Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Great Books: Plato's Crito

Crito by Plato

The unabridged text to Benjamin Jowett's translation of Crito can be read in its entirety online at

In Crito, the titular character comes to Socrates in the last days before his impending execution with the unenviable task of convincing his mentor to flee Athens. By adding but one extra voice to Apology’s bombastic monologue, Plato transforms the ongoing saga from a philosophical screed into a haunting portrait of Crito’s helplessness in the face of his teacher’s inarguable logic—the same logic that has condemned Socrates to death. Say what you will about the dialogue form but there is unmistakable poetry in Plato’s opening.

SOCRATES: Why have you come at this hour, Crito? It must be quite early?

CRITO: Yes, certainly.

SOC.: What is the exact time?

CR.: The dawn is breaking.

SOC.: I wonder that the keeper of the prison would let you in.

CR,: He knows me, because I have often come, Socrates; moreover, I have done him a kindness.

SOC.: And are you only just arrived?

CR.: No, I came some time ago.

SOC.: Then why did you sit and say nothing, instead of at once awakening me?

CR.: I should not have liked myself, Socrates, to be in such great trouble and unrest as you are—indeed I should not: I have been watching with amazement your peaceful slumbers; and for that reason, I did not awake you, because I wished to minimize the pain. I have always thought you to be of a happy disposition; but I never did I see anything like the easy, tranquil manner in which you bear this calamity. [43:1-22]

It is easy to imagine Crito, sitting silent in the early morning light, wondering to himself what possible argument he could construct to change his teacher’s mind; knowing that Socrates’ very life depended on his success or failure. Failure to try to is not an option, though he knows he is destined to fail. Failure to succeed is not an option, though he knows he is destined to fail. And so he sits, in the dark of the prison, formulating the arguments he knows can’t work and, as Socrates awakens, sets out about his task anyway. This sense of drama, it should be remembered, is of Plato’s construction and may bear little resemblance to the reality experienced by the original players.

Crito bases his argument for Socrates’ escape primarily on the Great Idea, Duty. He frontloads his argument with several elements, perhaps hoping to wear Socrates down with the frenetic pace of his accusations. Socrates, he first argues, cannot throw his life away on principle because of the obligations he has to those he leaves behind. “People who do not know you and me,” Crito argues, “will believe that I might have saved you if I’d be willing to give the money but that I did not care” [44:22-24]. When Socrates rightly dismisses the opinions of the uninformed as unimportant, Crito changes his tactic, appealing to his teacher’s sense of familial obligation. “You,” he accuses, “are deserting your own children…No man should bring children into the world who is unwilling to persevere to the end in their nurture and education” [45:38-41]. One may assume that Crito refers not only to Socrates’ actual children but also to the many followers and students he leaves behind, of whom Crito is one.

Socrates nonetheless ends Crito’s opening salvo of arguments by identifying his only real obligation left unmet, noting that “I am and always have been one of those natures who must be guided by reason…and now that this chance has fallen befallen me, I cannot repudiate my own words” [46:17-22]. His duty is to the integrity with which he has conducted his life and to see that it end in a manner consistent with his principles of living.

Having defused Crito’s initial barrage of arguments, Socrates begins his rebuttal by re-framing it as a question of Good and Evil, the second of the Great Ideas under consideration. Interestingly, the contrast between the two poles turns almost immediately into a contrast between the individual and the many. “We must not regard,” Socrates notes, “what the many say of us: but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say” [48:7-10]. He circles back briefly to Crito’s opening arguments, stating outright that, “the other considerations which you mention, of money and loss of character and the duty of educating one’s children are only the doctrines of the multitude, who would be as ready to restore people to life, if they were able, as they are to put them to death—and with as little reason” [48:32-38].

Socrates’ commitment to identifying and then acting according to the good lays the groundwork for his refusal to flee Athens. Even under the conditions that the judgment was evil and Socrates himself, good, he argues that the good is never justified by evil to commit evil in retaliation. Socrates points out the radicality of this position to Crito, noting that “this opinion has never been held, and never will be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point have no common ground and can only despise one another when they see how widely they differ” [49:49-55]. The logical extension of this is that those determined to commit evil will always seem to triumph over those they murder who in turn refused to return the evil perpetuated upon them.

As logically sound as this argument is, the abstract victory of principle over petty mob politics that Socrates’ execution would symbolize is not powerful enough on its own to win over Crito’s grief at losing his teacher. To accomplish this, Socrates turns to his most compelling argument and the third Great idea under examination, the duty of the Citizen. One must admire the unflinching clarity with which Socrates outlines his responsibilities to the state of Athens as a free person, whether enjoying the benefits of its largesse or the unbridled fury of its judgment. Again, one feels Plato’s narrative hand at work in the irony of Socrates immaculate defense of his city’s right to destroy him on a whim; in a sense, imposing the authority of the state on to the impeccable reasoning of his teacher to construct a trap from which there was simply no escape.

”’Tell us, Socrates,’ they say; ‘what are you about? Are you not going by an act of yours to overturn us—the laws, and the whole state, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and trampled upon by individuals?’ What would be our answer, Crito, to these and like words?” [50:11-18]

Note how Socrates speaks as if the laws themselves accuse him, manifested as the state, but elevated to a status seemingly coequal to the gods—invisible but unmistakable in both the protection they offer and the punishment they promise to those who break faith with their contract. This equivocation is made explicit when Socrates describes the state as, “to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and either to be persuaded, or if not persuaded, to be obeyed” [51:11-14] with only the “or we will destroy you” left to the imagination. Playing devil’s advocate, Socrates goes on to identify the state’s investment in the individual as three-fold: first, in sanctioning the marriage that produced them; second, in mandating an education appropriate to their station in life; and lastly, in offering them the freedom to leave with their property at any time they should choose as long as they live in accordance with the state’s laws while within its sovereign territory.

Crito’s final heartbreaking moment comes as Socrates equates the degree of his culpability with the depth of his undying love for Athens. “’Of all Athenians you have been the most constant resident in the city, which, as you never leave, you may be supposed to love. For you never went either to see the games, except when you went to the Isthmus, or to any other place unless when you were on military service; nor did you travel as other men do…your affections did not go beyond us and our state; we were your special favorites, and you acquiesced in our government of you; and here in this city, you begat your children, which is proof of your satisfaction’” [52:14-28].

Though delivered in the voice of his accuser, Law as manifested in the flesh by the State, Socrates’ reasoning is no less sincere or ill-reasoned than ideas presented as his own and, indeed, Plato presents them as one in the same. His refusal to flee is the last virtuous act of a virtuous man who, having made his bid to persuade the state of his innocence and, having failed, stands ready to obey its edict on principle unto his death. The historicity of this death cannot be questioned and so Crito leaves the reader wondering only to what degree Plato’s narrative influence heightens our ability to relate to this otherwise private conversation between two old friends saying goodbye.

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