June 28, 2008

On Plato's Crito and the meaning of the Law

Plato's Crito is the dialogue that deals with Socrates and his reaction to his execution. His friends, including Crito, come to him to ask him to escape- they offer him money and safety and Socrates turns them down. Crito argues that Socrates must escape, as his friends will make it easy, but also the people of Athens expect him to and furthermore will despise his friends if Socrates does not get away. More than that Socrates by failing to escape will be neglecting his children. He also argues that plenty of others have escaped in the past from similar circumstances. Socrates rejects such arguments- mainly on the basis that one owes an obligation to justice over the opinions of the many and furthermore that one owes an obligation to the laws of the state which brought you up, in the same way as you owe an obligation to your parents. They have made your success possible, they have made your education and your birth possible- therefore you owe them the principle obligation of your life- even an obligation to obey an unjust rule.

There are plenty of good arguments for such a stance- Thomas Hobbes elaborated on them in his Leviathan. But I think there is something slightly interesting about how Socrates puts this case. He builds into his case an assumption that the law of Athens is that he should die. He is right, that is what the formal law of Athens says. What neither Socrates or Crito observe though is that there is a distinction between the formal and informal law of the state. This is perhaps a distinction that an Englishman might make as the British constitution formally looks very different from the way that it operates in practice, informal understandings are almost laws in the UK. I think they are almost laws elsewhere too. Arguably we see that in Crito, as the informal objective of the legal judgement, recognised by everyone who made it, was that it was a sentence of exile- we'll kill you (but we won't guard you until the execution and we expect you, even want you, to escape from our sentence). Socrates in that sense is showing his contempt for the laws of Athens by staying: his argument about the laws of Athens sets the laws against the people. This is an interesting understanding of the law- but in reality it places the letter of the law against its spirit.

The meaning of the law is a hard thing to assess. Socrates' actions may well have been intended to bring out by his suicide the distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law. to point out the law's absurdity. Perhaps though it also reflects Socrates' innate anti-democratism- ultimately his argument earlier in Crito is that the people cannot judge the justice of a case- informal procedure in a democracy though ultimately relies on popular understanding- Socrates places experts and laws above the people and holds democracy in aristocratic contempt. When we look at his death through the lense of Crito, we can see Socrates as a martyr against democracy for the principle of legal obscurantism.

3 comments:

Ashok said...

What prompted this?

I'm pretty sure you've read that commentary I have on the Crito - the "Laws" there give Socrates the exact same argument Crito did, except they repeat it angrily.

The main issue I'm having with this post is the use of the word "experts." They just don't come up in this dialogue, not like they do in others (there is an argument or two about who knows better, but that's used only for establishing Socrates' own authority). But public opinion does, and Crito holds views that are part of public opinion. Furthermore, there's something going on with the gods and someone or something making a claim about what is most divine - is the personification of the Laws the same thing as the purification of Athens that delays Socrates' execution?

The big issue is why Socrates stays in jail. The answer is actually pretty obvious: he's more consistent in following the laws than the laws are consistent themselves. The initial assessment of the law that Socrates and Crito establish - that it does one thing one minute, another thing another - is a comment on a particular type of democracy, one that is "fevered" and thinks itself greater than the traditions which brought it forth. Contrast with Pericles' Funeral Oration - there he's pretty blunt that the ancestral is meaningless (Pericles wonders aloud whether he should even give the oration, it seems a useless custom to him), and that whatever Athens does now will last for the ages (he wants them to build monuments to their glory).

If you can, do look at the commentary - it goes off on side issues but is pretty emphatic that wholly irrational law just can't do, even as irrationality (yes, this includes the "reasoning" libertarians and free-market conservatives say underlies markets) does provide goods (i.e. births, an attempt at education, some safety, etc.).

Ruthie said...

I always thought Socrates just went crazy near the end, since it's such an about-face from the Apology where he seems to defend the idea that some higher ultimate good can trump the law.

If I remember right he even pointed out--as a point of pride-- how he disobeyed the laws of the Tyranny of 30, to prove to the jury that he was a good and principled man.

But in Crito he gets all anthropomorphic with the law and seems to WANT to be a martyr to the law-- certainly if he suggested banishment as an alternative punishment instead of the absurd punishments he suggested (free meals? really?) the jury would have accepted it.

Maybe, as you suggest, this is intended to highlight the law's absurdity... I never thought of that. Or maybe he was just wrong. I've never been able to make sense of the inconsistencies.

Don said...

I've never quite been able to make sense of it either. I'm drawn to the comparison with Jesus's position, which seems slightly clearer defined - anti-authoritarian, yet telling his follows to follow the Roman laws, give Ceasar's what is Ceasar's.

Socrates obeys the law as it is proscribed to him, thereby both mocking the law itself by his needless death, and demonstrating to his followers that the law must be followed. Not a view that places faith in democracy - much like Hobbes himself. But yet it still seems an incomplete answer....