Socrates could have had his friend Crito pay a bribe to get him out of prison and escape his death sentence, but he didn’t. Why? Do we always have a duty to obey the law?
Brian Wilson from Combat and Classics joins us this week to continue our discussion on the last days of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates’ life, as told by his student Plato.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Combat and Classics is a series of free online seminars for active duty, reserve, and veteran U.S. military, sponsored by St. John’s College.
The Crito is a dialogue by Plato that depicts a conversation between Socrates (who is sitting in prison, having been sentenced to death by an Athenian jury during the events in Apology) and his wealthy friend Crito, who offers to finance Socrates’ escape from prison. Socrates refuses Crito’s offer on the grounds that injustice may not be answered with injustice. A free, Creative Commons-licensed version of this text can be found here.
Aaron mentions “The Humble Case for Liberty,” an essay he wrote in a collection published by the Atlas Network and Students for Liberty entitled Why Liberty: Your Life, Your Choices, Your Future (2013).
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Matthew Feeney: And I’m Matthew Feeney.
Aaron Ross Powell: And today we welcome back Brian Wilson. He’s co-founder of Combat and Classics, a program out of St. John’s that organizes free online seminars on classic text for active duty, reserve and veteran US military. He also leads discussions for the Partially Examined Life Podcast Non-School Program.
Brian Wilson: Hi guys. Thanks for having me back.
Aaron Ross Powell: Last time we had you on, we did Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense before the people of Athens when they had him on trial for impiety and corrupting the youth and today we’re doing the next dialogue in that sequence which is the Crito. So why don’t we start by having you tell us what’s the context for this particular discussion?
Brian Wilson: Yeah, so the Crito – and if you haven’t listened to the first one, spoilers ahead. Socrates is found guilty. So now he’s in prison but the issue at hand that he’s wrestling here in the Crito is he can get out, right? That’s the pitch and the subtext is that he – that the government of Athens – probably not a big deal because there was the talk of him being exiled as an option prior.
So he is just going to talk with Crito about is it – would it be right for me to ignore the verdict? Would it be right for me to leave? So jumping right in, it’s like we were talking about before we went live. There’s a much more hit-you-over-the-head libertarian theme on this one a little bit. But I also think there’s a lot of ambiguity that you can chew on, on this one and like a lot of Socratic dialogues – and I always kind of harken back to the Republic with this is – you know, is Socrates really laying out a cogent argument here? Is he really – I think that’s something for the listeners to think through as we talk about this and then hopefully you’re kind of spurred on to read it.
So whether you’re just listening or whether you’re reading, it’s – ask yourself in very specific terms, in very like – OK, I need to define my terms. Is Socrates being consistent? So I want to start off with a line in 46-C where him and Crito are already kind of in the mix and talking about these different options.
Socrates says, “I value and respect the same principles as before, and if we have no better arguments to bring up at this moment, be sure that I shall not agree with you, not even if the power of the majority would have frightened us with more bogeys as if we were children with threats of incarcerations and executions and confiscation of property.”
So like other St. John’s seminars, we start off with an opening question and we just try to help each other learn. So Socrates is laying out this excuse to Crito about why he’s not going to break out of the jail and he brings up this concept of the majority. But the question for you all is how is that different than what got him here in jail in the first place?
Matthew Feeney: Yeah. I think it’s a very interesting question because in the previous episode we discussed the trial and an argument could be made that he was – well, this is what happened, that there was a big jury that found him guilty and that’s in some sense a majority rule. So on the one hand, he seems to have this reverence or respect for the state but also to be skeptical of majority rule. I think it’s a very interesting – two sets of beliefs to hold at once.
Aaron Ross Powell: It’s interesting that when he starts presenting the arguments for why he shouldn’t run away – so Crito has shown up and said, look, basically, we can bribe people to get you out. It’s not going to cost that much. People are kind of expecting us to do it. It will be easy and Socrates says no.
When he starts offering these arguments – and Crito has said, yeah, like – people are – it’s going to hurt my reputation if I don’t bust you out of here, because people are expecting it in Socrates. Well, why the hell should you care about the – what the majority thinks of you? You should only care about the people who are right. But when he starts giving the reasons why he needs to stay, he slides into speaking in the voice of the state. He says I’m speaking – I can imagine – I think he says the laws in constitution of Athens saying and then it shifts into it’s now personified. It’s no longer selected – the trial represented the will of the majority which he seems to be very much opposed to. But when he’s presenting the arguments for why he ought to obey the will of the majority, suddenly it’s no longer the will of the majority but this like personified state.
Brian Wilson: See, I take it a little more – ambiguity there than the state, right? So I’m trying to be very specific. Maybe it’s just the state in your translation. But in my translation, it just says the laws.
Aaron Ross Powell: Right. It says laws and constitution.
Brian Wilson: Where does it say the constitution? Help me out on that one.
Aaron Ross Powell: I’m trying to find it. It’s in my translation.
Brian Wilson: Because I’m reading this as the law and I feel like with the law, you get into a fussier place than the state, right? If you had just said the state, he’s not going to sell me as much but if he’s talking about the law, and especially like he said in the Apology with his daemon, right? This daemon, this kind of God that he follows as the God of reason and he doesn’t mention the daemon, right? He doesn’t mention reason. He doesn’t mention virtue, right? He just mentioned the laws and what the laws are saying.
It’s fascinating to me that he has to have this conversation with himself, right? That he can’t even use Crito as his interlocutor which is what he does in a lot of situations. So maybe Crito is really dumb. That’s an option, right? Or he’s trying to give voice to this alternative and either try to talk himself into or out of it or talking Crito into or out of it.
But by his actions, he stays. So it’s just very confusing to me where he says this, “Why should I respect the majority?” And the earlier part is very much about you need to find the person that understands good opinion, that has a good opinion to do good and you follow that. Just like a trainer, you follow the trainer that knows what he’s talking about. You do that and ignore the majority and yet here we are where he’s in jail because the majority of the jury put him there and then he’s following or at least arguing with himself this disembodied thing, the laws.
Aaron Ross Powell: So here I found – so this is – my edition only says it’s somewhere between 48-E and 50-A but just look at it this way. Suppose that while we were preparing to run away from here, the laws and constitution of Athens were to come and confront us and ask this question. Now Socrates, what are you proposing to do?
He then later says so the – again the laws and constitution are speaking and say so far as you have the power to destroy us, the laws and the whole state as well. But it’s – this argument he’s having with himself, it is has truly kind of cut Crito out of the whole thing. But there’s this weird admission at the end where – so almost all of the arguments he makes which we will go through are simply him speaking in this imagined voice. He’s not giving his own views or even asking the kinds of questions that aren’t – like these aren’t really my reviews. I’m just asking. It’s so typical of Socrates but instead it’s in his – all of his speeches in quote as the laws and constitution in Athens.
But at the end, he says, “That my dear friend Crito I do assure you is what I seem to hear them saying just as a mystic seems to hear the strains of music and the sound of their arguments ringing so loudly in my head that I cannot hear the other side.” It’s like this isn’t even a dialogue. It’s just – it’s like a monologue of the voice in his head and he’s not willing to even entertain or listen to counterarguments.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah, and 51-C, the translation I have at least says the laws might say. The laws might say and then he goes on to talk about the sort of things that the laws provide and that Socrates should probably be thankful for and he mentioned things like educating him and raising him and it’s a fascinating point I think because the context of this is so I think intuitively frightening.
He’s facing certain death and making an argument there to libertarians like us, it’s rather disturbing, saying that there’s some sort of obligation to the entity that raised you, that educated you. It’s an argument you hear I think quite often actually outside of seminar rooms when discussing text like this, that the laws are worth respecting or the state is worth respecting. Because without it, what would you be? You’re here because of it.
Brian Wilson: I think it’s very tricky, right? Because if the laws are just, then you must do just by them, right? That’s kind of the layer beneath this idea of laws, right? Socrates says – he’s like, I can’t do injustice, right? Even if I have been unjustly tried, I can’t do that.
But he doesn’t address the question if the laws are just or not, right? I feel like this disembodied laws conversation is important to the dialogue. He’s not presenting this to Crito. He’s not saying, “Crito, don’t you believe that the laws nurtured you and the laws raised you and gave you this ability?” He’s not making that argument to Crito. He’s arguing with the laws in his own head and I just think – sometimes I take – there’s a part in book four of the Republic where they’re talking about – I think I brought this up in the last pod where the – Glaucon, in the formation of their ideal state, asks him, “OK. Well, you’ve provided for all the basic necessities without a state. But don’t you want a footstool?”
And Socrates is like, “Oh, you want a footstool now?” OK. Well now we need gold people and silver people and bronze people and guardians and all this stuff. I almost take the rest of the Republic as kind of a satire or a joke. Like, this is what you need to provide this which is also not true. I feel like it’s a similar conception of if the laws are just, then I cannot do injustice by them. I can’t just leave. I can’t use bribery. But the system is set up that way. He’s within the system. He’s within Athenian justice and there’s some part of Athenian – whether it’s beyond the law, there’s some part of Athenian culture that is saying to Socrates it’s OK.
Like, you can just put a bribe in. You can go to Thessaly. You can get out of here and it’s no big deal. But he has this conception of this dialogue with the laws that is forcing him to stay and I don’t understand it.
Aaron Ross Powell: So he doesn’t seem to – he seems to on the one hand take a procedural view of justice. Like the law is structured to do these certain things and the law has spoken because we had a trial and I was condemned. I was found guilty. So it would be violating the law regardless of its content, right?
Brian Wilson: Well, you can look at this in two ways, right? Maybe this is where you’re going. What came to my mind a lot of times is Letter from Birmingham Jail, right? So you have this idea of – you know, that peace and love is what drives mankind’s relationships to one another and that if you oppress one, you oppress the many. There’s this beautiful eloquence in that and something that stirs your conscience and puts right in your face this idea of just versus unjust laws.
And also this conception of sacrifice. It’s like if you want me to sit here, I will sit here. That’s fine. But you can’t stop where this is going. Whereas with Socrates, why not make a message like that? Why not have a message of rebellion, of still knowledge and justice and peace, but rebellion at the same time? I feel like that that is – that’s missing from this and how to have – how do you have a fully logical, a fully reasonable account of your actions without an understanding of the nature of rebellion, of the nature of saying, “No, it’s not right”?
I feel like there’s something in there and this is why I hang out with smart guys like you to help me understand this better is there’s something in there that’s missing and I feel like that it’s something around this dialogue with himself vis-à-vis the laws.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, he does mention – again when he’s speaking for the law, he has them say like, look, you had an opportunity to persuade us. Like it feels like that notion of saying no and that notion of rebellion comes in under the idea of persuasion. If you disagree, the thing to do is not to disobey because he thinks that disobeying destroys the law which then destroys the state or to run off, but to make the attempts to persuade which is what he arguably did although we can question how good of a job he did or if he was even intentionally – like if he was trying to persuade. But he made that attempt and failed.
The thing that I was going to say is that he’s – so he – look, it’s good because there’s just procedure and the law has given us this procedure and I was found guilty. But it seems like the way that Crito is presenting the, “Come on. Look, we can get you out and it will be easy,” and the expectations that you will is that part of this procedure is then, “And if you’re found guilty, then we can buy off the guards and you can run.”
Like this is the expectation. So it’s not clear why the finding guilty is part of this grander law, that the jury finds him this way but the getting out of jail which is expected is not.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good take on it. I do think there’s a good chance here that Socrates is worried about reputation here. Of course the dialogue starts with Crito saying, well, this will make me look bad and Socrates doesn’t seem to care.
I do wonder if they had just gone off to Thessaly what Socrates’ reputation might have been. But it’s hard for me to get into the mindset of Socrates given – what he said a little earlier which was that he might just treat this as a rhetorical battle of laws that he stood in front of hundreds of people and tried to make a case and failed and he’s willing to suffer the ultimate consequence of that.
Like we discussed in the last episode, he knew that he was guilty and didn’t exactly treat the jury with much respect with the first verdict. But again this is – how much of this is rhetorical flourish? I’m not sure.
Brian Wilson: I think there’s a lot in here as far as things that are maybe pointed at us as libertarians, right? And the line that Matthew was just mentioning, at the end of 52, when he’s quoting the laws and he’s saying the laws it’s like, “Surely they might say you’re breaking the commitments and agreements that you made with us. Without compulsion or deceit, under no pressure of time for deliberation, you’ve had 70 years during which you could have gone away if you did not like us and if you thought our agreement is unjust. You did not choose to go to Sparta or to Crete, which you are always saying are well-governed nor to any other city Greek or foreign.”
So there’s that critique of us. Why are we spending so much on entitlements? And they’re like, well, if you don’t like it, move to Somalia, right? And yet we don’t. So this makes me kind of wrestle with that conception of is there some other innate piece of this that man and the place he is born and raised are tied together on some level that’s beyond just this conception of justice or just this conception of the laws.
Matthew Feeney: It’s a very worrying conception of consent if you ask me. It is as you pointed out – I’m sure everyone at this table has heard the argument before. Well, you could move to Canada or you could move to Australia or something like that.
Which ties into – two thoughts that always come to my mind when this happens. Number one, values are subjective and you might be annoyed about some things the American government does but you don’t hate them enough that you would leave.
But secondly it’s the moral burden seems the wrong way around in a strange way. It’s up to me to exit this institution that I didn’t have a choice in, specifically where I was born, and I think I’ve discussed it with Aaron off mic before. He thinks along the similar lines. Is that fair? I don’t want to put words in your mouth Aaron.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, I mean – so – as an aside, one of the – every – so three times a year because we have three intern semesters. Three intern classes come through Cato each year and for each one I give a talk about the problem of political obligation and authority of whether we have a duty to obey the law and the text that I assign them is the Crito and the reason that I assign it is not just because it’s great and everyone should read as much Plato as you can. But because the arguments that Socrates offers – so this one that you just brought up Brian which is an implicit consent argument are basically the same arguments that people make today for why we have a duty to obey the state and all of the major arguments, the kinds of arguments that are made today really show up in some form in the Crito. So it’s that Whitehead’s quip that all of philosophy is footnotes to Plato.
It really shows up here with the Crito. But this is a really troubling thing. I mean we know that Socrates – Socrates is like the consummate Athenian. He mentions like he has never really left the city. He had some military adventures earlier on. But since then, he hasn’t left the city. He had no desire to leave the city. Athens is what he loves. It’s the place he wants to be.
So the cost of leaving, of heading off to some other town is enormous for him and these burdens do seem quite high and so that “love it or leave it” argument that we as libertarians get all the time I think really underappreciates how embedded we are in our culture, our way of life, our society, our friends, our family, that that stuff – it discounts that.
I mean this was – Hume has an objection to this argument in his essay I think its called “On the Social Contract” where he just says like look, you say just take off and leave if you don’t like it and it’s sticking around as evidence that you have implicitly signed on to the social contract. But when you are a poor workman and this is the only world you’ve known, this is the only language you know, like it’s not really an option. It has to be a legitimate choice and for Socrates it seems very clear that leaving is not a real choice for him and never really was.
Brian Wilson: I mean really it’s a quasi-cultural shift, right? Because if he goes to anywhere in Greece, they’re going to speak the same language. There will be a bit of a patois but nothing that shocking. There are government entities that are well-governed and that’s laid out as well. But it’s like what is keeping him there? I don’t know if Matthew wants to talk about it. I mean I don’t know exactly where you’re from Matthew and based on your accent, I’m assuming like somewhere in Alabama. But it’s like why stay and why go and especially if death is your other option. It doesn’t make sense to me to a point.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah, although I think some of it might be to make a point that I can’t imagine making but Socrates as an ancient Greek probably could which is to put justice as an ideal more important than your own life. So 43-B, he says – speaking for the laws. “So be convinced by we who brought you up Socrates and do not put children or life or anything else ahead of justice.”
I just find that mindset a little boggling myself and it seems – not to mean that I don’t think justice isn’t important. But I can’t imagine being willing to sit in a prison with an open door, with a cup of hemlock and thinking I will drink this rather than flee.
Aaron Ross Powell: How does that line factor play though with the idea that – so of course this – you always have to mention that we don’t actually know what were Socrates’ ideas versus Plato’s ideas and these early dialogues probably represent Socrates more than the later ones, say the Republic do, which are more Plato’s ideas but the Republic is about the nature of justice. But it’s ultimately like it’s an individual virtue. Like this entire metaphor that he constructs in the Republic of the virtuous city is just to get at what does it mean for justice in the individual.
So if that’s true and justice is a virtue then of people instead of say institutions, then it would seem that this allegiance to justice that he has where we can’t place anything else above it would seem to leave open or necessitate the question of OK, great, then – but if justice is something about me, then if the jury says X but X is not just, then justice says ignore the jury.
Matthew Feeney: The strangest thing about this, given our perspective, is that he seems guilty of something that we might describe as a thought crime. That he’s – or just thinking the wrong things and influencing the youth and people in the world today who sit in prison cells because they’ve said the wrong things, I hope would intuitively think well, the state is being unjust. I’m not the – that’s the problem. The problem here isn’t that I just lost an argument in a courtroom. The problem is, is that the law is bad and that’s the real injustice and it doesn’t seem to occur to Socrates that that’s a point worth seriously considering. I mean although he does mention of course the importance of majorities.
Brian Wilson: And it’s so troubling, right? Well, it’s troubling in that there are so many people, kind of icons of philosophy, of religion or whatever, that are willing to martyr themselves for an ideal of justice that transcends the state to one degree or another, right?
It’s mostly death and rebellion to the state, right? It’s people that are going to stand up to the state’s power, the state’s apparatus no matter what form it might take. I mean whether it’s Mohamed Bouazizi who’s credited with starting the Arab Spring just lit himself on fire because of the amount of permitting that was required. He just wanted to open up a little corner food shop and the government wouldn’t let them, right?
So we somehow empathize with that and understand it to a degree in this idea of rebellion, this idea that sometimes rebellion causes or requires death. But this is – it’s a rebellion but it isn’t. It’s something that’s just so hard for me to wrap myself around and it’s somebody that – Socrates was the gadfly. He was questioning everything and the state doesn’t like it. We talked about in the Apology how he specifically said. He’s like I’ve gone out of my way to not talk about politics because I know you guys are going to kill me if I do that, right?
The state gets its way. He doesn’t talk about politics and now he’s here kind of saying – taking this idea of the laws and laying it out very explicitly and maybe agreeing with it and accepting death rather than saying no, this is wrong. No, there is a sense of justice outside of this.
Matthew Feeney: Well, we discussed this in the last episode. But when discussing the possibility of death, he seems to have a different conception of it than we might have. He says on the one hand – well, the worst that happens is I can just go to sleep. But think about this. I could also spend the rest of my time hanging out with some really smart guys and just talking philosophy all day. I suppose his fear of death – we have to remember he’s an old man and traveling all the way to Thessaly as an exile is not an insignificant thing. So it might just be, you know, don’t romance it too much, but that this – the course of action he takes makes sense given the context and what he actually thinks about death.
Brian Wilson: I feel like that’s another giant contradiction that – at least in my mind that I don’t buy. I don’t buy the “I’m old. It’s not a big deal.” I’ve seen this in like the Marine Corps, right? When you only have 24, 25-year-old guys and they’re in Iraq and they can stare death in the face and like they’re OK. They know what they’re in for and they know that that’s a possible result of their actions, of their being there.
But I also – I have a lot of older folks in their 60s and 70s that come to the seminars and then I talk to significantly and their grip on life is tight. I don’t – I hear things that jibe with death before dishonor from folks in their late teens and 20s. I don’t hear from 72-year-olds that I have conversations with like no, it’s not a big deal. I don’t – it’s – I’m sure there are people out there that might think that. But it’s tricky for me to wrap my head around that.
Aaron Ross Powell: This is probably not the case but part of me wants to think like OK, so he knows he’s not long for this world regardless because he’s pretty old and I mean he’s pretty old by our standards and so he’s quite old by the ancient world standards.
If the people of Athens – so Socrates is certainly not a fan of democracy. He loves Athens but he does not like democracy. But the people of Athens have made this dumb decision to kill him. He’s like OK, well if you’re – you’ve made this dumb decision to prosecute me. So now I’m going to show you. I’m going to make you convict me. Like do something even dumber and then you do something even dumber by putting me to death and now you’re all sitting around like thinking, hey, he can get out of this. Hey, he can get out of this. It would be easy and we’re expecting it. But I’m going to show you. I’m going to be a gadfly to the end by making you actually carry this out.
Matthew Feeney: Yeah, yeah. I think that really does come through when – during the trial, given the chance to – after being found guilty, he’s given the chance proposing some kind of punishment and he – just to be annoying, knowing that this would have – this proposes a penchant. He must have known I think.
But getting back to this text, I think – I would love to hear what both of you think about the concept of – and we’ve discussed it I think on a little layer of it. The concept of duty and where it comes from and why the allegiance to the laws is a good thing because I think that discussion is kind of worth having. It seems very important to Socrates especially.
Brian Wilson: Yeah. I mean you’re talking about 51-D, right? We have given you birth, nurtured you, educated you. We have given you and all other citizens a share of all the good things we could. Do you buy that?
Matthew Feeney: Well, not particularly. It gets worse when they – I think this is the right passage and that whether it is to be beaten or imprisoned or to be wounded or killed if she – so the laws or the homeland leads you into war. You must do it. This sort of – yeah, I’m not sure I’m buying much of this but that shouldn’t be too surprising I suppose.
Brian Wilson: Right, but it’s very troubling because these are all things that through his actions, he follows through on. So there’s another huge curveball for me is that he went to war, right? Multiple times. He was called to war and he went, right? The laws or the state call him to die and he does that and so I mean I love your narrative, Aaron, of he’s just being a gadfly to the end. That gives me some hope, some like little happy thread to hold on to. But I don’t know if it’s true. I can’t like say no, it’s very specific he says right here. I think that there’s contradiction in what he says when he talks about at the end about going to Thessaly, at the end of 53 at 53-E.
He’s basically saying there, he’s like people will think bad of you. He just said he doesn’t care. Like he just said this entire time he doesn’t care what the majority thinks. He only cares what is right and so he’s laying out this long argument. This whole last page is about what will people think of you if you go to this other place. How will they view you and what you’ve done? Why do you care? Why do you care what the majority thinks, right?
So wrapping my head around what I see as contradictions and what I see as logical fallacies. But looking at his actions, it’s what he follows through on and it’s tough. It’s tough for me to wrap my head around.
Matthew Feeney: I think 53-E also includes a passage that I quite liked when he says – let me find this. Oh, yeah. Will no one say that an old man who probably only has a short time left in his life was so greedy in his desire to live, that he dared to violate the greatest laws? Perhaps not if you do not annoy anyone.
Brian Wilson: What are the chances of Socrates being annoying?
Matthew Feeney: Right, well, exactly. Yeah.
Aaron Ross Powell: So a lot of this duty to obey the state argument and it takes – as he presents it and he makes the same argument several times. He repeats himself a fair amount when he’s speaking with the laws but it – a lot of it breaks down into two main categories I think. Three possibly.
So there’s one that looks like a kind of natural duty argument which is like you recognize that you have duty to obey your father and that that’s just part of who you are and what it means to have a father and be a son. The state is like a – the laws are a super father and so therefore like if it applied a little bit there, boy, does it apply a lot here.
Then there’s this implicit consent argument about you could have left at any time or you could have told us you didn’t like this stuff. Well, of course that’s what he did at his trial but you didn’t. So therefore you have implicitly signed on to obey and then the third seems to be this gratitude account which is the like – we gave you life. We educated you. We provided you with all this awesome stuff and this is how you repay us?
All of these are the same arguments that we hear today all the time with the love it or leave it or these institutions are awesome. The kind of like founding fathers are awesome theory of government or the – like you didn’t build that. You used the public schools and now you have to repay it. It seems like the mistake in – it seems like a contradiction to what he’s saying too is this confusion of like yes, he probably does have duties to this society that helped him out and played a key role in raising him. Yes, he stuck around in this society and yes it gave him things. It provided him with an education and it enabled him to provide I mean ultimately all of humanity with an education.
But those are things about Athens, right? Those aren’t necessarily things about this particular government that happens to be the one that sat down this law about impiety and corrupting the youth and convened this trial. We know that he has rebelled before. He refused the – was it Critias? And the tyrants when they gave him an order to participate in killing someone. He refused to do that on grounds of justice.
So he seems to be just flat out confusing. Like all of his arguments are about why he should respect the people of Athens and feel good about the society that he’s in but not necessarily arguments about why the proper way to discharge those duties or the proper way to demonstrate gratitude or the proper way to show this consent is to obey the laws versus helping out his society in some way, which is the argument libertarians make all the time.
Like great, yes, I was educated and gained lots of things. Now let me start a business that will give lots of people jobs or invent something that will radically change everyone’s life. I would rather not just give that money so that we can use it to drop bombs on people.
Matthew Feeney: I love that you raised the issue of duties and particularly as it relates to parents because that’s an issue that Crito raises explicitly in the dialogue saying, “I think you are betraying your sons whom you could raise and educate by going away and abandoning them. As far as you are concerned, they can experience whatever happens to come their way when it’s likely that as orphans, they will get the usual treatment of orphans. One should either not have children or endure the hardship of raising and educating them. But it looks to me as though you are taking the laziest path,” and it’s – interesting that Crito seems to think – this will be a tug, like appealing to Socrates.
OK. You can’t argue against that duty. This looks bad and Socrates does saying, “At present I am not going to abandon the arguments I previously made,” and that really is an astonishing part of the dialogue and Crito uses the cliché think of the kids and it’s still not persuasive.
Brian Wilson: Yeah, that’s tricky. I was thinking as you were talking Aaron just about like our kind of doctrinal foundation for libertarianism. We talked about this a little bit in the Apology. It usually starts somewhere, right?
You start from some idea of like I own me or something like the non-aggression principle. I’m just wondering if – even though Socrates maybe didn’t carry it to its full blossom, right? Which we potentially see with him kind of succumbing to some degree mentally and physically to the state. But having a starting point of a libertarian ideal of, “I don’t know. I’m the least wise man in Athens.” Where do you get from a political philosophy based on I don’t know or based on I don’t know – I can’t always make good decisions about what I should be doing much less what I am going to demand at gunpoint of someone else.
I’ve been messing around with this when I did the Crito for Partially Examined Life a few weeks ago. I did a seminar on that and that question just kind of popped into my head and I just kind of asked that idea of like, “How do you have a system of government that is based on this what we would call almost obvious illogic of this guy is asking too many questions”? We got to kill him, right?
And then you get to what would Socrates’ ideal state be like, right? I mean it might be this. It might be Athens because he succumbs to what they demand of him. But what if then you could have a conception of the state that is just, “I don’t know. I’m not sure about anything,” which I think then leads you to some kind of at least least harm principle, almost a Hippocratic view of first do no harm. I think that thinking through a lot of stuff based on that because it really set me on kind of a deep dive on let’s look at praxeology. Let’s look at Austrian economics. Let’s look at all this stuff through the lens of, “I don’t know. I’m not sure,” as your starting point.
You can almost build out – I’m sure a lot of your listeners are big fans of Euclid and Lobachevsky as far as geometrical systems. So you can almost start what I think is a fairly logical proof where the parallel lines don’t meet but it’s not necessarily 90 degrees. So instead of starting from this idea of non-aggression to this idea of property, start from, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s best.”
You can have some fun kind of rhetorical games with yourself and might just be that. It might just be rhetorical games but you can also – I think the flaws in a lot of political thought and political system around the world come into sharper focus when you stop arguing about – because I’ve had the property argument in St. John’s seminars where we actually don’t like ever talk about personal politics, which is hilarious and fun for me too because it’s like oh, you guys don’t know what I think.
They probably do after about 20 minutes because I’m not super subtle. But starting with this idea, this Socratic ideal of “I don’t know” I think leads you to some really fun places as far as kind of libertarian thought and libertarian ideals.
It forces you to – we talked a little bit about this at the end of the Apology. It forces you to really make things that we think we believe in. Like “I own me” or like “all I owe you is non-aggression.” It forces you to really crystalize those in your mind or it forces you to have a little bit of give in that. We will examine a little more closely.
Matthew Feeney: Well I know that if regular Free Thoughts, if Trevor Burrus was here, he would jump on the opportunity to talk about skepticism just because “I don’t know” is something I find libertarians saying quite often especially in this building. But I think more importantly, the second question is when people say they do know, the follow-up should be, “Well, how?” So in public policy when people are proposing things, that often are encroachments on liberty, it behooves us to ask, “How do you know what the education systems really look like or how we should regulate our food or what substances you would be allowed to put in your body?”
That I think is why skepticism is so valuable and why the Socratic discussion especially on politics specifically is so important. I think extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and nothing is more extraordinary to me than saying, “Listen, I know we’ve never met. But I know what you should do about your life.”
Aaron Ross Powell: So maybe four years ago, I published an essay in a book called Why Liberty? Edited by Tom Palmer and put out by Students for Liberty and Atlas called – I think I called it The Humble Case for Liberty, which was this argument. So start with the idea that more or less everything I think is true right now I could be wrong about to one extent or another. And then where do you go from there? And how do you build a society? And there is the like first do no harm part of it and there’s the call for humility because I think the one way you could go with that is like look, we might be wrong.
So you could take the rational ignorance argument that says like, well, the voters don’t know anything for often very good reasons. So don’t let them decide. Let the people who probably – who do know, so the technocrats, the experts – decide which is to some extent the kind of argument that Socrates is making here when he’s talking about like look, you shouldn’t care about what the majority thinks.
If you’re worried about health, you talk to the doctor. You don’t listen – you don’t let the people decide and if you do, you’re going to end up unhealthy. I think the counter to that because that can lead to really horrific outcomes if you’ve seen – I mean the 20th century is rife with that sort of stuff is that the experts often lack that humility as well and so it’s – I mean it’s funny that Socrates makes this argument because by our standards, those doctors that he thinks are the ones you ought to listen to were often pretty nuts. I mean medicine was let’s just say rather primitive at his time. So the very fact that this is a 2000-year-old document like shows that that argument doesn’t work quite as well or at least counsels us to have that level of humility. But I do think there is a strong libertarian case to be made from that starting point of I’m not certain, you’re not certain that what that means is that even when we try to act correctly, we may do harm because we just don’t have enough information.
So at the very least, don’t institutionalize it at gunpoint because what that means is that if the – the more power you give to the potential errors, like the state decides we should all follow the food pyramid, and then it turns out like oh no, that was not actually that good of an idea, well, now you’ve done a lot of damage to all sorts of people who might have chosen otherwise. So at least you don’t have – you reduce the number of negative externalities by – from the error because I’m only affecting me and not you and you as well. But yeah, I think you can spin out a pretty good system from just that simple like I could be wrong statement.
Brian Wilson: I hope everybody is clear about the – where you can pick that book up and that this was just a total plug for …
Aaron Ross Powell: We will put a link to it in the show notes.
Brian Wilson: We got to move that product people. The podcast doesn’t pay for itself. Yeah. So I liked your narrative Aaron. I liked this concept of gadfly to the end. I love the fact that you guys do this for the interns, for every intern class. I think this is a wonderful place to start. There’s a great Richard Feynman quote about, “I would rather have unanswered questions than answers that can’t be questioned,” right?
This is the tricky part about Plato and maybe the magic isn’t economics. Maybe that’s why like it’s such a critical part of libertarian thought, libertarian ideals, is because you can show that cause and effect and this is where Glaucon’s footstool is – that can be the title in your next essay. Go and write that up.
Aaron Ross Powell: Sure.
Brian Wilson: It’s where things go awry because the examples that you gave about the doctor or just the education system that was there was – you know, guys like Socrates walking around and getting paid to just kind of walk around with their retinue, with their posse and rhetorize, right?
Socrates didn’t like that. He said these guys are full of it. But it was still a quasi-free market system and he didn’t see a discrepancy there between that and the state. I mean these economic questions are in there. This thing just goes everywhere, doesn’t it?
Matthew Feeney: Well, I really enjoy a privilege of working at the Cato Institute as I get to sit sometimes in the back of the classes while Aaron talks to these interns and you can tell by the body language that the first few minutes are rather uncomfortable.
What’s fun about this is I think – the reason why this is such a valuable dialogue to read if you’re interested in political theory is if you do believe that democracy is a good system and that majorities rule and that you ought to obey the laws because you have a duty to the state or you should have gratitude or you have some sort of social contract, well, this is potentially what it will look like on the receiving end.
If you happen to have the wrong ideas or do the wrong sort of thing, this is – I like that Socrates is the logical anti-libertarian on this point, that he’s just – I guess this is what’s going to end up happening. Of course I read this dialogue before I was a libertarian but I enjoy it much more now.
Aaron Ross Powell: I mean it’s a wonderfully-rich dialogue as are all of these. Probably the one following this, Phaedo, we probably will not discuss on an episode of Free Thoughts because it’s not on a topic remotely related to what we talk about in the show but I encourage everyone to read it as well because there is – I mean just the – these four dialogues in these last days of Socrates as works of literature stand among the best that have ever been produced and Socrates is a character and I challenge anyone not to read the closing pages as Socrates drinks the hemlock and not tear up a bit.
But the richness I think of the Crito in particular is the fact that the arguments that he makes feel very contemporary. I mean these are the arguments we make today and they’re convincing for a lot of people. What’s wrong with them is not immediately apparent and you don’t get sometimes Plato’s stuff, that the arguments are very weird because you’re not an Athenian at the time and so you’re not hooked into that culture. So it just seems bizarre but the Crito does not feel that way at all. It feels very contemporary and speaks across the millennia to us. These are arguments well worth wrestling with.
Thank you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.