Thursday, August 6, 2009

Socrates in Error?!

Anybody out there read Plato's Crito? You know, the one where Socrates is in prison about to be executed, and his friend Crito comes to spirit him out, and Socrates refuses and turns his reasoning into his last lesson? Crito pretty much sits and listens like a good student, but I had to read it for college and I believe Socrates' primary argument is flawed.

This is why: reading the dialogue, it becomes obvious that Socrates doesn't trust the people, the masses, whatever you want to call them, on questions of moral judgement. That honor belongs to the elect few; in Socrates' eyes, those few include those blameless and moral arbiters of law, the state. In order for Socrates' claims that he is obligated to remain in prison to hold true, then, the government, laws, state, whatever, must be morally just and above reproach.

But Socrates is an Athenian. He lives in a city-state where the government is elected by its people, and its laws must be judged appropriate by members of the masses (by jury, by vote, etc.), the very same people Socrates says cannot be trusted on questions of justice and morality!

"No matter how the rather nebulous term “state” is defined, extrapolating Socrates’ lines of argument always leads to an inconsistency—the state is either the legalistic arm of the many or so close to the many as to be indistinguishable, and Socrates cannot praise the former as the highest arbiter of justice while condemning the latter as an unruly mob." (Blatant copy-pasta from a paper I had to write on the subject).

(And here's another one, positing a potential counter-argument from Crito:)"“Socrates, you say that the many should not be trusted on matters of justice or injustice. Why, then, do you so love the state, which is nothing but a natural extension, here in Athens at least, of that many? On my side are the many, who say that you should be released, whom you disdain. On yours is the many, in the form of the government, who say that you should stay and die, whom you embrace. By staying, Socrates, you do not resolve your own ethical dilemma satisfactorily or avoid hypocrisy, not in a manner consistent with your own moral philosophy. By staying, you in fact say, ‘…although my philosophy does not turn to the many on questions of justice, it is, in the end, subject to the justice of the many, in the form of their proxy, the state and its laws and punishments, however arbitrary or contaminated by mob tendencies they may be.’”"

Socrates may have been right to choose to remain in prison, but to frame the question as one of justice, morality and metaphysics (rather than the somewhat humbler choice of an old man) introduces its own contradiction. That, or Plato was in error when describing what his teacher would have said in such an incident.

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