Plato, “Crito”, and should we obey bad laws?


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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28 Responses

  1. Two things:
    1. To an extent, I think the distinction you’re trying to make is roughly equivalent to the distinction between the legal concepts of malum in se and malum prohibitum. The one exception of the items you’ve listed would arguably be adultery.
    2. I think this helps explain why you found my interpretation of the Euthyphro (which allows that the role of gods can just as easily be played by the State and that “piety” can mean morality more generally) to be unique. I tend to have a fairly low regard for the Crito (not to mention the Republic), and so have always wound up treating the Euthyphro as a stand-alone dialogue, even though this is absolutely not how you should treat the Euthyphro if you’re trying to understand what Plato was getting at. As a stand-alone work, the Euthyphro intrigues the hell out of me and stimulates all sorts of endless thoughts in my mind. As a follow-up, the Crito thus seems to me like Godfather III: so painfully disappointing that it actually makes you lose a little bit of respect for I and II, so you just decide to pretend that Godfather III never happened. If that analogy doesn’t work for you, then feel free to substitute “Rocky V” or “Karate Kid III.” Or Super Bowls XXV-XXVIII.

    Wait. I just remembered that there really weren’t any Super Bowls XXV-XXVIII. I feel so much better all of a sudden.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @Mark Thompson, I figured there’s probably a real legal term there that I didn’t know. I went back and forth on adultery- it definitely causes emotional distress, but I couldn’t decide it it’s actually a direct assault on the spouse. Probably so.

      To your second point, there are scholars who actually argue that the Crtio can’t possibly be a Plato dialogue for similar reasons- not only is it so dissatisfying given other things he’s written, but stylistically it’s much different from any of the other dialogues.

      Incidentally, I’ve realized there are still dialogues I’d like to get to aside from Phaedo- I hope nobody gets the idea we’re talking about a zombie Socrates.Report

    • Avatar Paul B says:

      @Mark Thompson,

      I’m not sure modern legal distinctions are helpful here. Athenian law was conceived as ordering the city’s relation to its gods, and crimes were punished not because of any harm they may or may not have done to the victim but because they introduced a ritual pollution that invited divine wrath. Examples from mythology abound (think of Oedipus, or the plague the beginning of the Iliad), but this was a live issue in the 5th century: Alcibiades was sentenced to death in absentia for, among other things, the mutilation of the Herms.

      Obviously Socrates doesn’t accept those notions uncritically — we can see that in the Euthyphro and the talk about his daimon in the Apology — but I think they inform the way he dismisses Crito’s concerns and frames the discussion in terms of the corruption of his own soul.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        @Paul B, Yeah, I see what you mean. I just find his attitude in Crito a bit weird. It seems like Socrates should be breaking down the case against obeying the law instead of disagreeing with Crito on this one.

        It is helpful to see the laws as governing the relationship between the civic order and the divine order.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        @Paul B, Your comment that the law “was conceived as ordering the city’s relation to its gods” has gotten me wondering if I’m not looking at the whole situation anachronistically and maybe the secular law isn’t a lot more recent that I tend to think of it. Do you know when the view of the law started to change towards the contractual model?Report

        • Avatar Paul B says:

          @Rufus F.,

          It’s hard to say. I learned Greek law as a kind of antithesis of Roman law, where we do see a clear historical progression from a system based on status (and thus religiously derived order) towards one based on contract. But the Greek sources are a lot sketchier (and biased, since they’re pretty much all legal speeches arguing particular sides of a particular cases), so maybe there was more going on than we know. At any rate, I don’t want to say that Socrates was completely hemmed in by tradition — the idea here of a social contract really is new.

          I think a key part of that idea (it comes up at least twice in a fairly short dialogue) is the notion that Socrates had every right to argue against the laws before his conviction, but having failed to change them must now abide by his sentence. This seems right to me, but then again I’m more interested (as I think Socrates was) in individual ethics than in political philosophy proper.

          With that in mind, it might be useful to conceive of Socrates as an early advocate of civil disobedience who would agree with Thoreau/Tolstoy/Gandhi/King that the only place for a just man in an unjust society is prison — but now I suspect I’m the one being anachronistic!Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            @Paul B, I think my mistake was in seeing him as arguing for a social contract in the early part of the dialogue and not the latter, when he really probably is not. I think I was projecting backwards, thinking of the attempts to codify Roman law, which I do think get more at the idea of a social contract.

            It’s definitely hard to say what Socrates had in mind, but I do think that’s how Plato is trying to portray him- as the martyr to an unjust mobocracy. I’ve heard some writers take the position that Plato thought Socrates should be put to death and really was guilty; but that strikes me as stretching things a lot more than seeing him as advocating civil disobedience, which seems more plausible.Report

    • Avatar Tim Ellis says:

      @Mark Thompson: Super Bowl? What Super Bowl? I’m still hanging in there for a Bills victory in their first-ever attempt.

      Collective amnesia is as awesome as it is useful.Report

  2. Avatar Kyle R. Cupp says:

    To what extent, if at all, do you see laws as having a pedagogical role? Should lawmakers be concerned with improving the souls of the citizens?Report

    • Avatar Tim Ellis says:

      @Kyle R. Cupp, Yes, insofar as lawmakers should be concerned with providing citizens a framework within which they are able to improve their own souls.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @Kyle R. Cupp, I guess I’m skeptical that it can work that way. With teaching, the first comparison I can think of is to the strict rules we often have to come up with at the beginning of a semester. Students follow them, but I don’t know if they’ve really learned anything other than that the instructor is a hard-ass. That’s got it’s benefits too. But with laws that are intended to make us better people, I can’t tell if I’ve actually learned anything, or am just avoiding punishment. I mean I’ve never been to a prostitute, but that’s probably more about the message I got from my mother, girlfriends, and my wife about prostitution than the law.

      I don’t know. Can you think of a law that improved your thinking on a particular issue?Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “Why is it so honorable to be put to death for a law you haven’t violated? His answer seems to be that the privilege to live in society justifies any injustice that might go along with it, but by choosing the unjust punishment, Socrates is sanctioning injustice against himself.”

    Oliver Wendell Holmes (ptooey) made a similar argument to the section I bolded in the case Buck v. Bell.

    We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.

    Of course, if one doesn’t like it, one always has the option of Somalia.

    Or, I suppose, one could drink hemlock.

    You use public sidewalks, right?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @Jaybird, I wonder if there’s anywhere left on the planet where you wouldn’t have the privileges or responsibilities of society whether you’d like them or not? Surely there are still some lawless places left…Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        @Rufus F., maybe that place you go after you drink the hemlock?Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          @Jaybird, I remember reading an essay by an anarchist in which he argued that the year in which the entire earth had been mapped was deeply tragic for humankind because there was no undiscovered place left. Probably one could make a similar case about the places governed on earth.Report

  4. Avatar TJM says:

    I think this also goes the role that people see for themselves as political inferiors (those who simply figure out what the law is and obey it) and superiors (those who determine what the law should be). A political inferior may simply see the role of government or the role of a ruler as providing order and security in return for the inhabitants paying tribute and not revolting. If those inhabitants accept the authority of the gov’t/ruler but object to the manner in which the authority is exercised, then they would seem to be transitioning from inferior to superior. Rather than asking whether the superior has a “duty” to disobey laws that they are objecting to, I think a broader question would be whether they have a duty make some kind of attempt – either through disobedience or some other form of communication – to attempt to alter the law. Disobedience is one tool of many. Socrates may very well have been communicating, by way of his actions and his seemingly heroic/irrational adherence to authority, something that could influence a change in the law.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @TJM, I guess it’s hard to know what Socrates was thinking, although we have other verification that he really was aloof in the face of all of this. I think that might be what Plato was trying to do in his account of it- it’s nearly impossible to read the dialogue and not think that the Athenian justice system needs to go.

      Of course, what he’d seemingly like is just the same thing but with our natural superiors serving as our superiors, instead of the rabble.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Let’s tie everything together into a nice, neat bow.

    Would Socrates have argued that everybody ought to have followed Jim Crow laws?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @Jaybird, Well he discusses a similar issue in the Republic, suggesting that the legal limits on women are really unjustifiable through biological differences, but it seems to me that he doesn’t suggest defying the law- just that society would be much better off if an aristocracy of intellect was making the laws, and that in that ideal situation, they probably wouldn’t place any restrictions on women. But, since he seems to accept the rule of the rabble in this dialogue, and thus the world he’s stuck with… I think he’d recognize the problems with the Jim Crow laws, and certainly undermine them in his discussions, but still accept them in the end.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        @Rufus F., my issue isn’t with “I think that this is an unjust law but I will follow it anyway because that’s how I roll.”

        More power to anybody who says that.

        My problem is with “I think that this is an unjust law but you had better follow it. Hell, everybody had better follow it.”

        At that point, one is forcing others to act unjustly. If one wishes to damn oneself, one ought have that right.

        One ought not damn others.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          @Jaybird, So which is Socrates doing? Because he’s definitely doing the first- saying he’ll follow the law, even if it’s unjust, because he’s honorable. But it seems like- by saying that following the law regardless in order to be honorable- he’s saying his students should follow unjust laws. I think that’s one of Crito’s complaints that hits home- he’s implicating his students and sons in injustice too. Also, Crito’s right that the students are going to be criticized for letting Socrates die- it’s probably why Plato wrote the dialogue.

          On the other hand, I can’t see how he couldn’t force them to side with injustice, given that Socrates was resolved to stay in prison, unless they knocked him out or something. Since he’s resolved to roll that way, they really don’t have much choice but to go along with it.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            @Rufus F., well, I’ll say what I said in our thread for the Gorgias:

            Socrates was a thorn in the side of the powerful. His rhetoric skills were unmatched. He could make someone who argued that 2+2=4 and that bacon and eggs were good didn’t know what he was talking about and shouldn’t be taken seriously. He, of course, spent most of his time poking not only good and decent folk like Callicles but people with, let me capitalize this, POLITICAL POWER.

            The people with political power *HATED* Socrates. While Socrates just loved to play the game, the folks with power had something to lose. They finally got into a staring match with Socrates and Socrates *REFUSED* to lose. Indeed, he refused to let his opponents pretend to win. They accused him of corrupting the youth and he said “that’s a capital offense, is it not?” and they said “yep” and he said “meet me on such and such a date where you, yourself, can give me the hemlock”.

            They tried for exile, they tried for commuted sentence, they tried for probation.

            Socrates drank it and gave a rooster to Asclepius.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. says:

              @Jaybird, That’s true- the only attempt he really makes to argue them out of it- saying they should really be putting him on the state payroll and treating him as a cherished citizen- is clearly impossible for them to accept. I do wonder if he didn’t think the damage to the name of “Athenian democracy” didn’t make death a small price to pay.Report

            • Avatar sam says:

              “The people with political power *HATED* Socrates. ”

              You know, I think the very best place to go to for how Athenians looked at Socrates is Aristophanes’s The Clouds. In the Apology Plato argues that Socrates’s precarious position in Athens was in very large part due to Aristophanes, but I think, from my reading, Aristophanes wasn’t so much shaping opinion, as following it. Aristophanes’s attack on Socrates is what we’d call today a “populist” attack — he’s attacking Socrates as some kind of out-of-touch elitist, whose techniques and teaching work a corrupting influence on the basic decency of the Athenian demos. So, while I don’t deny that the powers that be had it in for Socrates, he wasn’t all that well received by the folks at large, either.Report

    • Avatar Paul B says:


      This conversation popped up while I was taking too long to write my comment above, so I’ll repeat myself:

      “It might be useful to conceive of Socrates as an early advocate of civil disobedience who would agree with Thoreau/Tolstoy/Gandhi/King that the only place for a just man in an unjust society is prison.”

      To elaborate: I don’t really see argument in Crito as saying that we must obey unjust laws, but that we must accept the punishment for breaking them.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        @Paul B, they offered him a cornucopia of punishments and it looked like the authorities were looking for any number of outs for Socrates, though.

        They offered exile and they offered “apologize”.

        I can see how the latter might be a punishment worse than death but the former?Report

        • Avatar Paul B says:


          Well, the line that “the unexamined life is not worth living” comes in the Apology when Socrates is dismissing exile as a proposed sentence. If he’d have to hold his tongue to avoid trouble in some other city (and it’s not like there were any Greek cities more tolerant than Athens), he might as well drink the hemlock.Report

  6. Avatar Shanky says:

    If Plato were to argue with Legal Positivists and Natural Law Theorists on the obligation to follow ‘Unjust Laws’, how do you see the arguments building up?Report