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Plato's "Crito" and the Democratic Ideology of Courage

Joseph Gerbasi

University of Toronto

This paper explicates Plato’s engagement in the Crito with the ideology of courage specific to Athenian democracy, thereby complicating the traditional interpretation of the dialogue. In the Crito, Plato depicts Socrates refusing to escape from prison, where he awaits execution, and arguing that to break the law would be to harm the common good. Going back at least to the 19th century, scholars have always taken Socrates’ decision as an example of a sort of philosophical courage, that is, a courage to abide by the moral principles dictated by reason (e.g. Grote 1867; Jaeger 1943. Miller 1996; Weiss 1997; Stokes 2005; Harte 2005; Hatzistavrou 2013). Accordingly, scholars have always assumed that Socrates’ interlocutors in the dialogue, namely Crito and the personification of the Laws, advocate for self-serving prudence in place of courage, for conformity to political prejudice in place of principled action. Against this traditional reading, I read the dialogue in light of the tradition of scholarship inspired by Loraux’s L'invention d'Athènes (1981), which has elucidated the ideological understanding of courage specific to democratic Athens, but has never before been applied to a reading of Plato’s Crito. Informed by this tradition of scholarship, I argue that the Crito presents Socrates’ decision to be motivated not by philosophical principle but by this ideological understanding of courage. Correspondingly, I show, the positions endorsed by Crito and the Laws, far from being expressions of conformism and/or cowardice, are in fact partial or problematized expressions of the same ideology of courage endorsed by Socrates.

More precisely, this paper shows how the dialogue progressively articulates and problematizates the ideology of courage prevalent in democratic Athens. The first section of the paper, drawing on the work of Loraux her followers (e.g. Monoson 2000, Wohl 2002, Balot 2014), sets out the basic points of this ideology, which defines courage as a willingness to sacrifice one’s own interest for the sake of the city’s interest. In the rest of the paper, I discuss the passages in the Crito which, I argue, should be taken as evidence for Plato’s conscious engagement with this ideology. I show, first, how Crito’s speech (44b-46a) introduces, albeit imperfectly, the ideology to the dialogue, endorsing self-sacrifice in the language familiar to the democratic ideology of courage but not with a view to the city’s interest. I argue that Socrates’ response to Crito (46b-50a) should be read as a correction of Crito’s position: Socrates, in effect, brings Crito’s ideas about courage into conformity with democratic ideology. Finally, whereas previous scholarship has taken the speech of the personified Laws (50a-54c) to be a regression to the pre-philosophic register of Crito, I contend that the Laws’ attitude towards courage is rather an extension, to the point of paradox, of Socrates’ advocacy of the democratic ideology of courage. The implication, I suggest, is that Plato’s Crito serves not only to portray Socrates according to a socially acceptable ideology, but also to question the coherency of that very ideology.

Session/Panel Title

Plato

Session/Paper Number

25.2

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