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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Thomas West On Socrates And The Crito Dialogue

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HH: It is that time of the week, time for the Hillsdale Dialogues, where I sit down with Dr. Larry Arnn and/or another member of the Hillsdale faculty. We’re so pleased this week to have Dr. Arnn and Dr. Thomas West, who’s a professor of politics at Hillsdale College after a distinguished quarter century at the University of Dallas. And I’m hoping you’ll set Dr. Arnn straight, Dr. West. It’s great to have you here and give me some help. He’s been running roughshod over me in the last few weeks of these dialogues.

TW: I’ve experience that, too, Hugh, so we’ll do the best we can.

HH: Together, we might be able to restrain him. But I’m going to start with a question on which both of you should weigh in. Between the Trojan War and the Crito, and Socrates, which we will be discussing today in Plato, elapsed nearly 900 years. Why is it that from that disaster in that epic poem, the Greek city-states emerged that could produce such amazing philosophy, Dr. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. Why don’t you take your first swing at that.

LA: Well, there’s no accounting for that. The genius is a synonym for chance in some of the classic books. But it is true that the Greek city-states were extremely good at some things that, for example, the Persians were not good at. They commanded loyalty and the energies of all, and unity in a way that the Persians proved in the war not to be able to do. What they couldn’t do was unify all among each other, and that was ultimately part of their destruction. But that was one of those very special periods in human history where you can talk about the conditions that were unique. But what accounts for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, what accounts for them showing up at the same time? I don’t think the answer to that is known unless Tom West knows it.

HH: Dr. West?

TW: Larry’s right about that. Aristotle makes a remark at one point, he said the Greeks have this great combination of spiritedness and intelligence, which the other races that surrounded them tended, they’d be, have too much of the one or too much of the other, but not two together. And Aristotle says that’s why the Greek cities were relatively well governed, combining civilization and freedom in comparison to the Persians, which was all imperial oppression, and the Europeans, which had freedom, but no civilization. That’s the condition that Larry’s talking about that makes this amazing galaxy of stars possible. But it doesn’t cause it, it just creates the conditions for it. He’s right about that.

HH: Now is there any other comparable period in time where that much beauty and that much philosophy combine in one place, Dr. West?

TW: Well, people have brought up the example of Elizabethan England, people have mentioned the time of the American founding. There are times in history when there’s just an amazing outburst of talent all at one place, and they achieve great things. And so it happens, but trying to say what the cause of it is, that’s going to be hard.

HH: Dr. Arnn, would you place either the time of Shakespeare or the time of Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson at the same level as Athens of the Socratic era?

LA: I’ll reply with an answer that one of the teachers of Professor and I used to give when we would ask him who’s greater, Churchill or Lincoln. He would say if you look at the tallest peaks, often the peaks are shrouded in the mountains. You can’t tell which is higher, but you can tell they’re both taller than a molehill.

HH: Okay, well, then let’s go, we’re going to dive into the philosophers in the next few weeks, and we’re going to start with the Crito. But before we do that, Dr. West, why don’t you give to our average Pittsburgh Steelers fan an overview of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and how they enter onto the scene, and their relation each to the other, and their surrounding, I won’t say supporting cast, but their surrounding cast of Athenian genius.

TW: Well, Socrates was the teacher of Plato. Plato taught Aristotle, so that’s the succession. Socrates is so important, and continues to be read now because he was the first thinker that we know of to investigate the question of what we call natural right. Is there such a thing as an objective understanding of justice that can be discovered by reason? Prior to Socrates, the view pretty much was no. Justice is arbitrary, justice is just conventional. And Western civilization is really built on the Socratic insight that there is such a thing as justice according to nature that can be known by man without independently of whether you are born in Greece, born in America, wherever. And that’s the insight that Plato and then Aristotle picked up on. So in terms of their political writings, that’s what’s really important for us, I think.

HH: And Dr. Arnn, we begin in the Western Heritage Reader from Hillsdale College Press with this particular dialogue, and why this dialogue? And also, can you explain the form? Much as you explained over the last few week as Thucydides used, reconstructed speeches, which were intended to communicate the nature of not just the debate at hand, but the people participating in the debate, what about these dialogues, what is it that Plato’s attempting to accomplish with this form?

LA: Well, understand the form first. We don’t have anything that parades as written by Socrates. We have Plato and Xenophon and Aristophanes, who knew Socrates, giving accounts of, placing him in dramatic situations where he says things, that there’s not really the claim that he really did say these things, except in a couple of rare cases. And the first thing to understand is the significance of these dialogues, because Tom just said, it’s significant for everybody who asked the question, is there an answer to the question what is the right way for men to live and comport themselves. And we live in a time right now, by the way, where the claim is that there’s only history and circumstance and personal opinion to tell us what right is. And that was a prevalent claim in the time of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. We read the Melian dialogue, and in there, the Athenian diplomats, murderers, killers, conquerors, say to the Melians, one of their claims is justice is the right of the stronger to do whatever he wants. That is one of the fundamental claims in the first book of Plato’s Republic. And the question is, is that true? And Socrates, in the opening, not quite the first, but in the opening of The Republic, refutes that claim. So what we have is a record of a civilization flourishing and beginning a decline, we now know, and a sense of decline over it, around questions like that. And we get the first dramatic answer, powerful answer to it, in these dialogues. That’s one reason why we should read them today.

HH: And so Dr. West, why do you think, and perhaps you disagree with the choice, you might not have been up to Hillsdale by the time they put together the Western Heritage Reader, but all the little freshmen who call from all over the world, actually, not just the United States, to Hillsdale College in Michigan, they get handed this reader, and the first thing they see among the Greeks is this dialogue. What do you make of that choice? And why is it either a good choice or a bad choice?

TW: It’s an excellent choice. Actually, you can start in lots of different places. But what the Crito is about is it’s a dialogue that takes place after Socrates had been convicted by the Athenian jury of the crime of not believing in the gods of the city, bringing in his own new gods, and corrupting the, he’s basically been accused of being the kind of man who cannot live in peace and harmony with a civilized society. And this is the conflict which Athens believed was real between what we would call science and the needs of society. And we see about that conviction is presented in Plato’s apology of Socrates, his defense speech. What the Crito does is then pick up from there, and an old friend of Socrates comes to visit Socrates in jail, and says Socrates, we need to escape. You need to escape. What’s happening to you is shameful, it’s low, it makes you look bad. You need to escape. I’ve got the money, I’ve got the connections, you need to get out. Socrates has the answer. No. That’s a bad idea, and here’s why.

HH: And you translated this, did you not, Dr. West?

TW: I did, yes.

HH: And so when you were translating this in the course of, is there a particular passage, I have a question in mind about this when we come back from break. Is there a particular passage that broke your pen, that was hard to do?

TW: That would be, it’s hard to say. I did that 20-some years ago, so…it’s Greek, you know. It’s tough. But I did it. Grace and I did it. My wife, Grace, who also teaches here in classics, co-translated with me.

HH: And Dr. Arnn, are you comfortable with the choice you made with the reader, to go with this?

LS: Well, sure, because it’s about the end of this life of Socrates, and the dialogues that are about that end are of fundamental importance, because that’s where Socrates gives an account of how he lived. And I want to say a word. The book is called Four Texts On Socrates, edited, translated, and with an introduction by West and West. And I read the introduction that Tom and Grace wrote, this morning, I read it. And everybody ought to go read that, especially the first five pages of it, because it will state in very clear terms the classic answer to the dilemma of our time.

HH: Wow. We’re going to have a paraphrase of that when we come back. Don’t go anywhere, America. That’s a big promise, Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – –

HH: Larry Arnn, you said as we went to break that the introduction of Dr. West, who is your colleague in this conversation, to his four dialogues, explains the fundamental problem of our time. How did he do that?

LA: Well, the Athenians have two kinds of authority that are running along, you might even say three. I’ll say three. One is Socrates is convicted and executed for impiety, for rebelling against the gods. And the gods are willful people who disagree with each other, and that leads to the ability to make all kinds of claims against individual citizens of being impious. The second is Achilles, the great hero of Homer, is an authority. And in the apology, Socrates presents himself as an alternative to Achilles. The example of Achilles is strength and conquest, and mighty manliness. And then the third one is there are sophists at work in Athens, and several of the dialogues are named after leading sophists. And in The Republic, Socrates has a confrontation in the first book with one of them named Thrasymachus. And what the sophists are teaching the young men, and Plato’s own brothers are in the discussion in the Republic, and so it’s sort of an argument for the souls of Plato’s own brothers. And what Thrasymachus teaches them is justice is whatever the strongest say, or whatever their interest is. And Socrates regards these not only as claims that do not make sense, but also that they are destructive. And Socrates is the great refuter of those claims. And in this introduction, Tom lays that out, but then he goes on to talk about modern academics by name, one of them, Richard Rorty, and what they claim is. There’s really nothing in the bosom of your soul that you have not put there. There’s only will. And then Tom and Grace go on to make the point, and you know, this thing is made better, because Grace helped Tom with this, and she’s a classics professor here, and she’s awesome. Tom is also awesome in his lesser way. And they make the point that if you start thinking like that, that what’s going to emerge from that is you’re going to give up the struggle to do the right thing. You’re going to just think I’ve just got to get power, and then do whatever I want. And that academic doctrine, which is reigning in America today in the academic world, was very powerful in the Greek, in the Attic world if the great flourishing of Socrates, and Socrates was an enemy of that doctrine. That’s why you would go back to it.

HH: Dr. West, to elaborate on that, anything?

TW: Yeah, the question, as I say in the Crito, is should Socrates escape. He’s been convicted, and the great, you know, the thing that’s really striking about reading Plato, let’s say, in contrast to Aristotle, Plato sets everything up as an analysis, and you, the reader, you’ve got to fit it together and figure out what the conclusion actually is. Aristotle gives you the conclusions. He’s just like the master of common sense. Everything you read just sounds so sensible. But he doesn’t tell you how he got there as well. That’s what’s so good about Plato. So what you get in Plato’s Apology is Socrates says I am not going to obey the law if you ever command me to stop philosophizing. That’s the most important thing. That would mean I would be giving up on my quest for human excellence. In the Crito, he appears to make the exact opposite argument. Crito comes in and says let’s escape, you’ve been convicted unjustly. Socrates says no.

LA: Yeah, in his statements, Crito offers to bribe officials to get him out. And Crito says it’s a duty of Socrates to his children and his city and philosophy, and he would be a coward if he doesn’t accept the offer.

HH: He makes powerful arguments. In fact, I want to go to one of those before we’re out of time here. To me, it’s the translation issue. I didn’t quite get it, where Crito says what more, what is more, Socrates? It seems to me that you are letting your sons down, too. You have it in your power to finish. They’re bringing up an education, and instead of that, you are proposing to go off and desert them. And so far as you are concerned, they will have to take their chance. And what sort of chance are they likely to get? The sort of thing that usually happens to orphans when they lose their parents. Letting down just doesn’t seem to me to communicate what Socrates is doing to his children by refusing to escape. He’s condemning them, isn’t he? He’s abandoning them, Dr. West. That’s why I thought is letting down really the translation that evokes what Crito was trying to do here?

TW: You’re right. He’s very upset on behalf of his children, but he’s especially upset on behalf of himself. What happens in the dialogues is Socrates brings out that Crito is actually more concerned about how he, Crito, will look. Socrates, you’re making us, your friends, look bad. And so he’ll bring up the children, and what’s going to happen to them, but as Socrates points out, you’re going to help me with that. You’ve got some money. You’ll help me take care of them. And so the real question becomes what’s, how should Crito think about the fact that Socrates has decided it’s really important for him to submit to the punishment and not escape. And so what you get in the Crito, what the overall teaching of the dialogue is, is that if you are philosophical, if you have that philosophic impulse, if you really want to develop the life of the mind, you’ve got to understand the importance of law, the importance of community, the importance of civilization to the enterprise you’re involved in. And so that’s what Crito has to learn. He’s got to learn that’s important, that’s something he’s got to accept. And if that means that Socrates lets his kids down, that’s part of it. You’ve got to obey the law. That’s important.

HH: But isn’t this teaching people, maybe sub rosa, that they ought, that it’s okay to walk away from their children because of higher calling, that they can go off on a folic and a detour is the muse prompts them to do so?

TW: No, that’s what Socrates is saying precisely you can’t do. I mean, the real question that Socrates’ trial was about was can you reconcile science and civilization? We’re so used to thinking today that of course, it’s obvious, that we don’t understand that that was actually a problem back then, because a scientist like Socrates, somebody who’s interested in the question of what’s right and what’s wrong, is never going to accept any conventional opinion without investigating it. That’s why he was accused of corrupting the youth. He kept saying well, do you guys really understand what’s right? Does the law really have all the answers? So one aspect of Socrates was to really go into that and try to understand what the basis of justice is independently of law. That’s what made him look like a subversive. But here in the Crito, he’s turning around. He’s saying don’t misunderstand me. Law actually is absolutely essential for human life and civilization. That’s the lesson you, Crito, have not learned here, and I’m going to show you how that’s true.

— – –

HH: If you just joined us, in 399 BC, Socrates was sentenced to die. Three days before he is executed or actually kills himself, his buddy comes in, Crito, and says we can get you out of here, we’re about to spirit you away, come. And he lays a number of arguments at Socrates’ feet, which Socrates first establishes they must answer by reason, and then methodically dismembers. But I’m not sure of either of them getting a fair hearing, Dr. Larry Arnn. Dr. West just referred to the fact that Crito was concerned about his reputation. I read here that what could be more contemptible than to get a name for thinking more of money than of your friends? He’s right about that. Is Crito right to be wary of what the city is going to think of him if his friend takes the hemlock?

LA: Yeah, and in Athens, bribery and changeability and political faction-producing verdicts is constant, right? And so it’s thought if you, you know, first of all, if you get brought up on charges, that’s a sign of weakness. And if you get convicted, that’s a sign of weakness. And if your friends won’t get you out, that’s a sign of weakness. You know, think what happened to Alcibiades, right? We talked about him last week, and he fights for every major power in the greatest war in history to that time. And Crito is really beckoning Socrates to an example like that. And Tom’s point is Socrates uses this as an occasion to speak of the duty of a citizen to his city. And that goes along with something, because it’s not just Nazis or something. You’ve got to do what the law says, because there are two things going on here, and it’s in juxtaposition that they’re amazing. One of them is Socrates disobeys the law, and in the trial, he makes a weak defense about that. He says effectively, by the weakness of his arguments, I am calling into question these bad laws, and this understanding of the gods. And I’m philosophizing I am seeking for the good, which is the human way. And I’m going to do that, no matter what. Think of the apostles in the Book of Acts before the Sanhedrin, because you know, lots of Christian people say there’s all these, in Timothy and in several of the letters, there’s all these adjournments, encourages in the New Testament to obey the law no matter what. But of course, they’re told you’ve got to stop preaching the Gospel, and they reply no. And that’s parallel to Socrates’ answer.

HH: Boy, that’s in my margin notes again that I had forgotten that, again and again, that I must keep teaching.

LA: Yeah, that’s it. Right, and so see, then it becomes very dramatic that the man is in, who’s on death row, refuses to disobey the laws of the city in a way that would cut his ultimate links with the city. When Socrates is philosophizing in the marketplace, he is seeking to make the city better as he’s seeking to find the truth. That’s his claim. When he refuses exile, and to run from your city and exile yourself is to break your connection with the law, and so both of those things are going on, and it’s profound, and it’s a lesson. And remember, people today flee the United States of America because of laws that I regard are very bad. And I think those people are rightly regarded as dishonorable, even though the laws are bad.

HH: Dr. West, is there an argument that was not made here that might have played in the mind of Alcibiades when he trotted off first to Sparta and then to Persia, that Socrates, who Steven Pressfield in Tides Of War has fighting beside Alcibiades, right? I think that’s the case in the Battle of Marathon. Is there an argument unmade by Crito that ought to have been made about when you have to leave the city just to save the city?

TW: No, I mean, it was actually the Battle of Potidaea…

HH: That’s it.

TW: But Socrates, the difference between Socrates and Alcibiades is immeasurable. Alcibiades is a man who simply did whatever he thought was going to produce his own honor and his own personal happiness. Everything was subordinated to that. If it would mean that he had to…it was an example of Achilles. You know, if it means the killing, of the dying of thousands of his fellow citizens, so be it. Now whatever was going to be, make him look better to himself, and anything dishonorable, he’s going to overcome by doing whatever was in his power to do. Socrates’ completely opposite orientation was my job in life is to try to figure out what the good is, what the human good is. And everything is subordinated to that. And that’s ultimately why what Crito has to learn, Crito doesn’t understand that, that there is a higher calling that makes Socrates’ choice right.

— – –

HH: Let me ask you, Dr. West. There’s a question that Socrates asks of Crito towards the end of this dialogue. Do you imagine that a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force, but are nullified and destroyed by private persons? And that question is answered by his conduct, by I wonder if that isn’t applicable to the United States of America today, and whether or not you think the answer that is being tested is the opposite of the one that Socrates gave?

TW: I think what Socrates is saying is obviously correct if you understand the situation properly. And this is the dilemma we all face whenever we’re faced with, whenever we have a government that’s misbehaving. The question is, does that mean that I don’t have a right to do whatever, to simply defy the law? And the answer is no, you don’t. There is such a thing as a right to revolution in the American tradition, and I think in truth. But as the Declaration of Independence says, prudence will dictate that governments should not be overthrown for light intransient circumstances. And you have to understand, you have to think about what would happen if you did overthrow it, and more likely, what would happen if you simply encouraged the atmosphere of anarchy and lawlessness that would prevail in a society? If you simply stood up every time something was wrong in the government and said I have the right to disobey the law, that’s what Socrates is getting at, and he’s right about that.

HH: Larry Arnn, slightly off course, but it’s the same question. Did Marlborough do wrong when he intrigued to replace legitimate monarch, and to overthrow that right…did he have the right of revolution when he acted?

LA: Well, yes, he did, and the reason is, that monarch was working in ways that would have subjected the British people in matters of faith and other matters, including military, to the dominance of foreign powers. In other words, James was to be a constitutional monarch, but he was not acting like one. He was violating the constitution that gave him his own authority. And so it wasn’t, by the way, exactly the right of revolution as in the American Declaration of Independence. But it was a constitutional as well as a revolutionary thing.

HH: Now wouldn’t Socrates, though, if he’s adopting the same argument as he gives Crito in Crito, wouldn’t he rebuke both the revolutionaries of ’76, and Marlborough, and everyone else who strikes, because he was unjustly convicted. They’re just being unjustly governed.

LA: But that’s the two things I’m talking about. You can’t understand the human situation until you understand both of these things that are happening at the end of Socrates’ life. One of them is each of us is accountable for himself, and each of us is called to live as well as he can live. Each of us is called to study and find the right way to be. And that’s on the one hand. And Socrates suffered his death in the name of the freedom to do that. And on the other hand, each of us has got a family, and each of us lives in a city, and each of us has laws, and we are obliged to try to make those things better, even at the cost of our lives, because we are thinking by nature, and that same faculty makes us also political by nature. And that means, to close, I mean, the key point is if we live in a time when the argument of the Greek sophists are being made, that there’s no truth outside our own making, and people actually govern in the name of that, Barack Obama, quote Audacity of Hope, “The very idea of constitutional ordered liberty means that there must be no absolute truth.” Now that’s, by the way, a statement of absolute truth.

HH: Yes.

LA: And that’s the thing that comes up in these dialogues, and in the person of Socrates and his students, Plato and Aristotle, and Tom was too hard on Aristotle, who’s really great. In those three, especially, we have a place to go where we can learn to discover again the meaning of the good.

HH: And Dr. West, is there any variable in this account that Socrates gives, that if it changed, he would have gotten to a different, if he had been younger, not 70 years old, if his children had been facing ruin as opposed to the comfort of rich friends, or if the city was on the verge of anarchy, is there a variable he allows for?

TW: He does. In fact, he gives an argument at the exact center of the dialogue in which he says I am the kind of person who will only listen to the argument that is the best. And I will only listen to the expert, the one and truth itself in making my decisions. He says that, and he doesn’t persuade Crito that it’s right for him to refuse to escape. So Socrates, as a second-best argument, gives an argument which he puts into the mouth of the laws, and he says here’s what the laws would say. And the laws are demanding unconditional obedience at all times in every circumstance. That’s the argument that convinces Crito. Socrates has his own reasons, which he gives in the middle of the dialogue, and which doesn’t convince Crito. And that’s the indication of the distinction between when you do and when you don’t exercise what we would call a right of revolution. Socrates is saying yeah, you’re insight might give you a different answer under different circumstances. Crito doesn’t get that. He needs to understand it’s important to obey in these circumstances, so Socrates gives him a blanket argument in favor of obeying in all circumstances. That’s typical Plato, where you get these two positions in a dialogue, and you’ve got to notice the two positions and see which one is the authentic one, and the one that’s the deeper understanding.

HH: Let me conclude by asking you both how students respond to this, if it’s at all differently now in 2013 than when you began your teaching career, Dr. West.

TW: Well, when I started teaching, the Vietnam War had just ended, and I’ll tell you, it was a lot easier to teach politics in those days. People knew people who were fighting and dying, and when people were being drafted. That helps a lot to strengthen, to get the mind focused on reality. The biggest problem I find in our time is we are so wealthy, and doing so well just in the ordinary way, day to day, that kids are just, they’re just deluded about the crisis the world is in right now. They think things are going to float along fine. I’m not saying everybody, but that’s the tendency right now, and how do you wake them up?

HH: And Dr. Arnn, 30 seconds?

LA: I’ll echo that, and I’ll also say that American politics are intensifying under the pressure of Barack Obama and the crises that are going on, and kids are a lot more interested than they used to be, and they’re flocking to Hillsdale College, and grown up, too. I mean, they’re listening to these Hillsdale Dialogues.

HH: And I hope they are reading them as well, transcribed at and available at Every single one we’ve done from the beginning of the year is there. Dr. Thomas West, a pleasure to talk to you. Dr. Larry Arnn, always a pleasure.

End of interview.


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