Socrates – Crito, or the Duties of a Citizen

Following his sentence of death, Socrates considers the relationship of the citizen to his country , returning evil for evil and comes to the logical conclusion that the laws of the country are binding to the citizen, and that he should accept his sentence, whatever the cost.

His first problem is considering the contradiction he is living through in a democratic society – in its crudest form, whether you are a wise or foolish person “the multitude may put us to death”. But there seems to be a clear argument against listening to the multitude

We ought not to respect all the opinions of men, but some we should, and others not – Nor yet the opinions of all men, but some we should, and of others not.

Does a man who practices gymnastic exercises … pay attention to the praise and censure of everyone, or of that one man only who happens to be a physician, or teacher of exercise … he ought, therefore, to fear the censures and covet the praises of that one, but not the multitude.

So we should listen to the experts, not the punters. But this raises the question that if Socrates, the “wisest of men” is condemned by the multitude, should he not try to escape their sentence?

This is neatly answered by returning to the objective of life – to live well. And when trying to live well, there are somethings more important than simply living; living honourably and justly.

Justice and democracy

Taking as his starting point that “whether the multitude allow it or not, and whether we must suffer a more severe or or a milder punishment than this, still is injustice on every account both evil and disgraceful to him who commits it”, Socrates shows how the just person will not return evil for evil. In this case, it means obedience to a judgement made within the rules of a society he has chosen to live in, even (or especially) when it means doing something we don’t want to do.

he who does not obey is in three respects guilty of injustice – because he does not obey us who gave him being, and because he does not obey us who nurtured him,and because, having made a compact that he would obey us, he neither does so, nor does he persuade us if we do anything wrongly.

Thought Socrates does not say it, this is one of the difficulties with democracy. Rule of the majority is fine if you are in the majority, but if you are in the minority, suddenly the contract is not so appealing. However, in choosing to be part of a society, there are rules you submit yourself to. Socrates believed he had freely chosen the society he lived in, and benefited from it, so if it chose to put him to death, he had an obligation to accept their ruling in the same way he had accepted their favour.

During the recent sub-prime crisis, there were stories about US banks playing the moral card with clients who found themselves in negative equity. There is a rule in the US that a mortgagee can hand in the keys to their house and walk away, but if everyone did this, the banks argued, society would fall apart. They told their clients they had an obligation to pay the debt, no matter that it made no financial sense (neatly ignoring the fact that they themselves had made a financial decision in making the loan in the first place). That feeling of obligation, of fairness to an institution, is incredibly powerful, and most people prefer to make what they believe to be the moral choice to honour their debt, even when an arguably more sensible option was legally open to them.

The importance of the next world

For Socrates, the contract with the city of Athens was more clear cut. While escape might have been possible (even tacitly encouraged), he felt he had duty to remain and face his sentence. Not least in his concerns was the next world. As in the Apology, escape in this world can be an easy thing, but it must be justified in the next world, and that is a much harder bullet to dodge.

But should you escape, having thus disgracefully returned injury for injury, and evil for evil, having violated your own compacts and conventions which you made with us, and having done evil to those to whom you least of all should have done it-namely yourself, your friends, your country and us-both we shall be indignant with you as long as you live, and there our brothers, the laws in Hades, will not receive you favourably knowing that you attempted, so far as you were able, to destroy us.

So, ultimately, Socrates’ beliefs and actions deriving from them are underpinned by a belief in the afterlife. Death is the one thing we can’t escape, so in life, we should attempt to position ourselves as best we can, whether purifying our soul, or acting in a consistent and honourable way, even if this leads to death.It’s an obvious precursor to the Christian belief that this world is not the important one, that the next world is the eternal one and the rewards there far outweigh anything this current world can offer us.

As with the “Apology“, there are things in which people should not compromise, but the important thing is that these things are those people should choose to believe through their reason. This is a personal truth in the sense that it has been reasoned out by the person holding it, and, importantly, that the person holding it should be constantly willing to accept a challenge and use reason to judge their position against any criticism or argument and to change it if something else is more convincing.

The important and the “merely pleasurable”

Just as importantly, they should be willing to live out the implications of to the fullest extent. In his books helping people achieve effectiveness, Stephen Covey emphasised the difference between what was important and what was “merely urgent”. In the same way, Socrates was aware of the divide between what was important, and what might be termed “merely pleasurable”.

It’s just a shame that the pleasurable is so, well, pleasurable.


The Apology of Socrates

From America to Athens, the Five Foot Shelf starts with the A’s. But the Athens we visit in 400BC has a man whose principles are tested in a trial for his life; unlike John Woolman (and with no disrespect to John Woolman), the results of his living by his philosophies put his life in direct danger; an experience that is external and verifiable, rather than internal. The turmoil experienced may be of equal measure, but the results are more immediate and permanent!

According to records, Plato was a physical man, an”expert wrestler” and involved in several important battles. But despite being a physical man, his texts disdain the body and his philosophies revolve around the supremacy of the mind or soul, and the search for the purity of the forms and ultimately for truth.

He starts off by asserting he isn’t wise, or at least he is wise in that he knows that he doesn’t know much. This, he asserts, is the reason he has been brought before the court, he is a gadfly, bringing attention to the fact that people in charge don’t always know as much as they claim to.

This man appeared to be wise in the opinion of most other men, and especially in his own opinion, though in fact he was not so. I thereupon endeavored to show him that he fancied himself to be wise, but really was not. Hence I became odious, both to him and to many others who were present.

He takes pride in the provoking he does, it is a form of public service for the city he loves, and values so highly. And like a gadfly, he continues to poke and prod the audience, who are from Athens. What makes an Athenian, he asks, and the answer for him should be that it is someone exceptional. That’s why it pains him to see them not living for the highest things in life. He asks,

Are you not ashamed of being careful for riches … and for glory, and honour, but care not nor take any thought for wisdom and truth, and for your soul and how it may be made most perfect.

But in the end, the Athenians prefer to return to their sleepy lives rather than continue putting up with the prodding of Socrates. For himself, Socrates lives by what he sees to be right to the end. He won’t compromise by saying what they want to hear, he won’t even consider bringing in his family to plead for him, but relies on reason and argument, knowing all the time this is likely to fail. He also refuses the option of paying a fine or exile, but wants the case, himself and his motives to be as transparent as possible.

To make what he is doing even clearer, he draws an analogy back to the physical world of battle, saying,

Neither in trial nor in battle is it right that I or anyone else should employ every possible means whereby he may avoid death; for in battle it is frequently evident that a man may escape death by laying down his arms, and throwing himself on the mercy of his pursuers. And there are many other devices in every danger, by which to aviod death, if a man dares to do and say every thing.

His death, says Socrates, will not free Athenians from the necessity of giving an account of their lives. It doesn’t have quite the resonance of “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine“, but he believes their punishment is more severe than the one they impose on him

But this is not difficult, O Athenians, to escape death; but it is much more difficult to avoid depravity, for it runs swifter than death. And now I, being slow and aged, am overtaken by the slower of the two; but my accusers, being strong and active, have been overtaken by the swifter, wickedness. And now I depart, condemned by you to death; but they condemned by truth.

So, for Socrates, as for everyone so far, truth is the most important thing. Truth is what makes life worth living. Truth trumps family and friends. Truth is worth dying for. This is a truth bound up with destiny and honour and a complete commitment to an idea. These things do not change, even when someone’s life is at stake, even when it’s your own.

A Saucerful of Secrets, a Kindleful of Notes and Marks

Despite some great intentions it’s easy to get sidetracked, even when reading the classics. And the Kindle can be a treacherous friend, letting me bookmark and comment and generally feel like I’m making progress, but without writing the blog posts for me.

So here I go again with a Kindle full of Marks & Notes and a new set of good intentions.