Crito, one of Socrates’ Athenian friends, comes to visit him just before he is to be executed. The purpose of the visit is to make one last attempt to persuade Socrates to run away and leave Athens before the sentence is carried out. An escape can be arranged with little trouble and expense. Socrates friends may be blamed for abetting his flight and may be punished but they are more than willing to accept any penalties. Crito goes further, insisting that he cares little for any such legal penalties but that he fears he’ll be widely censured for allowing his friend to die and caring more for money than his friend’s life.

This introduction grounds the dialogue in time and place, and Crito has mentioned that he fears the bad opinion of most of his fellow citizens. By bringing in the ‘many’ Crito has guided the dialogue into one of Plato’s favorite themes. In the next exchange Socrates establishes that we should hearken only to good opinions and not worthless ones. By the terms themselves, this is tautological and understandably conceded with no objection.

And in the next step, it’s proposed that the good opinions are held by the wise, and worthless by the foolish. He doesn’t say merely that good opinions are wise opinions, and that worthless opinions are foolish opinions, which would be synonymous and again tautological, but slips in the assumption that one set of men hold wise opinions and another set hold foolish opinions. From this, he falls back on another of his favorite devices, and asks if a man who is in training consults all men or a single expert. Crito quickly avers to both these assertions, either because he doesn’t detect that new premises are being put forth without being proven, or because he agrees with them.

It may be thought that some men are wiser than others by proportion. Some men may be wise and correct in half of what they believe and wrong in the other half. Some men may be considered foolish, holding a few wise opinions but most of what they believe is foolish, while others may be wise, correct in most of what they think but still often mistaken. Men are wise and foolish by degree and most fall somewhere in the middle.

Plato’s Socrates will have none of this. He holds that most men are foolish and wrong about nearly everything while only a very few are wise and know the truth. Firm in this conviction, he therefore holds the many in contempt. How then can Socrates love and revere Athens when he despises nearly all of her citizens? Plato answers this difficult question in a curious manner:

Suppose the laws and the commonwealth were to come and appear to me as I was preparing to run away (if that is the right phrase to describe my escape) and were to ask, “Tell us Socrates, what have you in mind to do? What do you mean by trying to escape but to destroy us, the laws and the whole state, so far as you are able? Do you think a state can exist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law are of no force, and are disregarded and undermined by private individuals?”

Socrates says that the commonwealth appears to him, and so he doesn’t merely hear a voice as did Samuel, but he actually sees the commonwealth, and since it speaks to him, we can only conclude that while it is discarnate, it is yet in human form. Readers are prone to imagine a figure towering and majestic like Phidias’ great statue of Athena.

As vivid as this image is, the notion that Athens is something above and apart from her many citizens is a category mistake. Gilbert Ryle described a visitor touring a university, walking by the dormitories, stepping into classrooms, and peeking into offices, who complains that he’s seen the dormitories, classrooms, and offices but has not been shown the university. Similarly the laws and the commonwealth of Athens are nothing more than the many granting powers to the few, all binding themselves by the law, and punishing the one who transgresses that law. The university is a body of people dividing themselves into teachers, students, administrators and staff, each taking on one role in that body and all working in concert. The commonwealth is likewise a body of citizens dividing themselves into legislators, magistrates, leaders, functionaries, taxpayers, and law-abiding private citizens, those in government working within the bounds of the constitution and those in a private station living within the constraints of the laws.

This figure goes so far as to insist on the rights of a parent and a master, claiming that through them his father took his mother and brought him into the world. As to this strangely derived parenthood, men sometimes will bed women even when not legally obligated to do so. As to mastery, Socrates has lived his whole life within the borders of Athens, choosing to obey her laws and abide by her customs when he may have gone away to live in any other state either Greek or barbarian. Socrates may not have been barred from leaving, but as millions of refugees throughout history may testify, every emigrant is by necessity an immigrant as well, and those who flee their homeland may find every border and every shore barred to them. Denied any refuge, they are left to wander the earth or perish.

The flight of talent and capital does serve as a salutary check on misgovernment and despotism, but it should not be the only means of redress. The figure of Athens condemns Socrates’ contemplated flight as the base actions of a slave, trying to run away and breaking the contracts and agreements he made. Yet slaves are held in durance not by will, and it is free citizens who make contracts and agreements, and these are binding on both the rulers and the ruled. If Socrates had been set upon and lynched by a mob he would have been the victim of the injustice of men, but he was tried in a court and sentenced to death, and so he is the victim of the injustice of the laws.

It’s commendable to resist unjust laws, and it’s allowable to flee their penalties, but the object is not to flout these laws but to overturn them. If it is Phye and not Athena who has appeared to Socrates, he has a duty not merely to disobey her but also to expose her. It is better to suffer injustice than to perpetrate it, but it is also better to end injustice than to resign oneself to it and condemn others to follow and suffer the same fate.

Plutarch’s Parallel Lives

Plutarch had the good fortune to live during the period from the accession of Trajan to the death of Marcus Aurelius when the Mediterranean world which had seen the rise and fall of so many empires had reached its zenith. The revolutions, convulsions, and wars were now all in the past and it was now left to the present generation in their peace and prosperity to reflect on what had gone before.

The Roman Empire was built up of many nations speaking many different tongues but in the west Latin was the first language of many and the second language of the rest. In the east, it was Greek that was used to communicate by strangers who could not otherwise understand one another.


While the Roman Empire was vast and various, it was Roman and although the Romans admired the grace of their letters, and the beauty of their arts, they nevertheless considered even the most illustrious of the forefathers of the Greeks inferior to themselves. Himself a Greek, Plutarch designed his Parallel Lives to assert the equality of the greatest of the Greeks with the greatest of the Romans, the sons of Achaea with the sons of Troy.

These were biographies of the great soldiers and statesmen of the past, some leaning to the martial and some to the civil but every public figure partaking of both. Every notable Roman was paired with a Greek whom he resembled in character, whether in their virtues, or in their faults, whether coming to a violent end long before their time, or in enjoying a long life and a peaceful death. These were not biographies in the modern sense, so much as moral studies.

It was the middle course where virtue and wisdom were to be found. Courage lay between rashness and timidity, sagacity between indifference to the appreciation of the good and longing for the acclamation of the mob, temperance between the indulgence of the appetites in gluttony and lasciviousness and insensibility to the pleasures of this life. When rediscovered during the Renaissance, his readers encountered the fullest articulation of what it meant to be a good pagan and how markedly it differed from what the Church demanded of a good Christian.

While Christians were in the world but not of the world, the pagans thought the only worthwhile life was a public life. Christianity extolled the ascetic, the anchorite, the hermit, while for the pagans any man who was blessed with good health, had been granted a comprehensive education, and enjoyed the means to be independent, owed it to his fellows to render his service to the state. Such a man could withdraw from public life only under some excuse, such as illness, grief, or misfortune. The morality presented and the lively stories of the triumphs and failures of these illustrious statesmen made a great impression on these first Renaissance readers and subsequent generations.

The tales of the lives and deaths of Caesar, Coriolanus, Mark Antony, and Timon became the basis for plays by Shakespeare. This classical morality that made virtue not faith the highest aspiration of the human soul was the model for the leaders of the French Revolution. Plutarch always takes great pains to contrast the true statesman from the demagogue. The true statesman tells the truth to people even when it’s disagreeable or disheartening. When they are faced with unavoidable hardship, toil, and poverty he reconciles them to their fate and fortifies them against what is to come.

The demagogue can never speak such hard truths but assures them that happy days are just ahead. Lest some ask why he alone can discern the solution and take the measures needed to end the troubles that afflict the state, he distracts the mob by flattering them and inflaming their petty resentments. He points out a small group amongst them and blames them for their misfortunes and promises that they will soon be dealt with harshly. He leads them into foolish and ignoble acts and they compound their misery with shame.

Plutarch always felt that feeling and passion must be controlled and mastered by reason. He extols strength, courage, and restraint and has little patience for human weakness. His ideal is the soldier-statesman, a life of exertion and discipline but he has nothing to say to or for the artist, the lover, the mother, the outcast.

Dombey and Son Spoiler Review



       Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son begins with a birth. Mr Dombey, a magnate of the London merchant community, the proprietor of a great house and trading concern, is blessed with a son. He was once himself the son in Dombey and Son and for many years he has longed and waited for an heir of his own, and now, as he himself declares, the house is once again Dombey and Son in fact as well as in name. He has dreamed of an heir and already charted out the course of the boy’s future.

Mr Dombey has one child already, Florence, but as a daughter she can take no part in the business, and he’s never taken any exceptional interest in her. Mrs Dombey doesn’t long survive the delivery of her son, and with her death, Florence is left with no mother and an aloof and disinterested father. The infant boy, Paul, similarly deprived, comes to bestow on his sister all the tender attachment he might have felt for the mother he never knew.   Mr. Dombey sees to every detail of his son’s upbringing and education, and loves his in his own stern and obsessive manner, but Paul is never as close to his father as he is to his sister.

It is Florence who is his comfort, it is Florence who is his nurse, it is Florence who tucks him into bed at night. Paul remains delicate and sickly while Florence flourishes, growing in strength and beauty. Mr. Dombey’s former indifference begins to turn into jealousy and bitterness. Florence never suspects that Paul’s love for her is sowing an active hostility in the heart of their father, and she can only wonder why he holds her at such a distance.

Like King Lear, Mr Dombey a proud and powerful man, repulses the love of a daughter, and like King Lear he only appreciates this love and sees his own folly after he’s ruined. It is said that pride goes before a fall, and both Lear and Dombey are both proud, both hearken only to flatterers and betrayers and both fall. Most conclude that Dombey and Son is a story of pride and while pride is one theme it isn’t the main element. Like most Dickens novels there is a large cast of characters and the one trait they all hold in common is an inability to understand what the people around them are thinking and feeling. Mr. Dombey, in his arrogance, mistakes servility for loyalty, sycophancy for admiration, and he’s destroyed by a fawning and treacherous associate. A young man named Walter who comes to falls in love with Florence and works in a minor position in Dombey’s firm, comes to incur his displeasure, and seeks to propitiate Dombey by his cheerfulness and energy, not realizing that the constant display of these qualities which Mr. Dombey has lost over the years if he ever possessed them, is disagreeable to his employer and is regarded as defiance and impertinence.

Walter’s friend, an eccentric sea captain named Cuttle, is granted an audience with Mr. Dombey and he flatters himself that they understand one another perfectly and get on splendidly, oblivious to the reality that, because of the vast gulf between their respective stations, Mr. Dombey can never meet him on terms of equality and greets every familiarity on the part of the captain, every wink, every nudge, with shudders of revulsion and outraged dignity.

Mr. Dombey remarries, taking a haughty beauty much younger than he, a woman who marries a man she neither likes nor respects solely to provide for an elderly grasping mother. She, in the censorious manner of the time, regards herself as no better than a harlot, her purity and innocence lost forever, and in turn she despises her husband for having bought her. Dombey responds to her coldness by attempting to awe her with his rank, wealth, and power, and every show of munificence and ostentation only works to make her more contemptuous and pertinacious. Fanny can never understand that her father resents her because his son and his second wife love her as they have never loved him.


Nearly every character, the sympathetic and the contemptible, the kindly and ingenuous, the selfish and insincere, in imagining the opinions and emotions of their fellows are completely and tragically deluded. There are two notable exceptions. The scheming associate who brings down the firm, Mr. Carker, can see through the lies and hypocrisy of those around him, but he can only see the worst, the greed, the craving to be in the circle of power, the expectation of reward, the denigration of dignity in pursuit of profit.

It is the child, Paul, so often described as impossibly young and old all at once, who can see through to the heart and discern the good and the bad. No great Dickens novel is complete without an incompetent and self-aggrandizing educator, and Mrs. Pipchin is an object of much fascination to Paul who seems to look right through her with results very disconcerting to that worthy lady. Paul also can see the warmth and tenderness in Florence and so he loves her above all others. What the son has seen from the beginning, the father sees as well, but only at the end and as an prematurely aged, broken man.

The story has a happy ending in the same bittersweet strain as most of Dickens’ resolutions but the central problem remains unsolved. Almost none of the characters can move past the image they have of themselves and they’re unable or unwilling to really see themselves and the world through the eyes of those closest to them and this leads to all the misery that has come before and is only partly alleviated by the handful of happy coincidences that cushion their landing in the last pages.