Friday, March 11, 2011

Filosophy Friday: Let’s Read ‘Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction’ by Edward Craig, Part 2

Hey everybody and welcome to this week’s edition of Filosophy Friday. This is the second part of a series where I explore a book in my possession, ‘Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction’ by Edward Craig as a kind of beginner’s primer to the wide subject of philosophy. If you missed the first one, you can find it in the handy dandy sidebar to your left, where it says ‘Filosophy Friday Archive’.
First off I’d like to apologise for posting so darned late, when it’s almost Saturday already, but time and tide waits for no man, as they say, so I kinda found myself only free at this very moment. I’d also like to try some new features to speed up the blogging process, so I’m kinda alt-tabbing between the blogging and the feature testing and whatnot. Once again, I apologise.

Okay, so reading back on the first post, I was struck by what a mess it was. Me and Farra both like things to be neat and orderly, so you can imagine how horrified I was to read it in retrospect and find out that the ideas presented in the post were a mess. So now, I’d like to try a different tack; read the chapter first, let it simmer, then type out a short summary. Hopefully this way I get it all organised and stuff and shit.

Today we’ll be looking at Chapter 2 of the book, entitled; “What Should I do? Plato’s Crito”. If you remember in the first chapter, the author presented three essential philosophical questions: What Should I Do, How Do We Know, and What Is There, or What Is the Nature of Things? He will explore each of these by presenting us with a particular philosophical view that attempts to answer each of these, which provides a nice entry into the very wide subject of philosophy.

Now, on with the show.

The work we are going to discuss today is Plato’s Crito, which is alluded to in the chapter title. Crito is provided here as an example of an answer to the question ‘What Should I Do?’as it is about Socrates, and his discussion of what he should do given the situation he was in. Crito was the name of the main protagonist of the book, along with Socrates. A longer but better describing title would be ‘Socrates’ Discussions With Crito’ but that’s not how the work is called, only how it’s described. So while the book was written by Plato, we’re actually going to discuss Socrates.

It’s important to note that a lot of what we know of Socrates and his views came from Plato’s works, so it’s difficult to determine which are Socrates’ views and which are Plato’s, in events where he uses Socrates as a medium for narrating his ideas. According to the author, scholars now agree that Socrates focused on ethical questions about justice and virtue. In fact, the question ‘How Should I Live’ is sometimes called The Socratic Question. Anyway, Plato was a known student or follower of Socrates, so I suppose it stands to reason that their viewpoints are decidedly similar. This is just so you don’t walk away confused at having just been schooled on Socrates when you thought you’ve been reading about Plato.

So here’s a little background. Plato was a Greek philosopher, who wasn’t the only or even earliest philosopher in Greece, but according to the author he’s the one from whom we’ve gotten a lot of complete texts. Plato’s works were all written as dialogues, most of them conversational with the occasional rambling monologue. They range in difficulty from Crito, our presently discussed work, which isn’t really much of a stretch, to The Sophist, which according to the author is Philosophical Brain Freeze inducing. And as I mentioned all of his works feature Socrates mostly, though not always, as the leader of discussion, Socrates being his former teacher and all that.

So who was this dude Socrates? Well he lived from 469 to 399 BC. He was very charismatic, and lived in poverty because he would spend all of his time engaging in unpaid discussions with whoever the hell felt like it, which was apparently the youth of Athens. Apparently even in the past rich kids were usually the ones who had nothing to do but hang about and talk all day. ANYWAY, one of these kids (well not exactly) was Plato, who became a devout follower. Socrates’ style of discussion involved a lot of rapid fire questions and answers, so called dialectic critiques. He asked a helluva lot of uncomfortable questions, and according to the author “constantly probed whether his fellow Athenians really understood what was involved in these matters, anything like as well as they claimed to’.

 By the way that image comes courtesy of a comic book called ‘Action Philosophers!’ complete with exclamation point that explains the lives and philosophies of different philosophers in a fun, easy to understand comic book style.
So you can imagine that doesn’t go over too well with the Athenians, who actually live in a city named after the Goddess Athena.

 Socrates was charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, as most people who rock the boat of any society’s collective consciousness are. He was arrested, tried and found guilty, and was supposed to be executed but due to a religious holiday of some sort, could not be executed immediately, so he languished in prison for a bit. While he was in prison, some of his followers tried to arrange for an escape for Socrates; befriend the wardens, sneak aboard a ship bound for Thessaly and get away scot free. Chief of these was Crito, and I suppose it doesn’t take a philosopher to guess that this is where the book Crito is set; during Socrates’ imprisonment, and it involves Crito trying to persuade Socrates to use the Get out of Jail card Crito’s got for free. And the usage of the word ‘persuade’ there kinda says another thing about it; Socrates doesn’t want to go.

“What? Why not?” you may ask, and that’s exactly what Crito wonders. Socrates says that he’s an old man, and at his age you shouldn’t complain too much about having to die. From here Crito launches his campaign of argument, and the following are his major points.

  1. Damaging the reputation of his friends. Crito tells Socrates that all of his friends value him, and people would talk if he didn’t go and that would damage their reputations. Sort of like, ‘Hey look, ain’t that Crito, who was friends with Socrates? Not a very good friend, if he didn’t even try to get the poor guy out...’
  2. That it is wrong for him to give up on his life, in so doing providing a victory for his enemies.
  3. Think about his children! What about them? Surely Socrates doesn’t mean to abandon them by pursuing this folly!

As you can imagine Socrates has answers for Crito, and he describes them as such.

First, the damage of reputation to his friends. Socrates tells Crito that one shouldn’t bother with what people think, the only opinions we should be listening to are the ones from people who are reasonable with the right view of the facts. Socrates, true to form, launches into a dialectic, and asks Crito whose opinion should be respected, the wise or the foolish? The many or the expert? Crito gives the expected answers, and in this way Socrates points out that the only opinions that matter are those that come from wise people those who “understand what it is to be just, to act rightly, to live well or as one should”. Otherwise we shall be putting damage unto our souls, as we damage our bodies if we listen to crackpot majority ideas instead of doctors.

Secondly, Socrates argues that it would be wrong for him to escape into exile. He begins this argument by postulating two things: first, that doing harm to a person is wrong, even in retaliation. Now Socrates might have been done wrong to him by another – in this case, the state of Athens, but it is not permissible for him to wrong the State even in retaliation. If he escapes then he “intends its destruction”. He argues, if what he proposes to do is taken as an example, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you there are many out there in Athens who would, then everybody would disrespect the laws of Athens, and what follows is a collapse of the State and an undermining of the power of the courts, which exist to impose order upon anarchy. The author notes that this is an appeal to a very familiar moral argument: “What Would Happen If Everybody Acted Like That?” He mentions that the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) made that statement the basis for his philosophy.

His second postulation is that breaking an agreement is always wrong: here, the agreement which would be broken if he escaped is the one he made with the State of Athens when he became a citizen. There is apparently an unspoken agreement that, according to Socrates anyway, in exchange for being able to live there, he must abide by its laws. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But Socrates takes this to the extreme; even when his own life is in peril according to the laws of Athens, he still defers to the courts and the laws of Athens and agrees to his own death sentence, for to escape would mean breaking that agreement. And anyway, Socrates adds, the laws of the underworld are brothers to the laws of Athens, and if he escaped he would be finding himself in a very uncomfortable afterlife.
Socrates had also made various statements during his trial, which are covered in Plato’s book The Apology of Socrates which according to the author contain totally unapologetic speeches he made during the trial, in his own defense, after the trial and after the verdict. If he escaped now, he would be going back on those statements, and integrity was something that mattered to Socrates greatly. He would rather die than go back on his words.

Finally, what about his kids? If he escapes with them, are they to live their lives as exiles, when they hadn’t done anything wrong? In frikken Thessaly, Isle of Witches, of all places? What, were they supposed to grow into Thessalians themselves? No, he has friends who can look after them. And about his friends, there would most definitely be retribution to the conspirators if he escaped, and if the consequences of doing something mean doing wrong to his friends might as well forget about appealing to damaging their reputations if he does.

There’s a lot more in the book I hadn’t packed in, but let’s just stop at that. There is clearly a lot of detail I’m missing, but I hope I got the gist of it. Now, let’s hear what the author has to say about these arguments. He tells us that we shouldn’t read philosophy uncritically, and so we shall see what the author himself has to say.

First of all, the author questions Socrates’ appeal to damaging the soul by doing a wrong to the State. He wonders what exactly does Socrates mean by that; is it really worth it to cause damage to his friends’ reputations, and leave his children fatherless, just to preserve his own morality and ideals? Why is morality so valuable that Socrates would choose death rather than tarnish it? He also questions the level of agreement between a citizen and the State. The State can do a lot for the individual, certainly, but is it enough for it to be able to control a person entirely? He notes twice that maybe there would have been a better discussion if it wasn’t Crito talking to Socrates.

Well, you can guess what happens after that. Socrates dies after being sentenced to death by poisoned hemlock, and Athens is free from his corrupting influence. That’s the end of the dialogue, right there, and the author ends the chapter by saying that moral problems are notoriously hard to settle, since there is no right ‘one way’ of doing things. Since that’s the end of the chapter, it’s the end of the post. I hope you enjoyed reading it this time, and that there’s more clarity in this post than in the first one. I hope to find and read Crito one day, and maybe we’ll go in depth with it someday. I kinda doubt it, but I suppose it’ll be fun.

Until next time.

By Hafiz Tajuddin with 1 comment


solid summary. i was reading the online version and it ended before this chapter. I would be content reading more summaries but looks like they're aren't any. oh well thanks anyway

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