Plato lecture explores the complexity of law and justice

In addition to the Hannibal Lecture series, Carthage enjoys independent lectures from faculty on many interesting topics. On Thursday, March 8, Paul Diduch, post-doctoral fellow in Western Heritage and political science, discussed how the lessons of Plato’s “Crito” can help citizens understand how to live justly in a society based upon the rule of law. The lecture began after Paul Kirkland, assistant professor of great ideas and political science, introduced Diduch, half-jokingly, as “part of an elite task force of Platonic cowboys.”

Diduch’s lecture consisted of four parts. The first dealt with the emotions expressed by Crito, a friend of the philosopher Socrates who attempts to persuade the latter to escape prison while awaiting execution. Crito believes that Socrates’ sentence is unjust and argues that abiding by the law would send a message to the hoi polloi (the mob of Athens) that they may bend the law to serve unjust ends. Diduch believes that Crito’s plea raises questions that bear relevance for our democratic society, such as, how can we honor our traditional legal system and still remain true to the moral part of our souls when the two conflict?

The second section of the lecture covered Socrates’ response to Crito’s supplication. Diduch identified three components to Socrates’ argument: 1) Those who do not hold fast to their beliefs in the face of adversity should suffer shame; 2) When asking which action is morally right, one should rely on reason to point them in the right direction; and 3) By disobeying the law, one harms his community and thus brings shame to the moral part of his soul. These questions send a message to today’s readers: to live nobly, one should not compromise when advancing a just argument; the penalty of such a concession is to feel a regret that torments the soul.

Moving into the third section, Diduch arrived at the main idea of his lecture, a hypothesis that is considered insurgent within conservative philosophy circles. Diduch suggests that the arguments that Socrates presents to Crito do not represent his true views; instead, he is using the power of rhetoric to dazzle his friend in order to safeguard his own reputation as a philosopher. To support his theory, Diduch pointed out that Socrates expresses doubt that any person can ever be certain that they have the qualifications to know what is just or unjust. Also, the dialogue does not settle on proper definitions for important terms such as ‘justice,’ ‘piety’ and moral ‘harm’.

So why is Socrates making this argument to Crito if he does not believe it himself? Diduch provided an answer during the fourth and final part of his lecture.

According to Prof. Diduch, Socrates rejects the attempt to escape execution because his status as a fugitive would lead others to view his general teachings as hypocritical. After all, who would want to learn from a philosopher who lacks the courage to die for his convictions? Rather than give Crito this apparently self-serving explanation, Socrates comforts his friend by giving him something noble in which to believe.

Students wishing to form their own opinion about the “Crito” are encouraged to read the dialogue themselves. Paul Diduch also recommends the “Phaedo” as an ideal discussion peace for inquiries into the nature of living a noble life. When asked why he chose to talk about the “Crito” for this lecture, he said, “I think this dialogue gets to the heart of a certain problem in an adventitious way.”

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