Socrates and Antigone: two ways not to be martyred
Antigone’s reasons for being prepared to die make good sense within a tragic world-view; but the Crito turns out to be, in an odd way, aporetic, because Socrates’ professed reasons make no sense within the Platonist world-view that we expect him to use. On Platonist principles, Socrates should have escaped from prison, and acted unjustly in not doing so. But Socrates’ real reasons for being prepared to die are not Platonist: they are tragic. Like Antigone, he regards the narrative of his life as over: this is why he is incapable of taking seriously the option of escape.
Socrates and Antigone: two ways not to be martyred
Not all martyrdoms[i] are worth it. Some martyrdoms are not worth it even in the martyr’s own terms. Here I argue first– very briefly– that Antigone’s martyrdom was worth it, at least in her own terms (§1). At greater length I argue next that, in contrast, Socrates’ martyrdom was not worth it, even in (what we might have expected to be) his own terms (§2). Then (§3) I examine their “terms”, their beliefs, as depicted in Plato’s Crito and Sophocles’ Antigone respectively. This examination will produce the surprise that Socrates’ terms are not what we might have expected them to be.
At least since Hegel many writers have regarded Sophocles’ Antigone as a flawed character who recognises only one aspect of the truth, the fullness of which is only realised when we reach a synoptic viewpoint which does synthesised justice both to Antigone’s and to Creon’s conflicting conceptions of the good.[ii] Yet in the play, Antigone’s position is not presented as partial but as vindicated: by events among other things. (In particular by the catastrophe which comes on Creon after Teiresias appears.[iii])
It is not Antigone who, in the Antigone, instantiates the classic failure of a tragic hero(ine) to deal with irreconcilable demands. Unlike Agamemnon, Pentheus, or Ajax, Antigone faces no conflict which she cannot make sense of. Her downfall follows directly on the fact that she does make sense of her position, and resolves the demands facing her in what seems to her (and can seem to us given enough imaginative projection) the only possible way.
Antigone’s choice to confront death by honouring Polyneices’ corpse is not, like Agamemnon’s at Aulis (Aeschylus, Agamemnon 205 ff.), a true dilemma– a choice between two alternatives both of which are wrong. Despite her words _σια παvoυργήσασα (unscrupulously doing what is reverent, 74), Antigone is certain that she is not doing anything wrong in breaking Creon’s edict and honouring her brother’s corpse. On the contrary, Antigone sees herself as under what Bernard Williams has called a practical necessity[iv]; and the play invites us to share her certainty, or at least to find it understandable.
Antigone is not so much someone facing conflicting ethical forces as herself an ethical force creating a conflict;[v] and the conflict which she creates is primarily a conflict for Creon (and secondarily, a conflict for Ismene and for Haemon). If the Antigone is (perhaps like most Greek tragedies) some one person’s tragedy, its name is misleading. Oedipus Rex is not Jocasta’s tragedy but Oedipus’; Agamemnon is not Cassandra’s tragedy but Agamemnon’s; but Antigone is not Antigone’s tragedy but Creon’s. Creon is not (so to speak) the final disaster which overwhelms Antigone. Antigone is the first disaster in the train of disasters which overwhelms Creon. (Out of the 1400 or so lines of the Antigone, Antigone herself is absent for the climactic last 400; where what is depicted is Creon’s downfall.)
I want to suggest that Antigone’s certainty that she is right depends on her conception of herself as the agent of her own family’s fortunes (see e.g. lines 946-950, 954-958). She does what she does to make peace with the past, a peace which the past demands must be made if the cycle of internecine destruction is not to go on. The terms within which she works are the same as those of Teiresias’ speech to Creon, the terms of an ancient conception of δίκη (justice) as balance (1182-1187).[vi] To put it another way, her act is an act of reconciliation: it is because her family’s tale of suffering lacks a conclusion, a narrative closure, that she is bound to seek one last drastic way of giving it one. Whatever Polyneices may have done in life, he remains her brother, and as such demands, if tragedy is to end, the same reverence as Eteocles– a reverence which demands at the minimum that his corpse should not suffer that post-mortem fate most dreaded by the Greeks, exposure and mutilation. Antigone’s proposed action is an expressive one, and what she means it to express is completion, the end of the tragic cycle. It is in this way that the defiance of Creon’s edict becomes for her a practical and an ethical inevitability. The only way out for Antigone would have been a relaxation of Creon’s attitudes: showing once again that she is not the figure in the play whose deliberative conflicts are most its concern.
By contrast, Creon fails to understand what δίκη requires. He does not recognise the exigency of a sister’s duty to her brother; or else, perhaps, he deliberately and cruelly plays on that exigency. And he does not see that the tragic cycle will continue if Polyneices does not have his quietus and if Antigone is put to death. Creon will not see that in opposing Antigone’s wish to honour her dead brother he is contending with a god: as we might also say, resisting a fundamental imperative of human life which cannot be defied or flouted without terrible consequences.
Thus Nussbaum’s well-known criticism of Antigone seems to be more applicable, in fact, to Creon. The charge is that she is blind (like a Kantian, as Nussbaum thinks, though Nussbaum’s Kantian seems to be a caricature) to most of the variety of incommensurable values which she ought to recognise. Nussbaum writes of Antigone that, for her, “Duty to the family dead is the supreme law and the supreme passion. And Antigone structures her entire life and her vision of the world in accordance with this simple, self-contained system of duties...” (Fragility p.64). But first, the Antigone shows us almost nothing about how Antigone might structure, or have structured, “her entire life”; for it shows us only the final crisis of Antigone’s life. It does not show us how Antigone might have shaped her life, or her “vision of the world”, had fortune been kinder to her. And second, as I have argued, in the play it is surely not Antigone but Creon who comes to disaster because of a “thin and stunted account of practical rationality”, an inability to understand or respect not only the exigence but also the polymorphousness of the practical necessities that humans face: δείξας _v _vθρώπoισι τ_v _βoυλίαv _σ_ μέγιστov _vδρ_ πρόσκειται κακόv (he shows to all humans by how far the greatest evil for a man is lack of counsel: 1242-3). Even though it is almost certain to bring disaster, there is nothing else for Antigone to do but what she does do. But there is something else for Creon to do– and he does not do it.
These remarks on the Antigone are brief and summary indeed; nonetheless, I wish to turn at once to a longer discussion of Socrates in the Crito, on which I hope this first Sophoclean skirmish will eventually shed some interesting light. Let us ask: if Antigone’s martyrdom was worth it, in her own terms, then what about Socrates’ martyrdom? Was his martyrdom worth it in his own terms? As I shall now argue, the answer– with all due respect to Socrates– is No.
“With all due respect”, because it is a tradition for commentators to treat with great reverence Socrates’ arguments for his own martyrdom. This is especially so for actually or vestigially Christian commentators, who often see Socrates’ martyrdom as presaging Jesus’.[vii] Like many other traditions, this one is not as old as it looks. We may find Richard Crossman, Hugh Tredennick, or I.F.Stone comparing Jesus’ and Socrates’ deaths;[viii] but a reading of (say) Tertullian or Origen reveals a different, and more dismissive, attitude to Socrates.[ix]
Of course there is something right about revering “the nobility of his principled stand” (Wood and Wood, “Socrates’ trial”, in Socrates: Critical Assessments p.51). Still, a possible (and plausible) reading of the dialogue makes the usual reverence for Socrates the martyr of the Crito appear at least partly misplaced: not for Patristic reasons so much as for Platonist reasons.
The intention of the Crito is to defend Socrates’ choice of martyrdom. But Plato has to work hard– not always fully successfully– to prevent a consciousness of the badness of the Crito’s arguments, and so a consciousness of the ethical ambiguities of Socrates’ choice, from seeping through to himself or to his readers. The very Platonism which Socrates argues for, not just elsewhere in Plato’s canon but in the Crito itself, contains the resources to refute the arguments for accepting his own martyrdom presented by Socrates in the Crito.
In consequence, the Crito can be read as an aporetic dialogue. I don’t mean that, as in the Meno or Republic I or the Theaetetus, Socrates presents no major positive theses, but destroys someone else’s. Rather it is aporetic in that Socrates (through ‘The Laws’) does present conclusions: but patently unsatisfactory conclusions, reached by obviously invalid arguments. A typical Platonic aporia leaves the reader groping, bewildered, for any thesis that is left standing by Socrates’ fierce and skilful elenctic. But the Crito is aporetic because it leaves the reader to grope bewildered not for a thesis, but for an answer to the question “Why this thesis?”
To prove this, I will examine Socrates’ arguments in favour of allowing himself to be martyred, and show that these are arguments that no intelligent Platonist should accept. The arguments, as I count them, are nine:
(i) Crito 49a-50c: Any citizen is constitutively bound into a lifelong contract to keep the laws of the state in which he lives.
(ii) Crito 49c: It is wrong to do an injustice in return for an injustice.
(iii) Crito 50b: To break the laws of the state is to destroy the state.
(iv) Crito 52e: the “put up or shut up” argument: If a citizen cannot persuade other citizens to change laws that he disagrees with, then his options are emigration or obedience. But Socrates has not emigrated; therefore he is committed to obedience, even if this means his own death.
(v) 48b: The good man’s objective is to live well, not to live; therefore
(vi) (Crito 48cd) considerations about children and
(vii) friends have no deliberative weight for him compared with the need to live justly.
(viii) (Crito 53b) If Socrates runs away, his friends will face banishment or confiscation.
(ix) (Crito 53a; cp. Phaedo 117a) Socrates would look ridiculous if he tried to run away.
I say “as I count them” because, of course, other authorities divide up the Crito’s arguments differently, and most writers ignore my points (vi-ix). Allen, for instance, thinks there is just one continuous argument, incorporating roughly my points (i-iv). Bostock thinks there are three: (A) an argument which says that you impermissibly “destroy the state for your part” if you disobey the state’s basic law that verdicts duly arrived at must be adhered to (cp. my (ii), (iii)); (B) a contractual argument like my (iv); and (C) an “authoritarian” argument (or claim: Bostock p.12) that we must obey the state no matter what it asks of us, even more than we do with our parents. (I shall cover this point in discussion of my (i).) There are also some interesting questions, which Allen, Bostock, Santas and others have all discussed, about alternative possible inferential relations between the different arguments or theses (however these are counted).
But these discussions are not my main objective here, and anyway I can prescind from them for a simple reason: whatever the inferential relations between the different parts of the complex case that Socrates presents, those parts are evidently meant as premisses or sub-arguments for the conclusion that he should not try to escape. Even if we accept Allen’s view of the Crito, it remains true that an argument can be valid without being sound, as it is when its logic is fine but its premisses (or at least one of them) is false; an argument can also fail to be valid, by containing invalid sub-arguments. So if Allen is right that there is only one argument in the Crito, then if any of the parts of the argument are false or invalid, the whole argument is unsound. My objective is simply to show that Socrates’ case against escaping martyrdom is not cogent, and fortunately, given the constraints of space, I can show this without proving that only my interpretation of the Crito’s argumentative structure is plausible, and arguing against all other possible interpretations.
I turn to the arguments themselves, to consider them one by one.
(i) The trouble with Socrates’ first argument is stated by Socrates himself, with a little help from Thrasymachus, at Republic 339c. It is simply that, since any state’s rulers are (in Thrasymachus’ words) o_oί τι κα_ _μαρτε_v, able to go wrong in some respects too, therefore any one of any state’s laws can always be unjust. But if they are seriously unjust, then it can hardly be said– as Socrates apparently says– that the contractual nature of the citizen’s relation to the state invariably puts beyond challenge our obligation to obey them.[x] If my homeland’s law requires me to pay a 45% tax rate, perhaps that alone is enough to make it true that I ought to pay, even if I personally regard it as extortionate. But if my homeland’s law requires me, say, to pay a 100% tax rate, it is time to start asking questions about the moral status of my legal obligations; while if it requires me to murder my grandmother, those questions are already settled. It will hardly do for me to offer the claim that I must (50c) _μμέvειv τα_ς δίκαις α_ς _v _ πόλις δικάζ_ (remain within whatever laws the city decrees) as my justification for bumping the old lady off. Indeed we are scarcely able to credit the view that anyone would murder their granny simply to keep the law– however law-abiding they were. We would naturally suspect that anyone who obeyed such a law was merely using the law as a pretext to get away with doing what they had been wanting to do anyway in murdering her. So it won’t do for Socrates to say that he is bound to obey the law which condemns him to death just because it is the law: “If obedience to a law would involve doing something wrong, then by the proviso [that we only have to honour just contracts] he is not obliged to obey it, and by the premiss [that we should never act unjustly] he is obliged not to obey it” (Bostock, “The Interpretation of Plato’s Crito”, Phronesis 1990 p.8). His argument merely raises the suspicion, to which we shall return, that Socrates actually wants to die. That suspicion has been entertained or at least discussed by many commentators (I.F.Stone, pp.191-5; Nietzsche, p.34; Frey; Duff). It seems to have hovered even before Plato’s mind at times: see Phaedo 61a-64b.
This point in no way depends on rejecting Socrates’ claim (50e) that there is an asymmetry of justice between the state and the individual. As he presents it the point seems to be the implausible claim that the citizen cannot legitimately retaliate, or even seek redress, against the state at all. There is a plausible point about asymmetry which Socrates could make here, namely that the citizen is not entitled to question the justice of the city’s acts and enactments to the same degree that the city is entitled to question the justice of the citizen’s actions. But obviously, a presumption in favour of the authorities is not a ban on opposing them. So from the only plausible point about asymmetry which Socrates could have made at this point in the argument, the conclusion which Socrates here seems to need– that the man in the street can never be right to oppose what the authorities say– does not follow.
Does Socrates really believe that the citizen must do whatever the state commands? Outside the Crito, there is some famous evidence that he does not. Socrates’ speeches in the Apology make just this point. He famously defies the Court at Apology 29d by saying that if they acquit him on condition that he give up philosophy, then he will disobey the condition. (This is another remark which could easily be seen as little short of suicidal.) Contrast Xenophon, Mem. 1.2.32-38, who gives the story that the Thirty forbade Socrates to practise his τέχvη λόγωv (his art of argument).[xi]
Two other famous instances of Socrates’ sometimes equivocal attitude to civil obedience are mentioned at Apology 32be: his refusals to participate in the condemnation of the Arginusae generals and in the prosecution of Leon the Salaminian. It is true that, as Socrates says, the Arginusae condemnation was generally agreed to have been illegal, at least after the event (32b6): the crucial point seems to have been the motion to try them en masse. By contrast, given that the oligarchy was the Athenian government at the time, it is hard to see why the prosecution of Leon would have been illegal as opposed to iniquitous. Socrates’ grounds for refusing to comply with the explicit orders of the Thirty to arrest Leon would therefore have to be based on natural justice not positive law; but then a similar case can be made for disobedience in his own case.[xii]
But anyway, most critics agree that even in the Crito Socrates’ position is not really that the citizen must do whatever the state commands. At 49e he lays down the principle that a man should not violate his contracts to anyone provided they are just (δίκαια _vτα). So even for the Socrates of the Crito the argument in favour of accepting the state’s death penalty on him is never simply that that penalty is to be accepted because it is the state’s decision. Socrates must also argue that justice requires him to accept the state’s decision. How does he argue this? Here are three initial suggestions about that. All three can be supported from the text; all three have been much favoured by commentators; and as arguments in favour of Socrates’ permitting his own execution, all three can be dismissed very quickly.
The first suggestion, entertained by Santas among others, is that if he breaks this law then Socrates is constituting himself as a person who tends to break the law in general, and so as a bad character. This suggestion offers us two steps, but neither step is at all convincing. My breaking one law once (parking on one double yellow line) does not even “constitute” me as a person who generally parks on double yellow lines, never mind as a person who generally commits rapes, murders and frauds. Again, no doubt someone who generally does those sorts of things is a bad person: but a person who breaks a single law (even habitually) is not ipso facto a bad or unjust person unless the law in question is a good and just one. (If the law forbade church-going, as I believe it does in Saudi Arabia, I might be in the habit of breaking it. In the circumstances, this habit would show that I was constituting myself as a law-breaker. But since the Saudi law against church-going is neither good nor just, my breaches of it would not show that I was constituting myself as a bad character.)
The second suggestion is that the original contract was just; and that what Socrates now has to do (obey, and accept execution) follows directly from his accepting the original contract. But that suggestion simply directs our attention back to the question: What was in the original contract? If the original contract required Socrates to do whatever the state commanded, then (as I have just pointed out) there is good reason to think that it was not just. Compare my asking someone else to make an ‘open-ended’ or ‘blank-cheque’ promise to do whatever I ask them to do. This promise cannot be justly made unless the other party is quite sure that I am not going to ask them to do anything unjust. And if they are sure of this, but turn out to be wrong because I do ask them to act unjustly, then the just thing for them to do is to break the promise. (Alternatively, it can be said that the promise no longer holds: compare the law of contract, which grants no legal force whatsoever to contracts made to do what’s illegal.) No one can reasonably be held to be in a position where they ethically must do whatever the authorities order them to do. That not even soldiers are in that position, not even during wartime, was one of the fundamental principles enunciated in the judgements made at the Nuremberg trials. But as Socrates’ own remarks at Apology 29cd reveal, the point was not unknown to the ancient Greeks.
The third suggestion is, to put it crudely, that Socrates must not try to have it both ways: in the past he has accepted the benefits of the contract between him and the state, and he would be cheating on the contract if he only stuck to it when it suited him. But this suggestion misses the very point which Socrates himself repeatedly insists on. The argument is not supposed to be about what suits Socrates, but about what is just. Of course he should do what is just even when it doesn’t suit him. But the question is whether accepting execution is just, not whether it’s convenient. Conversely, the fact that a course of action suits Socrates is no evidence that it is unjust. Like the first and second suggestions, this point simply returns us to the original issue– the question of justice.
A further principle on which Socrates’ argument seems to rely is (ii): It is wrong to return an injustice for an injustice (49c). But what is the injustice with which Socrates imagines he is retaliating on the state for its injustice against him, if he rejects its unjust condemnation?
The clearest answer to that is that Socrates thinks that he will harm the state in some way if he breaks its laws, and holds (49c8; cp. Republic 334b-336c) that to harm anything is always to do it an injustice. Socrates’ words for ‘to harm’ here are κακ_ς πoιε_v and κακoυργε_v. Even if these terms are not being used as unhelpful synonyms (or illegitimate cousins) of _δικε_v, still talk of harming a state seems metaphorical, or at least not perspicuous without explanation: one cannot harm a state as one can harm a horse or a baby. So this answer to “Where is the injustice against the state in running away?” just prompts the further question “Where is the harm to the state in running away?”.
Socrates’ answer is (iii) that he will be “destroying the state” if he disobeys its court’s verdict (50b). Even such a resolute defender of the rightness of Socrates’ choice as R.E.Allen describes this as an “astonishing charge” (Allen p.563). I have three comments on it.
First comment: It has yet to be shown that the state’s destruction is a bad thing, or that even if it is bad, it mightn’t be a price worth paying to secure some other good. Fiat iustitia, ruat polis: a resolute Platonist can say that a state which issues seriously unjust verdicts through its courts may well deserve to be destroyed; and must say that if the price of justice being done is the destruction even of a good state, then so be it. So (iii) leads us back to the question of whether what Socrates is proposing to do is unjust or just; it does not offer any independent means of answering that question. (Nor is it relevant here to point out that Socrates does not want Athens to be destroyed: once more, the question is not what he wants but what is just.)
Second, compare Socrates’ statement of the view that civil obedience is imperative, while civil disobedience destroys the state, with Creon’s strikingly analogous enunciation of the very same view:
“The Laws”, Crito 50bc: “Socrates, what are you thinking of doing? Isn’t the deed that you’re about to attempt nothing other than the destruction of us the laws and the entire city, insofar as you can? Or do you think that this city can go on existing and not be completely overthrown if its judgements have no binding force, but are rendered powerless and destroyed by the action of private individuals?”[xiii]
Creon, Antigone 666-667: _λλ’ _v πόλις στήσειε, τo_δε χρ_ κλύειv
κα_ σμικρ_ κα_ δίκαια κα_ τ_vαvτία...
Whoever the city sets up, he must be obeyed,
Whether his orders set small and just tasks, or the opposite...
672-673: _vαρχίας δ_ με_ζov o_κ _στιv κακόv.
α_τη πόλεις _λλυσιv _δ’_vαστάτoυς
There is no greater evil than anarchy.
Anarchy ruins cities and leaves households
Compare 182-183: κα_ με_ζov _στις _vτ_ τ_ς α_τo_ πάτρας
φίλov voμίζει, τo_τov o_δαμo_ λέγω...
I have no good words for anyone who regards
His philos before his fatherland...
187-190: o_τ’ _v φίλov πoτ’ _vδρα δυσμεv_ χθov_ς
θείμηv _μαυτ_, τo_τo γιγvώσκωv _τι
_δ’ _στ_v _ σ_ζoυσα κα_ ταύτης _πι
πλέovτες _ρθ_ς τo_ς φίλoυς πoιoύμεθα.
I would never count as a philos to myself
Anyone who is a bane to his own land, since I know this,
That our land is our salvation, and that it is only
When the ship of state sails steady that philoi are possible.
Mustn’t Plato have known perfectly well that at Crito 50bc he was making his saintly master echo the doctrines of a paradigm of political _βoυλία– Creon?
There is another echo of Creon in Socrates’ almost[xiv] complete silence, in the Crito, about arguments from natural law, or divine law, or some law of higher status than the state’s positive law. Socrates and Plato– who was once a dramatist himself– must have known of Antigone’s famous invocation of such higher laws against Creon’s citation of state law in Antigone 450 ff. By the time of Socrates’ trial that play had attained the status of a modern classic, and was about 45 years old. So why don’t Plato, or Socrates, mention natural law arguments in the Crito, even if only to dismiss it out of hand?[xv] The silence is significant. It suggests that Plato was really less convinced by Socrates’ arguments than he wanted to be: or to admit.[xvi]
Third comment: as Plato himself can hardly have been unaware, it is empirically false that a single act of disobedience to the state will “destroy the state”. It is just as much grandiose fantasy for Socrates to claim that the state will be destroyed by his one act of disobedience as it is for a rule utilitarian or a Kantian to claim that e.g. the institution of promising will be destroyed by my breaking one promise. The reason why we should not believe anyone who makes the latter claim, about promising, is empirical. We all know people who have broken promises, but we also know that in spite of them, there is still an institution of promising around. Similarly if one act of disobeying the Athenian state is all it takes to destroy the Athenian state, then presumably it ought to be surprising that there is still an Athenian state for Socrates to deliberate about disobeying. Given how much less just than Socrates most Athenians are, its destruction should already have happened.
The usual retreat here (cp. Santas, pp.16-18) is from “destroy” to “tend to destroy”. It is to point out the obvious fact that if everyone broke promises (or disobeyed the courts) the whole time, then there would be no promising (or courts’ verdicts). So, it is inferred, the badness of one act of promise-breaking (or disobedience) is a simple fraction, arrived at by dividing the badness of the total destruction of these institutions by the total number of possible offenders against them, or of possible acts of offence against them. In breaking a promise I am taking a slice, however thin it may be, of a pie the whole of which is the end of promising. The badness of taking my slice may not be the same as the badness of taking the whole pie, but it is some fixed proportion of that total badness. Something like this seems to be what people have in mind when they describe individual acts of promise-breaking as undermining promising, as Kantians and rule-utilitarians so often do. It also seems to be what Socrates means when he says that the Laws’ accusation against him if he runs away will be that he has tried to destroy the laws of his country with respect to his part (τ_ σ_v μέρoς: 50bc, 54c).
But this idea (that any one act out of N acts of flouting a moral institution contributes in the sum of 1/N to the destruction of that institution) is a fantasy too. For a start, there is no fixing N in this supposed equation. Who knows what is the total number of acts of offence against any moral institution sufficient to bring about its downfall? In practice attempts to fix N are always likely to make it indefinitely large. But if N is always indefinitely large, 1/N must always be indefinitely small, and therefore cannot be expected to make any perceptible difference to any rational person’s practical reasoning.
Even if this problem could be got over (it can’t), the central move which the argument offers us, from “My act X is one of N which together will destroy the institution” to “So my responsibility for destroying the institution is 1/N if I do X”, would still be a non sequitur. Compare a story told by Derek Parfit (Reasons and Persons pp.67-68). The weight of four people standing on a platform at the top of a mineshaft is enough to set a lift on its way to the surface; the lift contains a hundred miners who will die if they do not get out of the mine and have no other way of escape. It doesn’t follow from this story that each of the four people on the platform is responsible for saving 25 miners, or that if there were five of them, each would be responsible for saving 20 (etc.). For three people’s weight would not be enough to overcome the lift machinery’s inertia even if the lift were empty; so three or fewer people’s weight would save no miners. Groups’ moral responsibilities are not always straightforwardly divisible among their members. In the case of the breakdown of a moral institution like promising, the crucial point is not the number of people and their individual contributions, but the overcoming of the machinery’s inertia once a certain numerical threshold is overcome. But in practice any individual proposing, e.g., to break a promise, is almost certainly going to have no reason whatever to think that his act of promise-breaking will be the one that surmounts the analogous social inertia– that gets the incidence of promise-breaking up to the threshold at which the institution breaks down. Hence individuals breaking promises are typically given no reason whatever not to break promises by considerations about the importance of maintaining the institution.[xvii]
Plato himself seems to recognise this. His considered view isn’t that what’s wrong with sufficiently isolated or concealed acts or even careers of free-riding injustice like Gyges’ is that they undermine or tend to undermine the institution of justice. The point of a tale like Gyges’ is that nothing of the sort need be true for Gyges’ unjust actions to be wrong. On Plato’s view what’s wrong with unjust living is that it wrecks the soul (Republic 353e, Theaetetus 176b-177b), irrespective of whether it has any effect at all on the institutions of society. But if what Socrates in the Crito meant to say was wrong with his running away from the court’s verdict was that it would wreck his soul, he didn’t succeed in saying it.[xviii]
Two other ways of understanding argument (iii) need to be considered briefly here. The first is Allen’s. He suggests that the sense in which Socrates breaks the law “for his part” is that the law, in order to be law, must be universal. Thus by determining unilaterally that it does not oblige himself, Socrates revokes the law’s universality with respect to himself and so renders it (“for his part”) no longer law: i.e. he destroys it. To this the correct retort, once more, is simply fiat iustitia, ruat lex. If the law and its application results in injustice, then on Socrates’ own principles, he should say “So much the worse for the law”.
But: So much the worse for which law? Some authorities take it that Socrates’ view is a view not about some particular law but about (capital L) Law, to the effect that “respect for Law in general requires him to suffer the penalty prescribed by Law”. And perhaps Socrates does hold that view, but the view is not a plausible one: in the first place such a view commits its holder to making an ‘open-ended’ or ‘blank-cheque’ promise of the kind dismissed above, and in the second place respect for Law presumably has its rational ground in respect for justice, so that where the two come into conflict, respect for Law must give way.
An alternative, which Bostock pp.2-3 discusses, is that there is one particular law that Socrates thinks he would be breaking if he ran away, namely the basic law that “verdicts should be carried out” or that “judgements judicially rendered are binding” (see 50a8-b8). But first, this is a blank-cheque principle of the sort rejected above. Second, if the principle has a rationale, that rationale must lie in the justice of always carrying out courts’ verdicts or judgements, and (as I pointed out at the beginning) this is surely questionable if courts are fallible. And third, as Bostock p.3 points out, Socrates himself evidently did think that courts were fallible, and that there were cases where it would be right not to carry out their verdicts or judgements. For as already mentioned, in the Apology Socrates argues quite openly that if the court’s verdict or judgement is that he should stop philosophising then he will disobey it (29c-30d).
I turn to argument (iv), the “put up or shut up” argument. Socrates says that anyone who does not agree with the laws of the state he lives in has the options of finding arguments against those laws which convince that state, or else of learning to live with the state’s laws, or else of emigrating. But we have already seen why the choices cannot be quite as stark as that. Since, as Plato agreed, no one to whom ethical arguments might conceivably be addressed is ideally rational, no one can have a duty to produce arguments which actually do convince their target audience. The most there can be is a duty to produce arguments which rationally ought to convince their addressees. But Socrates has been doing this for years. So it does not make sense for him to see himself, as he apparently does, as having engaged in debate with his state about its laws and lost the debate by failing to persuade the state. On the contrary, since the Athenian state ought (long ago) to have been convinced by Socrates even if it wasn’t, the debate is either still in progress, or else is settled in Socrates’ favour.[xix] In neither case should Socrates already have given up and emigrated.
Moreover, despite all the misleading rhetoric of the Crito, it is not the laws of Athens, nor even the specific “second order” law that courts’ verdicts or judgements should be carried out, that Socrates should be arguing against anyway. It is only the particular judgement of the court against him that he needs to dispute. Socrates’ crucial claim that he cannot act against that judgement without attacking the law that gives it its authority (50cd) is defended by Allen, p.564: “To deny the authority of a given sentence [rendered according to the law] is to deny authority to any sentence so rendered”. But this claim, surely, is just plain wrong. Protesters against the conviction of the Birmingham Six were not attacking the general right of the English courts to deliver verdicts in criminal cases. They were attacking the particular verdict of the court in that case, as a misapplication of that right– which they thereby accept. Anti-abortion protesters in the USA are not (typically, anyway) attacking the general competence of the US Supreme Court to pronounce decisively on the interpretation of the American Constitution. They are attacking the Supreme Court’s particular pronouncement in Roe vs. Wade, as a misapplication of that competence– which they thereby accept. Such protests do not undermine the validity of the legal framework within which they occur. They presuppose it.
Thus– even if such protests involve acts of non-violent civil disobedience– there can be no automatic assumption that they are unjust, even in a fairly tightly legal sense of ‘unjust’. What settles the issue of whether the protesters against a given judgement are justified in their protests is, simply, whether they are right to think that the law has been misapplied. If Socrates had protested against his own condemnation– for instance, by running away to evade it– exactly parallel points would have applied to his case.
So arguments (i-iv) give us no clear idea what injustice there might be in Socrates’ rejecting the verdict of the Athenian court and running away. But arguments (v-ix) are no more help in this respect. These arguments can be dealt with rather more briefly– except for argument (ix).
Thus (v), which we may call the ‘living well’ principle, proves nothing. We can simply give Socrates the claim that “the good man’s objective is to live well, not to live”, so that “the just man should not cling on to life” (53e). The issue is not that principle, but what living well consists in. Until we know that, we can’t know whether anyone is merely clinging on to life in an unjust way, or rather is refusing to give up their life because to do so would itself be unjust. Socrates’ own answer to “What is living well?” is that in large part– indeed perhaps without qualification– living well consists in living justly. But accepting this point will bring us straight back to the question of what it would be just for Socrates to do.
(Vi-viii) can be taken together. (vi) and (vii) say that considerations about children and friends have no deliberative weight for the just person compared with the need to live justly; whereas (viii) is the point that if Socrates runs away, his friends will face banishment or confiscation. First, (vi) and (vii) contradict (viii). Second, even supposing we ignore (viii), we do not get much of an argument out of (vi-vii). It’s not as if “considerations about children and friends” were in the deliberative scales separately from “the need to live justly”. Anyone who thinks of just living and the claims of his φίλoι as separate must be either some sort of solitary– as Socrates is not– or else, apparently, must be repudiating those claims. But how could it be just to repudiate those claims– which are after all contractual or quasi-contractual obligations– when it is “unjust for anyone to violate contracts to which they are already committed and which are not unjust” (49e)? Notice also the similarity between Socrates’ attitudes and Creon’s attitudes to those who “put their φίλoι before their fatherland” (Antigone 203-204); the contrast between Socrates’ attitude to his family, and Antigone’s attitude to hers, is a striking one here. Moreover, there is an uneasy disharmony between Socrates’ rhetoric about the Laws as metaphorical family (Crito 51b-e: an argument that “has to be seen to be believed” (Santas, p.24)) and his apparently rather offhand treatment of his literal family (Phaedo 116b; cp. Stone, pp.192-3).
So none of arguments (i-ix) deals adequately with the question, still unanswered, about what injustice exactly is involved in Socrates’ running away. (I haven’t yet discussed (ix); but (ix) is not about justice at all, it is about looking ridiculous.) Indeed, as I shall now briefly point out to close this section, there are at least three reasons why it might even be unjust for Socrates not to run away.
The first reason is suggested by 47c:
SOCRATES. Reflect, then. Do you think it an adequate statement to say that we should not respect (τιμ_v) every human opinion (δόξα), but should respect some and not others? Don’t you think that’s the thing to say?
SOC. And aren’t the opinions of the wise beneficial, and the opinions of fools harmful?
CR. Of course.
[...] SOC. So on other questions too, Crito– we won’t go through them all– including about what is just and unjust, shameful and noble, good and bad, which is the question we are now discussing: on all these questions ought we to follow the opinion of the multitude and respect that? Or rather, is it the opinion of the one who understands these matters, if anyone does, that we ought to revere and fear more than the views of all the others?
Socrates’ insistence on crediting only the experts’ opinions on justice and injustice can’t be squared with his preparedness to be put to death by a court which by Socrates’ own standards has no expertise whatever concerning justice. A little later Socrates tells Crito that “Your former view was wrong– your view that we ought to take account of the opinions of the multitude regarding what is just” (48a). But what is Socrates doing in allowing himself to be executed if not taking (undue) “account of the opinions of the multitude regarding what is just”?[xx]
A second reason for running away is stated by Crito at 45c:[xxi] o_δ_ δίκαιόv μoι δoκε_ς _πιχειρε_v πρ_γμα, σαυτ_v πρoδo_vαι, _ξ_v σωθ_vαι, nor do you seem to me to be trying to do something just, in betraying yourself when escape is possible.[xxii] I betray my friends if I allow them to be murdered when I can prevent it; similarly I can betray myself by allowing myself to be murdered when I can prevent it. It is not justice to sit back and wittingly allow any arbitrary disaster to overcome my friends. But the demands of justice are no different if the person threatened is myself.
(This last remark deals with the argument of R.E.Allen (pp.565-6) that it is Socrates’ view that “A law or decree that enjoins injustice” need not be obeyed if it enjoins doing injustice, but must be obeyed if it enjoins suffering injustice. If Socrates does think this (which isn’t obvious), then he faces the following dilemma. Either (a) allowing my friends to be murdered is doing an injustice, in which case so is allowing myself to be murdered, and neither are allowed by justice; or else (b) allowing myself to be murdered is suffering an injustice, in which case so is allowing my friends to be murdered, and both are allowed by justice.)
Third: if Socrates lets Athens execute him he is not only unjustly allowing himself to undergo injury. He is also allowing Athens to inflict an injury of the worst possible sort on itself. After all, it is a well-known Socratic premiss that it is injustice which harms the soul more than anything else. For Socrates to stand by and let Athens harm itself by killing him is a second kind of injustice on his part.[xxiii] Justice requires him to try and prevent his condemnation from taking effect (or indeed occurring in the first place[xxiv]) by whatever ethically acceptable tactics he can think of. But there is no reason why running away should not be ethically acceptable. (At any rate there is nothing necessarily unjust about running away. In a minute I shall consider argument (ix), which purports to see other sorts of vice in running away.) It might even be a necessary piece of symbolic action to run away.
Socrates and Crito agreed at 48cd that what they ought to discuss is the justice of running away, and nothing else. Well, these three arguments seem to me to show that what justice requires is that Socrates should run away.
However, there is still one more argument against running away to consider: (ix), which says that Socrates would look ridiculous (καταγέλαστoς, 53a8; cp. γελoίως, 53d4) if he ran away. This argument is actually ignored by many commentators, and marginalised by nearly all. But at the risk of seeming tendentious– a kinder phrase would be “reading the text against the grain”– I wish to suggest that (ix) is in fact the crucial argument.
At first sight (ix) is cancelled out by Crito’s points about how badly people will think of Socrates’ friends if they don’t rescue Socrates (45e ff.). Socrates’ retort to these arguments was “Why should it be so important to us what the multitude think?” (47c ff.). If this is a good answer to Crito, presumably it’s also a good answer to Socrates’ own worries about looking ridiculous. Crito might add that Socrates the philosopher was widely considered ridiculous; but that did not deter him from the practice of philosophy.
Socrates might respond by distinguishing looking ridiculous from genuinely being ridiculous, and insist (as a matter of definition) that a just man is never truly ridiculous– whatever the mob may think. But then, of course, if the tie between justice and what is truly ridiculous is a definitional one, we come back to the same point as before: whether or not Socrates will be truly ridiculous if he runs away depends once more on the justice of running away. Suppose that no one is genuinely ridiculous if they act justly; and suppose that Nelson Mandela could only perform the just act of escaping from Robben Island by dressing up as a washerwoman. Then there would have been nothing (genuinely) ridiculous about Mandela dressing up as a washerwoman to escape. (Contrast Mr.Toad.) Something parallel could have been said about a fugitive Socrates.
What this argument shows, I think, is that Socrates’ real objection to escaping has nothing to do with a fear of compromising his justice. The point is rather a fear of compromising his honour and his dignity. And this is interesting, because it puts us into quite unexpected ethical territory.
Consider again the words which the Laws address to Socrates at Crito 53ce:
So will you avoid the well-governed cities, where you would be held in disfavour as a breaker of the laws? Suppose you do: then how will your life be worth living? Or will you go into them, and be so shameless as to carry on in them– what sort of argument, Socrates? The same sort as you have carried on here– arguments to prove the supreme value to humans of virtue, and justice, and law-abidingness, and laws? Don’t you think that this deed of Socrates would seem quite out of character (_σχημov)?... Or perhaps in lawless and intemperate Thessaly they would enjoy hearing your tale– how funny it was when you made off from the prison disguised as someone or other, in some yokel’s jacket or whatever else runaways normally use to disguise their true appearance... Won’t you live as every man’s inferior in Thessaly? Won’t you be a slave? And what will you have to do with yourself except eat and eat– as if your exile in Thessaly was a tour gastronomique? Those arguments of ours about justice and the rest of virtue: where will they be then?
Despite the last question, the argument here has nothing to do directly with justice, apart from the Laws’ contention that Socrates had been presenting “arguments to prove the supreme value to humans of virtue and justice and law-abidingness and laws”. (As we have seen, this contention is dubious anyway: even in the Crito it is unclear whether Socrates holds that any particular positive law-code is supremely valuable, e.g. the laws of Athens, or only that just laws or contracts are among the things of supreme value.) The argument is not an appeal to Socrates’ sense of justice. It is an appeal to his sense of who he is, and of what it would be out of character or unseemly for him to do. The vital word in the argument is _σχημov– literally “out of shape”; and the vital point is that Socrates sees his life as already having a certain shape, which running away would totally destroy.
In the Apology, Socrates describes himself as “the gadfly on the rump of the Athenian state”; meaning by this that his role in life, the meaning and shape of his life, is given by his irritating activity of elenchus. It is from this point of view that Socrates sees any possible life outside Athens, or any physically possible life in which he ceases from his elenchus, as being merely an absurdity– not a real ethical possibility for him. Whether he (or Plato) fully admits it to himself, it is for this reason that he won’t run away: not so much because it would be unjust to run away as because he cannot see how his own life could continue to have meaning if he did run away.
Notice here a significant silence, or near-silence, at Crito 45b5. Stone remarks, p.125, that it is odd of Crito to mention only Thessaly by name as a possible place of exile: that is, after all, not where Plato went when he fled Athens immediately after Socrates’ condemnation. But further, as Burnet points out (p.184), Socrates had plenty of friends in much more cultured places than Thessaly, and much nearer to Athens too; for instance Megara, Phlius, Thebes, Boeotia (cp. Phaedo 99a2), and (we may add) the notorious oligarchic hide-out of Eleusis. These facts make Crito’s and Socrates’ general concentration on the option of escape to Thessaly not just odd, but truly extraordinary. (Crito does mention unnamed “other places” (45bc), and the Laws do briefly discuss exile in Thebes or Megara in 53b; it remains true that it is Thessaly that gets considered most as a possible bolt-hole.) It is as if a British philosopher under sentence of death were to refuse to consider seriously escaping to anywhere except Outer Mongolia. Socrates is simply blind to the possibility of living outside Athens. As far as he is concerned, if he were to leave, his life would lose its meaning: in all important senses, it would be over.
For a consistent Platonist like Crito, this is of course nonsensical. To him it doesn’t matter if Socrates’ life elsewhere does strike Socrates as meaningless, provided Socrates acts justly. If it is acting justly which matters above all else (as Socrates says), then that must be more important than having a satisfactory or meaningful shape to his life. Even if running away would have left Socrates’ life with an unsatisfactory or ridiculous shape, or indeed no shape at all, that is not for a Platonist a conclusive argument against running away.
Recall Cleobis and Biton in Herodotus, Histories 1.32: Solon’s story of the two youths whose lives were so happy that there was nothing left for the gods to give them in answer to their mother’s prayers but death. Or recall what is to some extent a modern analogue of Herodotus’ thought: Dworkin’s argument that euthanasia can be a way of ensuring that someone dies at the right time, by preventing someone’s life from going on, through humiliating suffering at its end, to attain a shape which is less happy than we would like that life’s shape to be (Dworkin, Life’s Dominion Chs.7-8). Presumably a Platonist will find both these stories bizarre precisely because of the way in which both sideline the question of whether it is just for these people to die at these times, which is for a Platonist necessarily and always the primary question. For the same reason a consistent Platonist must find the Socrates of the Crito, as I have understood him, almost equally bizarre. Socrates’ use at Crito 53c-e of the notion of the shape of a life as giving him decisive reasons to confront his death is a fundamentally un-Platonic way of thinking. The Platonist sees the human good as consisting wholly in just living. If my life is just it does not matter how strangely inappropriate or undignified my surroundings or companions, for instance, may be. To get the idea that such contingencies might matter– to the extent where they might constitute a decisive consideration regarding, e.g., what the shape of Socrates’ life will be in exile in Thessaly if he runs away– we need to repudiate the Platonist’s conception of the human good as eternally and quintessentially unfragile, and adopt a conception according to which even quite incidental circumstances (such as whether I live in Thessaly or in Athens) can be a constitutive part of a fragile human good. Such an ethical vision is not a Platonist vision at all. It is more like a tragedian’s vision of the human good. For instance, it is more like Antigone’s vision of the human good than Plato’s. And this, of course, brings us full circle.
The point about Antigone was this: her real reason for accepting martyrdom is that she sees herself as bound by the destiny of her family. She sees the crimes and misfortunes of her father and her mother as imposing on her a weight of miasma, pollution, which can only be expiated by the honourable death and interment of her brothers, or failing that, by other deaths including her own and Haemon’s, and by the ruining of Creon’s life.[xxv]
The point about Socrates is analogous. As we have seen, his rational arguments for accepting his own martyrdom don’t work. The frame of thought within which that martyrdom does make sense is the very different frame of thought within which Socrates sees himself as destined by his character, and commanded by his δαιμόvιov, his familiar spirit (Apology 40c), to go on practising elenchus at Athens even if the price of so doing is death. That is really the framework within which, I have contended, the Socrates of the Crito does his decisive ethical thinking. In his adoption of that tragic framework of ethical thought Socrates is, in his end, strikingly similar to Antigone; and fundamentally un-Platonic. Both of them reach a point at which they believe, for narrative reasons not reasons derived from a conception of justice, that their lives had better not go on any longer. As Socrates himself says at the very end of the Crito of the arguments he presents (and the remark heightens our sense of aporia): “This is what I seem to hear, as the frenzied dervishes of Cybele seem to hear the flutes, and this sound of these arguments re-echoes within me and prevents me from hearing any other arguments” (Crito 54d). Just so; but the kind of appeal which Socrates’ ears are open to at the end of his life is indeed– as his Cybelean simile suggests– the non-rational appeal of a tragic vision of life like Antigone’s; and the appeal to which his ears are blocked is the rational appeal of the Platonist with which Crito tries, for one last time, to present him.[xxvi]
T.D.J.Chappell, Department of Philosophy, University of Dundee
The text of Sophocles used is the Loeb Classics volume, edited by (Harvard UP, date).
Allen: R.E.Allen, “Law and Justice in Plato’s Crito”, Journal of Philosophy 69 (1972), pp.557-67.
Bowra: Sophoclean Tragedy. Oxford: OUP.
Bostock: David Bostock, “The Interpretation of Plato’s Crito”, Phronesis 37 (1990) pp.1-20.
and Smith: T.C.Brickhouse and N.D.Smith, Socrates on Trial (Clarendon: Oxford, 1989) (with an excellent bibliography).
Burnet: John Burnet, Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito. Edited with notes by John Burnet (Oxford: Clarendon, 1924).
Duff: R.A.Duff, “Socratic Suicide?”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 82 (1982), pp.35-47.
Dworkin: Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion (London: Harper Collins, 1995)
Ferguson: John Ferguson, Socrates: a source book (London: Open University Press 1970).
Frey: R.G.Frey, “Did Socrates commit suicide?”, Philosophy 53 (1978).
Kraut: Richard Kraut, Socrates and the State (Princeton: Princeton UP 1983).
Miller: Mitchell Miller, “‘The Arguments I seem to hear’: Argument and Irony in the Crito”, Phronesis 44 (1997).
Nietzsche: Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, tr. R.F.Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1968).
Nussbaum: The Fragility of Goodness: luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy (Cambridge: CUP, 1986).
Parfit: Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: OUP, 1987).
Santas: G.X. Santas, Socrates: Philosophy in Plato’s Early Dialogues (London: Routledge, 1979).
Stone: I.F.Stone, The Trial of Socrates (NewYork: Doubleday, 1989).
Williams: Bernard Williams, “Moral Incapacity”, in his Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: CUP 1995), pp.46-55.
Also Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Penguin, 1985).
Wood and Wood: Ellen Wood and Neal Wood, “Socrates’ trial”, in Socrates: Critical Assessments Vol.II, ed. W.Prior (London: Routledge 1996), pp.45-68.
1. I use “martyrdom” to mean “any choice to accept death which is made by an agent on the grounds that adherence to his or her principles makes death unavoidable, given the behaviour of others”. It is no objection to this definition that Antigone dies by her own hand, and might have been saved. For Antigone did “accept death”, and she did not know that her own death was not unavoidable, since she had no reason to expect that Creon was going to change his mind at the last minute.
[ii]. Three examples: Nussbaum, p.63: “There is at least some justification for the Hegelian assimilation of [Antigone’s ethical position to Creon’s] ...Antigone, like Creon, has engaged in a ruthless simplification of the world of value which effectively eliminates conflicting obligations. Like Creon, she can be blamed for refusal of vision.”
Hegel, The Philosophy of Fine Art IV, pp.68, 71 (quoted by Nussbaum, Fragility p.67): “It is... the harmony of these spheres [of family and city in the Antigone], and the concordant action within the bounds of their realised content, which constitute the perfected reality of the moral life... The true course of dramatic development consists in the annulment of contradictions viewed as such, in the reconciliation of the forces of human action, which alternately strive to negate each other in their conflict.” Cp. Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §166.
Knox (Introduction to Penguin translation of the Antigone (1982), p.44): “Like Creon, [Antigone] ends by denying the great sanctions she invoked to justify her action.”
[iii]. As Bowra says (Sophoclean Tragedy p.101), “Antigone’s defence to Creon establishes her rightness for most who hear it. If the chorus and Creon fail to accept it, that is their fault. Sophocles drives [his conclusions] home. He leaves no doubt what his own views are.”
[iv]. For Williams’ ground-breaking discussion, and something close to the rediscovery of the notions of ethical or practical possibility and impossibility, see Bernard Williams, “Moral Incapacity”.
[v]. Bowra (loc.cit.): “Antigone comes into irreconcilable conflict with Creon... No compromise is possible between her and him. The issue can only be tragic. But the fault which brings catastrophe is not Antigone’s but Creon’s.”
[vi]. It is also because of the imperative of laying the ghosts of the past that Antigone says, puzzlingly at first, that what she does for Polyneices she would not do for husband or for children (995-99). One point which explains this remark Haemon fails to understand, but Antigone, I think, feels very deeply. This is that she regards her stock is too “polluted” for marriage or motherhood really to be genuine possibilities for her. (“Your marriage”, she says to Polyneices, “murders mine”.)
[vii]. Brickhouse and Smith, Socrates on Trial pp.vii-viii, seem to argue from a romantic towards a Christ-like image of Socrates: “The image of the philosopher in court as commanding and haughty, yet entirely relaxed, witty, and controlled, is indeed a very appealing one... The image of Socrates we present is [less romantic], for on our view... the real story of the Apology [is about] a man who steadfastly maintains his moral principles even when confronted by those who, he is convinced, are totally ignorant of their value, and even when he believes that only by abandoning those principles could he save himself from an unjust death.”
[viii]. Crossman, Plato Today (1937) pp.61, 185-6; Tredennick, Introduction to the Penguin Classic The Last Days of Socrates (1954), p.9; Stone, pp.3-4. Cp. Alarco, L., Sócrates y Jesus ante la Muerte (Lima, 1972); Kaufmann, G., “Socrates and Christ”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 1951.
[ix]. Like other Patristic writers (Cyril, Chrysostom), Tertullian is merely abusive about Socrates. As for Origen, one of the more amenable of the Church Fathers to Greek philosophy, even he mentions the idea of comparing Socrates and Christ only to reject it (since the comparison is offered, not by Origen himself, but by his pagan opponent Celsus: v. Origen, contra Celsum 1.3).
These and many other of the most important Patristic references are usefully collected and translated in J.Ferguson, Socrates: a source book (Open University Press 1970), pp.303-318.
[x]. Another parallel (the madman’s knife, Rep.331c) is cited by Allen, p.562.
[xi]. With characteristic obtuseness Xenophon leaves it indeterminate whether or not Socrates obeyed this edict. However, in the interview with Charicles and Critias that Xenophon depicts, Socrates certainly does not produce any such ringing phrases about ‘obeying the gods rather than men’ as he brings out in the Apology. Indeed his demeanour is rather meek, and if anything the oligarchs get the better of him.
[xii]. For more on the question whether the Arginusae condemnation and the proscription of Leon were illegal acts, see Brickhouse and Smith, pp.185-186, who suggest that the rule of the Thirty was illegitimate in Socrates’ eyes insofar as they went beyond what they were voted in by the Assembly to do– ‘to codify the ancestral laws of Athens’. But the formula is, of course, deliberately vague; and in any case, even if Brickhouse and Smith’s argument works, we are already a long way from the picture of implicit obedience that the Crito idealises.
Kraut, Socrates and the State, pp.18-19, suggests that the régime of the Thirty lies outside the parameters of the Crito’s argument because Socrates has not lived under their rule long enough to be deemed to consent to it. One wonders how long would be long enough to show such consent. Eight months is not quite the wink of an eye, and after all others who disapproved of the Thirty, such as Chaerephon (Apology 20e), did manage to get away from Athens.
[xiii]. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.
[xiv]. The closest we seem to get to a mention of natural justice is 51c2, where one of Socrates’ alternatives is to persuade the city _ τ_ δίκαιov πέφυκε (about how justice is by nature). If this is a reference to natural justice, it is not a very emphatic one.
[xv]. Contrast Apology 28e-30c, where Socrates does claim that divine commands override human commands.
[xvi].Compare Mitchell Miller’s “‘The Arguments I seem to hear’: Argument and Irony in the Crito”, Phronesis 1997, which raises the interesting question why Plato presents the arguments against running away through the Laws’ mouths, not directly through Socrates’. Miller thinks Plato does this because the arguments are not Socrates’ real opinion, which he conceals because he will set a better example to his fellow citizens by not protesting and running away. Miller’s case faces the objection that Socrates’ concern is to do what is just, not what brings the best consequences. I am arguing instead that the reason is that Plato has his doubts, conscious or unconscious, about the Laws’ arguments.
[xvii]. Antony Duff has helpfully suggested to me that the point ought to be that, if a general practice of maintaining contracts or promises works in everyone’s interests, then the person who breaks their contract acts wrongly because they take advantage of everyone else’s keeping their contracts. As above, however, this form of argument cannot give exceptionless conclusions. If it is ever possible that breaking a contract might, for some special reasons, be less unfair than keeping it, then the argument needs further premisses to give us the conclusion that Socrates must die. And these further premisses, surely, are false.
[xviii]. Santas, pp.18-19, suggests on the basis of 50c that Socrates’ worry about “undermining the laws” is specifically a worry about disobeying the constitutionally fundamental law that Aristotle tells us about in Ath.Pol. XLV, that “judgements by the jury courts are supreme”. We do not know, Santas suggests, “whether Socrates would make the same argument against disobeying any law”. But (1) surely we do know that, because Socrates does make “the same argument against disobeying any law”. That much is already implicit in the fact that it is “The Laws of Athens” who address him– not some subset of those laws. Moreover (2) Santas’ version of the argument still leaves it unanswered exactly how Socrates’ act of civil disobedience could undermine the principle that judgements by the jury courts are supreme. Finally (3) given Socrates’ scathing remarks in the Crito about the ignorant multitude (cp. Theaetetus 201ac), democratic juries seem an unlikely focus for his legalistic loyalty.
[xix]. Consider Aristotle, Rhetoric 1355a21-24: “The true and the just are naturally more powerful than their opposites. So if the courts’ verdicts do not turn out as they ought to, the losing parties are responsible for their own defeat, which deserves censure”. Aristotle evidently thinks that if you are on the right side of the argument, then (given the natural power of the true and the just) you ought to win. If you don’t, that is prima facie evidence either that you argued your case with embarrassing incompetence, or else that you were not in the right after all. Socrates plainly does not share Aristotle’s rather airy optimism that an innocent man has nothing to fear from a democracy’s courts; but it is an interesting question whether Aristotle saw when he wrote the above that his remark might be taken as a criticism of Socrates.
[xx]. Notice, incidentally, that at 44d Socrates fails to distinguish two importantly different senses in which one might “take account of” (μέλειv, φρovτίζειv) the opinions of the multitude about justice:
SOC. But, my dear Crito, why should it be so important to us what the multitude think? For the noblest minds, whose views are more worth taking account of, will see the real truth about what happened here.
CR. But Socrates, you see we do have to admit the importance of the mob’s views too. Your present predicament makes that clear enough...
In one sense I “take account of” the mob’s opinions about justice if I think– wrongly in Socrates’ view– that the philosopher may have something to learn from them about justice. In the other I “take account of” the mob’s opinions about justice if I correctly think it dangerous to flout them openly, however misguided or vicious those opinions may be. But as Crito forcefully points out, Socrates fails to distinguish these two senses. This means that Socrates’ use of μέλειv masks an equivocation. It is exactly as if he had begun with the premiss that we need take no account of rottweilers’ expertise in the law of trespass, and ended with the conclusion that we need take no account of rottweilers when trespassing (cp. 48b).
[xxi]. Socrates is simply wrong to imply at 48cd that Crito has produced no arguments.
[xxii]. Those who like to compare Socrates with Jesus will no doubt compare Crito’s words with Peter’s at Matthew 16.22.
[xxiii]. Compare Aristotle’s famous remark on leaving Athens for the last time after his indictment for “impiety” in 323 BC: “I will not let Athens sin a second time against philosophy”. I have never heard it suggested that Aristotle was some kind of coward, recreant, or paradigm of injustice because he ran away from a capital prosecution, though it is regularly suggested that Socrates would have been if he had run away in his very similar circumstances.
[xxiv]. Two separate points about Socrates’ trial are well made by Crito at 45e: first that Socrates could and should have acted to prevent the case from coming to court in the first place, and second that once in court, Socrates’ defence could easily have been handled less provocatively than it seems to have been if we are to judge by the Apology.
[xxv]. Possibly Antigone regards her own death as inevitable in any case, given her brothers’ tragic end: θαvoυμέvη γ_ρ _ξε_δη. τί δ’ o_; κε_ σ_ μ_ πρoυκήρυξας (Yes, I foresaw my own death, of course, even without your warning: Antigone 460-1).
[xxvi]. This paper has been presented to a number of audiences: to the ‘B’ Club in Cambridge and the Philosophy Society at UEA in 1997; at Dundee University in January 1998; at the University of Washington, Seattle, in April 1999; at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in July 1999; and at the University of St Andrews, in October 1999. My thanks to these audiences and some other readers for their helpful criticisms and comments. I especially remember John and Amy Arthur, Dougal Blyth, Thomas Braun, Nicholas Denyer, Andreas Dorschel, Antony Duff, Stephen Gardiner, Stephen Halliwell, David Houghton, David Keyt, Alan Malachowski, Tim O’Hagan, Simon Pulleyn, David Sedley, Malcolm Schofield, Joseph Shaw, John Skorupski, Oliver Taplin, and Voula Tsouna.