Crito and Rousseau

I assigned Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo for class this semester and last. In the Crito, Socrates’ friend tries to persuade him to escape from Athens before his execution, which prompts Socrates to do his usual dismantling of his interlocutor’s ideas. Near the end of the dialogue, Socrates pretends to converse with the laws of Athens. To the statement that the legal decision was unjust and therefore can be disobeyed, he has the laws reply as follows:

“And was that our agreement with you?” the law would sar, “or were you to abide by the sentence of the State?” And if I were to express astonishment at their saying this, the law would probably add: “Answer, Socrates, instead of opening your eyes: you are in the habit of asking and answering questions. Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?” None, I should reply. “Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?” Right, I should reply. “Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?- you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? And will you, O professor of true virtue, say that you are justified in this? Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and if not persuaded, obeyed? And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country.” What answer shall we make to this, Crito? Do the laws speak truly, or do they not?

I had read this before, but I don’t think that I had realized the parallel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of the “general will of society” and society’s right of life and death over its members.

The quote from Crito was taken from the Internet Classics Archive given the ease of copying and pasting. I read the Crito in Five Dialogues (Hackett, 2002, trans. by Grube/Cooper).



  1. Yes! Good eye, noting the parallel with Rousseau’s similarly specious reasoning.

    Alas, Crito does not seem to be a useful critic here, more of a yes-man.

    It’s just like the state to exaggerate it’s role, necessity, and absoluteness. Exactly what does marriage and begatting require from the state? Perhaps to stay out of the way? Or at most, resolve disputes?

    Was Socrates actually trying to destroy the state or was that more statist hyperbole?

    And who would think to educate their children without the state? They truly are deserving of despotic power. Did I say “they” as if they were flawed humans? No, the state is something ethereal, without substance; a god-like moral ideal that is beyond the reach of even the politicians who just so happen to wield it behind the curtains.

    Ah, sarcasm, the refuge of one (me) who appeals to derisive passions rather than taking the time to make more substantive and kind arguments. 🙂

  2. Socrates’ companions are usually yes-men, in awe of his reasoning, unfortunately. It’s kind of a funny thing about Socrates: he claims not to teach anything, but he actually teaches a lot with leading questions.

    Socrates determined that running away from an unjust verdict achieved through the proper legal process would destroy the laws. On the other hand, his accusers seemed to believe that his questioning of the traditional stories about the gods and the traditions of the city in favor of a universal standard of morality to be discovered by reasoning was a threat to Athens, especially since some of the well-to-do young mean liked to watch Socrates’s questioning show that some well-regarded citizens hadn’t thought very hard about things. The fairly short dialogue Euthyphro seems to be a good example of this.

    I think that Socrates’ and Rousseau’s trust in the state is not as bad as it could be since their states are very small. They are both thinking of city-states in which people have shared traditions and live at least relatively close to one another. Even education in Socrates’ Athens was mostly, if I understand it, a family affair, which would involve a tutor if the family could afford it. Education meant not only the three Rs but also an training for being a good, moral citizen of the polis. While their statist rhetoric is extreme, I think that these kinds of things make more sense when power is locally concentrated.

    A shorter way to say that is that for both Socrates and Rousseau, the idea that the citizens and the state are the same is not totally ridiculous. “The will of the people” is something more than an abstraction thrown around to justify policies. Scarier than Socrates and Rousseau is when the massive state uses justifications that make sense in close-knit local communities to advance its own power.

    This piece by anarcho-capitalist Clark made some of the same points:

    I’m thinking about these things sometimes because it seems that reviving community life is important not only for healthier communities but for limiting the power of the central state.

  3. Thanks for the excellent context and details, Scott! Such yes-men seem disingenuous. And I agree, the Socratic method is useful, from law school to blogging. Socrates’ claim that it is not teaching is specious. Or should I say, “Is Socrates irrational? Tune in at 11 to find out!”. 🙂

    Given Socrates’ following, could this dialog with Crito have been intended to actually lead readers to come to the opposite conclusion? Could he have expected his audience to find the logical flaws in his argument, along with viscerally reacting to losing him? Simultaneously, perhaps it also served as a sycophantic plea to the authorities that he is no threat to them?

    Clark was fun to read and I agree with you both that the more local the power, the more moral it usually is. Not only is your vote worth more in a local democracy, but you also have fewer people to convince (the contract and compulsion is more negotiable), far less is compelled (almost negligible in many cases), and worst case scenario, escaping a small town is usually far easier than leaving a country, so there’s a low limit on the amount of coercion feasible.

    To that extent, I agree that “the citizens and the state are the same” becomes far less ridiculous as the size of the group approaches 1, largely for practical reasons. And I can see how those moral principles might be inferred from Socrates’ and Rousseau’s assumed small, close-knit city-states.

    However, their failure to specifically identify those morals as limiting conditions means that their implementations would be far less likely to have proper checks and balances and would tend toward centralization and tyranny.

    Perhaps the most fundamental moral principle is that simply banding together as a government does not make immoral actions moral. For example, would it be moral for Clark to go to his neighbor and forcefully take his money for a skating pond liner? Taking only a few cents might make it negligible, but does that make it moral? Wouldn’t it be more moral for those who use the pond to pay for it and/or everyone chip in voluntarily?

    Ironically, in terms of monetary distribution, such a system might look like a progressive income tax, but without the compulsion.

    Of course, government is basically just a contract. The problem is that we agree to or inherit atrocious contracts and they are changed underneath us over time, either legally or illegally, and we are largely stuck with them.

    I’m thinking about these things sometimes because it seems that reviving community life is important not only for healthier communities but for limiting the power of the central state.

    Absolutely! Localization is a vital counterbalance as you have shown in your series. And regardless of whether a state or federal government is right on a particular issue, decentralization of power makes it far harder to corrupt the whole. It’s an important check and balance.

    You can see the process in the US as well where State power has been eroded over time, including changes which may seem innocuous by themselves, such as electing US Senators by popular vote rather than through each State government. It’s remarkable how well some of the US founders could see these issues.

    I also liked Clark’s common sense metrics for size and importance of government:

    I suggest that any individual who is so powerful that he must be defended with a small army of private guards, laser weapons, missiles, continuously orbiting combat aircraft, and a private nuclear proof bunker ipso facto has too much power.
    I’d suggest that we scale back the size of the government – or perhaps even the territory it rules over – until spending $1,200 on a new rink liner and allocating $90 to the defensive force start to seem like reasonable decisions that we can all make together.

    Tangentially, but interestingly in this vein, local corruption can actually serve a moral and ameliorating role under more authoritarian governments. It is not a wise system since it gives local authority too much power, but it can ironically be a moral force.

  4. It is somewhat hard to know what the intention of Socrates was. It seems that he had the chance to escape with his friends’ influence, but he refused. On the other hand, this and other dialogues were written by Plato, but it’s not always clear how much he is intending to reflect the actual actions of Socrates:

    It seems to me, though, that Socrates (at least as presented in Crito) was resigned to his fate and believed that it was always right to do what he did. He determined never to do wrong, and viewed submitting to the verdict as refusing to do wrong by harming the city.

    You’re right that Socrates and Rousseau don’t define the limits of the community’s authority over the individual. Perhaps it’s a mostl Judeo-Christian contribution that there is an authority above the state:

    I’m glad that you enjoyed Clark’s post, and I enjoyed your reflections on it. One question: when does taxation become legitimate in your mind? Are there certain public goods (unlike the skating rink) that we cannot all avoid using? I assume that the answer is yes, but where do you draw the line?

  5. Interesting background on how Plato may have conflated or increasingly transformed Socrates from a historical figure into an avatar of his own views.

    And excellent observation about the decentralizing Judeo-Christian prophets. I left a comment over on that post of yours, noting Jesus and quoting 1 Samuel 8:10-20.

    When does taxation become legitimate in your mind? Are there certain public goods (unlike the skating rink) that we cannot all avoid using? I assume that the answer is yes, but where do you draw the line?

    Wonderful questions! 🙂 The same framework I use for the legitimacy of government also pertains to taxes. Namely, there are two avenues to the moral legitimacy: (1) voluntary agreement, and (2) direct moral justification for taking money from my neighbor or even a stranger by force for a particular purpose.

    Mutual defense is the canonical “public good” example under the premise that your life may be saved as a result of my taking your money. There’s also rare cases where your inaction would so greatly harm other people that you should be compelled. e.g. if your failure to contribute to mutual defense would cost all of us our lives, we can morally compel you.

    But the danger of this line of reasoning is that it depends heavily upon predicting the future. e.g. While we can morally justify taxes for a defensive war that saves our lives, it becomes immoral if the war is immoral or we were not in any real danger.

    Moreover, these scenarios are so overwhelmingly voluntarily agreed upon that #2 can be almost entirely subsumed by #1 “voluntary agreement”, which thereby reveals the essential question to be, “to what extent is our social contract a legitimate voluntary agreement?”

    The fact that we inherit our social contract detracts from its legitimacy, but the easier it is to leave our government and migrate to a preferred system, the more voluntary and legitimate it is. This is the same reason why even voluntarily agreed upon slavery and especially inter-generational slavery is immoral.

    Limited government confers greater legitimacy since myriad other voluntary solutions can be negotiated for everything outside its purview. i.e. minimizing the initiation of force lends legitimacy. The smaller the tax, the less we care about it being compelled.

    A stable, consistent social contract is far more legitimate than one that can change under your feet by majority vote, much less a majority of representatives, much less the whims of judges reinterpreting law, much less the whims of the president or worse, bureaucrats.

    That said, democracy does lend some legitimacy, but only to the degree that each individual’s voluntary choice affects the outcome, which means that, all else being equal, smaller democracies are more legitimate than larger democracies. So, local taxes are more legitimate than federal taxes. Indeed, if everyone voluntarily agrees to a particular tax, then it is equivalent to a free market solution and the potential compulsion is moot.

    As you can probably tell from my past locution, I do not consider our current federal social contract to be a morally legitimate voluntary agreement in every respect, which is why I commonly characterize government actions as the initiation of force rather than the enforcement of a legitimate voluntary contract.

    So, in practice, I tend to emphasize that taxes must be justified by #2. And while my compelling people in other cases is wrong, in pragmatic concession to political reality, I also prefer taxes that (in my estimation) would approximate individual free market spending — in other words, functionally approaching what fine-grained voluntary agreement would be.

    For example, I might accept a gas tax whose funds go to build and upkeep roads. I also might accept property taxes that fund police. In both cases, locals would otherwise come to a similar voluntary agreement. I might even generically accept the idea of paying in proportion to income and (separately) also assets because the rich have more to protect and in a free market they would probably spend more to do so.

    None of this is to be preferred to an actual free market (which is more moral and effective), but it provides a finer-grained moral framework for me to choose between bad options, and it can act as bridge from me to popular culture.

    In terms of bridging from popular culture back to me, the most frequent errors I have seen regarding taxes are:

    (1) Ignoring that taxes are taken by force. Almost no one resists the overwhelming force, which makes it seem minimal or nonexistent. And just as this violence is usually invisible, so is the charity and good that would have been done if government had not taken as much of our money.

    (2) Ignoring spending in determining the moral legitimacy of a tax. Not every expense can morally justify taking people’s money, so it is morally dangerous and even pernicious to pool all the money and leave spending open ended.

    (3) Not knowing about or understanding more moral, practical options. People want to voluntarily contract “public goods” and others, but they should not all be part of a single social contract, along with maximizing the other criteria for moral legitimacy I listed above.

    As a result of these errors, tax money is seen and treated as free money for our representatives to “charitably” dole out to special interests who effect their own election and power.

    So, I don’t really have a firm “line” of which goods should be paid for by taxes. Instead, I have a strong view on how the line should be drawn and which lines are morally better than others. In terms of the federal government, I would probably restrict its power to defense, truly interstate conflicts, and protecting the natural rights of individuals against their States.

    Haha, I started to go on and on about the remarkably functional, wide-ranging moral beauty of voluntary agreement, but, phew!, this is long enough. 🙂

    Please let me know if anything I wrote is unclear or dubious. I’m not sure I’ve ever laid it all out like that before. This has been a good exercise for me. Thanks for asking.

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