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).