Monday, January 23, 2012

Should Socrates Have Escaped?

Whenever I discuss Plato's Crito the typical reaction I find is of disappointment in Socrates for not escaping his sentence. We all feel - even know - that Socrates is innocent, and recognize an injustice that is being committed against him. If Socrates really supports justice then should he not escape so that the innocent are not punished? Is it not our duty to disobey orders that are unjust?
Socrates may appear hypocritical in not sparing his own life when it is to be taken unjustly, but I think that nothing is farther from the case. Socrates was certainly falsely accused (as he himself admits), but he is right to submit himself to the law; the reason for this is nothing draconian, nor is it some fantastic fear that Athens would topple if this one man were to disobey. The reason is that Socrates truly does care about justice and the Crito shows us what this means to Socrates.
For all of those who say that Socrates should escape in the name of justice, I, along with Socrates, will suggest that they are great enemies of justice. This philosophical point is totally lost in the typical reading. Furthermore, most subtle points and problems of the Crito are lost, such as the problem of the expert of justice and the relationship of the laws of Athens to their "brothers" in Hades. I hope briefly to provide my reasons for holding this view of the Crito. (Another issue with this faulty reading of the consistency of Socrates' own character is called into question, and therefore Plato's greatness as an artist.)
Assumptions of the Interpretation:
First of all, I assume that we should believe Socrates when he says that leaving Athens would lead to a life not worth living, for he did choose death over exile; however, this still allows us to wonder what it was about escaping from jail and leaving Athens that would have made life not worth living. Here are the two options that I see as available, the first being the most common one that I encounter.
  1. Socrates did not want to be called a hypocrite by the many. It was a pride in not wanting to be proved wrong that led him to succumb to the law.
  2. Socrates lived life in a way, and towards an ideal, that was in fact impossible without the state as he conceived of it. It is a genuine love for the state that prevents him from leaving.
From these options the second is the most appropriate reading. The clearest reason is that the first shows Socrates being concerned with the opinions of the many while this way of acting is explicitly ridiculed. Recall that in the beginning of the dialogue Crito complains about what everyone will think of him for not saving his friend; Socrates maintains that it is experts that we should listen to, not the mob. Who is the expert that they have recourse to? We can discuss this later.
Even though we have sided with the second of these it is not yet clear what exactly the state is such that it is necessary for a life well lived. An important element of the dialogue is how the many who actually constitute the state are contrasted with the state in its ideal or principle form. Socrates shows concern for matters in principle over how they are given their representation consistently - this is almost the entire use of the theory of forms for guiding thought. We should consider, now, in what way the state is required for a life well lived.
The Possibility of Justice:
Crito tries to convince Socrates that he should leave for more reasons than a fear of gossip; some of these reasons are noble in appearance. For example, Socrates should continue the education of his children. When Socrates invokes the Laws of Athens to speak for themselves they reply to Crito point-by-point. On the matter of education, they reply that the state is what makes education possible to begin with! How could we abandon the state in order to attend to our children's education? Now, we can easily say that Socrates escape from jail will not prevent Socrates from educating his children in another state, however, this is not the point; what are they being educated for if not for a life in a state? (Does this help show us the relationship between education, the state and a life well lived?) We must invoke the difference of the concrete implementation of the state, and the state in principle.
I have said already that it is clear that a single person breaking the laws does not bring down the state in its physical manifestation, but for those who break the law they ruin the state in principle for themselves. We cannot maintain that we are a subject of the state if we also maintain that I have authority over the state. If Socrates can teach us one thing here it is consistency.
If we abandon the state in principle we truly abandon it and make justice impossible; it is the ideal of the state which guides progress and actually is compelling, not the fallible many. Once we abandon the state in principle and no longer pursue it ourselves, we only have private affairs. These private affairs may be given the appearance of public affairs, but never can be while lacking the support of the ideal of the state. (How little do any of us live in a state today in these Socratic terms.) If we care about the state as Socrates does, we cannot forsake the principle without also forsaking justice itself which depends upon it. To destroy the possibility of the state in principle for us whenever we disagreeing with the many and are injured by their misjudgments is to have never really lived in a state. The poor judgment against Socrates is only a failure of justice, this is something that could only happen if justice itself is possible. Socrates maintains that justice requires a state in principle.
This tells us something very important. To live in a state to begin with is not a real circumstance. Just being in a group of people who are all able to make mistakes and poor judgments is not a state. Living in a state is rather ideal, and only insofar as we submit ourselves to that ideal can we conceive of something like justice. With this main argument finished, I will address some other topics important in the Crito. (Update from Comment Thread Concerning an Aim of my Interpretation: Submission to the state is very peculiar, we sacrifice our freedom to the state for some greater security (freedom in a different sense). We must understand Socrates as having submitted himself to the state in this way and then the question of what we really get in return for our submission opens up as an additional and larger question (maybe addressed in Plato's Republic). I think it is a valuable exercise to consider what it is that we require to live a good life, and if the ways in which we are submitted to our state (or any authority) actually contribute to that personal well-being, or if this submission only produces new ways of being insecure so that we actually have a net loss in freedom. Certainly we have seen examples of states where it would be better not to be in one at all. The Crito does not address these concerns directly, but provides an avenue of opening these questions. My interest in defending Socrates decision on the grounds I have are in the interest of this broader question that is more compelling to me.)
The Expert of Justice:
The examples of experts that Plato provides in other dialogues are professionals, such as doctors, but in matters where the skills are virtue and wisdom we find that Socrates defies the normal notion of experts - experts are lacking. Rather the experts become the forms towards which we much come to understand through our pursuit of virtue or wisdom.
In the Crito, Socrates is clear that he has been wronged not by the laws, but by the many; there is no expert among the many (Socrates included), and so the laws themselves come forward as expert (yet, mark that Socrates himself is speaking for them). This can suggest a problem of democracy to some, but I rather see it as displaying a risk that faces democracy, but not an inherent problem.
The reading of this as problematic is that there is actually no person who is an expert on justice, and so democracy is always unjust. Of course, no matter what form of government you have the ruling class will not be experts in justice, so this should fall flat as a problem with democracy, but all government.
Perhaps the risk is that each person takes themselves to be an expert of justice and no longer works towards an ideal. By each person taking themselves to be the expert the possibility of dialogue (as opposed to debate) is diminished, the hostility within the state among all these supposed experts increases, and all men work only for private interests and not the state - like Crito is doing in this very dialogue.
The Laws of Hades:
In the last moments of the dialogue, the laws of Athens say that they are the brothers of the laws of Hades - of the afterlife. The relationship between moral laws and civil laws are drawn here. I will do nothing more than mention that this relates to the Phaedo, which also has a different theodicy for why we must have immortal souls. I feel like there is a lot of work to be done to understand this further.
Kant's Metaphysics of Morals, Doctrine of Right:
As an addition, this reading of the Crito gives me a new way to appreciate the arguments about punishment in Kant's work that normally seem so harsh. I will not spend any time on this here, but I cannot shake the feeling that the Crito is essential to understanding Kant's thought here.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm no expert on Greek philosophy, and it's possible that your analysis gets at what Socrates is trying to say. However, the argument seems like an awful one. Surely, I can create just as robust an ideal for personal well-being, and then argue that the state is merely a vehicle for achieving the personal ideal. If there was no ideal of personal well-being, then the democratic state wouldn't exist. I can also say that if there are no experts on justice, then I'm as good an expert as anyone, and I should side with my own personal judgments on ethical matters.

Erik said...

It seems that Plato agrees that an ideal of personal well-being is required for their to be even a possible need for a state. Socrates discusses this personal well-being (life worth living) that he takes to require the state and places it at the ground level of what is important in this discussion.

Socrates takes justice to be necessary for a life worth living. In the Crito, we are faced with the injustice of Socrates being sentenced to death. We are desire to see the injustice avoided, and for Socrates to spare his own life; we are upset that he refuses to escape. I think we are too quick to assume that Socrates is the one who is confused here.

For justice to be possible, the state must have the power to punish. With the possibility of justice comes the possibility of injustice, when the meeting out of justice is in the hands of men (since they are fallible). Because Socrates requires justice for living a good life, he accepts the existence of injustice as well. Certainly he should try to avoid injustice, but it makes no sense for him to make justice impossible to avoid injustice, since we already suppose that injustice is required for justice to be possible. If he were to avoid his death here it would come with a change in how he felt about what was required for a good life - this clearly did not happen in his case.

What should we say to Socrates to change his mind about what constitutes a good life?

RE: Experts
I think that experts in Platos work are a concept that excludes everyone being the expert, so it is an odd use of the term. However, I suppose that you could use it in the case of us being experts of ourselves, but experts on the ideal of ourselves generally would be ridiculous. I think you agree with this.

Anonymous said...

Here's an analogy. The state is a tool, like a hammer. The possibility of hitting the nail with the hammer entails the possibility of missing the nail and hitting your thumb instead. Therefore, if the hammer is dropping and you know it's missing the nail and about to hit your thumb, you ought therefore not remove your thumb.

I'm not saying that Socrates couldn't be rational and still make the choice he made, but I can't see the above as a rational argument for his choice.

Erik said...

If we resolve to disobey the state whenever we disagree with it then we never really give the state authority in principle. Now, this is certainly a possibility since the state does not need to exist and we do not necessarily need to feel as if we have submitted ourselves to the state. However, if we do grant the state authority it would be inconsistent to add the caveat that it has authority over us only when we agree with it. In the case of the hammer, it is submitted to our authority, but in the case of the state we are submitted to it. I think in this way the example of the hammer is not a perfect analogy with what Socrates has in mind by the state (something we are submitted to).

This submission to the state is very peculiar, we sacrifice our freedom to the state for some greater security (freedom in a different sense). We must understand Socrates as having submitted himself to the state in this way and then the question of what we really get in return for our submission opens up as an additional and larger question (maybe addressed in Plato's Republic).

I think it is a valuable exercise to consider what it is that we require to live a good life, and if the ways in which we are submitted to our state (or any authority) actually contribute to that personal well-being, or if this submission only produces new ways of being insecure so that we actually have a net loss in freedom. Certainly we have seen examples of states where it would be better not to be in one at all. The Crito does not address these concerns directly, but provides an avenue of opening these questions. My interest in defending Socrates decision on the grounds I have are in the interest of this broader question that is more compelling to me.