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Socrates, Obedience, and the Law: Plato's Crito

  • J. Dybikowski (a1)

The Crito does not set out to provide a complete theory of what subjects owe their governments in obedience. It is particularly concerned with what Socrates should do. On the way, however, it reveals general commitments which bear implications for judging other situations with which the dialogue is not directly concerned.

The first section of this essay outlines Crito's reasons for urging escape as well as Socrates' general strategy for disarming Crito's case. It particularly draws attention to the rhetorical devices Socrates cleverly exploits to alter Crito's perspective in judging his proposed plan. The second section examines the dialogue's arguments which purport to show why Socrates must refuse Crito's offer. Its object is to distinguish, and exhibit the logical implications of, positions which in the dialogue form part of a continuous story.

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1 Woozley A. D. in “Socrates on Disobeying the Law”, The Philosophy of Socrates, ed. Vlastos G., pp. 299318, overlooks the importance Socrates attaches to the claims of justice when he reproaches him for his cavalier handling of the rest of Crito's case.

2 Greenberg Contra N., “Socrates' Choice in the Crito”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology (70) 1965, p. 56, and Grote G., Plato, Vol. I, p. 308, who both represent Socrates as the expert.

3 G. Nakhnikian, “Elenctic Definitions”, in The Philosophy of Socrates, ed. G. Vlastos, p. 144.

4 Significantly Socrates' dream (44a5–b4) supports a preference for the survival thesis.

5 Contra Woozley, Ibid, pp. 315 ff., who interprets all of Socrates' arguments as resting in the end on utility plus fairness.

6 Plato also relies on the traditional authority of parents in the Republic, for instance, where he uses the family as the model for political relations within the city. He remarks that all who are called 'father' in the city should be granted the respect owed to parents (463c–d).

7 Incidentally Aristotle distinguishes the authority of the laws from paternal authority (Nicomachean Ethics 1180a19–23). The former carries greater force on his view because of its impersonality. On his view, therefore, the parental analogy disguises one of the most distinctive and powerful features of the laws.

8 Locke, Second Treatise, Chap. 6, Sect. 65.

9 Rousseau, Social Contract, Bk. I, Chap. 2; and De l'Economie Politique in Rousseau: Political Writings, Vol. I, ed. Vaughan C., pp. 237–40.

10 In this respect the laws' position resembles Tussman's in Obligation and The Body Politic.For while he is fundamentally a contract theorist, he permits rule over those not covered by the contract in the manner of children. Cf. esp. p. 37.

11 Meiklejohn, Political Freedom, pp. 21–4. Woozley, Ibid., p. 307, defends a similar position.

12 Ibid., pp. 42–6. Tussman would also like to restrict this disobedience to instances where the appeal is taken to a recognized tribunal by whose decision all parties are bound. This is not properly describable as civil disobedience.

13 Popper, p. 305, n. 53. Popper's general claim is that while Socrates was critical of democracy, his criticisms are friendly to it. Plato's criticisms by contrast are those of a hostile outsider. Even the Apology (31d–e), however, contradicts these assurances. There Socrates justifies his early withdrawal from political life by arguing that a defender of justice would be put to death not only by Athens, but by any other democracy. This is hardly friendly criticism.

14 I am particularly grateful to D. G. Brown and E. Rand for criticisms of an early draft.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
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