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Aristotle’s Poetics – The Science of Tragedy

by on December 17, 2017

Aristotle probably would have liked Titanic. He might have even compared it to Sophocles’ Theban Plays, celebrating Jack and Rose as one might appreciate Antigone and Oedipus. We can’t be sure, of course, but in all likelihood Plato’s student would have praised the late 90’s sob story as an exemplary specimen of tragedy. Maybe that’s the reason Aristotle’s treatise on Poetics runs into a few icebergs of its own.

His first Titanic-sized mistake was equating poetry to science. Aristotle tried to dissect plays and the art of tragedy as if they were a pickled frog in high school biology class. He applied his consistently rational mind to a sphere of ideas which are usually assigned to the emotional and, at times, even irrational.

Titanic fits nicely with Aristotle's Poetics

Jack and Rose in Titanic

In Poetics, Aristotle outlines what he sees as the essential components of tragedy, along with a few interesting literary devices that can be thrown in to spice things up. These legislations on literature went on to have a significant influence throughout the ages and, in fact, remained prevalent and often unquestioned until the 19th century.

Of course, some of his ‘rules’ do work… but when fully applied, you end up with a James Cameron cry fest.

Before anything else, Aristotle defines ‘tragedy’. It is something, says he, that evokes pity, fear and emotion in us. It is a katharsis, a cleansing of feeling. Interestingly, we can only feel so much for these characters because of another attribute of tragedy; mimesis, or the idea that the actions that occur are possible and relatable. It doesn’t have to be realistic, per se, but it has to be something we can imagine…

This is important precisely because the events are not actually happening, but still inspire deep emotion within us. Therefore, we can cry and feel better without having to contemplate too much the real tragedies that exist all around us.

Now for Aristotle’s rules on what makes a tragedy as “good” as Titanic.

His first posit regards plot, or mythos. Plot is more important than Character, according to Aristotle, as it drives a course of actions that captivates the audience, no matter what teenage heart throb is the mouthpiece.

These series of events must occur in order and in a sequence that makes sense, argues Aristotle. There must be a beginning, a middle and an end. The ship can only start sinking once it has hit a block of ice. In addition, a tragic story must move from happiness to desolate sadness, such as a sunken vessel and a dead lover.

The actions have to be complete and fully contained within the story. We don’t care where Rose went to school or if Jack has a pirate tattoo. All the essential plot points occur within the tale, with nothing unnecessary added nor anything important missing. This is also crucial for the Unity of the plot. It should be something that nicely ties together with a big bow at the end.

Aristotle’s next regulation concerns the magnitude of the art itself. It must, he assures us, be consumed as a unity, within the eye’s spectrum or an audience member’s patience. The never ending works of Wagner and crop circles, only visible from the sky, would hold little value for this philosopher. The two and half hours it takes for the Titanic to capsize, however, fits the bill perfectly.

Then Aristotle throws a bone to the writers of the world. He gives them the “rule of possibility”, allowing them to write whatever they want if it makes the story more compelling. Aristotle believes, after all, that poetry is more significant than history because it speaks more universally.

Did Rose and Jack actually walk the boards of that famous ship? Probably not. But does their moonlight traipse tell a nice story of class struggle? Sure, why not.

Then there are the clever ways of stirring up the plot’s pot. Elements such as ‘Recognition’, where someone discovers some great unknown, can change the course of action to its finale.

Old Rose

Old Rose at the end of Titanic

‘Reversal of the Situation’ is another fantastic way to swiftly switch things around. At the close of the art, the audience should be surprised, while still believing the possibility of what happened. For instance, we may not have expected to see an elderly Rose reveal that she has had the jewel all along! But it is, by no means, outside the realm of possibility.

Admittedly, Titanic was a blockbuster. It was clearly a very successful film, one of the most recognized movies of our time. It adheres to a plethora of Aristotle’s prescriptions… down to the ever popular Greek theme of Hubris, as witnessed in the initial description of that unsinkable ship.

Then surely Aristotle must be right, describing exactly what poetry in tragedy should be. Following that logic, Titanic is everyone’s favorite sad movie because it encompasses all the qualities of the ideal tragedy. Unfortunately, Titanic isn’t universally appealing. While some people love the emotive film, other individuals hate it.

This inconvenient truth disrupts Aristotle’s literary laws because art is not as rational as a chemistry set. Art is subjective.

In the end, tragedy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Throughout history, critics and theorists have tried to put rules around artistic endeavors and have failed. The impressionists, for instance, broke all the regulations according to the French academy…and yet their masterpieces now adorn the walls of the very best art museums.

So then, what was the point of Aristotle’s Poetics? What did he achieve?

He actually accomplished a lot.

Aristotle was sticking up for art by rebelling against Plato. In his teacher’s famous work, The Republic, Plato admonishes the creative pursuits, insisting that it has no value. According to Plato, life as we know it is just an imitation of the things that truly exist. Why, then, would you want something that is an imitation of an imitation?

Aristotle countered this accusation head-on in Poetics. We know art is an imitation, and yet we are still moved by it. Why?

Aristotle believed that we are naturally attracted to poetry and art. He observed that imitations of things have the power to fascinate and enthrall us, while the real thing might in fact leave us disgusted. So too can we learn from art forms, an act that in and of itself brings us pleasure. Likewise, art has the power to inspire feelings, states of mind and awareness of abstract, general ideas.

To Aristotle, the emotive arousal, the acts of katharsis, the release of sentimental tensions are, indeed, good for us. This is probably why blockbusters, like Titanic, do so well.

After all the rules, definitions and posits, can we say that the scientifically minded Aristotle understood tragedy? We aren’t certain, but we do respect that this unlikely champion was the first to even think about art critically… and stand up for it.

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“Aristotle’s Poetics – The Science of Tragedy” was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: Athens’ Last Stand

by on October 22, 2017

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: The Sicilian Expedition can be found HERE.

Peloponnesian key points

Key Points in the Peloponnesian War

The year is 413 BC and the battle between Sparta and Athens continues to rage. The war, which saw a brief 6 year peace, is now back on after Athens’ bitter defeat in Sicily. The Spartans had sent aid to their allies on the island, but that did not fully satiate their desire for domination.

Sparta wanted to do more … they wanted to destroy Athens.

This brings us to the second segment of the Peloponnesian war. The Spartans still had their secret weapon, Alcibiades, the former Athenian General who was charged with religious crimes. Alcibiades, knowing Athens’ weakest points, convinced Sparta to build a fortification in Decelea, a strategic post right outside of Athens. This would prevent all overland shipment to the Athens, forcing the city to get their supplies by boat, which was much more costly.

This additional expense was then combined with the nearby disrupted silver mines and the 20,000 freed Athenian slaves, resulting in a serious economic crisis for Athens. Their treasury and emergency reserve fund of 1,000 talents was swiftly dwindling away. Their only remaining course of action was to raise taxes or tributes from their allies, which wasn’t a popular decision.

At this point, both parties pumped more troops and ships into Sicily. The Corinthians, the Spartans, and others in the Peloponnesian League all sent reinforcements to Syracuse. The Athenians, however, did not withdrawal. Instead, they brought their own additional men, around 5,000 troops and another hundred ships. It didn’t do the Athenians any good.

The Spartan hero, Gylippus, won all the land wars in Sicily and smartly advised the Syracusans to build a navy, in case the Athenians wanted to escape. Sure enough the Athenians tried and were defeated. Eventually the entire Athenian fleet was destroyed and virtually the whole army sold into slavery.

This was Athens’ lowest moment. Everyone believed her empire was over. Her best men had already died or defected and she was without money, strength or moral. Clearly the Athenians had overestimated their own abilities and were now about to face the truth of their limits.

But Athens didn’t die. Even though her allies revolted against her, the treasuries were empty, and the Syracuences were on the offense with a ship to attack, aided by support in Persia… Athens still had a few things working on her side.

Replica of Athenian ships

Replica of Athenian Ships

For instance, the other side was slow in bringing their ships to the Aegean. Some of their allies returned with hopes of protection and the Persians were slow in furnishing the promised funds. In addition, Athens had a backup plan. In a prudent moment, she had saved some money and 100 ships for a rainy day.

These were immediately released.

With these ships out warring, the Athenian government was taken up by an oligarchical revolution, run by 400 men. Peace was finally possible. The fighting fleets now based on the island of Samos, however, did not recognise the new rulers and the possibility of a ceasefire. In fact, in 411 BC they engaged the Spartans at the famous Battle of Syme. The runaway fleet then appointed Alcibiades as their leader and continued the war until the Athenian democratic government was reinstituted.

Even though Alcibiades was condemned as traitor, he was still influential in Athens. He wanted to restore democracy in a diplomatic manner. So he managed to persuade the renegade ships to not attack Athens, but instead turn their weapons on the Spartans in the battle of Cyzicus. Finally the Athenians had a turning point, they obliterated the Spartan fleet. This helped to re-establish the financial basis of the Athenian Empire.

Between 410 and 406 BC, Athens managed to actually win battles, recover territory and resurrect their fiscal stability. Almost all thanks to Alcibiades.

This happy Athenian moment did not last long.

Though it would not at first appear to be the case, things went back to bad at the naval battle of Arginusae. The Athenians actually won, losing only 25 ships compared to Sparta’s 70. Unfortunately the weather was so bad that the Athenians did not finish off the Spartan fleet, nor rescue their stranded crew. This lead to a very controversial trial which ended with the execution of the Athens’ six top naval commanders. This action depleted the navy’s intelligence, experience and moral.

Lysander of Sparta

Lysander

Then the Spartans promoted a new general, Lysander. He was navy-savvy and a diplomat who cultivated fresh relations with the Persians. In 405 BC, Lysander initiated a cunning attack on Hellespont, the Athenian bread basket, which if destroyed, would threatened widespread starvation.

The Athenian fleet had no choice but to engage in battle and they were crushed.

Eventually, after facing starvation and disease from the never ending siege, Athens surrendered in 404 BC. The defeat was immense. The city was stripped of its walls, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions. In addition to this, Corinth and Thebes required retribution, demanding that the city be destroyed and all the people enslaved.

Sparta, Athens’ arch-enemy, then did something very remarkable.

Instead of continuing with their warlike ways, Sparta announced their refusal to destroy a city that had previously done so much good. They would take Athens into their own system and ultimately save it from the other city-states, revealing the clemency of the Spartans once and for all.

 



“The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals: Athens’ Last Stand” was written by Anya Leonard

Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All

by on October 16, 2017

It has been said that he was a man who knew everything. In fact, he was considered the last man who did know everything. Was he born with a supernatural Rainman-like memory? Did the Gods imbue him with the divine gift of wisdom? Maybe, but probably not.

Bust of AristotleIn all likelihood, he did know everything of his own time because, frankly, most of what was known, was written by him anyway. You could not have found a more prolific, in depth and innovative thinker than Aristotle. He inscribed over 200 works (though only 31 remain), founded numerous fields of study and observation, as well as a prominent school to propel those new areas of interest.

Really, no one short column can do anything even in the remote vicinity of justice to the man’s life, contributions and influence. That doesn’t mean we won’t try, however.

For instance, if we wished to briefly review the major mental tasked achieved by Aristotle, we would be stuck with a drab list; a copy and paste of accomplishments.

It’s, unfortunately, a mistake we can’t avoid. Our suggestion would be to not actually read the whole thing (unless in a Rodgers and Hammerstein-like tune), but rather see it for the mountain that it is and skip to the next paragraph.

So, without further adieu:

In physical science, Aristotle studied: anatomy, astronomy, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics and zoology.
In philosophy, he wrote on: aesthetics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, economics, psychology, rhetoric and theology.
He also studied: education, foreign customs, literature and poetry.

This is the moment when everyone asks, with burning jealousy in their eyes, how did he have the time in one short life? Where did he get the inexhaustible energy or the German-like discipline? We don’t know, of course. A brief overview of the ebbs and flows of his life might shed some light… we can only hope.

From the very beginning Aristotle was not like the other Athenian philosophers, for he wasn’t even Athenian. This small detail, one in which he had no choice, resulted in innumerable favorable and unfortunate occurrences in his life. It meant he was often a ‘foreigner’ because he was born in Northern Greece (more precisely, in Stageira, Chalcidice, in 384 BC, about 34 miles east of modern-day Thessaloniki). Essentially… Macedonia, the land of Alexander the Great.

Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to Alexander’s grandfather, King Amyntas of Macedon. This would have been young Aristotle’s first influence in the realm of scientific thinking. It also contributed to his vast understanding of the anatomy. In addition, it was his initial connection to the Macedonian court.

Once Aristotle’s papa passed away, his new guardian shipped him off to Athens so he could get a real education. There in the big city, he studied under Plato himself in his renowned Academy. No one would doubt that this period was extremely influential for Aristotle. After 20 odd years, in 348/47 BC, he quit the Acropolis, though no one knows for sure why he left town. One theory is that the philosopher’s ego was hurt when Plato died. He did not pass the baton to Aristotle, but named another successor instead. The other order of events is that Aristotle feared anti-Macedonian sentiments and in fact, left before Plato gave up the ghost.

Either way, Aristotle then traveled with a fellow thinker, Xenocrates, to the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus in Asia Minor. There he jotted around, had inspired thoughts about octopus, married Hermias’ daughter and had a baby. His excursions around Lebos were instrumental in his observations on marine life, with a description of the cephalopods’ phallus that was about two thousand years ahead of its time. Indeed it was widely disbelieved until its rediscovery in the 19th century.

Aristotle Teaching AlexanderWhen his father-in-law died, Aristotle was called back to his homeland in order to teach the king’s son. The one and only Alexander the Great, albeit at a rowdy 13 years of age. Aristotle didn’t drop everything, however, and come running to his highness. He agreed to the position only if his hometown was restored after the king had razed it. Not only that, but the city had to be repopulated, which meant its former ex-citizens were freed from slavery or pardoned from exile.

Much myth making has been done over Alexander and Aristotle’s relationship during those three years of study. The latter encouraged expansion in the east, unabashedly advising despotism to subdue barbarians. Maybe, though, the former also influenced his older mentor? Was it a reminder of age, energy and the role in history, perhaps? We, of course, have no idea.

All we do know, is that Aristotle returned to Athens, but this time to set up his own academy, the Lyceum. There he wrote the vast majority of his works, taught the next generation, and remarried after his wife’s death. It was during this 12 year stretch that his most important treatises were created, including Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics.

Then Alexander died and Athens and Greece changed forever. Aristotle’s profound thoughts and benefits for the scholars could not save him from the flare up of anti-Macedonian sentiments. It took the form of ‘impiety’ accusations. Rather than face a sham trial, Aristotle fled to Chalcis, where his mother had an estate, explaining, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.” This was a shout-out to his former teacher’s teacher, Socrates. Eventually Aristotle died of natural causes in 322 BC.

His legacy, however, lived on. His works were actually lost to the west for many centuries, preserved in Arabia and only rediscovered in Europe during the middle Ages. In that time period, Aristotle’s’ writings carried an authority second only to the bible. Many of his works were not improved upon until the nineteenth century.

But most importantly Aristotle proposed a new way of thinking; a method for arriving at a conclusion. We are talking about his contributions to logic. This is how he knew everything. He didn’t know anything! What he comprehended was how to look at the world rationally and learn something.

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“Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All” was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War – The Sicilian Expedition

by on September 28, 2017

The Sicilian Expedition

To read the previous segment on the Peloponnesian War, Click HERE.

When we left off last week, the Peloponnesian war had been raging for 16 odd years, with the latter six under a suspicious title of ‘peace’. The dominance of the Athenians had been questioned and the first set of battles ended inconclusively. It’s no wonder then the war began again, this time with the aim of deciding, once and for all, who ruled the Grecian world.

Expedition to Sicily

The Sicilian Expedition

And so, the second part of the Peloponnesian War began after what was euphemistically termed the ‘Sicilian Expedition’. The Sicilians were in fact allies of the Athenians, though very distant. Under normal circumstances, they would probably go unnoticed. And perhaps they would have…except for the fact that these islanders were Ionian, just like the Athenians…and they were under attack by the people of Syracuse, who happened to be ethnic Dorians, just like Athens’ great enemy, Sparta. As a cunning way to get back at their real foe, therefore, the Athenians saw an opportunity to get involved.

Power can be a dangerous thing. Those who hold it, don’t like losing it, and so make decisions that affect the lives of countless others. Seated in their comfortable havens, they command young men to death in the name of gods, kings and country. Along with the fallen soldiers are those whose lands are destroyed, whose sons are subjected to famine, whose wives and daughters are slain. These are the innocents caught in between, the residents of random places, where the strongest states battle for power, seemingly without end…

It is not so different from the United States and Russia battling it out in far flung locations like Vietnam and Korea. These current countries clashed outside their own boundaries, in search for more power without the destruction on their own soil.

Ethnic alliance and wars of opportunity were not the only reasons for the Athenians to sail to Sicily. Another plan was afoot. They wanted to conquer Sicily…to use as a starting point for conquest in Italy and Carthage.

Bust of Alcibiades

Alcibiades

Alcibiades was the Athenian in charge of the expedition and a crucial character from here on out in the Peloponnesian War. Unfortunately, right before the renowned general and his army headed off, some religious statues were damaged, nay mutalitated. Alcibiades was accused. He tried to resolve the issue before leaving for Sicily, knowing that it could take an unfortunate turn if he was not there to defend himself.

But the powers that be forcibly bid him farewell and he took his crew on the perilous journey. Unfortunately, Alcibiades was commanded back for the trial promptly upon arriving on foreign coast. Fearing he would be condemned unjustly, he decided not to return to Athens. Instead Alcibiades defected and went to the Spartan side…taking with him the Athenian designs to take over Sicily.

The Athenians just lost their main player. The trouble, however, did not stop there. Upon landing on the island, the Athenian army made a classic mistake. They weren’t prepared for the winter and, unlike the Spartans, they were unaccustomed to feeling uncomfortable. So they took a break from the weather and tried to conserve their resources.

This gave the Syracusans just enough time to call their Dorian brothers, the Spartans, for help. Sparta was more than happy to lend a hand to spite their former foe… especially knowing from Alcibiades how important the island was in the grand Athenian war strategy. So Sparta sent General Gylippus to Sicily with reinforcements. They swiftly defeated the shivering Athenian forces.

Syracuse coin

Syracusan coin, showing a chariot with maritime symbols, commemorating the naval victory (Bode-Museum, Berlin)

The Athenians did not tuck in their tail and turn. Nicias, our previous Athenian peacemaker, called for reinforcements. These additional armies arrived and vicious battles ensued. Eventually, however, the Athenians realised they had to retreat. They prepared to do so at once, but were stopped in their tracks. A bad omen, a lunar eclipse, took place, and so the Athenians delayed their withdrawal. This moment’s hesitance cost them greatly. The Spartans met their fleeing fleet before they could escape. A huge sea battle raged, and the Athenians were defeated once more. This time all survivors were killed or enslaved.

The war was back on.

 

 

To Read the finale of the Peloponnesian War, Click HERE for “Athens’ Last Stand”.


“The Peloponnesian War – The Sicilian Expedition” was written by Anya Leonard

Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates

by on September 4, 2017

“Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.” – the Last words of Socrates, according to Plato.

Reading Socrates’ final utterance, one could be forgiven of thinking he was a practical, material man. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Socrates, as depicted in Plato’s Phaedo, was a gentleman who shunned the physical world and all thing corporeal. An individual who dedicated his life, and eventually lost it, in pursuit of wisdom and abstract ideals such as Beauty and Justice. In a word: Spiritual… even in the modern sense of the term.

But before we proceed, we must first dispense with the essential caveats that collocate with all Platonic/Socratic texts. As always, the distinction between teacher and student is a hard line to draw, as is the influence the former had on the latter. With time though, the mentor’s exact words started to fade and were replaced by the young philosopher’s own theories. This can be seen in Plato’s Phaedo, which was conceived much later than the Apology or Crito, though it still follows the tragic story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment and eventual death.

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

Therefore, when Socrates speaks, we should see him more and more as a puppet for Plato’s words… a sacred protagonist.

So what does Plato’s frontman do in the final hours of his life? Bewail his fate? Seek the comforts of his wife and children? Or question and prove to his companions the existence of the immortal soul? Of course we can’t know what Socrates actually did while waiting in the shadows of his imminent execution… we only know how Plato wanted to envision it.

Of course, it isn’t a large stretch to imagine a thoughtful man pondering the future of his soul considering his situation. Surely the inmates in Huntsville, Texas’ death row are contemplating the same thing with their quickly diminishing lives. Will their spirit exist once their body has deceased? And, if that life force within us escapes its prison of flesh and blood, where does it go?

To these questions Socrates posits a few of his own suggestions. To begin with, he endeavors to prove the immortality of the soul with four theories.

Socrates’ first thesis is the Argument of Opposites. Everything comes to be from its opposite, in the way that ‘Tallness’ comes to be only from ‘Shortness’. With this logic, life can only come from death and vice versa. This would imply that life and death do not have a definitive end, but exist in a perpetual cycle.

The second, more famous concept, is the Theory of Recollection, which is dealt with much more thoroughly in Plato’s Meno. This argument is that we do not learn, only remember knowledge we’ve had before we were born. It can be hard for modern readers to swallow this thought, but it is important to distinguish fact from form. Socrates is not advocating that we ‘remember’ things like: when did the Peloponnesian war begin? Especially if it did not happen until after we were conceived. Instead, it is the idea that within us is an innate, built in ability to distinguish the essential concepts of Beauty, Equality and the like.

death of socrates

The Death of Socrates

In regards to the immortality of the soul, this theory proves to Socrates and his friends that the soul existed before the body.

The third idea is the Argument of Affinity. It is the categorization of things that are invisible, indivisible and immortal versus those that are material, dissolvable and mortal. The body is of the latter, the spirit of the former. Therefore, the soul can not cease.

At this moment, the two other Pythagorean philosophers in the dialogue put Socrates on his back foot with strong rebuttals. Think about a musical instrument, says Simmias, the beauty of ‘Harmony’ only exists with the tangible structure of the lyre, same as the soul and the body. While Cebes agrees that the soul is long living and can exist after the physical form has died, he is not yet convinced that it is immortal.

Socrates concedes that these are excellent points, and so brings out his final and most formidable notion. The cornerstone of his winning argument is the Theory of the Forms. It is one of Plato’s most important contributions and it proposes that greater abstract concepts exist as immaterial and unchanging ideas, such as courage or Justice or Beauty or Goodness, and that all worldly items take in these forms.

The soul, therefore, partakes of the form of “Life” and is in fact an essential property of the soul. Consequently it can never die.

Socrates concludes his arguments with a myth that describes the concept of an afterlife. Throughout his whole conversation, however, he has sprinkled references to where he feels his spirit will go next.

Relaying: “That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible world to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.”

This is the reason why Socrates does not fear death. Like more contemporary believers, he is convinced that his future spiritual life will be better than his current physical existence. In fact, as a lover of wisdom and truth, his body only distracts him from finding reality.

“And thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her-neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure-when she has as little as possible to do with the body, and has no bodily sense or feeling, but is aspiring after being?”

Socrates spirituality was unlike the traditions of the Hellenic era, where the multitude of gods and the destination of Hades ruled over life and Death. Socrates never evokes the plethora of olympian dwellers. He does refer to the underworld though… he paints a hell-like finale for those who spent their life impurely and committed to the physical.

And so, knowing his life has been dedicated to finding the truth, and that his soul will live forever in a heaven like residence, Socrates bathes, bids his farewells, takes his hemlock and dies.

“Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates” was written by Anya Leonard

Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder

by on August 24, 2017

by Anya Leonard


Somewhere between the words of Socrates and the thoughts of Plato lies the profound question of what is ‘Just’. Is it defined by laws and men or is it something separate, something ideal? When one is wrongfully imprisoned, for example, is it okay to escape, to break the “law” as it is written? This was the quandary in which Socrates found himself when facing an unfair death sentence.

Crito by PlatoOf course, we can’t be sure which ideas actually belong to Socrates or to Plato. We only know that Crito, the second defense of Socrates, was written after the events took place. Even if Socrates did utter the words contained therein, it was a secondhand account at best. Chronologically though, it follows Socrates’ trial as seen in the Apology and slots in before his final death in Phaedo.

Crito is actually the shortest of these three dialogues, but that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest to understand.

In it, Plato attempts to find justice in an unjust action. He wants to reconcile the injustice of his beloved friend’s execution with the respect that he has for the city and its laws. Certainly that is no simple feat, and one that some might say Plato did not entirely accomplish.

To understand this dialogue, one first must distinguish between the lower case and upper case words – laws vs. Laws, respectively. The latter represents something much grander than the collective ideas of men or the wisdom of a lawmaker. The Law is an ideal, a form, an entity – personified and perfect. And it’s Plato’s way out… a method for Socrates to remain good by following what is Just in the concept of the Laws, rather than obeying the evil of his unjust accusers who unethically utilize mere laws to kill him.

We begin the dialogue with Socrates in his cell, his imminent death casting a long shadow on the proceedings. His friend, Crito, has found him asleep and, impressed by his quiet slumber, does not want to wake him up to face his unfortunate reality. When finally Socrates comes to, Crito implores him to escape, employing, at times, astute logic to make his case.

He begins, perhaps, with a selfish point. Should Socrates allow himself to be killed, others will think his friends were not loose enough with their purses to rescue him. Crito makes clear that Socrates need not worry about his friends’ welfare or wallets. The provocative philosopher has sufficient benefactors to ensure his escape.

Crito’s second argument addresses the injustice of those who accused and sentenced him. By fulfilling their decision, Socrates is acting unjustly. By refusing to escape, he treats himself as his enemies treat him. This, says Crito, is morally wrong.

Lastly, Crito pleads for Socrates to think of his children, who will become orphans if he dies.

Statue of SocratesHe beseeches: “You appear to me to betray your own sons, who, when it is in your power to rear and educate them, you will abandon, and, so far as you are concerned, they will meet with such a fate as chance brings them, and as is probably, they will meet with such things as orphans are wont to experience in a state of orphanage”.

As a philosopher, it is Socrates’ aim it to reveal ignorance and inspire knowledge. Would he deny his own progeny his lessons?

Socrates, in turn, counters these arguments with his own. He attacks Crito’s concern for public approval, responding that the only opinions that matter, are of those with knowledge. In a swift rebuttal, he states: “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth.”

The matter at hand is not what people will think of Socrates. The real question is: is it Just to escape? Even if his punishment is unjust, he should still not act unrighteously. Here Socrates combats the idea of an ‘eye for an eye’, making the point that it is never right to do an injustice, even if you suffered an injury first. Therefore, he won’t leave his prison if the departure is proved to be unrighteous.

Crito concedes this point… but it still doesn’t address whether escape is Just. To answer this riddle, Socrates conjures the Laws, which confront and question the philosopher.

The Laws take the stance that escape is unjust, for disobeying the rules would, in effect, destroy the Laws and what they stand for. The State is held together by the Laws, and if the latter were to fall into disarray, the former would collapse as well. Therefore, Socrates’ illegal departure would be an affront the city-state that reared him. He argues allegiance to the State is more important than one’s well being or ties to their family…

Finally Socrates concludes that by living in Athens, he has agreed to her Laws. Not only that, he reared his children in the famous city-state and stayed there his whole, long, 70 years of his life. If he didn’t agree with the Laws, he could have left at any time, but chose not to.

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

The fact that the Laws are personified in Crito is important for our understanding of the “social compact” as viewed by Socrates. This is not Rousseau’s famous social contract, though it does at first appear that way. In the 18th century concept, the state or sovereign is a direct consequence of the people’s general will. Therefore, the social contract is an agreement between citizens to live together under the same laws. For Plato, however, this agreement is not made between citizens. It’s made between the individual citizen and the Laws – an entity in and of itself.

For Plato and for Socrates, the Laws are more like the ‘forms’ – an abstract idea that represents the fundamental essence of a thing. A chair, as we know it, is not just the thing we sit on, that you may be sitting on right now. It is also an idea of something that we sit on. Therefore, we can all look at a chair and say, “Yes, that is chair,” having in our minds a form of what a chair is.

In this way the Laws are something greater, purer than laws. The Laws are always Just, according to Socrates, but a law can be unjustly used.

This is how Plato tries to reconcile unjust actions with the innate Justice of the Laws. By acquiescing to the injustice, Socrates upheld the Laws and Justice and therefore, the State built upon them. Failure to do so would have destroyed all the ideals, truths and forms he held dear. This is why Socrates had to die.

 



Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder – Classical Wisdom Weekly was written by Anya Leonard