Rule of Law by Socrates: Analysis of James Stephens

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In Socrates and the Rule of Law, James Stephens explores Socrates seemingly contradictory views on the rule of law in the Apology and the Crito. The charge of inconsistency is first, in the Apology, Socrates openly admits that he willing to disobey an order of the court that would prevent him from philosophizing in Athens (Apology 29d). Socrates in the Crito, however, argues that every citizen of the state, including himself, has a duty to obey the orders of the court and its laws (Crito 51b-c). The problem of such a contradiction brings into question of whether the two dialogues, Crito and Apology, can be read together without providing inconsistent views. In a critical analysis of the text, Stephens concludes that there is no way to resolve the tension between the dialogues, finding that they do not present any consistent evidentiary arguments for obedience or disobedience to the law. However, in his analysis, Stephens rejects a formalist, symptomatic reading of the text, thereby neglecting the contribution of Plato’s astute authorship. This paper argues that Stephen’s analysis is misguided, and that these texts can be read in such a way so as to remove any real inconsistency between them. It does so by first examining the contradictions within the text itself and Stephens’s analysis of a few proposed reconciliatory solutions. It concludes with a few observations on Stephens’ interpretation of the dialogue and ultimately offers its own interpretation of how the texts can be reconciled.

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The apparent inconsistency of the dialogues is first found at 29d of the Apology. Here, Socrates, on defence for his life, makes a striking claim that he would disobey any order of the Athenian court, legal or illegal, if that order prevented him from philosophizing. I would say to you, “I, men of Athens, salute you and love you, but I will obey the god rather than you; and as long as I breathe and am able to, I will certainly not stop philosophizing, and I will exhort you and explain this to whomever of you I happen to meet… (Apology 29d2-6)

Only a few paragraphs later, Socrates reaffirms his position on civil disobedience, reminding the jury of a previous occasion in which he had faced the possibility of execution from disobeying an order of the court. When the Thirty had summoned him to arrest Leon the Salaminian and let him die, Socrates ignored their demands, stating that he did not care about his own death and only cared for his commitment to “no unjust or impious deed”. (Apology 32d)

This challenge to authority, however, seems to be contradicted in Socrates’ conversation with the Laws in Crito. Here, he states that the citizens of the state are “offspring and slave” (Crito 50e3) to the laws to such an extent that one must: “either persuade it or do whatever it bids, and keep quiet and suffer if it orders you to suffer anything, whether to be beaten or bound…this is just and that you are not to give away or retreat or leave your station, but that in war and in court and everywhere else, you must do whatever the city and fatherland bid” (Crito 51b3-10)

Indeed, when one reads these apparently inconsistencies, it can be hard to identify where Socrates views stands on the rule of law. In his literary analysis of the relationship between the dialogues of the Apology and the Crito, Stephens examines two general approaches to this apparent inconsistency.

The first approach is more ingenious than it is convincing, in that it denies that Socrates made a hypothetical vow in the Apology to disobey a legitimate court order. This interpretation, put forth by political philosopher Anthony D. Woozley, claims that the contradiction between the two texts is merely a verbal misinterpretation (Stephens, 1985). He states that Socrates does not show himself prepared to defy a court order as what is purported in the text is not an actual order of the court to cease philosophizing, rather a “friendly” warning as to what should happen if Socrates continues to philosophize. If Socrates should disregard the warning of the court, it should not be read that Socrates is guilty of disobedience to them, but rather that he is not persuaded by them. Where in the Apology Socrates states, “I, men of Athens…will obey the god rather than you” (Apology 29d3-4), it can be rendered as “I will be persuaded by the God rather than you” (Stephens, 1985). What Socrates is then refusing, is not a legal command from the court that he quit philosophizing, but a deal of acquittal from the jury that he give up his philosophy.

For Stephens, even if the text could bear this interpretation, it is highly improbable. To read the text as anything other than “I will obey the god rather than you”, does not meet the point in those cases in which obedience to the state would require wrongdoing, as he frankly acknowledges: “what exactly is Socrates to do, for instance, if the state does order him to stop philosophizing?” (p.5.). Stephens uses a pathos appeal to emphasize the injustice that would carry at the authority of the court and rushes on to insist that it is nonetheless obvious that Socrates does what he believes to be right and that his speech in the Apology commits him to disobedience of the law.

Unfortunately, Stephens’s lack of a formalist analysis fails to recognize the several passages in the Apology that advocate obedience to the state. If he were to appeal to a formalist analysis of the text, he could find varied instances in the Apology where Socrates supports obedience to the state. In only a few sentences prior to making his hypothetical vow, Socrates reminds jurors that despite the risk of death, he obeyed the commands of his military superiors in Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium (Apology 28e). Moreover, several times throughout the text, Socrates insists that the jurors must obey the law in performing their functions of the court (Apology 19a, 35c). In by so doing, he suggests that he was always committed to obeying the laws of the state throughout the Apology and disapproves of the notion of civil disobedience. There is then, convincing evidence of consistency between the texts of the Apology and the Crito: a conclusion that Stephens fails to point out. His failure in synthesizing these various passages strays his argument to Socrates beliefs, where he paradoxically draws upon the many Socratic dialogues to conclude Woozley’s argument to be inept. His is driven to this conclusion by the Socratic view of wrongdoing, in which Socrates believes that one must act justly even if it involves disobeying the state. But given this interpretation, it brings to question how Stephens views Socrates own words in Crito where he states “you must revere and give away to and fawn upon a fatherland…and that this is just” (Crito 51b2-7). His analysis further fails to address the troublesome question of whether violating the ban would be an act of injustice that could create an adverse harmful effect. For if Socrates undertook this action, it would contradict his own claims in the Crito that harm should never be done, stating, “…no human being should do injustice in return or do evil, whatever he suffers among others” (Crito 49c). By using moral justness as an argument as to why the two texts cannot be reconciled, Stephens disproves himself.

Stephens’s reasoning also bids the question of how he reads the Socratic dialogues. If one were to read just the surface of the text, much of Socrates statements may seem perplexing. For example, if Stephens were to take Socrates statement “I will never stop philosophizing” (A. 29d) as a literal expression, does he suppose that Socrates would then resist the military service that he has already acknowledged submission to? The weakness of his argument is underscored by Socrates own words in the Apology, as he states, “I should have done terrible deeds…if,…when the god stationed me…ordering me to live philosophizing and examining myself and others, I had then left my station because I feared death or any other matters” (28e). It seems that Stephens’s analysis of Woozley’s proposed solution is contradictory and incoherent; he seems to vacillate upon his usage of the dialogues as evidence.

Unfortunately, his analysis is ambiguous at best, even when applied to Woozley’s second solution. Here, Woozley hinges upon a “persuade-or-obey” doctrine, holding that the laws in the Crito allow each citizen the right to attempt to persuade a change in their commands if the citizen regards the rule as unjust. When the state subjects its people to unjust laws, the people have an obligation to remind the state of the fundamental principles that govern society. If they are unable to justify these principles, then they must obey the law after it is enacted. This is captured in the words of the personified laws itself: ‘We do not order [anyone]…to do what we bid, but permit either of two things – either to persuade us or do what we say’ (Crito 52a).

To understand the thrust of the argument, what must first be highlighted is Socrates belief that the rule of law must be just. In the Crito, he states that the laws of the state must not just be blindly obeyed because people have an obligation to do so, rather, the laws must be just. People must question whether these laws are a just law or not; their obligation to obey the law is not absolute. He argues that disobedience in this form is not construed to be an outright insubordination of the state, rather a persuasive argument that the laws are wrong. Thus, Socrates’s disobedience of the court order does not mean he does not respect the rule of law, it merely means he does not agree with the law. According to Stephens’s account, Socrates clearly explains his stance on disobeying the law, stating that “we can get around a problem once we remember that the obligation to obey the state is not said to be absolute. Persuading the Laws that their orders are wrong is said to be an alternative to obedience” (Stephens, 1985, p.4). Therefore, even though Socrates presents different stances in Crito and Apology, his reasoning explains and justifies these assumptions.

Although the persuade-or-obey doctrine has been stated by Socrates three times throughout the text (Crito 51b-c, 51e, 52a), Stephens once again unjustifiably rejects their claim. That of the Crito and the Apology provides a definitive statement on the duty of civil obedience is interestingly dismissed in Stephen’s literary analysis, as these evidentiary texts support his own non-formalist, direct approach. At issue here for Stephens is that the usage of a hypothetical contract has no power to reason that Socrates be obliged to the state. He once again paradoxically argues that for such a hypothetical approach, direct evidence is needed from Plato that shows the true meaning of the text and compels a stronger argument as to why Socrates believes that one must always obey the state regardless of its commandments. Here what Stephens’s approach seems to wrongly assume is that when a philosophical work is presented in the form of a dialogue, it cannot serve as evidence of Plato’s philosophical thought. For example, if one were to rewrite Plato’s Apology by eliminating the characters and dialogue, they would find a less striking presentation of the same arguments and ideas that are presented in the dialogue. The mere fact that these arguments are presented in a dialogue by itself counts for nothing. Where Stephens’s analysis fails is this lack of understanding that the dialogues can be treated as treatises that present the underlying principles of the text. When reading the reasons for his arguments, it is apparent that he does not recognize that his complaint of the personification of the Laws as indirect evidence is in actuality a direct indication that Socrates believes in the obedience of law. If Stephens were to examine these laws as part of a larger analogy, he would find that these passages makes Socrates’ identification of the Laws as a rhetor for civil obedience more convincing. This interpretation requires more than just an appeal to the text itself; it must appeal to the tone and arguments that are given by the Laws.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to strengthen his Logos appeal, Stephens couples the Socratic view of wrongdoing with his argument that even if the text supported a full obligation to the law, disobedience to the law does not mean that one is acting badly or dishonorably. He therefore does not interpret Socrates claim that disobeying the laws as such is harmful, for in the Apology, Socrates claims that we only do harm when we make something worse in regards to its excellence or virtue (Apology 20b). If one holds such a statement to be true, then Socrates disobedience to the court in his philosophizing mission does not create any harm; in fact, more harm is created by obeying the court then refusing to do so. This assumption maintains that Socrates duty to obey the state is outweighed by his duty to himself. Stephens’s argument here interprets the Crito in a way that corroborates his understanding of the Apology, where “Socrates must do what he takes to be right or just whether or not this involves disobeying the state” (Stephens p.6).

There are immediate problems with this approach. First, Stephens ignores Socrates personified words in the Laws when he states that a transgression of the commands of the state would be unjust (Crito 51b1-12), claiming “and when he does not obey, we say that he does injustice” (Crito 51e4). Second, if Stephens is unwilling to accept Woozley’s solutions on accord of unreasonable interpretation of the text, then he is guilty of his own contradictions. If he finds that we gain nothing by taking the Laws to say something they otherwise might not say, are we to suddenly take into account subtextual arguments that Stephens so readily dismissed on claims of lack of evidence? If one were to take Stephens’s continuously perplexing analytical methods, surely, they would also find the texts to be contradictory. Unfortunately, Stephens is wrong to reject Woozley’s two proposals: his own analysis is elliptical and unfocused.

Given the above proposed solutions and their considerations, Stephens concludes that these efforts have failed in making an argument to reconcile the texts of the Apology and the Crito. However, in his closing remarks, Stephens continues to reiterate a problem that seems to be misled. In Stephens’s view, a problem in the history of philosophy is the lack of direct evidence that people continue to use to within their arguments. He claims that without direct evidence from Plato himself, we are not in a position to explain the subtext of Platonic dialogue. This is where Stephens seems to be mistaken in his critical examination; he continues to interpret the dialogues as simple texts, ignoring their dramatic quality and underlying principles. While Plato’s thoughts cannot be abstracted from the interchange of question and answer in the dialogues, it can bring a system of inquiry. This is inherently the nature of philosophical thought: the union of inquiry, dilemma, and resolution. Although philosophical interpretation of the Platonic dialogues is very much up to the interpreter, Stephens’s own evidence-based, surface reading approach impedes his ability to undertake a more in-depth critical inquiry of the Platonic dialogues. While there is much to agree in Stephens’s response that we cannot definitively know what is being said, his own proposal ultimately fails in the same way as the solutions he seems to criticize: the failure to acknowledge the text as evident of something other than itself.

The arguments used by Stephens and Woozley has led to two remarkably different interpretations of the Apology and the Crito. While both sides agree that Socrates utters the contradictory speeches, they differ in their assumptions of whether they can be reconciled. While Stephens’ findings view the speeches of the Laws in Crito as a departure from Socrates earlier remarks, this paper finds that it is possible to read the passages of the moral authority of the state in the Crito in such a way that they are consistent with Socrates beliefs about disobedience in the Apology. While they are essentially inconsistent, a look into the justifications for making the two claims explains why they are not inconsistent in the end. To reach the two contradictory assumptions, Socrates uses the same reasoning in both Crito and Apology: he explains his reasoning and conduct in both dialogues by referring to what is holy and just.

[bookmark: _Hlk26452807][bookmark: _Hlk26458000] First, Socrates believes that the rule of law must be just. According to his argument in the Crito, the laws of the state must not just be obeyed blindly because people have an obligation to do so, they must be just. Obeying the rule of law is not absolute, where an individual is not allowed to question its intentions. Socrates’s own circumstance highlights why he believes people must question the rule of law if they deem it unjust. In the Apology, Socrates is prohibited from practicing his philosophy in Athens. The state believed that he was the source of poison on the minds of the young generation in Athens, and his philosophies were aimed at radicalizing the youth rather than educating them (Stephens, 1985). However, to Socrates, he was simply exercising his freedoms by questioning the fundamental principles of life. A court decree that prohibited him from practising this philosophical inquiry was in effect, unjust. When such a situation arises with the law, Socrates argues that people must question whether it is a just law or not. To him, a legitimate and just state is that which protects the interests of its people and upholds the fundamental rights and freedoms of every individual. When the state subjects its people to unjust laws, the people have an obligation to remind the state of the fundamental principles that govern society. The implication here is clear: for Socrates, disobedience to the court does not mean that he does not respect the rule of law; it merely means he does not agree with the law. This is clearly stated in Crito 51b9-10, when Socrates speaks of having to “do whatever the city and fatherland bid, or else persuade it what the just is by nature.” This can be seen by his own actions in the Apology, wherein Socrates refuses to obey the order of the court. What he does here is provide an alternative argument that persuades the court that they are wrong.

Therefore, in this regard, although what at first may appear to be a blatant contradiction of Socrates views in the Crito and Apology, Socrates’s own reasoning explains and justifies these assumptions. When we interpret the passages by reasoning of what Socrates believes to be holy or just, the two premises are not contradictory in any way and rather point to a common assumption.

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