Citizen and Human Being: Thoreau, Socrates, and Civil Disobedience

George Anastaplo *

That the polis is prior by nature to each one [of us] is clear…. He who is incapable of entering into community, or on account of self-sufficiency has no need of anything, is no part of a polis and must therefore be either a beast or a god.

-Aristotle, Politics 1253a25

I.

In an age of “conformity” principled self-assertion should be cherished even as it is distinguished  from sentimental self-deception. Henry Thoreau, who can be a delightful companion in the dark woods of this world, is the recognized apostle of nonconformity. One even finds this plea from Walden on behalf of the nonconformist enshrined in placards confronting passengers in crowded subway trains:

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

This attitude is evident in the romantic extravagances of young men and young nations of the modern world. (Indeed, the modern world can be thought of as characterized by a radical romanticism which threatens civilization and invites tyranny.)

Thoreau incites us to question the respectable. But what could be more respectable than to be memorialized, as Thoreau now is, on an American postage stamp? We dare, then, on the authority of Thoreau himself, to question the dogmas he has promulgated, especially as they are understood by crowds disposed to lawlessness.

Why should anyone follow one drummer rather than another? Is a drummer to be followed merely because he is distant? Or because he is different from the one others are following? If a drummer even more distant than ours, perhaps merely a different one, offers himself, should we then change our step? Must every man follow some drummer? or, at least, most men? If so, should not we attempt to assess the relative merits of the drummers who offer their music to us? If it does not matter what drummer we follow, why should we follow any drummer? Indeed, why should we conform to any music at all?1

May not something be said for having one drummer for the entire community to follow? Is this not, in fact, what “community” means, that body of men who follow the same drummer—and the better the drummer, the better the community? Whether the community’s drummer should be respected depends partly on how much we value community itself. That is, what is man without the community? How much of what we know and cherish as human can exist independent of the community and its laws?

One’s answer to these questions may depend on what one believes man in the state of nature to be. Thoreau’s own belief is suggested by the opening sentences of his Walden:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.

He is, he seems to think, temporarily “in civilized life again.”  He believes, that is, he was not “in civilized life” when he was on “the shore of Walden Pond.”  We must wonder, however, how much “alone” anyone could be a mere mile “from any neighbor,” “in Concord, Massachusetts,” within walking distance of the Athens of North America.  How much alone is a man when he knows that his native community is immediately available to him, when he knows that he can draw at will upon its resources and its people?

But one mile or one thousand may not be decisive:   even more critical than the distance from civilization is what a man who steps in Thoreau’s fashion “outside” civilized life takes with him.  He certainly takes with him knowledge of how to build a house, as well as the tools for such an enterprise.  Even more important, he takes with him knowledge of reading and writing, the tools of language with which civilized life has invested him, that language which permits every man to reason and which equips the gifted man to rise above the community.

The pages Thoreau wrote “in the woods” were (he says) written primarily to explain himself to his townsmen.  His body had gone down the road a piece, but not his soul.  Indeed, it may be that a truly civilized man can never leave civilized life, even if his physical departure should be permanent:   he takes with him the marks and habits of civilization, shaping accordingly everything he thereafter sees and does.

It is because of his opinion of the ease of separating man from his community—an opinion reflected in his assumption that one could be a thinking, moralizing, writing human being independent of civilized life—that Thoreau can suggest in his antislavery essay on “Civil Disobedience” that one may secede from his immediate community as readily as the State of Massachusetts can secede from the American Union:

. . . Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President.  Why do they not dissolve it themselves,–the union between themselves and the State,–and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury?  Do they not stand in the same relation to the State, that the State does to the Union?…2

There were alive in Thoreau’s day men who could recall when and how Massachusetts entered into the relation then existing between the States and the Union.  But has there ever been a civilized man who recalled when and how men first came together into a community to escape the “desperate enterprises” of the state of nature?  Indeed, to recall is itself the mark of civilized man, or the reasoning being, of the creature permanently educated and guided by long-established civilization.3

When Thoreau though, while huckleberry picking, that “the State was nowhere to be seen,” he was surely naïve.  Perhaps, however, such a sentiment should be respected as calculated naivete designed to influence civic-minded multitudes in the grip of what Tocqueville calls “virtuous materialism.”  Still, it is prudent today not to neglect the threats to community, and hence to the opportunity of man to rise above the community, which are implicit in Thoreau’s essay on the duty of civil disobedience:   it is this essay, not Walden (with its respect for nature, for simplicity and self-reliance, and for godlike excellence), that is now so influential among us.

The authoritative American alternative to Thoreau’s sentimental dogmas about political life may be found in the Declaration of Independence.  The Declaration recognizes our dependence upon the community, a dependence that both induces and entitles us to alter or to abolish our government when it becomes destructive of the ends for which governments are instituted among men, “and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to [us] shall seem most likely to effect [our] Safety and Happiness.”  Thus, the Declaration of Independence reminds us that there are standards outside and above the teachings of particular governments, standards superior even to what our own government might at any moment believe or choose.  The right of revolution implies, that is, the supremacy of reason in human affairs.

Thoreau sometimes speaks as if the traditional right of revolution is much the same as what he means by the duty of civil disobedience.  But the Declaration of Independence does what Thoreau could never discipline himself to do:   it takes government seriously.  The Declaration recognizes the practical necessity of civilized life for man and addresses itself in a responsible manner to the question of how that life can best be organized in the ever-changing circumstances that men confront.4

II.

The best-known classical alternative to Thoreau is, of course, Plato’s Crito, in which Socrates considers it salutary to permit himself (and hence philosophy) to be identified with simple law-abidingness.  The Platonic Socrates, in his recognition of the practical necessity of civilized life for man, is closer to the Declaration of Independence than to Thoreau.  This, in any event, is the intended appearance of the dialogue.  What does this dialogue, the Crito, say?  That is, what emerges from the conversation between Socrates and Crito?5

Socrates lies under sentence of death.  His old friend Crito wants to use his money and influence, and the money of others (both Athenians and foreigners), to save his friend from the undeserved execution which is to come in a day or two.  Everything has been arranged:   only one thing further is required, and that is the willingness of Socrates to cooperate in the flight to the North.  We are reminded of the Underground Railroad and the many deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice by which, through it, men were saved from harsh fates.  But Socrates will not cooperate:   he continues to acquiesce in, even to court, death in the manner we saw in his trial.  That is, he exhibits in private the attitude which had been seen in public.  Of course, he has reasons that the distraught Crito is unable to contradict.  Thus, a tired old man is left to the fate he wants, having lived a full and, by and large, good life.

This, then, is something that the dialogue can be said to have said:   and there are some among us who would see the story in just about these terms (however buttressed by psychological language), especially if they confronted someone whose reputation did not intimidate them.

III.

The dialogue and what it says can be seen as well primarily in terms of the reasons Crito is given to satisfy him that Socrates does right in not leaving.

The political community, without which few of the good things of human life would be possible, depends on laws.  The laws are sometimes misapplied by mistaken men—but everyone would agree that most of the laws are salutary.  If a man lives in a community—if he does not leave when he has the opportunity to do so—he consents to being bound by the application of those laws in his case.

If he insists upon passing judgment upon each law with which he is confronted, he is merely inviting anarchy.  For it is difficult to deny the same privilege to others—and some will thus be induced to act against good laws that are salutary, laws that are necessary for his city and for all cities.  But there is a sense in which all laws are equal: for the subversion of one law leads to, permits, perhaps even encourages the subversion of others.

The citizen implicitly enters into an agreement in order to profit from the community.  But what the community does may sometimes seem to injure him.  This any reasonable man knows when he enters into or persists in an agreement of this kind.  But he does persist, because he also knows that in human affairs, where ignorance and chance are unavoidable, mistakes will be made and things may not always work out as they should.

An old man especially knows this:   Socrates is who he is—has become what he is—because Athens has been (and even now continues to be) what it is.  He has always recognized the value of law—and to run away now would be to undermine the law, to discourage the law-abiding, even to make himself appear ridiculous, and all for a few years of life (or, as it is put, for a banquet in Thessaly).  This would confirm the opinion of those who had brought him to trial as someone who had subverted the city.

Indeed, the dialogue has come down to us as the classic statement of the case for law-abidingness.

IV.

But it is not the dialogue that makes this statement, we may happen to notice after another reading.  The case for law-abidingness is made not by Socrates but by the laws.  Socrates rarely speaks in his own name during the concluding part of the dialogue.  That is, almost one-half of the dialogue reports the laws speaking through him, speaking to Crito and arguing for law-abidingness.

The laws say precisely what one would expect to hear from them.  Every law expects to be obeyed:   it states an imperative; it demands obedience; it knows no alternative.  And all laws are, in this respect, birds of a feather.  They do not really care for argument: they will use it, preferably in preambles, but only to secure obedience.6

Socrates is asked whether he agrees that this or that law has been salutary—and from this limited agreement, the laws suggest that he agrees that all are salutary.7 The laws are, in a sense, unscrupulous.  But they do hold out to the citizen the alternative or going elsewhere if he does not like the regime.  They do not point out, however, that wherever one goes, there will be laws—and laws that will make essentially the same argument.  Where is one really to go?  The alternatives held out by the laws are illusory: the laws a man does want to flee are those immediately confronting him in their unjust application.

The laws, we also notice, are many; and the many were dismissed by Socrates early in this conversation with Crito as unreliable, indeed as the authors of opinions that are not worth much.  Socrates prefers the thought of one who may know to the opinions of many.  The many are loud and insistent and can wound or kill; the laws, too, confront Socrates with the prospect of what their brothers in Hades will eventually do to him if he should flaunt them here on earth.  The laws are so noisy that, Socrates says at the end, he cannot hear any other argument.  They would drown out the voice of reason.  Yet Socrates had said at the beginning of this conversation with Crito that he was one who would not be moved but by reason.8

Indeed, the laws can even be said to be intent only on looking out for themselves.

V.

We cannot, however, leave it at this.  For it is Socrates who uses the narrow-minded laws.  It is he who brings them on the stage to speak the piece that can be expected of them.

He cannot simply agree with what they say:   they do not reason, they merely draw upon their traditional opinions.  Socrates has been known to disregard, even to disobey, what seemed to be the law of Athens—and to counsel the self-righteous, as in Plato’s Euthyphro, not to be overly zealous in enforcing the law.

But there is one special factor Socrates must take into account in framing his answer on this occasion:   Crito, a decent man.  We would not want Crito, feeling as he does, not to try to do something to help his friend.  But does Crito understand what would be truly helpful?  He is perhaps too much concerned about the opinions of the many, despite his long association with Socrates.  That association—they are of like age and deme—may have been based on causes to some degree accidental.  They may be somewhat like the boyhood chums who continue their affection and concern for one another long after they would have ceased to find each other attractive in the guise of strangers.  The very considerations that Crito brings forward reveal the kind of considerations with which he must be countered:   the opinions of the many must be countered by the opinions of another, perhaps more refined, “many.”9

Crito is present on this occasion because of his dubious arrangements he has made with Socrates’ guard.  And he is prepared to make similar arrangements for getting Socrates away.  That is, he is disposed to use his wealth to get his own way.  Both in his willingness to use his wealth and in his emphasis on the overriding value of self-preservation, he is bound to the body to a degree that Socrates cannot accept.10

There may be laws that should be broken, there may be occasions that call for flight.  But someone such as Crito cannot be depended on to make the proper judgment.  Rather, he is better off—as is the typical reader who comes from the dialogue with its evident lesson in law-abidingness—if he is persuaded he should act as is prescribed by law.  For men are far more apt than not to break the law for the wrong reasons—and such an attitude jeopardizes that stability of the community needed not only for civilization to develop and survive but also for the best to emerge.11

VI.

The fact remains that Socrates does not flee.  We confront, then, the question not of the reasons Crito and the typical reader are given, but of the reasons Socrates has for acting as he does.

One reason has been suggested:   the political community is of inestimable value to man, and laws are essential to that community.  In this Socrates agrees with the laws.12 Another reason is suggested by the very fact of the dialogue’s being presented to us: Socrates knew what the report would be that Crito (with the assistance of someone such as Plato) would convey to his fellows.  Citizens who had condemned Socrates as a lawbreaker would see him as refusing to break the law, even in circumstances when they themselves would break it.  For Crito had been concerned that he might be criticized, by the very people who had condemned Socrates, for not having used his wealth to help his friend escape.

Socrates, then, is not altogether unconcerned about his reputation.  That is, he is concerned about reputation, not for its own sake but for the effect it will have.  He is not concerned for the effect it will have on him, however, but for the effect it may have for philosophy and other philosophers—that is, for his true friends—in Athens and (as we now know) elsewhere.13 The philosopher is made to appear law-abiding:   the most private of men is displayed as most respectful of the public, as a just man.  Nor is he oblivious to other appearances; he does not want to do the unseemly—that is, the ignoble, as distinguished from the unjust.

It is an old man who acts in this way.  What would Socrates have done had he been much younger?  What would he have done if he had thought he still had a more important contribution to make to philosophy or even to Athens than his death in these circumstances would make?  We do not know.  But we do remember that he had long before abandoned political life—had, in a sense, fled from the city—because not to have done so would have led to his destruction without doing any good either for himself or for others.14

VII.

What then are the considerations Socrates would bring to bear in judging a particular situation?  Before the laws are brought on the stage, there is (in the middle of the dialogue) this exchange (Crito 49d-50a):

Socrates: . . . Consider very carefully whether or not you agree with me and share my opinion and let us begin our inquiry from the starting point that it is never right either to act unjustly, or to repay injustice with injustice, or to avenge ourselves on any man who harms us by harming him in return.  Or do you disagree with me and dissent from my starting point?  I myself have believed it for a long time, and I believe in it still, but if you differ in any way, explain to me how.  If you still hold to our former opinion, listen to my next point.

Crito: I do hold to it, and I agree with you:   so go on.

Socrates: My next point, then, or rather my next question, is this: Ought a man to carry out his just agreements, or may he evade them?

Crito: He ought to carry them out.

Socrates: Then consider this.  If we go away without the city’s consent, shall we be injuring those whom we ought least to injure or not?  Shall we be abiding by our just agreements or not?

Crito: I cannot, Socrates, answer your question, for I do not understand.

Since Crito cannot answer—since he cannot think through this particular problem—Socrates must handle him in another way:   he must bring in the general arguments of the laws.15

The laws emphasize a covenant, not coercion alone, as the basis of their authority; and they speak of what preserves and of what undermines political communities.  They speak, that is, of justice as they know it, identifying themselves with the city.  Justice is for them obedience to the law—they acknowledge no bad law.  Socrates, too, had been prepared to explore with Crito the demands of justice—but Crito was not equipped to cooperate.  The arguments with respect to justice are there, that justice which should be employed in determining what laws should be enacted or repealed, in determining what laws should be covenanted with.  But Socrates and Crito are in a place where it is not possible to know what it is like outside.  They are, pursuant to law, in a confined, even unnatural, place; and even outside it is barely dawn.  The more evident and unfettered inquiry into justice and the laws should be on other occasions and with other interlocutors.16

In any event, Plato’s readers are left with the salutary suggestion that until they really know what they are doing, until they are equipped and disciplined enough to think through the reasons for appropriate disobedience in particular circumstances, they will do well to abide by the laws, to confine their activities to the means for redressing greviances that properly constituted laws provide.  Otherwise, they become the prisoners of those who talk loudest.

VIII.

The laws, when they are permitted by Socrates to speak their piece, must make concessions they do not make everywhere.  That is, they must be prepared to behave themselves.

Thus, the right of emigration has to be conceded by the laws:   the dissatisfied citizen can leave with his property.  The citizen must also be permitted, while he remains, to try to persuade the laws that they need amendment.  Both of these rights, it can be argued, must be more than nominal if the laws are to be entitled to the moral stature with which Socrates invests them.

Still another condition is implied:   there must be a trial according to law on an issue defined by law.  That is, the laws, to justify themselves, must act like laws.  The citizen can be legitimately addressed by the laws, as is Socrates in the Crito, only if the citizen’s trial and conviction have been in accordance with properly constituted law.

The concessions that the laws have to make, in order to win Socrates’ implicit assent, raise them not only above the opinions of the many but above the typical laws as well.  Thus, the Crito can be seen as, in part, an argument that Socrates and Plato make to the laws and to the political community on behalf of justice and even the life of the mind.17

IX.

We are moved to wonder, by our invocation here on behalf of justice, whether we have in our preliminary assessment of Thoreau given him his due, however useful and even necessary it may be today for citizens to question certain of Thoreau’s dogmas.  He may be, after all, bigger and better than we are, especially in his wholehearted devotion to the life of the mind, to that life which challenges us as human beings to examine and to be prepared to discard the respectable opinions with which citizenship invests, comforts, and confines us.  Indeed, we can imagine Socrates, an urbane human being of incredible daring, endorsing as salutary for the life of inquiry the declaration of independence with which Thoreau opens his essay on “Walking”:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.  I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization:   the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.

Notes

1. See, on the significance of music (in the modern sense) for the proper education of the soul, Plato, Republic 398b-402d, 404e, 410a-412b, 424b-d, 620a, Laws, 654d-656c, 659c-e, 667b-c, 670d-671a, 700a-e, 701a-b, 798e, 812b-813a, 967e, Crito, 50d-e.  Compare, in Plato, Crito 43b10 (“discordant”) and 54d2-5.  See, also, note 8, below.

Various of the points discussed in this essay are also discussed in George Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist: Notes on the First Amendment (Southern Methodist University Press, 1971; Lexington Books, 2005),   e.g, c. 5, n. 11, c. 7, n. 45, c. 8, nn. 37, 70, 122.  See, also, Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essays I, II, IV, VI, IX.  See, as well, The Correspondence of Sir Thomas More, E. F. Rogers, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), pp. 514-32.

See, for a community-minded alternative to Thoreau’s individualism, a Greek Orthodox prayer (The Services for Holy Week and Easter Sunday [Brookline, Mass.: Greek Orthodox Theological Institute Press, 1952], p. 45):

O Heavenly King, strengthen our faithful kings, establish the faith, pacify the heathen, give peace to the world, protect the welfare of this city, place our departed fathers and brethren in the dwellings of the just, and of Thy goodness and mercy receive us also with our penitence and thanksgiving.

2. It should be noticed that had Thoreau, in his radical attack upon the Union, succeeded in persuading his fellow citizens of Massachusetts and of the North, it would have meant abandoning Southern slaves to complete control by a sovereign Confederacy which not only would then have been entirely slave but which would have probably been left free to strengthen slavery both by extending it to Cuba and Latin America and by reviving the foreign slave trade.  This would have been comparable to critics of American military involvement in Vietnam withdrawing completely from all organized political activity in the United States.  See Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay XV, the text at note 18.

Thoreau’s antislavery rhetoric was indeed useful, but primarily because citizens such as Lincoln knew how to adapt it to political use in persuading freedom-minded citizens to save the Union rather than to permit the Slave States to go their own way.

Consider (as support for Thoreau’s approach?) the report by a diplomat (Henry J. Tasca) who was the American ambassador when the Colonels fell in July 1974 (Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay I, note 7):   “I do not agree. . . .that the Turks brought back democracy to Greece.  The junta was finished.  They were through.  It was the total lack of cooperation, the passive resistance of the Greek people that did it.”  Hellenic Chronicle, May 29, 1975, p. 1.  Mr. Tasca was not always this sensible about Greece.

3. See Edwin Muir, “The Animals,” in Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), p. 207.  See, also, Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay VI, note 44 (point 5).

4. See Anastaplo, “The Declaration of Independence,” 9 St. Louis University Law Journal 390 (1965); Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay IV, note 34; note 17, below.  See, on adaptations to circumstances, ibid., Essay VI, notes 19, 20.

It is often said that the citizen has the right to disobey whatever law happens to offend his conscience.  But what assurance is there, for instance, that the punishment he may be willing to suffer for such disobedience can repair the damage done by his response to the promptings of a mistaken conscience?  See, on conscience, Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay VI, note 39.

It is also said that the citizen should be willing, even eager, to accept the punishment awaiting the deliberate lawbreaker.  But may not the punishment awaiting the lawbreaker be part (perhaps even the most vital part) of the very law, or system of laws, which he is justly defying?  See, e.g, Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist, c. 7, n. 74.

5. Every discussion of a Platonic dialogue is, at best, an introduction.  I say “introduction” because one can hope to do little more than examine the surface of such a dialogue or, perhaps, only to indicate what the surface is.  I say “at best” because there are discussions, purportedly of Platonic dialogues, which are really about something else and can only mislead.  See Plato, Phaedo 115e (compare Crito 43b10); Phaedrus 274c-277a.

There is for us the problem of how to read a Platonic dialogue—and then there is also the problem of how to read a particular dialogue.  The particular dialogue includes details peculiar to it that the reader must somehow notice and work from, details to which he must apply the general rule that nothing is there without a purpose.  A good introduction may do little more than clear away the conventional opinions which can get in the way of Plato’s efforts to speak to his attentive and imaginative reader.  See The Constitutionalist, c. 9, sec. 4; Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay II (on Plato, Apology of Socrates).  See, as perhaps bearing on one’s reading of the Crito, Plato, Euthyphro, Euthydemus 277d, 306d sq, Republic 327b, 449b, Lesser Hippias 370b-c, Gorgias 480d-e, Meno (Human Being and Citizen, Essay VI, note 51, above).  See, also, note 16, below.

In this essay, polis, political community, and city are used interchangeably.  See Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay XV, note 5.

6.  See Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964), pp. 75-76, 79-80. See, also, Plato, Protagoras 334c-338e, Gorgias 457c-458b, 471e-472c, 474a-c, 505d-506c, 519d-e, Laws 722e-723d.

7.   Compare Plato, Apology 37a-b, Statesman 294bsq.

8.   The discordant noise of the laws (see note 1, above, note 16, below) is likened by Socrates to that of the Corybantes, the priests who imitate the frantic “music” said to have been employed by the Curetes to conceal the crying of the vulnerable infant Zeus. (Was, that is, the truth concealed by the Curetes for the sake of justice? ) Should the laws also be considered to be protecting by their overpowering noise, something vulnerable but yet divine and worthy of such protection? See Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay X, note 7, above.

It should be noticed that there is a movement in the Crito from the many gods of the opening pages to the one god of the final sentence. The many gods would seem to include “the gods of the city” (Apology 24b-d), Zeus among others. See Plato, Epistles xiii, 363b. See, also, Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay II, section xi, above.

Socrates brings “on stage” not justice (a single being) but the Laws (a multitude). See note 9, below.

9.   We can assess Crito’s judgment by noticing the disparaging reference he makes to the magnificent speeches recorded in the Apology. His concern for Socrates the friend and fellow citizen overpowers his respect for the noble and philosophical Socrates (for Socrates the human being?). Yet Crito does know Socrates well enough to anticipate difficulty in securing his assent to the escape plan. (Is Crito the oligarchic, elderly counterpart of the democratic, youthful Chaerephon? See Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen,  Essay II, note 46, above.)

The laws (and city?) begin by speaking in the similar, perhaps as a tragic chorus (another “more refined ‘many’ “) does through its choragus. See, on the relation of poetry and politics, Laurence Berns, “Aristotle’s Poetics,” in Ancients and Moderns, Joseph Cropsey, editor (New York: Basic Books, 1964); Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay X, above.

10.   See Plato, Phaedo 99a-b, 115c-d. See, also, Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist, c. 9, n. 38; Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essays VII, VIII, above, Essay XVII, below.

11.   See Cicero, De Officiis, I, xli:

But no rules need to be given about what is done in accordance with the established customs and conventions of a community; for these are in themselves rules; and no one ought to make the mistake of supposing that, because Socrates or Aristippus did or said something contrary to the manners and established customs of the city, he may do the same. It was only by reason of their great and divine virtue that they had such license.

See, also, Plato, Republic 329e-330a; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1129b11-1130a1, 1130b18-21, Politics 1268b23-1269a29, 1280a9-23, 1276b16-1277b33.

12.   The laws even claim they are like father and mother to Socrates (but only to Socrates as citizen?). Compare Plato, Republic 413b-415a, 496a-497d. See note 16, below.

13.   See Plato, Republic 499dsq; Plutarch, Nicias 538-539 (XXIII, 1-6); Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay II, notes 28, 31, 46, above.

14.   Plato Apology 31d-32a.

Socrates knows that he is at the age when men’s powers can be expected to begin to fail. That his powers are still undiminished, however, is evident from the Phaedo.

It might be thought that Socrates’ decision in the Crito was determined by his indications in the Apology that he preferred death to exile. But why did he take that position in the Apology? Does not that earlier decision suggest that something other than the kind of arguments made by the laws guides him in the Crito? (It should be noticed that neither philosophy nor Socrates’ daemonic thing is invoked on the Crito occasion. See Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay II, section xii, p. 28, above.)

15.   Socrates refers to some of the arguments he relies upon in the Crito as having been established by him and his companions on other occasions. This, however, is not said by him about the arguments advanced by the laws.

See the concluding pages of Book I of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.

16.   The ordinary city is magnified in the Crito; the city, and even the best city, is called into question in the Republic where justice is examined at great length with competent interlocutors. (See Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist, c. 9, sec. 4; also, note 5, above.) It is this tension between the two attitudes, each of which does have something to be said for it, which men must learn to cope with. (See ibid., c. 2, n. 1.) Each attitude, pushed to its extreme, can be harmful: neither mere law-abidingness nor wholesale rejection of the laws is prudent. He who is to be able to balance one attitude against the other must devote himself to serious thought about the nature of man and of the political community, and about the form and conditions of excellence for each. (See Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay VI, note 44, point 1.)

In Socrates’ cell on this occasion the principal natural senses of man are laboring under disabilities: too much “noise” and not enough light. In these circumstances, the “laws” (the very word, in Greek, means “conventions”) are so bold as to identify themselves at least as natural as one’s father and mother. (See note 12, above.) They claim, in effect, to be as natural as the polis which makes (not generates) them. See Strauss, The City and Man, pp. 14-15, 20.

One must wait until the “racket” stops to be able to listen to the voice of reason, to be able to think through the meaning of this dialogue. (See note 8, above.) Nor is the light adequate: on another occasion, under the sky of Crete, the laws are examined in detail by a Socrates-like Athenian and his companions at high noon, in a conversation which also begins at dawn. Plato, Laws 722c-d. See Crito 52e-53a. Compare Plato, Protagoras 310a-311b, 361d-362a.

17.   Similarly, do not Aristotle’s arguments on behalf of that natural slavery which is both rare and unprofitable shake to its foundations that conventional slavery which can be both widespread and profitable? Politics, I, iv-vii. [I once made this argument for Mortimer J. Adler at an Aspen, Colorado conference.  He was not persuaded.  See, on Mr. Adler, the Dedication for George Anastaplo, But Not Philosophy: Seven Introductions to Non-Western Thought (Lanham, Maryland:   Lexington Books, 2002).]

We are reminded (by these arguments of Socrates and of Aristotle) of the qualifications and conditions found in the Declaration of Independence: the right of revolution is there so hedged in as to reinforce among American citizens respect for law and order. See note 4, above.

We are reminded as well of Heraclitus’ exhortation (Fr. 44): “The people must fight on behalf of their law as though for the city wall.”

See Plato, Apology 32a-e; also, the text at note 12 in Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen, Essay III.


* This essay is taken from George Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen: Essays on Virtue, Freedom and the Common Good (Swallow Press, Ohio University Press, 1975). It was first published in 54 Southwest Review 203 (Spring 1969). It incorporated talks given at the University of Chicago on Plato’s Crito (in 1964, for the Hillel Foundation Jewish Student Center) and on Henry Thoreau (in 1967, for the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults). The original title of this essay was “On Civil Disobedience: Thoreau, Socrates, and the Declaration of Independence.”

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