Bust carved by by Victor Wager from a model by Paul Montford, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia. / Wikimedia Commons
Socrates proposed a new kind of citizenship in opposition to the traditional one that was based on the poetic conception of Homer.
In the Apology, Socrates proposes a new kind of citizenship in opposition to the traditional one that was based on the poetic conception of Homer. Socrates’ is a philosophical citizenship, relying on one’s own powers of independent reason and judgment. The Crito, a dialogue taking place in Socrates’ prison cell, is about civil obedience, piety, and the duty of every citizen to respect and live by the laws of the community.
Socrates proposes a new conception of what it is to be a citizen. He opposes the traditional, you might say Homeric, conception of the citizen, certain notions of citizen loyalty and patriotism, created, shaped by the poetic tradition going back to Homer. He wants to replace that with a new kind of, I want to call it rational citizenship, philosophical citizenship. A view of citizenship that, again, relies on one’s own powers of independent reason and judgment and argument and in the course of defending this point of view, Socrates says, in an interesting passage, that he has spent his entire life pursuing private matters rather than public ones and has deliberately avoided public issues, issues of politics and that raises a question. How can any kind of citizenship be devoted just to private matters and not public?
Citizenship seems to require even the public sphere, the public realm. What does Socrates mean when he says his way of life has been devoted almost exclusively to private rather than to public matters? Well, the first thing we might think about is whether that’s entirely true, whether he’s being entirely candid with his audience; after all, the kind of investigations, the kind of interrogations that he has been pursuing since going to the Delphic Oracle and then following at least his interpretation of its mandate, these investigations of the politicians, the poets, the craftsman and the like. He says these have been carried out in public, he has gone around in the market and in the open and in the public forum questioning, interrogating and obviously making a variety of people look foolish. So this is hardly simply a private question or a private way of life but perhaps he means simply that by pursuing a private life that again he’s going to rely almost exclusively on his own individual powers of reason and judgment, not to defer or rely on such public goods as custom, as authority, as tradition, things of this sort. But I think Socrates means more than that, more than simply he wishes to rely on the powers of private individual judgment.
When he says that his way of life has been private, he means that he has pursued a policy of, let’s call it “the principled abstinence from public life.” Socrates is a great abstainer, he has abstained from participation in the collective actions of the city, actions that he believes could only entail a complicity in acts of public injustice. His own motto, if you want to ascribe him a motto, seems to be a variety of the Hippocratic Oath, you know, that doctors are famous for: “do no harm.” And to do no harm he has required of himself a kind of principled abstention from public life. If George Bush described himself as the decider, you might call Socrates the abstainer. But what does he mean by or what do I mean by referring to his policies of abstention from political life? One of them concerned his refusal to join in the judgment to condemn and execute the ten Athenian generals who had failed to collect the corpses, the bodies, of the men lost in a particular battle during the Peloponnesian War. This was a mark of great shame and disgrace. This was an actual event. There was a kind of judgment of collective guilt and they were all executed there, the leaders, the generals of this particular battle and Socrates tells how he refused to engage in that kind of–to join the court in the judgment of their collective guilt, a true incident.
And the second story was hisreminding the jury how he refused to participate. He was ordered by the Thirty, the hated Tyranny of the Thirty, he was ordered to assist in the arrest of a man known as Leon of Salamis, an arrest that would have and did in fact lead to Leon’s execution and Socrates tells how he at considerable risk to himself refused to participate in the arrest of this man. In both of these cases, I take it, Socrates’s point is that his own individual moral integrity stands as a kind of litmus test, you might say, for whether to engage or disengage from political life. “I was the sort of man,” he tells the jury, “I was the sort of man who never conceded anything to anyone contrary to what is just,” no doubt also reminding them of his, again, his refusal to bow to the Thirty Tyrants in the case of Leon of Salamis.
Principled Disobedience to the Law
Portrait photograph from a ninth-plate daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau, 1856 / National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons
But this raises, I think, a central point about Socratic citizenship or Socrates’s view of citizenship, this kind of principled disobedience to the law, something like Thoreau’s model of civil disobedience. Does this policy of principled disobedience vindicate or indict Socrates of the charge of corruption and impiety that has been brought against him? Can a citizen he affirms, I will ask though, can a citizen put his own conscience above the law as Socrates seems to do? This is a problem that we will see considerably later in the term that vexes a very important political thinker by the name of Hobbes about whether an individual can somehow put their own sense of conscience or moral integrity even above the law.
What would a community of Socratic citizens look like, each one picking and choosing, you might say, the laws or the rules to obey or to follow or not to follow. Socrates is so concerned, it seems, with his individual, his private moral integrity that he says in a sense to the city of Athens, to the court, to the Athens, to the Assembly or the courts that he will not dirty his hands with public life and again this is a question that we will see later on that Machiavelli takes very seriously–the question of whether or not politics, political life requires one to dirty one’s hands in the world. What kind of citizen is it, is he or she who abstains from, maybe even rejects, the harsh necessities, requirements of political life? Socrates seems to be in some respects an example of what Hegel in the nineteenth century described as a beautiful soul, you know, someone who and he used that term ironically I should say, someone who puts their own private moral incorruptibility above all else and we all probably know or have read about people like this.
How does Socrates answer these charges of, in a way being not just an abstainer but he kept putting his own private moral conscience or integrity over and above the law? He tries to defend his point of view by arguing in a famous passage that his policy of abstinence actually carries important benefits to the city. He brings with it important benefits and in the passage that I’m referring to, he defines himself as a gadfly, everyone will remember that, the gadfly who improves the quality of life in the city. In section 30d, Socrates writes, let me read the passage. “So I, men of Athens are now too far from making a defense speech on my own behalf, I do it rather,” he says, ” on your behalf. What I say, I say for you,” he appears to say, “so that you do not do something wrong concerning the gift of the god,” referring to himself, “the gift of the god by voting to condemn me. For if you kill me,” he continues, “you will not easily discover another of my sort who even if it is rather ridiculous to say so, has simply been set upon the city by the god as though upon a great and well-born horse who is rather sluggish because of his great size and needs to be awakened by some gadfly. Just so in fact the god seems to me to have set me upon the city as someone of this sort. I awaken and persuade and reproach each one of you and I do not stop settling down everywhere upon you the whole day.” So here we have the example of Socrates telling us not only declaring himself to be the gift of the god who is brought but he is a great benefactor of the city, that his example of the man, of individual moral conscience, brings with it great, as it were, public benefits. It is not on his behalf, he tells the audience, but yours, his fellow citizens’ that he does what he does.
“You may not like me,” he says to the jury, “but I am good for you and furthermore he claims in this what can only be described as sort of quasi-religious language that he has no choice in the matter. This is not something he has chosen to do. He is, as he says a gift from the god, he has been commanded, he argues, to do this. “Men of Athens,” he says, “I will obey the god rather than you and as long as I breathe and am able to do so, I will certainly not stop philosophizing.” He seems to envelope himself and his way of life with a kind of religious imagery, the Delphic Oracle, the gift of the god image, he envelopes his conception of citizenship within this religious language and this will or should lead any reader of the Apology and any reader of Plato to ask an important question about Socrates’s use of this language. We will see it again in different ways in the Republic. Is he sincere in saying this, in making this point or his he somehow being ironical in his use of the religious tone or the religious register? He is, after all, on trial for his life, for the charge of impiety. Would it not seem that in order to rebut the charge of impiety that he would use or adopt a kind of religious language that would resonate with the jury and rebut the accusation, perhaps even suggesting that he is the truly religious and pious one and not the ones like Anytus and Meletus who are bringing charges against him?
Engraving of Socrates on trial / Wikimedia Commons
Socrates seems, or could be seen, to be speaking not just ironically but provocatively in describing himself as a gift of the god. In a sense, you might ask what could be more ludicrous, Socrates declaring himself or anyone declaring themselves to be a gift of the divine. But, right, who would make such a claim? But in another respect he seems to take the divine calling very seriously, right, I mean does he not? It was only when the Delphic Oracle replied to Charephon, he tells that story, that no one was wiser than Socrates, that Socrates undertook this second sailing as it were, his turn away from the investigation of purely natural phenomena to the study of the world of moral virtue and justice. He repeatedly maintains that the path he has taken is not of his own choosing but the result of a divine command. He is under some kind of divine edict and it is precisely his devotion to this divine command, to this particular kind of calling that has led him to neglect his worldly affairs. He reminds, at various points, the audience of his extreme poverty, his neglect of his family and his obligations to his wife and children as well as to suffer the disgrace and the abuse that is directed against him by various public figures, he tells us. All of this is the result of his devotion to the divine command. He presents himself, in other words, as a human being of unparalleled piety and devotion who will risk life itself rather than quit the post that has been given to him. It’s a very tall order that he claims for himself.
Do we believe him in this respect, I mean an important question, do we believe him again, is he being sincere in this or is he using this as it were a kind of rhetoric with which to envelope himself? What is this peculiar kind of piety that he claims to practice? In many ways, in replying to the jury’s verdict in the request that he cease philosophizing, Socrates explains himself in the following terms. Let me just quote one other passage briefly from the second speech that he gives to the jury after his conviction. “It is hardest of all to persuade you, to persuade some of you about this,” he says, about his way of life. “For if I say that this is to disobey the god and because of this it is impossible to keep quiet, you will not be persuaded by me on the grounds that I am being ironic. And on the other hand,” he says, “if I say that this even happens to be a very great good for a human being that is to make speeches every day about virtue and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being, you will still less be persuaded by me.” In other words, what he seems to be saying in that passage at around 37c and d is that he realizes he is on the horns of a dilemma.
On the one hand, he says, his reference to a divine mission, he explicitly says there, will be taken by his audience as being just another instance of Socratic irony and insincerity. But, he says, if he tries to persuade people of the goodness and the justice of his way of life on simply rational grounds alone, to persuade them that the examined life alone is worth living, he says he will not be believed. So, what you might say is a Socratic citizen to do, he will either be accused of being ironic and not be believed or he will simply be disbelieved if he attempts to defend himself on rational or philosophical grounds. That raises the question, I think, that I began the class with today. Should Socrates be tolerated, would a good society tolerate Socrates? This is the question raised by this dialogue in the Crito as well. How far should freedom of speech and that is to say speech that borders on, even verges into, civic impiety, how far should such speech be tolerated? It’s been an assumption of readers of Plato over the years that the trial of Socrates, that the execution of Socrates, presents the case for the fullest liberty or freedom of thought in discussion in the evils or the dangers to a society of trying to persecute or suppress freedom of speech. But is this right, in other words, is that really Plato’s teaching?
Among the things Socrates says he cares deeply about is his calling, as he puts it, to do nothing but persuade you both younger and older not to care for your bodies and money but how your soul will be in the best possible condition. How are we to understand this case about toleration and freedom of speech? The Apology presents Socrates right as presenting the most intransigent case for the philosopher as a radical critic or questioner of society. Socrates demands that the Athenians change not simply this or that aspect of their policy but he demands nothing less than a drastic, I would even say revolutionary, change in Athenian civic life, in Athenian civic culture. He tells his fellows citizens, right, that their lives are not worth living, only the examined life is worth living and you are not living examined lives therefore your life cannot possibly have any value to it. Even when presented with the option to cease philosophizing, he refuses to do so on the ground that, again, he is acting under a command, divine command and cannot do otherwise.
Crito’s Apology: “Companion Dialogue”
Crito and others stand watch at the death of Socrates / Wikimedia Commons
Is Plato asking us to regard Socrates as a man of high principle, standing up for what he believes in the face of death or as a kind of revolutionary agitator who cannot and should not be tolerated by a society whose basic laws and values he will not accept? To some degree, I am inclined to answer that both of those questions have something to them. Maybe the answer, or an answer, to this question is revealed in the Crito, the companion dialogue, the companion speech that goes along with the Apology, although it typically gets much less attention than the Apology. In part, because I think the dialogue presents, as it were, the city’s case, the case of the city against Socrates, I mean to consider some of the following. If the Apology presents the philosopher’s case against the city, Socrates’s case against the city, the Critopresents the city’s case against the philosopher. Here, Socrates makes the case against himself, you might say he makes the case against himself better than his accusers in the courtroom did. So in the Apology, the speech between Socrates and the laws that form, as it were the kind of central action of the dialogue, presents the case that Meletus and Anytus should have made against him. While the Apology seems to denigrate the political life as requiring complicity in injustice and Socrates says he will have no part of laws or policies that entail injustice, the Crito makes the case for the dignity of the laws, the dignity or majesty of the city and its laws. While the Apology defends, again, a politics of principled abstinence or disobedience to the political life, the Crito makes the most complete and far-reaching case for obligation and obedience to the law that has perhaps ever been made. So how do we reconcile, if we can, these two apparently contradictory points of view in these two dialogues?
These two dialogues, it should be evident, I mean, differ not only in content but in their dramatic context. Just consider, again, some of the following. The Apology is a speech given before a large and largely anonymous audience of over 500 persons, the Assembly, the Court. We see Socrates addressing, the only time in any platonic dialogue, an audience of this size. The Crito, on the other hand, is a conversation between Socrates and a single individual, only one person. The Apology takes place in the Court of Athens, the most public of settings, while the Crito occurs within the darkness and confinement of a prison cell. The Apology shows Socrates defending himself and his life as a gift of the god that most truly benefits the city but in the Crito, we see him bow down to the authority of the laws that he seems to have previously rejected and finally if the Apology presents Socrates as the first martyr for philosophy, the first person to die for the cause of philosophy, the Crito shows Socrates’s trial and sentence as a case of justice delivered. These huge contrasts, again, they force us to ask a question, what is Plato doing in presenting these two very different points of view, what is his point in presenting these two works with two such sharply contrasting perspectives on the relation of Socrates to the city? Was Plato confused, was he contradicting himself, was he–what was he doing? Big question. I hope I have time to answer it.
So let’s look into the Crito just a little bit. Crito is named for a friend and disciple of Socrates who at the outset of the dialogue is sitting as a watchful guardian over his mentor. He urges Socrates to allow him to help him escape. The jailers have been bribed and escape would be made easy but rather than trying to convince Crito directly, Socrates creates a dialogue; actually, you might say a dialogue within the larger dialogue, a dialogue between himself and the laws of Athens where he puts forward the case against escape, that is to say the case against disobedience to the law and the argument could be summarized as follows. No state can exist without rules. The first rule of any state is the rule that citizens are not free to set aside the rules, to choose among them which ones to obey and to disobey. To engage in civil disobedience of any kind is not only to call this or that rule into question but it is to call into question the very nature of law, the very question of the rules. To question or disobey the law is tantamount to destroying the authority of the law. The breaking of so much as a single law constitutes the essence of anarchy, constitutes the essence of lawlessness, it is a far-reaching argument for obedience to the law. The breaking of even a single law calls into question the authority of law as such. It’s a very powerful argument that, in a way, Socrates makes against himself, putting that speech in the mouth of the laws. But he goes even further than this. The citizen, he says, owes his very existence to the laws. We are what we are because of the power and authority of the laws, the customs, the traditions, the culture that has shaped us. The laws, he says, have begat us and the use of the term “begat” in our translation is clearly intended to resonate with something you might say we might think of as something biblical about it. The citizen is, in a word, created, begat by the laws themselves, they exercise a kind of paternal authority over us such that disobedience to any law constitutes an act of impiety or disrespect of the oldest things around us. The laws are not only like our parents, they are like our ancestors, the founding fathers, as we might say, who are owed respect and piety.
In many ways, the Crito, in some respect, is the platonic dialogue about piety. Socrates seems to accept here entirely the authority of the law; he does not offer arguments for non compliance as he does in the Apology, so what happened all of a sudden to Socrates, the apostle of civil disobedience, Socrates the apostle of principled abstention? He accepts entirely, or the laws force him to accept entirely, the covenant that every citizen has with the laws that binds them to absolute obedience. The question is, why does Socrates exhibit such proud defiance and independence of the laws in the Apology, and such total, even kind of mouse-like, acquiescence to the laws in the Crito? What happened to him, I mean why does he all of a sudden become so humble and acquiescent? What happened to his language about being the gift of the god? Well, that’s something I want you to think about and maybe I’m sure you’ll want to talk about in your sections, but let me propose something like the following to answer or at least to respond to this paradox, this question.
The Apology and the Crito represent a tension, they represent even a conflict between two more or less permanent and irreconcilable moral codes. The one represented by Socrates regards reason, that is to say, the sovereign reason of the individual as the highest possible authority. It is the philosopher’s reliance on his own reason that frees him from the dangerous authority of the state and safeguards the individual from complicity in the injustice and evils that seem to be a necessary part of political life. Here is Socrates, the principled abstainer, but the other moral code is represented by the speech of the laws where it is the laws of the community, its oldest and deepest beliefs and institutions, its constitution, its regime as we would say, its politea, that are fundamentally obligatory on the individual and even take priority over the individual. The one point of view takes the philosophic life, the examined life, to be the one most worth living; the other takes the political life, the life of the citizen engaged in the business of deliberating, legislating, making war and peace as the highest calling for a human being. These constitute two irreconcilable alternatives, two different callings, so to speak, and any attempt, I think, to reconcile or to synthesize these two can only lead to a deep injustice to each.
Plato seems to believe that each of us must choose somehow, must choose between one or the other of these two contenders for the most serious and worthwhile way of life. Which do we take, which is the matter of ultimate concern or care for us? Which? But we cannot have both and I think that distinction to some degree captures the differences set out when I asked at the beginning of the class about who believes Socrates is innocent and should be acquitted and who believes he is guilty and should be condemned between a philosophical and a political point of view. And, in a sense, one could say maybe this is not Plato’s last word, I mean why does Socrates choose to stay and drink the hemlock? After all, if he is committed fundamentally to the principles of his own reason, still why should he care that much about the laws of the city, why not let Crito help him escape and go to Crete where he can drink the good wine of Crete and enjoy his old age? And in fact, Plato wrote another dialogue, his largest dialogue, a book called The Laws, where you see a man simply designated as the Athenian stranger living in Crete and carrying on a conversation with representatives of that society and that might be, although he is not identified as Socrates, it is sometimes thought here is the kind of speech or discussion Socrates would be having, had he escaped. But it gets back to the question, are the reasons Socrates gives Crito for refusing to escape, the reasons he puts in the mouth of the laws of the city of Athens, are those Socrates’s true reasons? Does Socrates believe that speech that he constructs between himself and the laws or is it simply a fiction that he creates for the sake of relieving his friend of the guilt he evidently feels for being unable to help Socrates?
Crito is, of course, very concerned with what people will think of him if it becomes known that he has somehow not helped Socrates to escape. Is that speech for the law, with the laws, really intended for the benefit of Crito, rather than an expression of Socrates’s deepest opinions about the questions of obligation and obedience? Is he, in that speech, bestowing as it were a kind of justice to Crito to reconcile him to the laws of the city and to give him reasons, you might say rational considerations, for continued obedience to the law? In many ways that would seem to make a certain sense of the apparent discrepancy between these two dialogues. It demonstrates not only Socrates’s sense of his superiority to the laws of Athens. In the first speech of the Apology, he defies the city to put him to death by expressing indifference to death and then in the Crito, he very much expresses that indifference to death by refusing to allow Crito to let him escape. Socrates seems to remain, even until the end, very much a kind of law unto himself while at the same time, again, providing Crito and others like him an example of rational and dignified obedience to the law.
When we look at the death of Socrates, do we think of it as a tragedy, as a moral tragedy, a just man sentenced to death by an unjust law? I don’t think so. Far from it. Socrates’s death at the age of 70 was intended by him as an act of philosophical martyrdom that would allow future philosophy to be favorably recognized as a source of courage and justice. In one of his later letters, Plato refers to his depiction of Socrates, as he says his attempt to render Socrates young and beautiful, that is he consciously set out to beautify Socrates, presenting a man, fearless before death, refusing to participate in any active injustice while dispensing wisdom and justice to those who will listen. We don’t know the real Socrates, all we know of Socrates is what we read in Plato and Aristophanes and a small number of others who have sketched various different pictures of him. But Plato’s Socrates is necessarily poles apart from Aristophanes’ Socrates depiction of him as a sort of sophist who makes the weaker argument the stronger.
Plato’s dialogues, the Apology as well as the Republic and the Crito are in the broadest sense of the term, an attempt not only to answer the charge against Aristophanes but also defend the cause of philosophy as something of value and merit.
Applying Lessons from Fourth-Century Athens to Our World Today
Where does that leave us today? What are we to make of all this? We, who live in a very different kind of world from that of, you know, fourth-century Athens, what can we learn from the example of Socrates? Most of us like most of you earlier, find ourselves instinctively taking the side of Socrates against the city of Athens. Those who might defend the city of Athens against Socrates, those who believe in the value of civic piety are very few among us. Perhaps only those of you who might come from a small town in the south or from certain areas of Brooklyn would understand something about the supreme value of piety as a way of life. We, by and large, tend to accept the picture of Socrates as a victim of injustice. We overlook, we conveniently overlook a number of facts about him, his hostility to democracy, we’ll see that in theRepublic but we’ve seen it already to some degree in the Apology. His claim that the lives of his fellow citizens are not worth living and his claim that his way of life has been commanded by a god that no one else has ever heard or seen. None of these seem to make any difference to us and yet I think they should.
Given Socrates’s claims, ask yourself what would a responsible body of citizens have done, how should they have acted? One answer might be to extend greater toleration to civil dissidents like Socrates. Individuals of heterodox belief but whose own views may stimulate others to question and think for themselves, all to the good, Milton, John Locke, people like Voltaire argued something like this. But is that to do justice to Socrates?
The one thing that Plato does not argue is that Socrates should simply be tolerated. To tolerate his teaching would seem to trivialize it in some sense, to render it harmless. The Athenians at least pay Socrates the tribute of taking him seriously, which is exactly why he is on trial. The Athenians refuse to tolerate Socrates because they know he is not harmless, that he poses a challenge, a fundamental challenge to their way of life and all that they hold to be noble and worthwhile. Socrates is not harmless because of his own professed ability to attract followers, a few today, a few more tomorrow. Who knows? To tolerate Socrates would be to say to him that we care little for our way of life and that we are willing to let you challenge it and impugn it every day. Is that good, is that right? The trial of Socrates asks us to think about the limits of toleration, what views, if any, do we find simply intolerable? Is a healthy society one that is literally open to every point of view, freedom of speech is naturally a cherished good, is it the supreme good? Should it trump all other goods or does toleration reach a point when it ceases to be toleration and becomes in fact a kind of soft nihilism that can extend liberty to everything precisely because it takes nothing very seriously. And by nihilism, I mean the view that every preference, however squalid, base or sordid, must be regarded as the legitimate equal of every other. Is this really tolerance or is it rather a form of moral decay that has simply decided to abandon the search for truth and standards of judgment? There’s a danger, I think, that endless tolerance leads to intellectual passivity and the kind of uncritical acceptance of all points of view. Well so much for that. What I want to do, I see we’re running out of time, is if you could think about it, maybe hold that thought in your mind once in a while between now and Wednesday and on Wednesday, we will begin reading what is arguably, some people believe, the most important book ever written, Plato’s Republic.
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