Does Socrates Hold Contradictory Positions On Civil Disobedience?

Does Socrates Hold Contradictory Positions On Civil Disobedience?

In Plato’s Apology and Crito, there is an apparent contradiction between each dialogue’s representation of Socrates’ position on civil disobedience. Gary Young represents Socrates’ contradictory positions this way:
(I) I shall not give up philosophy, even if the city commands me to do so. (Ap.29d)

(II) Every citizen (including myself) should obey every command of the city. (Cr. 50a-53 a)

Young then claims that the contradiction has been typically dealt with in one of two ways.
(1) The contradiction between (I) and (II) is merely verbal or apparent; that is, Socrates is not really contradicting himself in asserting (I) and (II), because he has in mind a qualification of either (I) or (II) [usually (II) is picked for this role], which has the effect of limiting the applicability of (I) to one set of cases, and the applicability of (II) to a wholly different set of cases, so that (I) and (II) could never both apply to the same situation.

(2) The contradiction between (I) and (II) is not merely apparent; it is ineluctable. No reconciliation between (I) and (II) is possible, and Socrates holds contradictory views. (Young, 2)

Young holds that option (1) is unsatisfactory for the following reasons:(a) None of the solutions proposed can be found in either dialogue, at least in such a way as to indicate that Socrates would use them to resolve the contradiction.

(b) All proposed solutions impose upon Socrates a view that he did not hold so far as our evidence shows. (Young, 2)

Young concludes that if both dialogues are taken to represent Socrates’ own position, then they are contradictory; but, according to Young, the two dialogues do not represent Socrates’ own position.

According to Young, the Crito contains Socrates saying what he needed to say in order to elicit Crito’s agreement with Socrates’ decision not to escape prison; the arguments and comments are a means to an ends—mere tools of persuasion, but not a sincere representation of Socrates’ personal beliefs. It seems then that Young holds a modified version of (2). In this paper, I will argue that the apparent contradiction can be dealt with via Young’s option (1), and can be done so without being unsatisfactory in the ways Young describes.

Young has greatly abbreviated the passages in question. What do the passages between which the tension arises actually say?
I will not yield to any man contrary to what is right, for fear of death, even if I should die at once for not yielding. (Apology 32a)

If you said to me in this regard: ‘Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die,’ if, as I say, you were to acquit me on those terms, I would say to you: ‘Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy.’ (Apology 29d)

You must either persuade it or obey [the city’s] orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure, whether blows or bonds, and if it leads you into war to be wounded or killed, you must obey. To do so is right, and one must not give way or retreat or leave one’s post, but both in war and in courts and everywhere else, one must obey the commands of one’s city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice. (Crito 51b-c)

Socrates states in the Crito that one must obey the commands of one’s city and country. If that is what Socrates believes, what about the city’s hypothetical command for Socrates to cease practicing philosophy? Socrates states in the Apology that he will not yield to any man contrary to what is right. He expresses in the Crito that it is right to obey the orders of the city. But wouldn’t Socrates be yielding to himself or someone else contrary to what is right by refusing in advance to obey the city’s command to stop philosophizing? How can these passages be understood in a harmonious way?

Well, what exactly is Socrates’ position in each case? Socrates’ position in each of the dialogues may be far more nuanced than two block quotes are able to portray. I will take each dialogue’s representation of Socrates’ position in turn.
Socrates’ apparent position in the Apology has four major components. First, Socrates believes that the gods exercise some degree or kind of control in the course of events at hand.
Let the matter proceed as the gods may wish, but I must obey the law and make my defense. (Apology 19a)

I leave it to you and the god to judge me in the way that will be best for me and you. (Apology 35d)

But now that as you can see for yourselves, I was faced with what one might think and what is generally though to be the worst of all evils my divine sign has not opposed me. (Apology 40b)

What has happened to me now has not happened of itself, but it is clear to me that it was better for me to die now and to escape from trouble. (Apology 41d)

Second, Socrates believes that his philosophizing is commanded by the god. Socrates refers to his philosophizing as “service to the god.”
(Apology 23b)

So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me..(Apology 23b)

When the god ordered me, as I thought and believed, to live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others (Apology 28e-29a)

This is what the god orders me to do (Apology 30a)

There is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god. (Apology 30a)

It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city (Apology 30e)

To do this has, as I say, been enjoined upon me by the god. (Apology 33c)

Third, Socrates believes he must obey the command of the god to philosophize. I will obey the god rather than you (Apology 29d)

It is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god (Apology 38a)

Fourth, Socrates believes that he must do the right thing even when faced with death. You are wrong, sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, that what he does is right or wrong, whether he is acting like a good or a bad man. (Apology 28b)

Wherever a man has taken a position that he believes to be best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace. (Apology 28c)

This is my course of action even if I’m to face death many times. (Apology 30b)

I will not yield to any man contrary to what is right, for fear of death, even if I should die at once for not yielding. (Apology 32a)

Death is something I couldn’t care less about, but my whole concern is not to do anything unjust or impious. (Apology 32d)

Getting clear on Socrates’ apparent position in the Crito is not as easy because for portions of it he doesn’t speak directly, but through the mouth of the personified Laws. Those Laws pose a series of questions to Socrates that he is more or less stumped to answer. But supposing these rhetorical questions represent Socrates’ own beliefs, Socrates’ apparent position in the Crito has at least the following components.
First, one must never do wrong. (Crito 49a-b)
Second, one must never return wrong for wrong. (Crito 49d)
Third, one ought to obey the laws of the city. (Crito 51)
It is this third feature of the Crito that creates the apparent contradiction. This is the component that must be carefully worded. But wording it cleverly is not merely motivated by trying to save Socrates (or Plato) from contradiction; recognizing the nuances is not ad hoc. There are at least four reasons that legitimately motivate a cautious, nuanced understanding of Socrates’ position concerning one’s moral obligation to civil law.

First, the question under consideration in the Crito differs from the matter under consideration in the Apology with which it apparently contradicts. The point of tension in the Apology concerns the hypothetical scenario in which the Athenians commanded Socrates to cease practicing philosophy contrary to the command of the god. Socrates’ arguments and comments in the Crito concerning his moral obligation to the laws of the city do not arise in response to this same hypothetical scenario. Rather, the question under consideration in the Crito is: now that Socrates has been sentenced to death, is it just for him to escape in order to avoid this sentence?

Neither section of either dialogue is initialized by a general inquiry into any individual’s moral obligation to obey civil law. These sections of the dialogues arise in response to particular considerations specific to Socrates’ personal circumstances. Had Socrates made both sets of comments in response to the same question, any interpreter would have just cause for accusing Socrates of contradiction. But the fact that Socrates was responding to two different and specific considerations on two different occasions provides reason to think it more likely that there is some key difference or differences between the two cases than that Socrates’ positions are flatly contradictory.

Second, for anyone with some degree of familiarity with Socrates from the various dialogues of Plato, I believe even applying a minimal principle of charity when reading the Crito would move one to conclude that Socrates could not have intended his statement to mean he believed he was morally obligated to obey any conceivable command Athens could issue him. Should we read the Crito and conclude that if Athens had commanded him personally to rape, pillage, or murder all his fellow Athenians under age three, Socrates means to say by his arguments that he would be morally obligated to comply? Surely, Socrates would not have complied with such extremism.

But even if a command wasn’t extreme in the gratuitous sense above, we can imagine commands which codify a rejection of various principles to which Socrates explicitly and vehemently adhered. This should be most obvious from the fact that the very arguments Socrates is putting into the mouth of the Laws are based on his adherence to the principles of never doing wrong, and never committing wrong for wrong. Should we really understand Socrates to mean that even if the city were to command him to always return wrong for wrong, he believed he would be morally obligated to comply?
If we understand his position in the Crito with no limitation at all, then there is a far greater problem than harmonizing the Crito with the Apology. Socrates’ arguments in the Crito alone would be self-defeating. If we understood his conclusion baldly (obey anything Athens commands), this could imply a contradiction of that upon which that conclusion is based (never do wrong, never return wrong for wrong).

I am not claiming that Socrates should be seen as impervious to contradictions or flaws. But understanding Socrates in such a universal fashion in this particular case opens Socrates up to contradictions that are so obvious and abundant that this obvious-and-abundant-contradictions factor alone should give us reason to judge it highly unlikely that Socrates intended his statement to be taken so universally.

Third, there is a distinction in the two dialogues made between suffering injustice and committing injustice. As Robert McLaughlin points out:
When the Laws speak of the citizen’s duty always to obey, their words are in response to the hypothetical complaint that they have wronged the citizen, have made him suffer injustice (50b-c). And the very sentence that calls for obedience everywhere gives as examples of the sort of injustice to which the obligation of obedience might lead the citizen flogging, imprisonment, being wounded or killed in war—all instances in which the injustice, if such it is, is suffered rather than committed (51B). … Far worse, Socrates argued in the Gorgias (469A-475E), is the doing of injustice than the suffering of it. (McLaughlin, 191)

Not only are the examples Socrates (through the Laws) uses in the Crito examples of suffering injustice, but the matter of whether or not Socrates should remain in prison and drink the hemlock (the very event that has motivated the discussion with Crito) is a consideration of suffering injustice. In the Apology however, ceasing to practice philosophy is not presented as a hardship or a wrong to be suffered. Rather Socrates contends that it is disobedience to the god—a wrong committed.

In the Crito, Socrates does not include such a case within the argumentation of the personified Laws. Because the Laws in the Crito do not mention a case where they command Socrates to commit an injustice, but only mention cases where injustice is suffered, it cannot be readily inferred that Socrates intended his statement about the rightness of civil obedience to include such cases. Or put another way, because all Laws’ examples in the Crito share this common feature (being commanded to suffer injustice), this strongly suggests a contextual limitation—that Socrates’ affirmation of moral obligation to obey any of the city’s commands is limited to instances of suffering injustice. And thus, it marks a significant difference between the case of disobedience considered in the Apology and the case in the Crito.

Fourth, there is evidence in both dialogues that Socrates believed in a hierarchy of obligation and authority such that the case of disobedience considered in the Apology would not violate that hierarchy, and the case of disobedience considered in the Crito would violate that hierarchy.
I will obey the god rather than you (Apology 29d)

It is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god (Apology 38a)

Socrates repeatedly claims in the Apology that to practice philosophy was enjoined upon him by the god. When Socrates proposes a scenario in which differing authorities make conflicting claims on him, Socrates plainly puts obedience to the god before obedience to the state.

Is your wisdom such as not to realize that your country is to be honored more than your mother, your father, and all your ancestors, that it is more to be revered and more sacred, and that it counts for more among the gods and sensible men, that you must worship it, yield to it and placate its anger more than your father’s? (Crito 51a)

It is impious to bring violence to bear against your mother or father; it is much more so to use it against your country. (Crito 51c)

The quotes from the Crito also indicate that Socrates believes in a hierarchy of obligations, which include obligations to family, state, and the gods. Socrates’ use of “more” and “more than” relations make clear that his obligation to the state comes before his obligation to family. While Socrates does not explicitly affirm that his obligations to the gods come before his obligations to the state, it can be inferred from his words fairly easily.

While Socrates does say that the state is to be honored and placated more than father or mother, he does not say that it is to be honored or placated more than the gods. But Socrates does say that how he treats his country “counts for more among the gods.” Counts for more than what? I believe Socrates is still comparing obligation to state with obligation to family. How he treats his country counts for more than how he treats his mother or father. “Counts for more among the gods” suggests an assessment or reckoning made by the gods regarding how well Socrates meets his various obligations. If the gods are in the position of assessing Socrates’ performance between family and state obligations, it stands to reason that they occupy a place of priority above both family and state.

It could be objected at this point that Socrates said “counts for more among the gods and sensible men.” So it can’t be true that the gods are above family and state unless it is also true that sensible men are above family and state. I actually think this objection correct, but not problematic for my position. Sensible men do occupy a place of judgment comparable to gods, but not because some human beings are equal to gods. It is the sensibility of sensible men which affords them such authority in judgment. Socrates already addressed Crito’s fears about public opinion by claiming that the most reasonable people will assess the situation correctly. (Crito 44c) Socrates then argues that one should be concerned not with the opinion of the majority, but with those who possess the relevant specialized knowledge. (Crito 47a-d) This suggests that Socrates sees his obligation to sense or reason or knowledge to be on par with his obligation to those gods, if not greater. Thus, the passage still indicates that the gods occupy a place of priority above family and state which agrees with Socrates’ position in the Apology.

The particular case considered in the Apology pits Socrates’ obligation to the state against his obligation to the gods. A lesser authority makes claims on Socrates which are contrary to claims made upon him by a greater authority. Socrates makes clear that the gods win out. But neither the particular choice Socrates and Crito are considering, nor any of the examples used by the Laws create such a conflict between obligations. There is not a case considered in the Crito where a lesser authority calls upon Socrates to disobey a greater authority. Examples considered in the Crito may introduce conflict between obligation to family and obligation to state, but the pecking order between them is not challenged.

What the state expected of Socrates at the sentencing in the Apology and in the Crito did not violate Socrates’ hierarchy of obligations. The gods did not command Socrates to refuse to submit to the death penalty. In fact, Socrates stated that his divine sign had not opposed him when he spoke in such a way that risked a death sentence. (Apology 40a) The gods had not enjoined upon Socrates the duty to avoid suffering injustice. Thus the Laws did not overstep their authority in any of the hypothetical commands to Socrates, nor had Athens overstepped its authority by expecting Socrates to submit to a death sentence. Thus, within its rightful realm of authority, the city/Laws had the right to expect Socrates to submit to any of its commands. But the hypothetical command for Socrates to cease practicing philosophy did not fall within the city’s/Laws’ rightful realm of authority. This is so because Socrates already had obligations in that matter issued by an authority higher than the city/Laws. Thus the statement in the Crito that Socrates must obey the city’s commands does not apply to the hypothetical command Socrates introduces in the Apology, and thus cannot be taken to contradict it.

Given the above four considerations, I believe there is good reason not to take Socrates’ position in the Crito as baldly and as universally as Young has put it: “Every citizen (including myself) should obey every command of the city.” That statement is not without rational and contextual indicators of limitation. There are a variety of ways this component of the Crito could be worded to reflect those limits. For instance, “Socrates is obligated to obey every command of the city insomuch as their commands do not conflict with demands made upon Socrates by an authority higher than the city.” Or, “Socrates is obligated to obey every command of the city insomuch as it does not command him to commit a wrong.” Or perhaps even, “The city can rightfully expect Socrates to comply with any command it has the right to issue.” Or maybe even truer to the context, “Socrates is obligated to obey any command of the city which calls upon him to suffer injustice.” A variety of formulations for this component will do as long as they reflect at least the limits I have introduced.

And because of these limits, Socrates is not truly contradicting himself in the Apology and the Crito because he has limitations in mind in the Crito which makes the two positions not applicable to each other. This is Young’s option (1) for dealing with the apparent contradiction. Where have the limitations and qualifications been found? They come from the dialogues themselves, even from Socrates’ own mouth. Given that Socrates (in the mind of Plato at least) chose the particular words and phrases I’ve pointed out to mark important differences between the positions in the two dialogues, it seems reasonable Socrates might also point to those same words and phrases as well. Thus, Socrates may very well use those differences to resolve the apparent contradiction. Since the features I’ve pointed out come from Socrates’ own words in the two dialogues in question, it seems unlikely that I’ve imposed upon Socrates a position he does not hold. Because of this I believe my proposed harmonious reading of the two dialogues is not unsatisfactory in the way Young describes. The contradiction between the Apology and the Crito regarding Socrates’ position on civil obedience is merely apparent, but not actual.

Cooper, John M. (Ed.). (1997). Plato: complete works. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Johnson, Curtis. (1990). Socrates on obedience and justice. The Western Political Quarterly, 43(4), 719-740.

McLaughlin, Robert. (1976). Socrates on political disobedience: a reply to gary young. Phronesis, 21(3), 185-197.

Wade, Francis. (1971). In defense of socrates. The Review of Metaphysics, 25(2), 311-325.

Young, Gary. (1974). Socrates and obedience. Phronesis, 19(1), 1-29.