Plato’s Crito, civil disobedience and evaluativism

The Crito by Plato reads like a scene from a play set in the prison of Athens in 399 BC, the day before Socrates was to be executed. It is the scene in which Crito attempts to rescue Socrates, but Socrates refuses to avoid his execution. To some extent, the Crito must be fiction—Plato couldn’t possibly have overheard the actual events—yet the basic story is considered so important and historically accurate that the site of the prison has been preserved. This photo shows the foundation and three cells.

The Greeks consider themselves the pioneers not only of theater and of nearly every modern form of government but also of philosophy. Socrates taught philosophy to Plato who taught it to Aristotle who taught it to Alexander the Great who ruled an empire and established the place of that philosophy in history. Thus, Socrates was arguably the source of Western thought traditions, and reading the Crito helps us recognize deep biases inside Western thought.

Socrates had been sentenced to death over his habit of asking questions that made other people look foolish. Today, that behavior would be protected by the right to free speech, but no such right was established at the time. Socrates insisted that his antisocial habit was part of his identity, which he labelled “social gadfly.” He said he couldn’t stop being himself, much as modern people say we can’t stop having the sexual preferences we do or the neurodiversity we do. Apparently, the only way to end the embarrassment was to end Socrates.

Crito arranged to bribe the guards and send Socrates to live with friends in Thessaly. Such a rescue would have been an act of civil disobedience, a concept popularized in recent times by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. In the Crito, Crito explains this plan to Socrates, then Socrates details an argument to the conclusion that one should never engage in civil disobedience. “…one must obey the commands of one’s city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice.”

Today, it does not seem reasonable to condemn civil disobedience this way. If we will not condemn the followers of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., then we should count Socrates’ famous argument as fallacious, and we should examine it. We may find unsound premises in it which also appear in other parts of Western thinking.

To reject Crito’s offer was suicide. Crito claimed that Socrates would be wrong to commit suicide because Socrates would be shirking his duty to nurture his children until they reach maturity and because Socrates would be blocking his friends from fulfilling their duty to save him. Socrates dismissed the relevance of these consequences, “…if it appears [to us] that we shall be acting unjustly, then we have no need at all to take into account whether we shall have to die…” In other words, the consequences for individual citizens such as himself, his children, and his friends are trumped by the consequences for the State. This narrowed the scope of the Crito to the nature of civil disobedience.

Socrates argued that civil disobedience treats the State unjustly: “…do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but are nullified and set at naught by private individuals?” Of course, the intent behind civil disobedience is not to destroy the State, but rather to save it! If a person is suicidal, then it may benefit that person to temporarily act against that person’s will. Likewise, if a State is ill, then it may benefit the State to temporarily engage in civil disobedience.

If the right sort of illness is not present, then civil disobedience would not be justified, but Socrates and Crito both believed that the State was ill in this instance. In his defense, Socrates said that a sluggish horse may need to be stirred up by a gadfly, and that the State similarly needs to be stirred up by himself. Rather than claim that the State was not ill, Socrates argued that it should be healed in a less destructive way: “we [the State] do not issue savage commands to do whatever we order; we give two alternatives, either to persuade us or to do what we say.”

In other words, Socrates claimed that civil disobedience is never justified because one should instead heal States by persuading them to change their understanding of justice. We now know of two major problems with this premise: First, persuasion might not be feasible. It is more appropriate to treat suicidal patients with drugs than with persuasion because their mental illness may render the persuasion ineffective. Likewise, the State might be too ill to be persuaded–Socrates had already failed to resolve his disagreement with the State through persuasion, and it would be insane to keep attempting what wasn’t working.

Second, persuasion could actually damage the State by diminishing the interdependent diversity of its social ecosystem. Some disagreements stem from mere ignorance. For example, consider disagreement about the answer to an arithmetic problem. It is entirely appropriate to reduce ignorance, and therefore appropriate to resolve such disagreements. However, other disagreements reflect our interdependent evaluative diversity. For example, society may benefit from including members with different thresholds for risk, and that diversity would produce disagreements about which risks to take. Resolving such disagreements would damage the State by reducing this diversity.

There are two kinds of people who reject the idea of resolving all disagreements: Corporantia and Evaluativists. Corporantia seek to preserve interdependent diversity. Rather than resolve all disagreements, they aim to maintain balance among interdependent parts of society and to discover the proper function of each part. The two most famous admonitions of Socrates and his students seem aligned with this approach: “Nothing too much” and “Know thyself.”

But Socrates died because he didn’t really practice what he preached. He was an evaluativist, someone who responds to the impossibility of persuasion by discounting those who do not share his own values. He proposed the premise: “One must not value…the opinions of all men, but those of some but not others…” Crito accepted this premise, supposedly to justify discounting the opinion of the State, but the same premise allowed Socrates to discount Crito’s opinion. Ultimately, the Crito concludes like this:

Socrates: As far as my present beliefs go, if you speak in opposition to them, you will speak in vain. However, if you think you can accomplish anything, speak.

Crito: I have nothing to say, Socrates.

Socrates: Let it be then, Crito, and let us act in this way, since this is the way the god is leading us.

Socrates leaves Crito no room for debate. He embraces evaluativism, and it destroys him.

Evaluativism typically stems from an inflated estimate of one’s own independent intelligence and ignorance about the virtues of interdependence. If the State recognized that its independent intelligence might be insufficient to understand justice, then, rather than demand to be persuaded, it would point to a more intelligent court where disagreements could be resolved, and/or it would test the sides in the disagreement by running separate social experiments in parallel.

As an example of parallel social experiment, consider Crito’s plan to send Socrates to Thessaly. If it turned out that Socrates enriched Thessaly, and that Athens languished in his absence, then this experiment would have produced evidence to support Socrates’ opinion that his gadfly behavior benefits the State.

But Socrates dismisses such a plan: “…if you go to one of the nearby cities… all who care for their city will look on you with suspicion, as a destroyer of the laws.” He never considers the possibility that the people of Thessaly might instead endorse civil disobedience because they judged that the State of Athens made an error it could not be persuaded to recognize. If we are to allow that Socrates can be a gadfly to the State, why not allow that Thessaly can be a gadfly to the collection of States?

Socrates’ lack of imagination in this scene is like that of a depressed individual who was dumped and cannot move on with his life. The Crito is ironic because Socrates’ evaluativism not only produces a fallacious argument against civil disobedience, but also dooms Socrates himself in the process.

Today, it may be most important to recognize that the argument would not have been fallacious if evaluative diversity were not interdependent. It follows that civil disobedience would not be justifiable without interdependence, and thus that every celebration of civil disobedience implies the claim that we lack sufficient independent intelligence. This is the key question which unsettles Western thought: “Should we expect to develop independent intelligence, or should we expect to develop interdependence?”

Socrates demonstrated the dangers of the former expectation. When do we learn the lesson?