Socrates and Athena/Phye

Socrates and Athena/Phye


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.

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