Disclaimer: These blog posts do NOT represent the opinions of the entire Oracle Staff, and only represent the opinions of one staffer.
Recently I’ve tried to work my way through a few of the Platonic dialogues — for those unfamiliar, these are works by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, constructed in the form of a conversation between Socrates (Plato’s mentor, who acts as the mouthpiece for Plato’s thoughts) and other assorted characters. This format is intended to ease the path to enlightenment and illuminate Plato’s reasoning, but after reading three of his early dialogues, I’m not sure. That being said, I’d probably attribute my uncertainty to my own immaturity and lack of understanding and not a flaw in Plato’s reasoning.
The dialogue I’d like to discuss is a minor one, much more insignificant than something famous like the Phaedo (which I also read but don’t want to discuss because I fear I only understood about half of it), where Plato discusses the immortality of the soul. This dialogue is the Crito, and the situation is thus: Socrates has been condemned to death by Athens, and his friend Crito has arranged it so Socrates could escape to another state if he wants to … this leads into the discussion of whether the escape would be ethically good or moral.
Now, at first, it seems perfectly acceptable for Socrates to escape, since he was innocent of the charges of “corrupting the youth” but was given the death penalty by the blockheaded Athenian judges anyways. However, as Socrates proves, retaliation against actions or harm against oneself are never morally justified, especially in a case where the harm against oneself has come from a state or other institution. If one individual, such as Socrates, is to be pardoned or given privilege enough to bypass all the laws in a society, then all the laws are made flexible, flimsy, and thus powerless and useless. Here’s an obvious analog: should an upstanding and brilliant student be allowed by an Assistant Principal to bypass a questionable or debatable assignment to one day of ISS so their record is not tarnished and they can be admitted to a wonderful college and have a future as an entrepreneur and enliven the existences of their fellow man? No. The school gives more to the student than the student will likely give back to the school, even if they maul the NMSQT and bring national recognition to our humble Steinbrenner courtyard; it provides the framework for the student to grow up in; it provides the student’s safety and the student’s education. Let’s just take a second to note that this is just me applying Platonic principles to our lives, and in no way am I saying that I support this viewpoint, or that I don’t support it, for that matter. And so in return, especially when there is not the option of leaving the school, the student must accept the questionable sentence as a consequence of the complexities that come with strong and sophisticated government, because of what he is getting in return.
But what if, hypothetically, the education given by the institution would be maligned by Socrates, and the curriculum and environment of the school is not beneficial to a student’s wisdom? The current school curriculum places a large emphasis upon math, physical sciences, language studies, and history: Pythagoras, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Herodotus would all be satisfied. But what about wisdom? What about the knowledge of what is good and just in the world? There is hardly any of that in school systems, and thus, if Socrates were a sophomore, he might take issue with the system he actually has no choice but to be contained by, a system which is not benefitting him …. this smacks of tyranny or senselessness, but we’ll leave it at that.
More complicated addendum: Closely linked with Socrates’s refusal to escape the death sentence is the principle he outlines in the Phaedo, which is that philosophers prepare themselves all their lives for death, for the time when their souls exit there bodies and are freed from material things, to join the ultimate and undiluted truths and pure forms of beauty, and that because of this a philosopher should not dread the moment of death. In fact, he should look forward to it. While there are parts of this principle that I agree with, I’d argue with Plato that the more experience of the real world we have, the more wisdom we can acquire, because all the wisdom we have necessarily pertains to the earthly realm. So perhaps philosophy is preparing for death, but eagerness to die seems a bit foolish, because internal thinking and dialogue can only go so far before one needs to get a taste of the realities and sorrows of the world.