Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Mistaken Demand for Silence

Tonight I revisited Plato’s “Crito.” It had been many years since I read the “Crito,” and, in truth, I do not remember it leaving me with any major opinion one way or another until tonight. Here is the story of Socrates waiting for his sentence of death and how his friend, Crito, tries to persuade him to escape, to run away, because a) the sentence and conviction was wrong and B) the majority of Athenians will think of Crito and his friends as unloyal to friendship as they did nothing to help him escape. Socrates was charged with corrupting the youth and crimes against the state (questioning of gods and corruption). In typical Socratic fashion, Socrates defends his reason for not fleeing in a dialogue between him and Crito. Both the “Apology” (Socrates defense) and the “Crito” are relevant pieces of literature right now and both, in my opinion, offer problematic rationales but I am concerned here with the “Crito.” The main argument offered by Socrates is that the state and its laws, raised and nurtured its citizen Socrates and, like parents, should not be disobeyed just because he now disagrees with “them.” Furthermore, Socrates was free to leave at any time if he did not love the state and its laws:
“You, Socrates, are breaking the covenants and agreement which you made with us at your leisure, not in any haste or under any compulsion or deception, but having had seventy years to think of them, during which tie you were at liberty to leave the city, if we were not to your mind, or if our covenants appeared to you to be unfair.”
However, because Socrates has shown to love the state above all other men, rarely leaving it to travel and so on, he, above all others, should respect the law that has been given and the sentence pronounced:
“Now you depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim not of the laws, but of men.”
Two immediate problems exist in this argument. First, that “if you don’t like what is going on, then leave” and second that Socrates was “a victim not of the laws, but of men.” And I won’t even touch upon the problems of “state” vs mass public representation that exists in this document, or we would be here all night, maybe some other time. First, “if you don’t like it, leave it” mentality is wrong and is especially wrong in Socrates case who, above all men, loves the state, Athens. Why is this wrong? Isn’t this a rational we hear today over and over again? If you don’t like American so much, why don’t you leave? What is wrong here? What is wrong is simply the fact that the more you love a state it is your responsibility to make sure that that state is doing and making laws that are ethically correct. And that bad laws or mistaken laws are overturned. To love something is to work for that something, not just leave. Let me put it a simpler way, you love your parents or, as parents, you love your children but think that they are on the wrong path. What do you do? Leave? Now we see the problem with the rational, that is. once we place it in another context. The logic, I am sorry Socrates (Plato), does not hold. Second, the phrase “a victim not of the laws, but of men.” Unlike Plato’s attempt to personalize the “state” here, the “Laws” of the “state” is seen as unmoving things that can do no wrong. “Laws” are just because they can not hold emotions but are logic personified. Again, a problem. First, to personalize the state (sorry I couldn’t help it) but not the Laws that the state is upheld by is troubling. Second, who makes the laws? Not the state but men, the same men who created a “victim” of Socrates. The Men here are, of course, the masses that Socrates (Plato) dismisses earlier as being ignorant:
“Then, my friend, we must not regard 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. And therefore you begin in error when you suggest that we should regard the opinion of the many about just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable. . .”
But the “many” (the male citizens of Athens who could vote) are the very ones who make the laws. In a since, Socrates contradicts himself. He does not want to listen to the ignorant majority, but does want to hold by the laws that these “ignorant majority” passed into being (Of course, as I am sure you know, Athens was a democracy at this time). Both these arguments are thrown around today in abundance. To dissent is being against the state or “comforting” the enemies. To not see laws as unmovable entities of Justice is to be disregarding the “spirit” of the law. To love one’s country, it is imperative to question when that country and its laws go awry. As Socrates also said in this piece:
“If, acting under the advice of men who have no understanding, we destroy that which is improvable by health and deteriorated by disease—when that has been destroyed, I say, would life be worth having?”

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