Monday, July 07, 2008

Why no 'soul' in Plato's Crito?

I'm giving some lectures on Plato's Crito next year so I thought I'd better re-read the thing carefully. I don't think I'd been through it properly since I read it as part of my first-year undergraduate Intensive Greek classes. I like it; certainly I like it more than the Ion, which it will replace in the first-year syllabus.

Anyway, I'm intrigued by Crito 47d3-6 and 47e7-48a1. There, famously, Socrates appears to be referring to a relatively familiar -- albeit paradoxical -- idea of his, namely that what matters most to one's welfare is the welfare of one's soul and that the welfare of one's soul is determined by whether one commits just acts -- which benefit the soul -- or unjust acts -- which harm it. However, Socrates does not once refer to the soul in this dialogue and he appears to go out of his way not to do so. Here are the passages:

ᾧ εἰ μὴ ἀκολουθήσομεν, διαφθεροῦμεν ἐκεῖνο καὶ λωβησόμεθα, ὃ τῷ μὲν δικαίῳ βέλτιον ἐγίγνετο τῷ δὲ ἀδίκῳ ἀπώλλυτο.

If we do not follow this, we will destroy and harm that which becomes better by what is just and is destroyed by what is unjust. (47d3-6)

Ἀλλὰ μετ’ ἐκείνου ἄρ’ ἡμῖν βιωτὸν διεφθαρμένου, ᾧ τὸ ἄδικον μὲν λωβᾶται, τὸ δὲ δίκαιον ὀνίνησιν; ἢ φαυλότερον ἡγούμεθα εἶναι τοῦ σώματος ἐκεῖνο, ὅτι ποτ’ ἐστὶ τῶν ἡμετέρων, περὶ ὃ ἥ τε ἀδικία καὶ ἡ δικαιοσύνη ἐστίν;

But should we live with that thing destroyed which the unjust harms and the just benefits? Or should we think this less important than the body whatever part of us this is which injustice and justice concern? (47e7-48a1)

It would be odd, to say the least, if what Socrates is referring to here were not 'the soul'. So why doesn't he come out and say it? True, what matters in this argument is that there is something or other which justice -- specifically the agent's commission of just acts -- benefits and which the agent's own commission of injustice will harm. What this is, precisely, is not so crucial right now. On the other hand, Socrates is not squeamish elsewhere about talking of souls. Why not here too?

I don't think the answer is just that Crito is 'unphilosophical' and would not get it [1]. Crito is an old hand at Socratic conversations, so we learn in the dialogue, and it would be odd if he hadn't picked up something along the line. It would be odd indeed, if he were so 'unphilosophical' that Socrates felt he had to resort to a somewhat obscure circumlocution to get his point across rather than just come out with a psychological thesis.

But there must be some reason. I'm still pondering, but I suspect the answer has to do with two further points [2].

1. The other important part of the dialogue must be Socrates' dream (at 44b) which certainly implies that Socrates is happy with the idea of some kind of survival after death, particularly if what matters here is the idea of a return home 'on the third day', that is: when he dies. Crito doesn't see what Socrates is getting at here either, of course (44b4) but that still doesn't make him 'unphilosophical'...

2. Crito himself is certainly not quite getting the point of Socrates' views in the dialogue, but it seems to me that this is a sign of something rather important that the Crito as a whole is trying to stress. What's wrong with Crito is not (just) that he is invoking the wrong sort of values (the welfare of philoi, family, reputation, money and the like) in putting the case for escape. These are perhaps, in a sense, 'unphilosophical', but that's not really the problem. The real problem is that Crito has followed and agreed to various Socratic arguments in the past, the conclusions of which Socrates still holds true and which are dictating Socrates' decision to remain in prison. Crito, however, seems to be able to follow these arguments only when they are not immediately relevant and applicable to a loved-one. Socrates is willing to reconsider the case, of course, but Crito will need to give the right kind of arguments to make him change his mind. So Crito is not 'unphilosophical' most generally; he is just not philosophical enough in this sense: he finds it hard to remain consistent with his argued principles when placed under the most testing personal circumstances. (It is revealing, then, that Crito cannot respond to Socrates' questions any further when he is explicitly asked to apply a general principle to the current situation: 49e9-50a3, the switch to the first person is marked, I'd say.)

How do these points help with the opening question? Perhaps, and this is perhaps a weak suggestion, Socrates is trying to persuade Crito as gently as he can that he really should just stick to the conclusions they had reached time and time before. Introducing any very strong psychological theses such as the idea of post mortem survival would potentially muddy the waters here when what matters is just the re-affirmation of the ban on wrong-doing and injustice, even in retaliation. Similarly, asserting that doing injustice harms the soul would potentially lead the conversation into unnecessary worries that would not help Socrates' case, nor help Crito deal with his particular and pressing crisis of philosophical faith.

[1] See e.g. R. Weiss, Socrates dissatisfied (Oxford, 1998, 43 and n.12).

[2] I'm particularly benefiting from re-reading V. Harte's 'Conflicting values in Plato's Crito' AGP 81, 117-47, reprinted in this handy collection.

1 comment:

JIW said...

Raphe Woolf writes:

Not sure if it's puzzling that Soc doesn't refer to soul by name - if that's what he's talking about. Crito is familiar enough with Socratic doctrine that
it might be obvious to him what Soc meant. But there's reason to think that soul is not the referent here: In Ap. our soul is pretty much identified with
ourselves and contrasted with what is ours; what he's talking about here, though, is merely one of ta hemetera; so I suspect, in line with your own hunch, it may be a case of Soc deliberately not reifying to avoid irrelevant
complications.