
4. "Levels of Discourse in Plato's Dialogues," in Literature and the Question of Philosophy, edited by A. Cascardi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987), p. 388.
5. Kraut, Socrates and the State (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton U. Press, 1984), p. 41.
6. Ibid., p. 4. Throughout this essay I adopt the convention of capitalizing "Laws" when referring to the personified laws of the Crito.
7. What Harold Cherniss says of the doxographers applies to Plato commentators as well: "the character of Presocratic thought is most thoroughly concealed and misrepresented as a result of the channels through which it has been transmitted. The doxographers listed the opinions of all philosophers as if they were all answers to the same questions asked in the same way...." "The Characteristics and Effects of Presocratic Philosophy," Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951), p. 320.
8. On the importance of the characters of the interlocutors in the dialogues, see Lucinda Coventry, "The Role of the Interlocutors in Plato's Dialogues," in Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature, edited by C. Pelling (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990); Henry Teloh, "The Importance of Interlocutors' Characters in Plato's Early Dialogues," Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium for Ancient Philosophy 2 (1987), pp. 25-38.
9. In the Crito, Socrates is the writer of the Laws' speech, and the Phaedrus makes it clear that one must know the "various types of soul" in order to know which form of speech is suited to a given type; one must, e.g., provide "simple speech to the simple soul" (277c; cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric 1355a24-27).
10. Peter Euben, "Philosophy and Politics in Plato's Crito," Political Theory 6 (1978):160. Charles Kahn views things similarly: "the argument of the Crito is ad hoc and ad hominem. It is not an argument for obedience to law in general: it applies specifically to this man and this law." "Problems in the Argument of Plato's Crito," Apeiron 22 (1989), p. 35.
11. Euben, p. 167. The phrase, "convince any rational man at any time and in any place," is a quote from Rex Martin, "Socrates and Disobedience to Law," Review of Metaphysics 29 (1970), p. 22.
12. R. McNeal, Law and Rhetoric in the Crito (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), p. vii; see also p. 75.
13. "[The rhetorician] will classify the types of discourse and the types of soul, and the various ways in which souls are affected, explaining the reasons in each case, suggesting the type of speech appropriate to each type of soul, and showing what kind of speech can be relied on to create belief in one soul and disbelief in another, and why" (Phaedrus 271b).
14. Kraut, Socrates and the State, p. 6.
15. "Crito" derives from kritês, "a discerner, judge, arbiter, decision-maker." Aristotle refers to the auditor of deliberative and judicial rhetoric as a kritês (Rhet. 1358b2-6). In the Crito, there are of course two logoi competing for Socrates' assent, a competition which can aptly be viewed as judicial rhetoric: that of Crito and that of the Laws. The Crito has a subtitle, "On What is to Be Done," which was almost certainly appended by an anonymous Greek editor. Although this subtitle seems quite fitting for the dialogue, since the issue of what Socrates ought to do (and how that is to be determined) can be viewed as the Ariadne's thread which unifies the dialogue, yet it is not undertaken for the sake of intellectual inquiry, but as a pedagogical device.
16. "Reply to Clifford Orwin," in C. Griswold, ed. Platonic Writings/Platonic Readings (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 179.
17. "Can you and I at our age, Crito, have spent all these years in serious discussions without realizing that we were no better than a pair of children?" (49b).
18. Of course, the fact that Crito and others are open to Socrates' ministrations is no indication that they are not in many other respects still under the powerful influence of the hoi polloi.
19. But cf. Laws 864a: "When the opinion about what is best ... holds sway in souls and brings order to every man, then, even if it is in some way mistaken, what is done through this ... must be declared to be entirely just and best for the whole of human life...." (trans. Pangle).
20. R.E. Allen, "Law and Justice in Plato's Crito," Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972):561.
21. I am not certain of the laws which governed admittance to jail cells, but given that Socrates is "surprised" by Crito's presence and given that Crito explains his presence by saying that the guard owes him a favor, we can reasonably infer that things were not being done strictly by the rules (though Socrates' friends later visit him in his cell in the Phaedo). If Crito is violating some law by bribing the guard, thus unthinkingly placing his allegiance to Socrates above his allegiance to the city's laws, then this symbolically enacted disrespect for law will only be later compounded by Crito's attempt to persuade Socrates to escape.
22. The "good deed" was, of course, considered good according to the conventional notion that (as Polemarchus states in the Republic) the just consists in helping friends. In view of Crito's statement to the effect that many people will consider him cheap if he fails to bribe Socrates' way out of jail (44c), we can infer that such disregard of the law was widely tolerated, and in fact, such seems to have been the case. See D.M. MacDowell, The Law in Classical Athens (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978), p. 172.
23. In the Republic (617c), "the Fates, daughters of Necessity, [are] clad in white vestments..." The Laws says that "White is the color most proper for the gods" (956a).
24. The word here translated as "obey" (peithesthai) can mean either "obey" or "be persuaded." That the Greek consists in one word can serve to remind us that in being persuaded we are in effect obeying something we regard as authoritative, be it logic, our own inclinations, etc.
25. But Socrates' concern is not only that he discover the best argument; the argument must also convince Crito: "I am very anxious to obtain your approval before I adopt the course which I have in mind. I don't want to act against your convictions" (48e).
26. Later, the Laws, in imitation of Crito, exhort Socrates to consider what others will say about him should he undertake an escape: they will ridicule him (53d).
27. It is crucial to bear in mind that the Laws purport to establish the nature of justice; hence to ask what is just in full knowledge of the law is implicitly to entertain the possibility that the law is unjust.
28. Whereas Aristotle tells us that rhetoric requires that we see the means of persuasion appropriate to particular cases (Rhet. 1355a-b), Plato shows us this principle in action.
29. The phrase can also connote the common weal (as at Aristotle, Politics 1283b41) and probably does so here. The fact that the Laws and the "community of the city" are both distinguished and associated serves, perhaps, to remind Crito that the former represents the latter. At the same time, it may remind us that the two are not necessarily in harmony; the Laws later exculpate themselves of having convicted Socrates, presumably so that Crito will not hold them responsible for Socrates' fate (54c).
30. Kraut, Socrates and the State, p. 40.
31. Philip Whaley Harsh, A Handbook of Classical Drama (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1944), p. 21.
32. Kraut notes that a "private person" (idits) is one who acts in a way unconnected with public life (p. 115), and concludes that "when the laws call Socrates an idits, they are thinking of a particular way in which he would be avoiding public affairs, should he escape." But idits has another connotation: "one who lacks skill, a layman" - connotations which fit nicely with Socrates' reference to the need to listen to "the one who knows." (The word is used by Plato in this way at Theaetetus 178c and Laws 933d.) The passage can be interpreted to mean that a "layman" in matters of right would be destroying the city were he to ignore its rulings, leaving open the question whether an "expert" might know when and how it would be possible to safely disregard a ruling.
33. Note that the Laws speak of "destroying," whereas Socrates previously spoke of "doing injustice" and "harm." This is indicative of the Laws' (hyperbolic) rhetoric.
34. That actions may be interpreted in more than one way is suggested at 50a, where Socrates asks: "Suppose the Laws and the community of the city should come and confront us who are about to run away or whatever name we should give it...." (my italics).
35. This passage, in conjunction with the Laws' earlier rhetorical questioning, reminds me of the Book of Job. Just as Crito feels that an injustice has been done to him and his friend, so Job feels he has suffered injustice, and just as Job is silenced by God's posing a lengthy series of rhetorical questions which silences him by reminding him of his place in the larger scheme of things and of God's superior power (chs. 38-41), so Crito is silenced by the Laws' rhetorical questions, which proceed in much the same fashion.
36. Note that the Laws might have made their point simply by reminding Crito of a principle to which he had already acceded, viz., that doing harm is wrong. That they refer to filial obligations seems intended to play on Crito's earlier similar exhortations to Socrates. That Plato need not have agreed with this rhetorical point, which implies that citizens owe a debt to the polis for their rearing, is suggested by what Socrates says about philosophers in the Republic (520b): "Such persons grow up spontaneously against the will of the regime and don't owe their rearing to anyone and so are right in not paying off the price of rearing to anyone."
37. As Dougal Blyth has noted, the Laws here speak not of city and laws, but of father and fatherland "in order to elicit a corresponding emotional response." "Plato's Crito and the Common Good," Ancient Philosophy 15 (1995), p. 50.
38. The nature of authority differs in the two cases of offspring and slave: masters intend the welfare of their slaves for the master's benefit, while parents intend their offsprings' for the offsprings' benefit, paralleling the difference between a tyrant and a benevolent dictator.
39. This position has been defended in more recent times by Patrick Devlin: "If [one] wants to live in the house, he must accept it as built in the way in which it is." The Enforcement of Morals (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965), p. 73.
40. The Laws here seem to contradict Socrates' earlier insistence that Crito not be concerned with what others think, an admonition Crito appears to have already forgotten. But if Socrates' method is rhetorical rather than strictly dialectical (because Crito is more likely to be persuaded to respect the law by means of rhetoric), then such an appeal to what others think would be most likely to succeed at persuading Crito of the correctness of Socrates' remaining in prison, i.e., in respecting the law.
41. Alcibiades says: "Socrates, I assure you, will not forget, despite his joking that he is forgetful" (Protagoras 336d; cf. Menexenus 234c).
42. The Corybantes were, after all, "male priests associated with various gods who had orgiastic cults ... and in particular, the companions of the Asiatic goddess Cybele, whom they followed with wild dances and music." Entry in the Oxford Companion to Classsical Literature, 2nd ed., edited by M.C. Howatson, 1989. The purpose of this wild dancing was that of alleviating some fear. See Ivan Linforth, "The Corybantic Rites in Plato," University of California Publications in Classical Philology 13.5 (1946):134.
43. Karl Jaspers has written that for Confucius, "Example is better than law. For where the laws govern, the people are shameless in evading punishment. But where example governs, the people have a sense of shame and improve." Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962), p. 47.
44. "Two Kinds of Lawlessness," Political Theory 2 (1974):442.
45. Ibid., p. 444.