Sunday, August 2, 2015

On 'Crito' and How I Am Smarter than Socrates

Socrates had a demon. Of course, a daemon, but a demon. I’m reading Plato again, after 40 years, and I just thought I’d share the fact, that Socrates was a demoniac.

 Well, maybe not, but maybe. I’ve got the complete works, 1800 pages, and I’ll go through it over the next few months. I spent probably 20 minutes whiting-out the loopy girl-writing with which some deb had defaced a number of pages – you know, with hearts for i-dots and so on. It was intolerable. I don’t mind the pink highlighting, but the girl-writing all over the margins was too much. She read only the Apology and books 1,2,3 and 5 of the Republic, so it’s not too bad. I didn’t like the Republic the first time I read it, but that was the ‘70s and this is the ‘Teens, so maybe it got better.

 In the Apology, his defense at his trial, Socrates speaks of how he’s always had an inner voice that told him not to do any wrong thing. So he always knew he was doing right, because he obeyed the voice of his familiar. You might not call that a demon, but he does. He was accused of atheism, denying the gods of Athens while introducing other gods, and of corrupting the youth of the city. I won’t go into that. He affirms his belief in the city’s gods, and denies the corruption. Frankly, he proves his case, but he’d made many enemies, what with constantly proving how not-wise everyone else was, and the majority of his jury consisted of such people. It was a close vote – out of the 500 jurymen, if memory serves, a shift of thirty votes would have acquitted him – 221 to 279, then.

 The vote was corrupt. This was not justice. He did prove his case. He was innocent, according to the evidence Plato gives. In the next dialogue along, Crito, Crito comes as a friend and wants Socrates to escape. Socrates uses his method and demonstrates how he has no choice but to obey the verdict, and die. And here’s why I’m writing this. It’s not that Socrates has a demon. It’s that his logic is wrong. Yes, I, your humble author, am smarter than Socrates and Plato. And Aristotle. After nearly two and a half thousand years, I, even I shall bring light.

 First he gets Crito to agree that it’s always wrong to harm someone, even if they harm you. And this is true. Then again, it’s not. What is harm? It involves motive, and justice (eg, the surgeon and the cutthroat). Socrates is not against justice, and not against punishment – he argues for it. Punishment that corrects a wrong-doer is actually a good, a painful good; punishment that does not correct, hurts only, and is a harm to the recipient; it may be good for the city, good for justice, good to the gods, but it is harm to its victim. True? Yet the greater good is that justice be done, regardless of its effect on the person punished. So it is not wrong to harm someone, if they harm you; as here described, it’s justice.

 Next Socrates demonstrates that the citizen must obey the laws. To break the law is to destroy the city – we would say, it violates the social contract. And he is correct. Then again, he’s not. To break a law is not to destroy the law – it is an insult, a disrespect, but not an annihilation; to disobey a parent is not to kill a parent. If he planned to run away, the state personified would come to him and say, “Do you not by this action you are attempting to destroy us, the Laws, and indeed the whole City…? Or do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of the courts have no force but are nullified and set to naught by private individuals?” If his reply were, ‘The courts have wronged me’? The reply would be, ‘Was that the agreement? – or was it to respect the judgments’. Contracts must be obeyed.

And he’s right. Then again, he’s not. Here we need to get, uh, philosophical. What if the city is taken over and ruled by a tyrant? And the tyrant, whose word is the law, arbitrarily condemns? The contract is to obey the law, and thus here to cozen tyranny? What if it’s not a tyrant, but a corrupt jury? Is the citizen’s contract with the law, or is it with justice. Is it right to be complicit in the city’s corruption of justice and of the meaning of law? What is law for? What does it protect? Stability and power only? Or does it protect what is good, what is right, and just, and beautiful. Well, it’s only law, the product of politicians, but there is an ideal behind this sad fact that is the inspiration of what a society is – the communal striving for the greater good. Innocent people may be sacrificed for a great cause. A corrupt jury acting out of spite and committing judicial murder is not that.

 Says Socrates, “one must obey the laws of one’s city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice.” To persuade, one needs opportunity, which may require time. Socrates complains in his Apology that by law he had not enough time to properly defend himself. There is an illogic here: he is required to persuade, but not given what is needed to do so. The law requires what it forbids. Why doesn’t this most clear-sighted of men see this?

 If the City went to war and Socrates believed the war was unjust, if he yet agreed to fight he must do so. Or he could refuse and protest, and attempt to dissuade the city from the war, and if not convincing, he must accept the consequences, most likely of death. He must be true either to his agreement, or to his conscience. Neither is shameful. To refuse to fight and refuse to accept the consequences would be reprehensible.

 Likewise, Socrates agreed to obey the law, and to accept the consequences if he didn’t. Yet he had an obligation not only to obey the law, but to protect the city. He must do what he could to keep his city just, to keep it from committing injustice, to keep it from spilling innocent blood, in this case his own. That after all was why there was a curse and a plague upon Thebes – the gods were displeased by the unknown crimes of Oedipus. Socrates’ obligation was to not allow an innocent man’s blood to pollute the earth and curse his city. That it was his own blood was irrelevant.

 The truest argument Socrates makes is that it’s not the laws but men who wrong him, so he should obey the laws. But by obeying the law he is harming the men, by making them guilty of wronging him. And it is wrong to cause harm to those who harm you. Socrates is not being Socratic with himself. He does it so well, usually. Wonder what’s up.

 He wanted to die, and no argument could have changed this. At his trial he was given a voice to choose his own punishment, and he chose free meals for life – the appropriate response for his actions. His accuser urged death. In Crito, Socrates admits he could have suggested exile. You know, life. He talks about how ridiculous his life would be as an exile, but what does that have to do with justice? What has ridicule to do with the conduct of a righteous man? Why is public opinion a factor now, when it never mattered to him before? Irrelevant, inconsistent and illogical. Odd. Given the two posited choices, his multiple enemies chose the one that was, you know, a punishment. He arranged his death, conspired in it – a good defense, and if he didn’t get justice he wanted the greatest injustice. Doesn’t seem moderate.

 It’s not that his demon, in its silence, proved the rightness of his course. It’s that his demon, as is the wont of subtle evil beings, was truthful until the greatest harm could be done. For 2,414 years, a catastrophic argument has been supported by the authority of a man who was correct in almost everything.  Scores of millions of people have been murdered by totalitarian states because of the error.

The citizen is not the property of the state.


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