Monday, December 9, 2013
If you are the last prey of wolves
if the wind is so icy you fall to the ground
to breathe through a cloth in the snow
if the air is so white you forget
a whole day
led by a guide who doesn’t know
into soaring peaks
what wonders of China
have eluded you?
Saturday, December 7, 2013
In the video here, I mostly answer astute questions from Gary Fine's classes at Northwestern (h/t Heather Menefee and Kang san Lee). See also here. Gary, a fellow Evans professor who has led the protest against naming an award for an "exterminator"\ethnic cleanser, asked a devil's advocate question to the effect: oh, you're just talking down America. Quite the contrary, to name the truth is to speak for what is decent and perhaps even hopeful in America. In a democracy, there is no peace to be made with genocide. With Langston Hughes' "America is not America to me," a multiracial America, rejecting ethnic cleansing and carrying out the Bill of Rights (and of course, taking on capitalism and its consequences) will be...
Friday, December 6, 2013
Tenzin Tsundue is a Tibetan activist and poet. In 2002, he unfurled a red Free Tibet banner, along with dropping 500 leaflets, from the top of the building in which the Chinese delegation led by Premier Zhu Rongji on a visit to India, was housed (see his “Why I’ll Climb More Scaffolding and Towers” in his book of poems Kora). He soon had a whole floor of Chinese faces staring out at him…
Tuesday morning he spoke with our group doing service learning in Dharamsala. He wisely asked everyone for a brief account of who they were and what they hoped to become.
His parents had escaped Tibet with the Dalai Lama. They survived in India as construction workers bringing their children (he was one of 6) to the sites while they worked. He reported the experience with adult eyes; we have all seen such children (even our group, in our brief time in India, have seen them).
Tsundue has lived always as a refugee. His homeland is over the mountains. He once, as an adult, walked to Tibet by himself, was arrested, tortured and eventually deported by the Chinese government.
In Kora, he writes
When I was born
My mother said
you are a refugee.
Our tent on the roadside
smoked in the snow.”
Tsundue was initially in the Manali Kulu School. The teachers taught him he was Tibetan. His parents could not raise the six children and gave Tsundue and his sister to the school which looked after them. Tsundue has always, since a child, had this sense of a purpose outside himself (including himself also): to restore Tibet.
Tibetan patriotism, Tsundue rightly says, is from within. There is a real Tibetan community here: there are no Tibetan beggars, no homeless in Dharmasala…
One has to experience Pakistan or India, even the long train ride to Dharmasala with mothers and tiny daughters reaching out, crippled people moving with their hands along the floor begging amidst the constant sale of chai – the hawker returning with his calls every 10 minutes from 4:30 AM on - and an almost bazaarlike movement of vendors through the railway cars to take in the pain of this, to feel the force of Tibetan commonality, egalitarianism….
Tsundue recognizes the danger to Tibet of the Chinese settlers. More than half the population (6.5 million) is now Han, compared to some 6 million Tibetans.
To be "modern" is to have a toilet and the Chinese build little houses to settle\cordon off the nomads and the yak herders. Tibet is very high, many Chinese have a hard time living there; the government occupied Tibet primarily to gain the minerals – they have nuclear projects there, poisoning the environment, as the Dalai Lama warns in his 5 point program (Freedom in Exile, p. 247) and copper mining and mining for lithium for batteries – as well as seizing the land.
The parallels to ethnic cleansing of indigenous people in the America particularly in the West, are striking. Tsundue also drew parallels to indigenous Canadians, Australians and Palestinians...
Every time we buy a cheap Chinese product – and Reaganism meant the destruction of US manufacturing and its flight to China – we are all part of a "globalization" including the ethnic cleansing of Tibet. As an act of solidarity, it would be good to boycott these products and protest the subservience of state leaders to money and power. David Cameron has provided recent examples of truckling to China for trade – greeting a Tibetan delegation about human rights by proclaiming “Tibet is part of China,” being criticized for dishonor and fecklessness, then visiting China and saying nothing on the issue.
The women, 18 to a room on triple bunks, working 6 days a week or the 14 men and women who threw themselves from the roof at Foxconn (an Apple subsidiary) in 2010 are also harmed by this "globalization."
Tsundue underlined how the now settled nomads join the "globalization" of television, become disoriented, lose themselves…
The Chinese build little houses for the Tibetans and get them in debt for rent. Often, the promised government contribution to the rent is not forthcoming. The Tibetans are thus forced into new ways of life, dishwashing for the men, prostitution for some of the women (women who escape across the Himalayas are now going to school and finding their own way). It is a life of despair. The Chinese advertise themselves – sometimes deceive themselves like the “English” American settlers - as providing a “gilded” reservation for the Tibetans, “modernizing them” as General Sherman and John Evans and Teddy Roosevelt liked to say, but with the wheel of debt-slavery, with this grim life, not so much….
Tsundue lives as a poor Tibetan, outside the world of consumerism. He has four simple outfits, two for hot, two for cold. He wears a distinctive red bandana until Tibet is free.
There is a story told of him by Tibet Writes (a group of writers) that he was on a train to Delhi and someone stole his worn sneakers. He walked barefoot to the Temple where he was to speak. “They must have needed them more than I,” he reported.
Tsundue is one of the fierce children of the Dalai Lama as Pankaj Mishra puts it. He is torn between honoring the fathers who fought for Tibet and pursuing nonviolence. One of the poems in Kora, “Betrayal,” captures this tearing as does the powerful prose story named “Kora”:
My father died
defending our home
our village, our country
I too wanted to fight
But we are Buddhist
People say we should be
peaceful and non-violent
So I forgave my enemy.
But sometimes I feel
I betrayed my father.”
Loyal to the Dalai Lama in the deepest way, Tsundue still writes of the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent nonaction. The Dalai Lama has an enormously wise (for the Chinese, too) strategy of pursuing a genuinely autonomous region within China which preserves Tibetan culture. He is as much a political ruler/leader of the Tibetans as a leader of a nonviolent movement. He has used this power of his political authority, against resistance, to create the democratically elected Tibetan parliament and a charter for a future Tibet in which it can overrule the Dalai Lama, a step toward preserving and developing the people beyond all Chinese attempts to demonize him as a "splittist"…(h/t Dolma Tsering Teykhang). He has also, as Tenzin Jigme, leader of the Tibetan Youth Congress, suggested, been a beacon of nonviolence, someone who created the community of Dharmasala - we have just visited the Tibetan's Children's Village for 1,700 children separated from their parents or orphaned and gaining nurturing, a modern education and an education as Tibetans - from nothing. The care for children is as striking for the future of the Tibetan community as concern for the old and the absence of beggary. The Dalai Lama is also a beacon for protest against a Chinese regime unrestrained by law or decency...
So the point that His Holiness is not a Gandhi or King or Badshah Khan in organizing resistance (facing an even harsher enemy, from exile) is a relative one...
For one can get tortured and murdered in China for wearing Tibetan clothes, any assertion that one is not “Han.” One way that the Chinese revolution was unMarxian and regressive compared to the West - it, of course, liberated Chinese farmers, particularly women, created literacy, initially fought capitalism, and liberated the Chinese nation - was in its lack of respect for the rule of law and the at least formal treatment of each person with minimal regard and fairness. Note that this standard is often violated towards the poor, particularly the nonwhite poor and immigrants, in the West (that is what capitalism is).
But the Chinese army and party are inheritors of the emperors whom thy tried to displace, see my poem "Frogs" here - and what they have done to the Tibetans, just as what the United States army did to the Native Americans, is unspeakable. I had not fully taken in the decadence of the Chinese regime in this respect until I had focused on Tibet; these practices make the Bush regime’s copying\adoption of Chinese methods of torture in Iraq - the SERE program composed by the bizarre "psychologists"/war criminals Mitchell and Jesson - and its secret sites particularly appalling….
The Dalai Lama has accepted or mostly not spoken against many forms of resistance which Tibetans undertake. He has warned sometimes of resistance from Nepal which fought the Nepalese army (Nepal, too, taking Chinese aid, has become fiercely repressive toward all Tibetan clothing, freedom of speech, flags, protest...). He has not urged specific nonviolent steps in action, and has spoken sadly of and tried to deter self-burnings, a nonviolent, final and desperate form of protest, though he rightly underlines that the cause is Chinese oppression.
But there has now been a change again in the Tibetan movement. Forces had been gathering for a resistance on behalf of an independent Tibet, perhaps undertaking violence. Tsundue strongly represents Tibetan independence rather than the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way, in the recent film “The Sun Behind the Clouds." But among the former political prisoners and their relatives in Go Chu Som (their organization), they had a democratic debate and vote, and the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way position won out. The new leadership represents this position, and is proud of coming from a genuinely democratic vote from below, something that does not happen in creating the "positions" of, for example, hierarchical mainstream American political parties and similar groups.
In addition, Tsundue gave the most striking account of Lhakar. Lha is the Tibetan word for Wednesday, kar is for karpo – white. It is the “life day” in the Tibetan astrological calendar of the Dalai Lama. In Tibet, people started to wear Tibetan clothes (a woman was locked up for this) as a special prayer for the return of the Dalai Lama.
Tibetans mourn their exile (or oppression) on New Year’s Day but celebrate each Wednesday. Everyone wears Tibetan scarves, a sign of purity, a celebration, and a “cost-effective” measure Tsundue joked, too. For the 2008 rebellion in which Tibetans had stood together against Chinese oppression had resulted in 400 deaths and 5,000 jailed. But Lhakar is a collaborative movement in which everyone speaks Tibetan, dresses Tibetan and stands out against the Chinese occupation, ethnic cleansing and pseudo-modernization.
It is also not as “costly” as the self-burnings (they had seemed to me to accomplish more for the Tibetan resistance internationally than to Tsundue…).
Wednesday Konchok Tseten set himself afire in Amdo province, Tibet (China excludes this from "the Tibetan Autonomous Region"), leaving a wife and two children. The Chinese authorities arrested the woman and perhaps will try to frame her for murder to avoid his words for a free Tibet and for the return of the Dalai Lama. Tseten was the 122nd person to burn himself.
At 6 pm in Dharmasala, there was a vigorous march, singing, a spinning of prayer wheels - khorlo - and then a candlelight vigil at which Tsundue spoke powerfully of compassion and on the nonviolence of the act - it contrasts markedly with the suicide bombings of civilian members of the oppressor regime which are often evil and help only oppressors - and the significance of the gathering. No one could have given words to this more powerfully…
For vivid photos of the gathering to which we all went, see here and for a previous post on self-burnings here.
The Chinese attempt to repress Lhakar desperately. They have augmented the number of soldiers and riot police in Tibet. They reveal hourly the fragility of their power, their uncertainty, their reliance only on violence (I use here Hannah Arendt’s distinction between collective power and the isolated violence of tyrants). They are like the Catholic and Protestant churches who stole Native American children and tried to “civilize” them by starving them and forcing them to become other, to become “American.”
Lhakar is, as Tsundue wonderfully says, “the fiery invisible sword of nonviolence.”
These words transform, to some extent, the heritage of the fathers which Tsundue evokes in "Betrayal." They work with the grim power of violence in this world which, as Adrienne Rich rightly tells us, glares out from the word: nonviolence. Gandhi's satyagraha or the English noncooperation is thus a better word, preserved from the fire of this tension about violence.
It memorably renames Gandhi's nonviolence of the strong.
I asked Tsundue about whether America, which has long become a country of “dishwashers and prostitutes” and many other kinds of wage workers and is heading further in that direction, did not also have other possibilities. I mentioned resistance, shown by the anti-Iraq War movement of which I was a very happy participant, and Occupy. In response, he told us of taking part in the international candlelight vigil in February 2003 with his friends and several international people in Dharmasala (I was in one in Denver, also part of a global human chain of resistance). I found this report thrilling.
Tibet needs but does not have state allies. It can rely only on its own strength and its attractiveness among ordinary people. Many Tibetans once fought, with CIA “support,” against the Chinese government. These are the violent heroes and fathers of some of Tsundue’s writings. Their cause, Tibetan independence against Chinese oppression is just, even if the CIA's purposes are nefarious or imperialists (the Tibetans would have had to have been the genuine socialists, as the Dalai Lama is - see Freedom in Exile, pp. 90-99 - to make the Chinese government, starting with Mao, realize, instead of betraying, its aspirations (The Chinese government could paint resistance and even the Dalai Lama as violent, to some extent, because of the CIA...).
With the rapprochement of Nixon and Mao in 1971, however, the CIA sold out the Tibetans. It is one of the reasons why Tsundue – and the Dalai Lama – emphasize the inner spirit of Tibetan resistance. Noone will carry the victory of the Tibetans but the Tibetans.
Many Tibetans look to America with hope (they have the feeling of many would be immigrants…). And in this case, for its own reasons, America has actually stood a bit for human rights (it also did so with the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas, but equally for the restoration of an American sponsored dictator like Somoza or his avatars…).
Ordinary Americans often fight from below against injustice and occasionally succeed against these powerful interests – drive governments, despite themselves, sometimes to do decent things. But Tsundue’s point that Tibetans must rely on themselves (also one of Mao’s good points about China once upon a time) is deeply true.
What is strong and radiant will gain support from people across the world as Tibet has.
Tsundue spoke fondly of Gene Sharp’s writings on nonviolence – Sharp made a transition from being part of a nonviolent antiwar and civil rights movement to becoming "transpolitical," promoted by the US government and the CIA. Tsundue's praise is a genuine honor for Sharp. Tsundue's friends translated Sharp's work - perhaps From Dictatorship to Democracy into Tibetan.
But Sharp never spoke against the war in Vietnam, in Iraq, or the potential aggression against Iran, and has paid a terrible price, psychologically I think, for his transition from A.J. Muste's secretary and Korean War resistor to advocate of nonviolence only where it serves the CIA. Still, his work goes beyond particular American-supported/limited movements, and can be used for better purposes...
The Tibetans are a spiritual people, one of great heroism. I have learned from Tsundue’s words about “the fiery invisible sword of nonviolence.”
The man who learned from Gandhi
who led the ANC
against the violence of apartheid
who went to Robben Island
for 27 years
and came out to free
those who suffered
and those who committed crimes
to make one humanity
of those riven
left the world
and a sadder
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
On November 23rd at the Miami Book Fair, Black Patriots and Loyalists was given an American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation. Since I was leaving for India on the following Monday, I could not come. Justin Desmangles read the following remarks for me.
I wish to thank the Before Columbus Foundation and especially Justin Desmangles and Ishmael Reed for giving Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence an American Book Award. 17 years ago, I began the research on Black Patriots and Loyalists. It tells the startling story of the centrality of the fight for emancipation in the American Revolution itself. In the past 25 years, there has been important work on black soldiers, particularly for the Crown. They have not, however, been recognized as central fighters for both the Crown and the Patriots; similarly, the international origins and subsequent impact of demands for abolition among the fighters in the American Revolution has been ignored. In contrast, Black Patriots and Loyalists sees that the recruitment and freeing of blacks was the motor of the fighting in the Revolution, its driving force. That recruitment helped generate freedom – gradual emancipation – throughout the Northern states during and immediately following the Revolution. And in an international setting, the fight for emancipation in the Caribbean exploded into London and Boston, swept into the United States, and extended afterwards to Haiti, to Nova Scotia, to Sierra Leone and to Venezuela. This is not “identity politics.” This is a new picture of what the American Revolution, as a movement for universal freedom, came from and was.
The story of why I came to and persisted with this theme may be helpful. I had been active in the civil rights movement and against racism at the Universities where I studied and taught. At Harvard in my first year, there was a Freedom Ride, organized through Phillips Brooks House, to Chestertown, Maryland. On the bus on the way down, one of the organizers told us that a young woman picketing Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter the week before, had been thrown through the big glass window by a mob, led by the sheriff. She was still in the hospital.
We were speeding down to Chestertown; no one asked to get off the bus (it was a very bad way for the organizers to proceed, morally and political speaking). But perhaps because of the previous week, we arrived in Chestertown, picketed, were not attacked, and went home with an almost giddy sense of joy in doing the right thing and relief.
But Chestertown, I knew, was not the deep South. I thought very seriously about going to Mississippi in 1964 with Freedom Summer to register voters. But the people I knew were not centrally involved and no one asked me. I finally decided not to go.
But Andy Goodman, my childhood friend – we attended Walden School in Manhattan together from 1st to 4th grad and had kept in touch some afterwards – did go. He believed deeply in equality. On his first day, he drove with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner to visit a burned out church where the Pastor had urged black congregants to register to vote in Philadelphia, Mississippi. On the way back, their car broke down. The police arrested them. At midnight, the sheriff “released” them to a mob organized by the Reverend Edgar Ray Killens. 6 weeks later, after a nationally publicized search, their mutilated bodies were found buried in a dam on the property of a Klansman, 44 years later, Edgar Ray Killens, in his 80s, was finally tried and convicted of murder in the Neshoba County Courts. He is so far the only one…
As a political philosopher and social theorist, I have written a lot about racism. But being taught by Barrington Moore at Harvard, I believed that the real revolution in America was the Civil War, the revolution that cleaned up the Constitution, previously a slave-owner’s document, with the 13th Amendment. So when I learned in 1996, reading Gary Nash’s Race and Revolution, that a “gigantic number of blacks escaped” and fought for the British in the Revolution in exchange for freedom and that there were five reasons why bondage had been gradually abolished in the North – creating the North as, for the first time, a base against slavery – and possibly in the South, I was amazed. He left the subject after two pages; I stopped.
I pursued this theme through many research libraries here and abroad. I wrote a draft of the book in four years, and gave the University Lecture at the University of Denver on it in 1999. But the American Revolution told primarily as a story of white folks – Crispus Attucks and a few others excepted – is a leading national myth. And that so many African-Americans fought for the British was the Revolution’s “dirty secret” Nash said. So it took 16 years, and many twists and turns, until Black Patriots and Loyalists was finally published as a trade book by the University of Chicago Press. I would like to thank John Tryneski for marvelous editing, and Carrie Adams, Bud Bynack and many others who helped shape this book into a now vibrant paperback. The tale is steadily getting out…
In the course of this research, I discovered a great abolitionist movement from below on the Patriot side led by sailors, black and white a century before the Civil War. They had been seized off the streets by British press-gangs. Riots against these gangs were leading features, along with the Boston Tea-party and those against the Stamp Act, of mass protest before the Revolution. Sailors kidnapped from their daily lives – like Solomon Northrup later – and forced aboard ship journeyed to the Caribbean where they witnessed some 15 slave revolts from 1750 on. Naturally, they identified with the slaves (they had been forced into “service” themselves…). They carried the word to London where J. Philmore wrote the incendiary Two Dialogues on the Man-Trade (1760) and Boston where James Otis wrote The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved (1764), defending the natural rights of every man, “black as well as white.” The pamphlets were fuel for the new revolutionary movement the next 11 years in the making. This created among poor people as well as previously overlooked figures in the elite like John Laurens a principled movement for abolition.
In addition, military rivalry between the Americans and the British which made the Patriot black and Narragansett Indian First Rhode Island Regiment, the most experienced and best fighters on the American side. At the Battle of Yorktown, Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private wrote in his diary, most of the dead strewn around the field on both sides were “Mohren” (Moors, blacks)…This instrumental competition added practical force to the demand for emancipation from below.
So my book sets the American Revolution in the international democratic movement against bondage. The story about slavery was not incidental to that Revolution; on the contrary, the international demand for emancipation shaped it. In the past year, the New York Times reviewed, often apologetically, books on Presidents who were slave-owners. Such Presidents actually held office 52 of the first 72 years of the Republic. To remove an historical amnesia, I might note, these were our Founding Slave-drivers as much as they were Founding “Fathers” of Freedom for some.
The Times has now included an op-ed by Paul Finkelman that Thomas Jefferson was “the Monster of Monticello.” But it will not yet mention that black Patriots were central fighters in the Revolution. For the Daughters of the American Revolution have it exactly backwards. Blacks soldiers were decisive for the Patriots and after the Emancipation Proclamation, for the North in the Civil War. They should be the first, not the last, honored for the patriotism. So Black Patriots and Loyalists causes a great upheaval in how we might understand the significance of the American Revolution.
I am especially honored to be given this award by the Before Columbus Foundation. Even the name is rightly skeptical of the Founding Amnesia embodied in the holiday for Christopher Columbus who murdered the indigenous people of Hispaniola, enslaving a few and sending them back to Spain. I am a John Evans Professor at the University of Denver, working on a University committee to examine Evans’ role in the Sand Creek Massacre of determinedly peaceful Cheyennes and Arapahoes, November 29, 1864. That was the same year that the University of Denver was founded and Governor John Evans and Colonel John Chivington were on its original board of trustees. The 150th anniversary of both of these events which were also integral to the bloody founding of Denver itself begins next January. I am now writing a manuscript about this and connecting it up with the foundation of many universities.
For mercilessly destroying indigenous communities, down to the women and children and driving the remnant onto barren reservations often in distant territories, was a process across the Continent. It was linked before and during the Revolution to “American” national unity, even though indigenous people often provided shelter – freedom - for escaped slaves. As Lerone Bennett and Gary Nash have told us, a big effort, for instance, through anti-miscegenation laws, was made by the British and then American elite to divide black from red from poor white.
This ethnic cleansing was basic to the founding and purpose of educational institutions, as Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy and Peter Silver’s Our Savage Neighbors reveal. Neither of these fine books this past year, however, touch upon the central role of blacks, poor whites and Narragansett Indians in Rhode Island fighting for emancipation which was enacted there in 1784. That is the story which Black Patriots and Loyalists tells and it thus seems particularly fitting that the Before Columbus Foundation has chosen to honor it. Though the story of the United States has been, in part, the story of freedom, it has also been the long suppressed story of twin genocides against indigenous people and African-Americans. The road to freedom is long and harsh. We are just, even in 2013, taking timid steps at acknowledging these crimes, and at last to create a society in which each person can be recognized as free and equal.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
The young woman
the young woman
beautiful sad eyes
sweeps each grain
off the gray
walk right through her
2. November, 2013
They sleep like corpses
covered head to toe
row upon row
sleep like corpses
ghostwalks the bathroom
10 rupees to keep the shades
those who are enfranchised to pee
those who are not
The long footsteps
Gandhi late to prayer
marked in dew
to the shooter
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
For part one on the Apology, see here.
A habit of Anglo-American specialists in Plato is to dismiss the notion of any hidden meanings for his longstanding students in the dialogues (this dismissal often accompanies an odd refusal to see the dialogues as a whole or consider the relationship between them). And the zeal for this dismissal is exacerbated, even made visceral, by the feud with Leo Strauss and his followers (ironically, many of these philosophers a la Popper agree with Strauss that the philosopher-king, as the best ruler, one who rules over a heavily stratified warrior society but often arbitrarily, i.e. without laws, is to be taken seriously as Plato’s approach. Strauss is, on this point, an acolyte of Martin Heidegger, see here and here).
But one of the themes of the dialogues is the distinction between ordinary readers for whom writings are like statues – when you ask them a question, they have no father to defend them – and students of philosophy, en voyage with Plato, who can achieve as sustained and intense a happiness as human beings are capable of (Phaedrus, 275d – 277a and here.) One of the primary sites for this distinction is the first book of the Republic where Polemarchus, initially a democratic bully, wakes up, follows argument, and becomes, admirably, a "philosophical youth." See, for example, the Phaedrus where Polemarchus is contrasted with the rhetorician and Pheadrus’ lover, Lysias. Socrates takes apart a speech of Lysias, demonstrating, subtly, for students, the difference between argument and fine, but empty rhetoric.
About the Republic, I argue that Thrasymachus, the rhetorician, who is also void of argument, begins to throw the argument about justice off track – to make it unphilosophical - and that this is continued in book 2 by the clever Glaucon who imagines a city of “relishes,” of luxuries and war, not a Pythagorean city, a city of Socrates. Thus, the city in speech, despite a shadowy philosopher-king, is, psychologically speaking or in terms of soul (psyche) as Plato envisions it, Glaucon’s ideal city and mainly a subject of satire, not Socrates’s city. See here and here.
Like the dialogue with Polemarchus, the Crito is also a way in to beginning to philosophize. For Crito forgets himself. He is so frantic at the possibility that Socrates will die, that he will lose the pleasure of listening to good conversation as well as losing his friend, that he speaks, rhetorically, in a very panicky way. Though attending Socrates, he is not much of a philosopher himself. Like Cephalus in the Republic, he likes to be entertained, though Cephalus, going further, wants Socrates to be, what a medieval might call, a kind of court jester…But to read aloud Crito’s statements is to see how off they are.
Just before Socrates introduces the speech of the laws, Crito concludes his harangue by saying: "be persuaded by me" (line 46a "ἀλλὰ παντὶ τρόπῳ, ὦ Σώκρατες, πείθου μοι καὶ μηδαμῶς ἄλλως ποίει."). As a kind of sophist (those who teach for pay how to argue in court), he speaks as in a court. Crito rhetorically presents the defenses and remedies Socrates chose not to use at his own trial (do I not have children? Can I please go into exile?), and Socrates, in the person of the laws, answers, using this same phrase (54d).
In this sense, Crito also represents or speaks for the democracy, the considerations that move most of those who condemn Socrates but who would have been happy enough to see him go into exile (a punishment he had, once again, refused at his trial) (h/t Sol Malick).
Before offering the speech of the laws, Socrates goes over, for interested students, how the argument (ought to) work(s). He insists on the starting point that it is wrong to return evil for evil (the principle that founds nonviolence, one that Socrates shares, in the history of political thought and action, with Gandhi – and Jesus). He insists that the arguments which convinced himself and Crito in a state of calm – when Socrates did not have to go to his death – must now be tested again rather than thrown aside in panic.
What this signals to Plato’s students is: follow argument. Do not be persuaded by fear or rhetoric. Let your passion for justice adhere to, flow from what is true.
Though comparatively brief, this difficult dialogue requires the same careful assessment as the Republic (it is 11 lines, 43-54). The music of the argument is not stated fully in the dialogue. Like a Corybant, as himself a Corybant – see also his advice to Meno to be initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries (Meno, 77e) – Socrates hears this music, but what he hears is not made clear in the dialogue itself. Each student must think it through for herself.
Thus, the bookends of the speech of the democratic laws of Athens, a seeming idea of these laws in the mouth of Socrates, are, on the one hand, Socrates’s statement of the importance of following argument exactly and not being convinced by rhetoric and on the other, his unusual invocation of the power of the particular and unstated argument that moves him:
Socrates: “Speak, Crito, if you have anything more to add, but you will not convince me.”
Crito: I cannot.
Then let us so act since so the God leads."
As Plato’s indication of Socrates’ deeper piety, the Crito ends (the second to last word: ho theos) as the Apology does, on the word: the God…
But given this sharp framing by Socrates, what Plato depicts the laws as saying is disappointing. As I have emphasized previously here, the laws conclude their contradictory and rhetorically persuasive but logically unconvincing speech, with the emotional and competitive statement, echoing Crito: “be persuaded by us.” (ἀλλὰ μή σε πείσῃ Κρίτων ποιεῖν ἃ λέγει μᾶλλον ἢ ἡμεῖς. 54c-d) They echo the law courts in response to Crito’s plea: be persuaded by me - these are, after all, “the laws” of democratic Athens governing trials in the courts with several hundred jurors.
This echo of the courts is, however, Plato’s signaling that both the laws and Crito are, in some way, on the wrong path. They are sophists, rhetoricians, Crito moved by, giving voice to the concerns of and speaking to the democracy as it stands, not a regime, as Socrates envisions it, which would make space for questioning, dissent and philosophy. Crito and the laws argue to persuade, demagogically, but not in search of the truth. Once again, the final line is Socrates telling Crito to speak but then saying, in this one instance in the dialogues – he is further along the path of arguments than Crito – that Crito will not persuade him…
"Be well assured, my dear friend, Crito, that this is what I seem to hear, as the Corybants seem to hear the flutes, and this sound of these words re-echoes within me and prevents my hearing any other words. And be assured that, so far as I now believe, if you argue against these words you will speak in vain. Nevertheless, if you think you can accomplish anything, speak.
Crito: No, Socrates, I have nothing to say." (54d)
ταῦτα, ὦ φίλε ἑταῖρε Κρίτων, εὖ ἴσθι ὅτι ἐγὼ δοκῶ ἀκούειν, ὥσπερ οἱ κορυβαντιῶντες τῶν αὐλῶν δοκοῦσιν ἀκούειν, καὶ ἐν ἐμοὶ αὕτη ἡ ἠχὴ τούτων τῶν λόγων βομβεῖ καὶ ποιεῖ μὴ δύνασθαι τῶν ἄλλων ἀκούειν: ἀλλὰ ἴσθι, ὅσα γε τὰ νῦν ἐμοὶ δοκοῦντα, ἐὰν λέγῃς παρὰ ταῦτα, μάτην ἐρεῖς. ὅμως μέντοι εἴ τι οἴει πλέον ποιήσειν, λέγε.
Κρίτων ἀλλ᾽, ὦ Σώκρατες, οὐκ ἔχω λέγειν.
If we ask what in the speech of the laws convinces Crito and makes him fall silent, the answer emerges quickly as my student Bryce Allen pointed out recently. Socrates refers to Crito pointedly at a number of junctures in his speech, but particularly with the warning that having bought off the jailer and gotten Socrates to escape to Crito’s friends in Thessaly (the “unruly” Thessaly from which Meno comes), Crito’s wealth would be forfeit in Athens. Crito is a rich and powerful man, a little high on himself and not very bright. He has bought the jailer; he has come in to persuade Socrates to escape with ordinary appeals that will not convince Socrates. He acts with fear for Socrates and himself, and in a certain way, with hubris. He has thus not recognized the danger to himself.
"For it is pretty clear that your friends also will be exposed to the risk of banishment and the loss of their homes in the city or of their property.“
"ὅτι μὲν γὰρ κινδυνεύσουσί γέ σου οἱ ἐπιτήδειοι καὶ αὐτοὶ φεύγειν καὶ στερηθῆναι τῆς πόλεως ἢ τὴν οὐσίαν ἀπολέσαι, σχεδόν τι δῆλον.“ (53b, 54b-c)
Crito is braced by the icy wind of this – for him - freezing possibility. See here. His thoughts turn from the benefits he receives from Socrates’s conversation and care that he be alive to worry about himself.
In addition, Socrates equips him with the contradictory arguments of the laws. He can tell the people of Athens both that Socrates, though refusing to give up questioning, is the slave of the laws, bowing down to them even more slavishly than to the beatings of irate fathers (note the charge in Aristophanes’ The Clouds that after going for help to Socrates, Strepsiades is beaten by his son Pheidippides who also threatens his mother; it was a comical cliché among Athenians that Socrates’s questioning, in some sense, challenged ancestral pieties and was dangerous,and not just a particular theme of the trial. Now of course, the aim of every speaker in court - every lawyer, every sophist - is to make the worse argument the better (that, in The Clouds, is a charge against Socrates). That is what Socrates does not do in his defense at his trial and in asking questions to seek the truth.
As a follower of Socrates and an Athenian, that Crito would have been convinced by the laws' argument that Socrates was "their slave" would have been amazing. But it was something for him to say later to others…
Note that many scholars read Crito sleepily, think that this argument of the laws, along with the rest, is compelling philosophically...
In fact, to reject such slavishness is the point of Socrates’s questioning of Cephalus in the initial conversation in the Republic. Cephalus means the head or brain. He was an arms manufacturer and a fierce loyalist to Athenian traditions making sacrifices to the gods as he was dying, even though he was also an immigrant (a metic). Monied immigrants are, psychologically, sometimes the most zealous defenders of the ways of their new city or country. Cephalus is the father of Polemarchos, the leader of the democrats; Polemarchus name means “war leader” and “the head” is an arms manufacturer…See here and here.
He is also the father of Lysias, the rhetorician. Before Polemarchus becomes philosophical in book 1, he is but a democratic bully and one who arrests Socrates, a counterpart to Lysias' rhetoric. Both think they know - and ornament or make war for - what they do not; the Apology here is axial for the Republic and Phaedrus in the sense that one will not understand these dialogues without it.
Being a metic though a rich man, Cephalus lives down in the Piraeus with the sailors, not up on the heights of Athens with Glaucon, Adeimantus and Plato (sons of Ariston or the best, line 327a)
Preparing to die, Cephalus is interested in Socrates only for entertainment, recalls poems and flowery thoughts to keep away the fear. But Socrates is no more Cephalus’s slave or jester than he is that of the democratic laws in Crito. Socrates must drive Cephalus out to begin philosophy. He asks Cephalus if, in paying his debts, he is trying to buy the gods’ favor. He has, after all, money for the sacrifices, not a concern for virtue, let alone an interest in a dialogue which Socrates defines as about justice.
Cephalus retreats to his sacrifices, a prerequisite for the philosophical questioning and answering which marks the discussion with Polemachus (in contrast, to the fierce discussion with Thrasymachus or for that matter, Glaucon).
Cephalus bequeathes his opinion (that justice is paying one’s debts, which becomes justice is benefiting friends and harming enemies) to be defended by his son Polemarchus.
Now Crito, ”my old and dear friend,” participated with Socrates in many philosophical discussions. Socrates is known for asking questions and “making [the interlocutor’s] words get up and walk away from me,” like the statues of Daedalus. These are opinions, perhaps true , but not knowledge (Meno, 97d). If Crito did not understand this about doing philosophy, he understood nothing.
In addition, Crito might think that a philosopher may seek rule if the Republic is taken superficially but a philosopher is certainly no one’s slave. No one would describe Socrates’ paradigm speech at his trial as “slavish.” So once again, Crito may have used this argument as an opinion to persuade other Athenians, but cannot have, at least on becoming less frightened, believed it.
In contrast, the second argument of the laws – that Socrates has, as a free man, made a contract with them, that he has left less than others (going abroad only to the Isthmian games and following the laws, as a soldier) – is the opposite of Socrates’ purported subservience to them. But remarkably, these democratic laws do not appeal to their own justice. Whatever the merits of the democratic laws which they do not speak to, he has agreed with them.
This is a serious argument and one which is part of the reason why Socrates, in following his own nature, adheres to these laws in accepting his sentence and thus exemplifies or founds what is later called satyagraha or civil disobedience.
But this argument, too, is surrounded by superficial and panicky rhetoric. For the laws say to Socrates, unnecessarily – they have already provided the reason – that he has left Athens less than any other, going abroad only to the Isthmian games.
Worse yet, the laws speak of what is by nature just at one point, but their appeal to Socrates here is about their agreeableness to him. We gave you the chance to leave; and you didn’t. Therefore we must be pleasing to you, they say, unctuously, over and over. (52e-53a
"Are you then' they would say, 'not breaking your compacts and agreements with us, though you were not led into them by compulsion or fraud and were not forced to make up your mind in a short time, but had seventy years, in which you could have gone away, if we did not please you and if you thought the agreements were unfair? But you preferred neither Lacedaemon nor Crete, which you are always saying are well governed, nor any other of the Greek states, or of the foreign ones, but you went away from this city less than the lame and the blind and the other cripples. So much more than the other Athenians were you satisfied with the city and evidently therefore with us, its laws; for who would be pleased with a city apart from its laws? [τίνι γὰρ ἂν πόλις ἀρέσκοι ἄνευ νόμων].
This is a feeble appeal. For the “laws” or better arbitrary decrees in a tyranny are, in some sense, pleasing to the tyrant and perhaps his coterie. As the Republic suggests, laws are only seriously “pleasing” to a philosopher in the light of their justice. In some respects, though perhaps not from the point of view of tolerating questioning and philosophy, the laws remind Socrates that he thought Sparta and Crete "well governed" (one must recall also Socrates' irony since, after all, such cities did not space for...him).
But the democratic laws of Athens do not speak of their own justice or even that they comparatively, exhibit good governance…
Though they do not speak directly of their goodness or justice, the laws do, however, powerfully invoke Socrates’s agreement as a free man; that is part of the justice of a democracy. They also say that Socrates must persuade the laws to change or obey them. The latter point, too, the capacity of ordinary citizens to get the laws changed, to have a say about matters of great moment – conscience in a modern idiom - is an important element in the justice of a democracy (it takes a movement from below, often availing itself of civil disobedience, to challenge deep injustices).
But Socrates has already answered their thought in the Apology. A just man, he suggests, cannot participate in politics without quickly being put to death. For he said, when he was in the Prytany and judged the case of the sea captains, who had during the battle of Arginusae, not, as was the custom, picked up the dead because they ware still locked in combat, and he said they should not be death, the people, resenting these aristocrats, called for their death as well as Socrates's.
The second time was when he refused to bring Leon of Salamis to be murdered by the Thirty, who were led by his student and Plato's cousin, Critias.
And the third time was this trial in which Socrates would be sentenced to death under the democratic laws. But here the justice of what Socrates was trying to do, what he himself brought to the trial, is left unstated. The laws’ case for the justice of what is happening to Socrates, why he must go to his death is, as offered, weak and unpersuasive. Surely a Socrates at 50, having more than “a short time" to live (38d) might, given these arguments, have departed.
But Socrates, for his own reasons, again ones not explicitly stated in the dialogue by itself, does not leave.
To review the merits in the laws’s argument: there is an appeal to Socrates, the free man who consented. They are the laws of a free regime.
And these laws say: we leave each person an out – each can take his property and move to a colony, for example. That is a further aspect of their appeal to free men.
Being democratic, they add: persuade us to change or obey us. Here, again, they invoke persuasion in the assembly (trials were a form of assembly, not a separate thing) as the argument between Crito and the democratic laws, not yet including philosophy, involves persuasion. But these arguments of the laws by themselves would not have persuaded Socrates, among other reasons, because of the constant threat of death when he entered public life.
Nonetheless, this third argument - persuade us - contributes to Socrates’ founding of civil disobedience or satyragraha. It is profoundly why Gandhi and King (and Jesus) are right about Socrates as a defender of/questioner or dissenter in Athenian democracy who is loyal to it and its laws taken as a whole, and Heidegger and Strauss – that Socrates is a would be ruler on the model of a good gymnastics coach - are wrong in a fundamental way (the way of admiring the Fuehrer or advocating “commander in chief power”). See here, here and here.
For Socrates breaks the unjust law against questioning the gods (when the gods do evils for example, Zeus in the form of a swan raping Leda).
Now as I have underlined, the build up here, the setting, is graphic, the let down in what the laws say considerable. The laws’s speech, even in the better second argument appealing to a contract, is unsurprisingly rhetorical, fairly panicky, mirroring Crito, down to the phrasing. Their speech, once again, Socrates’s, shows that Socrates can perfectly well speak in the manner of the courts despite his ironic comment about being a stranger to this scene at the beginning of the Apology, and pokes fun (Socrates does this quite a bit) at Crito’s rhetoric. Yet it does not, if one pays close attention to it, reveal what it is that persuades Socrates. The careful reader must follow the argument out, see the contradictions and what is missing, ask questions beyond what is clearly stated.
This need is made stark if we recall a further argument from the Apology. As Plato tells us in Socrates’s speech about his punishment, but for a scrap of life, you, the majority in Athens, will become the city that murdered its wise man (38c).
“It is no long time, men of Athens, which you gain, and for that those who wish to cast a slur upon the city will give you the name and blame of having killed Socrates, a wise man; for you know, this who wish to revile you will say I am wise, even though I am not.“
Instrumentally speaking therefore, it would be much better for the democratic laws if Socrates had slipped off, disguised as a slave. They mock this possibility, making a theme in their speech of the issue of bondage and yet contradicting their previous assertion: he is their slave, they had said, though somehow, he should feel badly about slinking off as - a slave…
Through lack of moral character, Socrates could have saved them from being the killers of a just man. But Socrates had integrity. He did obey the laws. And the city is remembered for murdering its philosopher.
The ruins of old Athens stand on hills above the modern city; the Athenians were slaughtered in the Acropolis by the cruel Roman empire in 88bc. The punishment of and scorn for Athens are real (this city killed its wise man) as is the absence, in modern times, of the splendor of that democracy except in the great protest movements recently occurring from below (only their fascist opponent, Golden Dawn, receives much publicity in the corporate press...). Plato was already aware of this fate when he wrote, and Socrates may well have foreseen it.
So again instrumentally, in terms of reputation, Socrates injures the laws through his seeming fidelity to them. These democratic laws talk themselves, as it were, into their own defeat.
This disgracing of the democracy leads Leo Strauss to think that Socrates went to his death sneering at the laws. As an atheist, Strauss imagines, Socrates cannot have heard their voice as the Corybants hear the flutes. He was a would be philosopher-tyrant (and Plato more so), wanting, to the last, to ridicule and do in the democratic laws of Athens.
But to follow Strauss’s reasoning, Socrates would then be full of anger at the Athenian laws, wanting to play, with his death, a last, nasty trick on them, thinking of them, not himself, ignoring his daimon or inner voice, filled with resentment.
This is so psychologically implausible a way of talking about Socrates’ dying that it is amazing that Strauss and his followers (those who get this subtlety) do not see this. Socrates would not be ironic but rather a poor, demented fellow if that was the way he left this life. There is precisely no evidence in the way Plato describes him for this conclusion.
Fortunately, this is not how Strauss himself died (his letters in volume three of Gesammelte Schriften are dignified and striking in the wonder of what he recalls). But psychology is not Strauss’s strong point and he did not rethink, when he was dying, what he had said about the death of Socrates.
In contrast, the Crito shows the calmness and even cheerfulness of Socrates, his dreams of a woman in white saying on the third day he must go to fertile Phythia.(44b) This is Achilles’ homeland in Homer’s Iliad (ix, 363). But Socrates’s homeland is death, and at the end of the Phaedo, he makes a comparable remark, the body stiffening with poison, that Crito, poor loyal Crito, must sacrifice a rooster to Asclepius, the god of healing...the body.
One can also attempt to read the Phaedo and this remark in the Apology as a simply personal account of dying. Socrates had cultivated philosophy, and in Montaigne’s famous later phrase, to “philosophize is to learn how to die.” But there is, of course, something more than personal here, a defense of philosophy. For personally, Socrates is, through and through, a philosopher.
But there is also aa political or democratic element in Socrates’ decision, one what King, in his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" and Gandhi in his 1908 translation and commentary on the Apology understand. At 70, Socrates makes the judgment that it is better for him to die, honorably, defending questioning, than to escape or grovel or live dishonorably. The most important point is that Socrates himself fights for the freedom to ask questions of those who think they know and point out if they do not, and not be killed for it. This not only founds philosophy, but it is also ingredient to a common good-sustaining democracy. Mob rule is often the tyrannical rule of a particular interest (the rich and powerful stir up right-wing movements of the Klan or McCarthyist sort); a common good sustaining movement, say the union movement or anti-war movements or particularly the American civil rights movement, are, in contrast, democratic movements from below. Such movements are not possible without questioning and sacrifice (many others, like Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, would be martyred for asking questions of segregation and acting for justice).
King invokes Socrates three times in his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, written on the back of a New York Times. Against complacent white ministers who denounced him as an “outside agitator,” King responds:
"In your statement you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn’t this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock?"
King then analogizes the nonviolence of the movement against segregation to Socrates’s image of a gadfly irritating a great horse:
"Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men [and women] to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."
Finally, he speaks of resistance from below to great injustices:
"Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience... It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. (James Washington, ed., The Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, pp. 291, 294-95).
Socrates goes through many arguments about going to his death, including with the Pythagoreans in the Pheado about the soul’s immortality and a war with the body, takes the poison with politeness even toward his guard. He does not wait for the last moment, he finishes the arguments with the others, fashioning what he needs to say on that day in his accustomed manner, and then to spare the jailer waiting (the jailer is in tears), drinks the poison as Gandhi says, as one would drink a cup of sherbet…(see Gandhi’s translation of the Apology, "The Story of a Soldier for Truth," Collected Works, 1908, part 1 and here.
This is not someone aflame to bring down the Athenian laws…
Socrates does not speak or act instrumentally with a view to his own or the laws' reputation. He is not trying to curry favor with a McCarthyite majority of opinion, those who kill lightly and would as lightly, were it possible, bring him back to life. He is thus fighting for questioning – dissent – in the democracy as well as for the practice of questioning which is philosophy. He dies, founds satyagrapha, to make a space for decent democracy as well as for philosophy.
And the laws he speaks here to modify – obey us but you may also “persuade us to change” - would be those of a democracy which can honor questioning, not just in Socrates's long life – 70 years – for Athens had been a dominant power and had allowed the emergence of questioning (whereas an authoritarian regime, the supposed city in speech, would not tolerate questioning, would not tolerate…Socrates), but throughout a life and throughout centuries. Socrates speaks to the idea of the democratic laws, not the existing, sophistic and excitable (like Crito!) laws of the court.
Instead, Socrates seeks to transform these laws, to make them more thoroughly democratic - in the sense of a common good-sustaining democracy - through his death…
This is the political purpose of his speech as much as creating a space for doing philosophy. For Socrates’s (and Plato’s) philosophy is not anti-democratic; it is genuinely democratic, making a common good possible within a democracy.
The idea of democratic laws needs to protect questioning against the brittle Athenian charge, not untrue, that Socrates questions everything including the gods. Socrates is pious, but not in the way of believing as those who do not question believe. That is irrelevant to the protection of questioning which belongs to genuine democratic laws – again, the idea of democratic laws – which would later be realized in freedoms of speech and conscience.
What the dialogue does not say is that Socrates also defends his own honor or virtue, as someone who questions, affirms and strengthens the decency of Athens, and is caught only by the slower runner death while his accusers have been caught by the swifter wickedness for accusing someone of committing crimes merely for searching for the truth, questioning the powers-that-be…
And by that questioning, Socrates seeks to improve Athens, not to make an ideal city of justice, a city in speech, for that city does not exist (and is harmful if applied, the object of satire in the Republic). It is Socrates who upholds and makes the laws better, more just, more inclusive of opposition and decency. It is Socrates’s internal relation to the laws – not an instrumental relationship about their reputation - which upholds their justice more explicitly than they do. It is Socrates who seeks, in dying, to make the laws just.
For his students or careful readers, Socrates is thus the agent on behalf of a non-rhetorical idea of the laws, just as, in the speech, he is the agent of the law-courts version of the democratic laws he summons to persuade Crito.
Listen again to the speech of the laws. If you go to your death, obeying us Socrates, we will honor you here and those our brothers in the place of the dead will receive you with honor.(h/t Solomon Malick)
That thought does motivate Socrates who is looking to the place of philosophy in democracy and to a decent democracy into the future. We still read the Apology, thanks to Plato, for otherwise Socrates’s words or perhaps, more broadly speaking, reasoning for his martyrdom, would not have survived, and take in what Socrates fought for in the democracy including being able to philosophize.
It would have been arrogant for Plato to say that Socrates reshapes the laws of Athens, democratically and philosophically. But that is exactly what the Crito implies. That is Socrates’s gift to the far future. It took his death or martyrdom to bequeath it.
Democracy is often a sad thing, killing people and wishing them back alive (even Obama, with the drones has done much of this, including to Americans like the 16 year old Abdulrahman Awlaki). See Obama's interview with Malala here. What Socrates and other martyrs to freedom and decency do – Gandhi and King, among them – is to challenge and change the greatest evils within a (in Gandhi’s case, potential) democracy.
Socrates warns in the Apology – would be students, take heed – that he has only a human wisdom and is wiser than others only in this: that others think they know and do not and he neither knows nor thinks that he knows. He improves the laws by, through protest, forcing them to recognize this way of life, philosophically and politically. This is a very powerful statement, a very powerful change.
Though the dialogue conveys Socrates's agency on the surface - it is, after all, Socrates who speaks to Crito in the voice of the laws - what he does in the undercurrent or implication of the dialogue is to shape the laws of decent democracies for the future.
He makes democracy better through questioning and protecting philosophy at the cost of his life. This central point resembles Amartya Sen’s about justice or Hilary Putnam’s or Karl Marx’s: one can achieve more just regimes given particular starting points, but a model of justice, for instance, communism, is, as it were, a long away off, and not something whose details dreamers\modelers are likely to capture. In Marx, this is the notion of the “real movement” or democratic, from below upsurge for change which will create a better regime in specifiable ways, one that is not a utopia, not to be sketched as a blueprint beforehand.
And by acting honorably, Socrates honors the laws as if they were, in fact, what their speech pretends but drifts away from: the defenders of freedom and justice. For the decision of men is unjust and beyond this, the law that permits death for questioning the gods of Athens (even if one is, as Socrates is, impeccably externally pious) is unjust. And of course, their appeal about being “pleasing” to him is base.
That is where further questioning of the dialogue leads and the death of Socrates gives rise, as Martin Luther King says in his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" to freedom of speech and conscience and academic freedom. In a still to be created decent regime, one cannot, upon further reflection, put people to death for opinions or even lock them up, even if the powerful do not like them…
But now let us consider again Plato’s and Socrates’ counsel to students. Even under pressure of imminent death, one should follow out arguments and stick with those that, upon reflection, seem true. An apt dialogue is the assent of one witness, following the argument, not the opinion of the many (the latter is what Crito throws against the wall, hoping that his passion and fear will stick, since he does not engage in reasoning). Many dialogues, including this one, are not philosophical or apt in this sense; they do not follow out arguments to the truth, but are in some way, deterred by the interests of or Socrates’ interactions with particular characters. In the Meno for example, Meno and Socrates coquet with one another, and only Meno’s question about whether virtue can be taught, without a specification of what virtue is, is “answered” mistakenly.
In the Crito, the speech of the laws is faulty; Crito is deterred rhetorically by his fear to be exiled and his fear of what the many think.
Now to oppose the many sounds anti-democratic. But democracies often do bad things, the KKK and McCarthyism being important examples. Aristotle, Plato’s student and aficionado of Alexander the Great and one man rule, nonetheless defends majority rule to some extent. Sometimes, he says, the opinion of a large number is better than that of an expert – one might say, always in terms of unconstrained one man rule. But sometimes, Aristotle says, there is no difference between a majority and a “herd of beasts.” The wise majority rule exemplifies a common good, something which benefits the whole society. In contrast, the "herd of beasts" means the tyrannical rule of a particular interest.
It is the latter that Socrates' questioning fights. So Socrates defends the democratic laws of Athens and seeks to strengthen them, even as he denounces frivolous, grandiose, ignorant though common opinions as for instance, that of the majority which puts him to death…
In the Meno, one gets an inkling of the ideas of Plato by the theorem in Euclidean geometry that the slave gradually proves under questioning. For it is an abstract idea about a diagonal, not a particular line in the sand which they investigate. And these theorems are not visible to the naked eye, just as most of the findings of modern science, quarks, for example, are not.
In an obvious sense, Plato's ideas are a counter to empiricism (particularly in today's social “sciences,” where with IQ testing, bad methodological doctrine has run amuk, with enormously destructive social and moral consequences).
But many ideas – like that of the good, likened grandly in The Republic to the sun in the noetic universe, are only to be figured out, if they are, through a long journey of subtle readings of the dialogues. The metaphors surrounding them are as suggestive and unclear as ideas in geometry are clear.
What then should we make of the laws in the Crito? They are, in one sense, deficient, merely rhetorical. But improved as Socrates implies with protection for democratic questioning, these ideas become better. Socrates’s sacrifice of his life makes the laws of the democracy approach justice. They thus move from the sophism of the courts toward Platonic ideas, though they never reach such ideas which are, in one important sense, as a practical project, unknowable. That is the secret of the Crito...