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An unclear comment in Plato's Crito

  1. May 24, 2007 #1


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    I was just reading http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html" [Broken], and I am wondering what Socrates means in the last exchange here:
    Why would being able to do the greatest evil also make them able to do the greatest good? The comments that follow aren't clear to me either. Does anyone have an idea?

    Part of it (they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish) sounds like familiar Stoic ideas about what is and is not under an individual's control, but the rest escapes me.
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  3. May 25, 2007 #2


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    Socrates' idea of the moral worth of a man rests in his personal virtue (in this case wisdom and foolishness), which is not affected by the opinions of others. His point is that it would be nice if opinions did have an affect on one's virtue, because then all you would need to do to be a virtuous person would be to convince others you were so they would have a high opinion of you.
  4. May 25, 2007 #3


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    Ah, roger.

    Do you know what he meant by "whatever they do is the result of chance"? I think I understand it if he means that a person should view the actions of others as if they are the result of chance, i.e., outside of one's control, or something like that. Or is he just saying that the crowd is fickle? Or is he making a stronger claim? (I realize it's only one sentence, but I'm quite lost as to what it means or how it fits in.)

    I have to say also that it seems that he didn't really have a good reason for accepting his sentence. There's an unfulfilled, empty feeling to his conclusion, like something is missing. It seems more just that none of the other options were acceptable, which is good enough if you know all of the options. But it isn't clear that he actually did cover all of the options. Do you know what I mean?

    Did he not consider that the state can change, that there are conditions to his contract (which the state could break), etc.? I don't know. Was he suggesting an unconditional duty or obedience, or is it more of an indebtedness? And was this obedience or indebtedness owed to his fellow citizens or to the law itself?
    I love that part. I guess that might perhaps be Plato seeking to blame someone, though.

    Hm, I guess I should read it again sometime. It just left me with an empty feeling.
  5. May 25, 2007 #4
    I think he means that the many do not understand the evils that they do. If they understood then they would also have some understanding of the good they could do. Because they don't understand their actions are mere chance, rather than choice.
  6. May 25, 2007 #5
    Nice to see someone else reads the dialogues! Greek was one of my previous degrees but I did not go to grad school for it. Let me try to remember this as I read it in Greek a few years back.
    I think it becomes clearer when you put it in the contex of why Socrates was on trial. Corrupting the youth and introducing new gods in the city were superficial charges and were ludricrous even to the Athenians. There was the old Athenian hostility to intellectuals in the background, Socrates had shown up the stupidity of many eminent politicians, there was his close friendship with Alciabiades who partly caused the defeat of Athens and brought about tyranny of the Thirty...these were the real unspoken charges and Socrates was seen as a subversive influence. But you can see that Socrates could have easily escaped the charges by not saying exactly what he thought as he was on trial. His trail shows the emptiness of the accusations because while he does not think much of the politicians and the hoi polloi, he does obey the laws of the city till the very end-even the one sentencing him to death. One can say Socrates brought about his own death because he continued to obey the laws of the city, and was unwilling to go into exile.
    Also it is futile to form a judgment of Plato from any one dialogue. One has to read them as a whole. The dialogues contradict each other and each must be appreciated for the context in which it was written. The dialogues are also meant to bring about a change (I do not know how to put it --moral and spiritual?) in the reader. The dialogues often end in aporia and are meant to help you start thinking rigorously for yourself. This is the whole point of the question and answer format of the dialogues. I have seen professors on the basis of some subjective reading of a few dialogues, ascribe absurd views to Plato. For Plato the teacher was also responsible for the moral growth of a pupil; it was for this reason that Socrates opposed the Sophists, not because they were not clever or not logical. Hence, the great importance Plato placed on close and direct companionship with the teacher, something we have lost today.
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  7. May 25, 2007 #6


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    Perhaps Socrates was pointing out how the same amount of intelligence is required to form both evil and good intentions.

    Someone devoid of an understanding or concept of both evil and good may be wholely incapable of formulating any intention whatsoever.
  8. May 25, 2007 #7


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    You have to be careful with verb/subject agreement here. He's not talking about other persons doing things by chance, but of opinions only being able to do good or evil by chance.
  9. May 26, 2007 #8


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    Thanks for the ideas, everyone.

    Ah, right. That makes more sense. I think I have a new problem with it now, though.

    Well, I only read it once and not very closely (I'm correcting this as time allows), but this is a part that I don't understand. He argues at the beginning

    Is his sentence not also an opinion? Isn't it the opinion of the state that he is deserving of his sentence? I'm not clear yet on the distinction between the law, the state (= government?), and the citizens. Does he consider the law to be some abstract system distinct from the citizens who create and apply it and the state to be the end result of this whole process, i.e., the opinions of this huge beast, er, Leviathan? (Haha.) Do you know what I mean? Does he even in fact value the opinion of the state? How does this opinion, if it is one, differ from the opinion of the many, which he (presumably) says is the result of chance? Something seems wrong there, but I can't put my finger on it.

    Or is he just trying to make a point, e.g., that the accusations are ridiculous? That is one heck of a way to make a point.!

    Or is it that none of this is relevant now, and the only present question is whether or not to obey the sentence?

    Or something else? Heh. I imagine I can make some progress towards an answer with a bit more work. These are just the questions that come to mind, so I'm sharing.

    Edit: Hm, or maybe that is really the point. The state is a part of the universe and works much the same way, and you can stay or leave. But, in his case, staying would harm it. Hm, or maybe that is just me trying to fit it in with my own system.

    Wow, talk about a powerful story. Imagine that you create a state to bring some fairness to this Fortune-ruled world, to make it a bearable and even a good and beautiful place, so that you can stay in the world by staying in the state. And then it turns out that you can't stay in the state, and now, you can't go back to the stateless world without harming the state. And for what reason?! It still doesn't seem fair at all. Where is the justice in this? Well, I'm kind of wandering off and rambling now. But he does say that in a way, that the laws/state is like a parent but moreso.

    Or, rather, it was in order to stay the state that he had to leave the world. Okay, shutting up now.
    Last edited: May 26, 2007
  10. May 26, 2007 #9
    He does not consider the State as a multitude of individual opinions. If an individual citizen disobeys the law then they are subverting the State. In doing so they injure the State and trade one evil for another, which is wrong. Socrates has been a citizen of the State for his entire life and had the opportunity to leave, therefore, he is bound by the law as a citizen of the State in which he resides. If he were to flee into exile he would be advocating disobedience of the law, which is necessary for an organized society. Socrates believes in an orderly society and must abide his sentence and remain faithful to his convictions, or flee into exile and eschew all his beliefs. The will of the State is greater than the will of any individual citizen.
  11. May 26, 2007 #10


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    He mentions elsewhere that he has had the opportunity to change their minds but has failed. What can he conclude from this failure about their wisdom and his own? That is what he does: exposes flaws in other people's thinking, right? Isn't that why no one is wiser than him?

    I really need to reread this before I can comment about the rest, but I wanted to read more about the trial and Apology first.
  12. May 26, 2007 #11
    Plato's views on the State can be found in the Republic, Statesman and the Laws.

    Plato the great philosopher refers to philosophy as "child's play" in one of the dialogues.

    I personally like the Phaedrus-there he speaks of the relation between truth, beauty and goodness. Plato here displays his distrust of the written word.

    One thing that can be said about him- he immensely disliked cleverness and intelligence that was not coupled with wisdom-the reason for his dislike of Sophists, who being great orators and logicians were the leading intellectuals of the time.

    He recommends philosophers study math for at least 20 yrs.:wink:

    Here are some remarks by him on wisdom and he also speaks a bit about his work. (From the Seventh Letter)
    "...One statement at any rate I can make in regard to all who have written or who may write with a claim to knowledge of the subjects to which I devote myself--no matter how they pretend to have acquired, whether from my instruction of by their own discovery. Such writers can in my opinion have no real acquaintance with the subject. I certainly have composed no work in regard to it, nor shall I ever do so in future, for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies. Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self sustaining...."
    "....Besides, this at any rate I know, that if there were to be a treatise or a lecture on this subject, I could do it best. I am also sure for that matter that I should be very sorry to see such a treatise poorly written. If I thought it possible to deal adequately with the subject in a treatise or a lecture for the general public, what finer achievement would there have been in my life than to write a work of great benefit to mankind and to bring the nature of things to light for all men? I, do not, however, think the attempt to tell mankind of these matters a good thing, except in this case of some few who are capable of discovering the truth for themselves with a little guidance. In the case of the rest, to do so would excite in some an unjustified contempt in a thoroughly offensive fashion, in others certain lofty and vain hopes, as if they had acquired some awesome lore....."
    "......To sum it up in all one word, natural intelligence and a good memory are equally powerless to aid the man who had not an inborn affinity with the subject. Without such endowments there is of course not the slightest possibility. Hence all who have no natural aptitude for justice and all the other noble ideals, though in the study of other matters they may be both intelligent and retentive--all those too who have affinity but are stupid and unretentive--such will never any of them attain to an understanding of the most complete truth in regard to moral concepts. The study of virtue and vice must be accompanied by an inquiry into what is false and true of existence in general and must be carried on by constant practice throughout a long period, as I said in the beginning. Hardly after practicing detailed comparisons of names and definitions and visual and other sense perceptions, after scrutinizing them in benevolent fashion by the use of question and answer without jealousy, at last in a flash understanding of each blazes up, and the mind, as it exerts all its powers to the limit of human capacity, is flooded with light..."
    "....For this reason no serious man will ever think of writing about serious realities for the general public so as to make them prey to envy and perplexity. In a word, it is an inevitable conclusion from this that when anyone sees anywhere the written work of anyone, whether that of a lawgiver in his laws or whatever it may be in some other form, the subject treated cannot have been his most serious concern--that is, if he is himself a serious man. His most serious interests have their abode somewhere in the noblest region of the field of his activity. If however, he really was seriously concerned with these matters and put them in writing "then surely not the gods but mortals have utterly blasted his wits"(quote from Iliad)..."
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  13. May 28, 2007 #12


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    Ah, sweetness.

    It's been a long time since I've read anything by or about him, but back then, he tended to rub me the wrong way, and I adored Aristotle, so I didn't read much of Plato's work. Thanks for all of that. Looking into this more is definitely up there on my list now.
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