philosophy and politics in plato's crito

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JP Euben - ‎1978


  • Philosophy and Politics in Plato's CritoAuthor(s): J. Peter EubenReviewed work(s):Source: Political Theory, Vol. 6, No. 2 (May, 1978), pp. 149-172Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.Stable URL: .Accessed: 30/04/2012 13:43

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    J. PETER EUBEN University of California, Santa Cruz

    H !URING THE 1960s, interest in Plato's Apology and Crito centered on the question of the limits and grounds of political obliga- tion. Civil disobedients invoked the Socrates of the Apology as a pre- cursor of and authority for their acts. I His respectful but firm refusal to give up philosophy at the behest of an Athenian court seemed exem- plary: here was a man caught between conflicting commitments, a citizen who valued personal integrity and truth; an intellectual valida- ting his thought and life by the courage of his death. On trial for his life, Socrates rejects in advance any offer of acquittal or probation on condi- tion that he cease doing philosophy, that is, going among his fellow citizens to see whether they know what they think they know or truly understand the bases of their life and actions. To such an offer he would have to say, as he does in the Apology: "Men of Athens, I hold you in the highest regard and affection, but I will be persuaded by [obey] the god rather than you. As long as I have breath and strength I will not give up philosophy or stop exhorting you and pointing out the truth to everyone of you whom I meet."2

    But as critics of civil disobedience were quick to emphasize, another Platonic dialogue, the Crito, closely linked by time, theme, and refer- ence to the Apology, apparently speaks in a different voice and with different import. In the Apology Socrates is contentious and rebellious. But in the Crito, he is reverent and submissive, referring to himself as a child and slave (doulos) of the laws, willing to suffer injustice if unable to persuade them of their errors of judgment and decision (50de, 5 lbc). One might argue that Socrates' acceptance of the unjust decision and his punishf?ient is consistent with or even entailed by civildisobedience. But POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 6 No. 2, May 1978 ?1978 Sage Publications, Inc.


  • [150] POLITICAL THEORY / MAY 1978

    the grounds he offers for that acceptance are disconcerting; to us as to his fellow citizens,3 in their own terms and in relation to the Apology. If not a contradiction, there is at least a surface inconsistency between the two dialogues.

    My purpose in this essay is twofold. I want, first, to probe that incon- sistency through an analysis of the Crito and in terms of the relation of philosophy and Socrates to politics and Crito. I chose this theme rather than that of obedience or disobedience to the law because it seems to me more inclusive and therefore more revealing of the depth of Socrates' dilemma. I chose the Crito because in it the surface inconsis- tency clearly emerges as a tension that marks much of Plato's thought. In other words, by transposing the initial inconsistency between the Apology and Crito on obedience to the law into one of Socrates' rela- tion to his old friend Crito and of philosophy to politics, a logical inconsistency becomes a political, philosophic, and dramatic conflict of poignant intensity. One consequence of this approach is to make problematic Socrates' relevance as either a civil disobedient or critic of civil disobedience. But if we take Socrates as an exemplar, we better be clear what is exemplary about him.

    Second, I want to critically examine two interpretations of the Crito which, in different ways, attempt to resolve the inconsistency between it and the Apology. Both readings-the philosophic and the literary- seem to me incomplete and thus misleading. They achieve consistency at the expense of Socrates' true dilemma. Since the persuasiveness of my own reading depends in part on showing the insufficiences of these other two, I turn to them first.


    Recent philosophical readings of the Crito tend to regard the "con- tingent" circumstances of Socrates' life (such as his attitude toward death and exile, his age and friendship with Crito), his times (such as the political crisis and corruption in Athens following the Peloponnesian War), and his particular mode of expression (such as the "high flown oratory" in his conversation with the laws) as distractions from treating his argument as one intended to convince "any rational man at any time and in any place."4 Thus Socrates' words are formulated in proposi- tional form in order to show either how his proposition in the Crito is in fact consistent with his statements in the Apology, or how it can be


    made so by reformulating the arguments he almost makes, or intended to make, or really should have made in the Crito.5

    The first approach is that of A.D. Woozley who denies that Socrates' refusal to accept a discharge conditional on his giving up philosophy in the Apology and his argument in the Crito that a court order must not be evaded or disobeyed even when unjust, is anything more than a seem- ing discrepancy. Woozley argues that (1) in default of other evidence, we must assume that Socrates (as presented by Plato) speaks sincerely in both dialogues; (2) he cannot be knowingly inconsistent; and (3) it is implausible to suppose that there was an inconsistency of which Soc- rates, of all people, was unaware.6 Given these assumptions, he goes on to suggest that there is indeed no inconsistency since "what in the Apology Socrates is prepared to do against the court is not the same as what in the Crito he is not prepared to do against the court" (307). In the former dialoque, Socrates is only prepared to disobey one possible judgment banning him from continued philosophizing, and his disobe- dience will be open, not concealed or clandestine.7 He will simply go on pursuing truth as he always has.

    In the Crito, the disobedience to a lawful command which he will not accept because it will injure the law is Crito's suggestion of escape. All disobedience to lawful commands is of this kind except attempting to convince the state that the law or command is wrong. "But this per- mitted exception to the rule of obedience is precisely what he had pro- posed to follow in the Apology.... The one course other than obedience to the law and its commands which Socrates' argument in the Crito permits is the one course which he had said in the Apology he would, if banned from philosophy, take. Once we see that it is not the doctrine of the Crito that a man must always, and no matter what, obey the laws of his state, the supposed conflict between that dialogue and the Apology disappears" (307-308).

    As valuable as Woozley's analysis is, his overall argument is incom- plete for at least three reasons. First, his assumption that Socrates need not mention philosophizing as an exception to unconditional obedi- ence to the state and its laws because philosophy is persuading the state and this is the exception allowed for in the Crito, is itself not wholly persuasive. For it is not clear that this is the sole function of philosophy, nor is how one persuades "the state," of who "the state" is, or how such philosophic "persuasion" differs from rhetoric.8 (As the Apology indicates, Socrates has spent his life distinguishing himself from the sophists-with notably little success.) Second, Woozley

  • [152] POLITICAL THEORY / MAY 1978

    assumes that Socrates speaks in an honest and straightforward manner, neither dissimulating nor pretending.9 But then what is one to make of Socratic irony or use of myth? (Several commentators regard the dia- logue with the laws as a myth.)10 Can one say that a moral teacher and political educator always speaks straightforwardly? Or is he or she concerned with the kind of audience and the circumstances of conversa- tion? If the goal is self-knowledge-that is, an understanding accom- panied by inner change-then what is appropriate to say to one person at one time may not be what should be said to anyone at any time. For what brings clarity to one person may merely compound another's confusion; where direct statements may meet resistance and incompre- hension indirect ones may penetrate and illuminate. " I To say what one "knows" directly to one who does not know is likely to lead to misunder- standing and is, from one point of view, deception. This is especially so where such knowledge is original as well as personally and politically unsettling. It is true that this conception of teaching is open to abuse and that the insistence that it is Socrates' can be overstated. It may even be questionable whether such education is political, if politicaleducation is regarded as taking place among equals rather than in relations analo- gous to those of parent and child. Nevertheless, these issues are a central problem in Socrates' life and thought, and in the Crito. Finally, Wooz- ley rejects Socrates' contention that a man ought always to obey the law because the consequences of disobedience are, or would be, socially destruct