Questioning the Platonic Obedience to the State, Essay Example
In the dialogue Crito written by Plato, the author, through the mouth of Socrates, presents a relatively complex argument concerning why one is obliged to be obedient to the State, that is to say, to some type of governmental and authoritative structure. From a contemporary perspective, Plato’s argument at first glance appears to be totalitarian in nature: does simply being obedient to the State not imply the danger of supporting a form of tyranny that opposes individual human rights? In other words, does such an argument ultimately prevent one from taking critical views of political authorities and political practices, through such a blind obedience? In order to understand what exactly Plato means by this claim, it is therefore necessary to first unpack his logic concerning such obedience. Insofar as this argument is based upon a certain concept of justice, whereby the State exists as a State because it has an essentially sound ethical system, the following paper shall criticize Plato’s claim by advancing arguments against the inherent justness of any form of authority. In essence, the following paper will argue that Plato fails to accurately posit the potentially heterogeneous ethical messages contained in a particular State’s law, and thus this conflation leads to a thesis that possesses potentially dangerous ethical consequences.
Plato is a philosopher, of course, and throughout his work he maintains the importance of questioning forms of authority. For example, in the form of the famous cave myth from the Republic, he describes our social world as one in which we believe in the reality of shadows that are produced by those in power: the true existence requires an ascent from the cave, so as to discern that what we are told is true is merely empty ideology. In light of this, it would seem hat Plato explicitly contradicts his thesis in the Crito with the arguments concerning state obedience. In this particular text, Plato through Socrates argues that we are obliged to function according to the normativities and laws produced by the state apparatus, as though it was the unfailing duty of any citizen. But what if these laws and ethics, as Plato notes in the cave myth, are essentially false?
Accordingly, it is necessary to first understand precisely what Plato means by such obedience to the State in the Crito. The context of the unfolding of this text is the cell of Socrates, where Socrates is held by the legal authorities of Athens for his conduct, which was viewed as transgressive to the city-state. Socrates, in dialogue with Crito, suggests that he is obliged to accept the legal charges of the state made against his person, whereas Crito urges Socrates to escape from his cell. Socrates’ rebuttal to this argument is that it would be unethical for him to perform this act of flight. Socrates construes his decided course of action in terms of his obligation to the normativities of the State, thus questioning Crito: “When one has come to an agreement that is just with someone, should one fulfill it or cheat on it?” (Crito, 44) Hence, Socrates construes his imprisonment as the consequence of a form of agreement between him and the State: as a citizen of the state of Athens, he is obliged to follow Athenian law. To break this law by fleeing would be an act of injustice, insofar as it would represent a violation of the contract he has made with the legal authorities as a citizen of a state.
Yet, as Socrates also hints at in the aforementioned question to Crito, the apparently unwavering necessity to fulfill one’s agreements, either to an individual or to an authoritative body such as the law, is based upon the precondition that the terms of the agreement in question are in fact just. For Socrates, it is a question of always maintaining a just position, as opposed to an unjust one: Socrates phrases this commandment quite explicitly to Crito, with the imperative that the individual must “never do wrong.” (Crito, 49b) Hence, central to the obligation to the law as demonstrated in this argument is a concept of justice, from which, in essence, laws exist as such. Agreements themselves are not merely sufficient to necessitate obligation without any critical questioning, but rather these agreements must demonstrate a criterion of justice to maintain their obligatory power. In the particular context of the laws of Athens, Socrates views his obligation to the State as a just one, to the extent that he refuses to flee, as Crito implores: to flee would be an ethical violation of justice. Hence, Socrates maintains that the laws of Athens are in fact just, as he attempts to argue to Crito: “not one of our laws raises any obstacle or forbids him, if he is not satisfied with us or the city, if one of you wants to go and live in a colony.” (Crito, 51d) Socrates thus understands that the Athenian legal system has always allowed the individual a degree of autonomy: no one is forced to live in Athens, such that if one does not, for example, favor the laws of Athens, one may leave the city. In this argument, the laws of Athens are just because they are not imposed in a dogmatic and totalitarian fashion. Socrates has never left the city, despite being able to at any time; thus, at the time of his arrest, he must maintain his commitment to the city state itself. Accordingly, what Socrates seems to suggest in the Crito is that any legal system worth its name is essentially based upon some concept of justice that underlies it. In essence, any State, to be properly understood as a State, must have a just conception of the laws. Socrates is not, therefore, emphasizing blind obedience to figures of authority, but is rather suggesting that when such authority conducts itself in a just manner, such as conferring upon the individual an autonomy (as he explicitly mentioned), to go against this authority would essentially designation a transgression of justice itself.
Socrates’ arguments certainly seem puzzling from the perspective of the contemporary discourses of Western society, according to which the dominant democratic ideology has above all emphasized the value of maintaining a critical stance towards political and legal authorities. Namely, such democratic ideology pays a particular attention to the phenomenon that legal and political authorities may often violate the rights of their citizens, or operate in wholly unjust manners. In other words, the mere fact that an authoritarian or governmental structure exists does not necessarily mean that this structure is just in its essence: the laws it advances may be entirely totalitarian in nature, restricting contemporary concepts of universal human rights without exception. It would appear that contemporary democracy, with its constant changing of those in political power and the voice of the cumulative majority as the engine which decides who should occupy positions of power, maintains a critical as opposed to obligatory stance vis-à-vis the law. In other words, there is a certain problematization of the direct link between law and justice in democracy, such that an absolute ethical principle is not necessarily embodied in the form of the law.
Furthermore, it can be argued that Socrates neglects the possibility that states may themselves change over time, or that the different laws that constitute a political authority may not all be just: for example, a state may possess a particular law that could satisfy ethical criterions of justice (whatever that ethical criterion of justice may be), whereas another law could be viewed as an explicit violation of this same criterion. In other words, a possible weakness of Socrates’ argument is that he essentially homogenizes all the laws and normativities of a given system, thereby either viewing them as just or unjust. In contrast, a given society may possess just laws, which would satisfy Socrates’ account of justice, but at the same time, possess flagrantly unjust laws. By looking at the State as a composition of various laws in their entirety, Socrates is unable to distinguish the possible merits of a particular law. Hence, on the one hand, Socrates’ reference to the fact that he could leave Athens at any time he wished satisfies his criterion of justice; however, on the other hand, the law that sent him to prison, i.e., for the autonomous practice of philosophizing and the questioning of pre-existing social normativities in Athens, would not appear to satisfy this same criterion. Namely, Socrates takes all the laws of Athens together and then evaluates them as just or unjust; he fails to particularize these laws, and understand that a state may simultaneously possess laws which, for example, grant autonomy while also restricting autonomy. In this regard, it appears that the most glaring lacuna in Socrates’ argument is that he simplifies the object of State law to such an extent that he is unable to formulate a more complex picture of law, in which apparently paradoxical laws exist simultaneously. A clear example of this would be the United States, where constitutional law, which maintains rights such as free speech, appear to be contradicted by authoritarian and anti-autonomous legal documents, such as the Patriot Act. In other words, there appears to be a crude reductionism in Socrates’ account, whereby a state is either just or unjust: this arguably undermines the complexity of the political and legal object in its entirety.
Certainly, the clear counter-argument to this thesis, one which appears to exist, if not explicitly in the Crito, exists implicitly, is as follows: understanding the law as either just or unjust makes a clear distinction that clarifies our ethical commitments. Namely, Socrates does not suggest that we must adhere to any particular agreement that we make, but rather that we are obliged to follow out the commitments of a “just agreement.” To violate the terms of this agreement would itself be an act of injustice, insofar as the agreement is founded upon just principles: the law, once again, only exists to the extent that it is based upon a principle of justice. In other words, Socrates’ arguments for the obligation to a State are not in themselves obligations to a State, but rather indicative of our necessary obligations to justice. Hence, two different formulations of this same argument are possible. Either we are only obligated to the State insofar as the State itself is just; or any State that deserves the name State is by definition just, hence there is no question of agreeing or not agreeing with its laws, since their ethical validity is already confirmed by the fact that they exist as an agreed-upon arrangement between human beings.
Certainly, the argument that any State, insofar as it exists as a State, is already founded upon a just agreement between citizens and those in power, or, from another perspective, is just in the laws it proclaims, is clearly flawed: one only has to take a cursory look at human history to notice the existence of political regimes and legal systems that violate contemporary concepts of human rights, through practices such as exploitation, the restriction of freedom, racism and exclusionism. Therefore, obligation to the State because it is a State may clearly lack any type of ethical dimension, and instead becomes a mere blind following of authority. Clearly, Socrates would not adhere to this position, not only because of his own practice of philosophy, which clearly emerges as a certain questioning of authority, but also because he clearly states the justness of an agreement as the precondition for the obligation to follow it. Rather, Socrates must conceive that the laws of Athens are just to a certain degree, for this is precisely his argument against flight, despite the prodding of Crito. Yet this once again overlooks the point that a certain State may in fact possess conflicting laws, which vary in terms of their commitments to justice: What Socrates essentially employs here is a form of dualism, which says either a State is just or it is not, and hence obligation follows from clearly understanding this dualism. This does not only overlook the possibility that a State may possess laws with such varying expressions of justice, but also presuppose that such a clear dualism can be easily detected, and thus adhered to, either in the form of its rejection or its acceptance. Ehrenberg thus phrases Plato’s position in the Crito as follows: Socrates maintains that “no individual has the right to weaken the authority of the law.” (29) Whereas Ehrenberg’s summary perhaps simplifies Socrates’ argument, insofar as he overlooks the notion that justice is the precondition for the law, i.e., any law exists as law because it is the result of a just agreement, Ehrenberg nevertheless accurately captures the significance of Socrates’ reductionism: it represents the submission to authority. The simple dichotomy of Socrates’ argument fails to conceive of the State and the law itself as a nuanced object, one that is potentially internally fraught with contradictions, such that submission to authority is never clear-cut, but always ambiguous.
Hence, Socrates’ remarks concerning justice as precondition to the agreement that is formed in the law can be considered lucid: if an agreement is just in character, to violate this agreement could only represent an act of injustice. However, the subsequent step to understanding the State, or a particular State, as a fulfillment of this precondition, is an over-simplification of what the law means. Socrates does not necessarily overlook the possibility of bad laws, but rather overlooks the possibility that bad laws may coexist with goods laws. Accordingly, he simplifies the difficulty that is making the transition from justice to law: how can we communicate our deepest ethical principles in a form of social code? Of course, this transition is further complicated by another difficulty: that we can agree upon what exactly constitutes such justice.
Ehrenberg, Victor. Man, State and Deity: Essays in Ancient History. London, UK: Taylor & Francis, 1974.
Plato. Complete Works. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.
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