I’m keeping up with my reading, but am slightly behind on the blogging, as I finished the Crito several days ago! But I didn’t want to let it pass without comment. It’s a very interesting dialogue, where Socrates’ old friend Crito visits him in prison on what he believes will be the last day before Socrates’ death. He is eager to arrange an escape to another city; this can be easily done, he says, and in fact if it doesn’t happen then Socrates’ friends will look bad, as if they were too cheap to pay off the prison guards and spirit Socrates to safety.
What ensues is Socrates’ argument for staying to face death. This is not such a great surprise in the wake of the Apology, where he very explicitly claims to prefer death (which he doesn’t know is evil) to exile (which he does know is evil). What is odd is the way he makes the argument. This is something that happens to me quite a lot when I read Plato: either I agree with the conclusion but don’t like the argument, or I can’t find anything wrong with the argument but disagree with the conclusion. I hate that!
In this case the way Socrates makes the argument is by introducing the personified Laws of Athens. Much of the dialogue is Socrates telling Crito what the Laws would say to him should he wish to try the escape. Now in a different context I have just re-read the Melian Dialogue in Thucydides, where the Athenians famously tell the Melians (islanders they have come to absorb into their Empire) that “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Thucydides 5.89). This always startles students with the brutality of the notion that justice can exist only between equal parties: yet the Laws, in the Crito, say precisely the same thing. Socrates, born and nurtured under their guidance, stands in relation to them as a child or a slave to a father or master: “do you think right (to dikaion) as between you and us rests on a basis of equality…? There was no such equality of right between you and your father or your master, if you had one…” (50e).
The notion that justice can only exist between equals feels oddly at tension with the premise Socrates starts with, that one should never commit injustice at all (“we ought not even to requite wrong with wrong, as the world thinks, since we must not do wrong at all” 49b). Here justice doesn’t have to do with a relationship (of equality or inequality); it’s purely an individual decision.
Now this isn’t so odd for Socrates, who is at pains here and in many other places to discount what “the world thinks.” He walks Crito through the same argument he tried on Meletus, concerning the expert, and gets him to agree that we should not care about what the many think, but rather the one who knows. Yet it’s really hard to separate the personified Laws and commonwealth (to koinon) of Athens from the Athenian demos, the people, who made those laws in the democracy.
This brings me back to what is for me the most troubling bit of the Apology, where Socrates claims that any man “really fighting on behalf of justice” cannot survive public life in the democracy. Philosophy and politics are radically separate and mutually exclusive activities — this is by far the most subversive thing Socrates says, and given the way in which democratic ideology prized full citizen participation, it is no wonder that a man who might convince the cream of the youth to opt out of public life would seem a danger to the city.
In the first of the two examples he gives in the Apology of the dangers he ran in public life, there is a clear and explicit distinction between the law and the demos, and Socrates here as in the Crito takes the side of the law. The second example is trickier: here he disobeys an order by the Thirty Tyrants. Evidently one need not follow every law, as laws themselves are sometimes unjust. Yet that is Crito’s whole point: if the conviction itself was unjust, why does Socrates need to abide by it?
So I am confused generally about the relationships here between the many, the law, justice and Socrates. And I feel really bad for Crito, who is going to be devastated by Socrates’ death in a way that Socrates doesn’t seem even to acknowledge.