Missing Axioms V – A City without Laws

November 16, 2020

The voters who decide Socrates’ trial represent the “ordinary people” of Athens:

“If only, Citro, ordinary people could bring about the greatest of evils, so that then they could have bought about the greatest of goods too; then all would be well. But as it is, they’re not capable of either, because it’s beyond their capacity to make anyone either wise or foolish. What they do to people is, well, whatever they chance to do.”1

This passage expresses the Socratic cause of things both good and bad. Encapsulated in direct epistemological connection of wisdom or ignorance to ethical judgement, which according to Socrates’ conception no cognizant intellect would knowingly transgress against what is just and descend into evil; an act only ever enacted through ignorance. Ethically speaking, the essence of Socratic value(s) is found in the synonymity between: the “greatest of evils” with the “foolish” and “greatest of goods” with the “wise”. Although the particulars of these statements about “ordinary people” can be interpenetrated to invoke elitist or aristocratic values, this higher ‘good’ remains available to all conscious beings so long as the “ordinary” can communion with knowledge. The Socratic agent channels this through their explicit thought and implicit action into a communal telos beyond their immediate self which is expressed in the notion of the “city”.

The “city” in this context is, put simply, the limits of social organisational and collaborative order. This state of ‘order’ in a sea of uncivilised chaos is “turned completely upside down when legal requirements that have been passed in it’s courts have no force, but are overturned by private citizens and rendered null and void…”2. Empty and lifeless, ready to be engulfed by limp-wristed imposter nihilism. This is why Socrates refuses the logical action of self-preservation in “running away”3.

By refusing to run despite his material destiny he is demonstrating a value found outside rational consequence. In other words, a refusal to defile that deontological irreducible “because…” in his ethical outlook, personal character and commitment to the “city” actually having laws. Socrates’ disregards his mortal body and temporary concerns for the apparent immortality of an eternal ideal.

“[…] don’t you see that that’s what one has to do, and that’s where justice lies? – that there’s to be no giving way, no retreat, no abandoning one’s position: that whether in war, or in the law-courts, or anywhere, one must do whatever city and fatherland order, or else persuade her of what the just thing would really be? Violence to a mother or to a father isn’t pious; violence to your fatherland is much less pious still.”4

In the myopia of contemporary interpretation Socrates might seem fascistic or nationalist in his overtones here. However, in actuality the “fatherland” and “city” of his day were not the looming state apparatus of our own context. On the contrary, the “fatherland” is not only an extended assertion of value(s) but also an extended kin, hence the invocation of a deontological attachment to the archetypal non-negotiable parent. By virtue of his own embodied ideal (“one’s position”), negotiation room has been created for appeal to persuasion. It is in this void that we see Socrates, who has just been sentenced, in a different light. He is no pitiable martyr but instead is accepting of his failure to persuade the court of his “fatherland”, finding that he cannot justly flee from devotion to his own ideal. Becoming a paragon of his values over the process of his final dialogues, Socrates follows the light of his own ideal into death. Rejecting the ability to eke out a delay of his inevitable fate which would have left him inhabiting a sparsely-lit relativism.

To concerns raised by his company towards the fate of his children, Socrates equates the potential of a geographical evasion to a departure in death. Upon closer inspection this comparison is the idea that denigrating one’s personal value(s) is, to an authentically integrated self, equivalent to death. In other words evasion makes ethical principle malleable to material concerns, thereby stripping ethics of any status of being ‘principled’. Furthermore, prolonging the remainders of a life for life itself is merely an anxious delaying of the inevitability of death and a refusal to die on the hill of value(s) on the singular ideal time it presents itself5.

For Socrates, the implicit self must follow the explicit self and in the end it was he himself who agreed to “live as a citizen of Athens” in accordance with his municipal kin. As lovers give immutable vows when moved by similar deontological prospects, Socrates’ authentic citizen not only agrees to “live” in accordance with the city but also agrees to die in accordance with the city6.

“…for who’d be happy in a city that had no laws?”7

  1. Plato. (2010) The Last Days of Socrates (trans C. Rowe), Penguin, Citro 44d, p.68
  2. Ibid. Citro 50b, p.76
  3. Ibid. Citro 50a, p.75
  4. Ibid. Citro 51b, p.77
  5. Ibid. Citro 54c, p.81
  6. Ibid. Citro 52d, p.79
  7. Ibid. Citro 53a, p.79
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