Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Socrates, Crito, and the 2016 Election

One of my favorite things about Philosophy is how evergreen it is. It's amazing to me that something that was written in 350 BC can be so very relevant to what we do every day, but I guess that's the entire point of the philosophical adventure --getting to the heart of what makes us human. And when we find that heart, it's really no surprise that humanity hasn't changed much.

There has been a great deal of talk about not voting for a presidential candidate in the upcoming presidential election, and, instead, voting down ticket. This is even something that I have toyed with, though I have made no firm statements about what I intend to do. Each of us must vote our own conscience. I only offer these posts as a check to you and to myself --are you sure you know what you are voting for and what that will mean if carried to its logical conclusion?

So, the question this week is: Should Catholics participate in this election fully? I think that the answer to that question is an emphatic and undeniable, "Yes!"

Plato's work, Crito, falls in the life of Socrates, after he is convicted (Apology) of corrupting the youth of Athens and before he is executed (Phaedo). Crito is named for Socrates' interlocutor for this dialogue. A close family friend (a member of his deme) who is a man of means and has connections, Crito has shown up at Socrates' cell just before dawn to break him out and spirit him away before he can be executed. He has bribed the guards and has arranged for Socrates to be taken to another city to live out his days in peace. Socrates, who is an old man of 70, turns Crito down.

Scholars have argued over the intervening centuries as to why Socrates wouldn't go with Crito --some say that it is because he was old and tired of the fight, but most agree that it is to prove a point that the Athenians got what they wanted, (but not what they needed,) by executing him.

In the course of the dialogue, Socrates gives his reasons for staying. First, that by leaving, he would do harm to his reputation as a philosopher. He would be branded as a coward, or worse, as a dishonest man. He had spent his life trying to get the Athenians to govern themselves, personally and politically, with wisdom and to be the same man in public as each was in private. To be one man in private and another in public was, to Socrates, dishonest and did not move one closer to living the best life (which is what ethics is all about). By eliminating his voice, the Athenians might sleep more soundly in the short term and not have to give adequate thought to the laws and governance of the city, but in the long-term that inattention to wisdom will ultimately be their undoing. This is a "prophecy" that Socrates makes in the Apology, but he reiterates it here in the Crito. This, however, is not the argument he spends the most time on.

The argument I really want to focus on is that Socrates tells Crito that he has been a citizen of Athens from his birth and as such, he had taken advantage of the protections of the laws of Athens. Though Socrates has not participated actively in the political life of his city-state, he has benefited from the stability of the political life and the laws that govern him. Plato spends a great deal of time in this dialogue working through a soliloquy that is an imagined dialogue between Socrates and the Laws of Athens. This argument is a two-fold warning for us here in 2016.

First, Socrates gives a defense of the laws themselves. We cannot say that we agree to be governed by the laws of our country and then pick and choose which laws we will follow and which ones we will not. Socrates tells us that he agreed to abide by the laws of Athens and that includes the laws that he disagrees with but were legislated appropriately with a majority vote. This means that if Socrates benefits by the laws of Athens and they say that he should die for his crimes, then he must abide by those laws, too.

This is a warning for the single-issue voter. If you would have a wisely governed country, then you must pay attention to the whole picture. You don't want to be the one working on the cat puzzle while everyone else is working on the balloon puzzle. If you are only focused on one piece of the puzzle, it's easy to miss all the other pieces that make that picture complete. Socrates was so worried about gaining wisdom, that he missed the political piece of the picture that ultimately killed him. (Or maybe he didn't. Maybe his death was the final thing he had to teach the people of Athens --that's a debate I have heard, too!) 

When we focus on a single issue, we can miss the other pieces that would make that issue work more effectively. Legislation that improves life for those who are poor and helps to heal some of the generational effects of poverty treats the roots of the abortion issue, not just the symptom. Ignoring these other issues and clinging only to one piece of that very complex problem ignores a set of tools that might be more effective in ending the scourge of abortion in the long run.

Am I saying that pro-life legislation is worthless? NOT AT ALL. I think it needs to be approached holistically and right now, the approach is not holistic. When we have pro-life public figures actively tearing down victims of sexual assault and defending the indefensible, in the name of respecting all women --including the unborn --we have a big problem with cognitive dissonance.

Secondly, we can infer that Socrates is encouraging us not to stand by and allow laws to be made in our name (as citizens) that we do not agree with. We must use our voices to hold our government accountable. By standing aside and allowing laws to be made without his active participation, Socrates has become the unintentional victim of his own lack of involvement in the political process.

This is a warning for the apathetic voter - if you don't vote, you may be the unintentional victim of what comes next. Whether you vote for Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, a third-party candidate or no one, you will still be subject to the winner's rule. That's the agreement we make as citizens of the United States. We benefit from all of the freedoms (and, yes! there are still many more that we enjoy than citizens of other nations) but this also means that we must accept the outcome of the political process. If you do not participate, then you have no hand in that decision.

There is a saying in the Catholic Church that we always get the vocations that we deserve. I think that the same can be said of our politicians in the United States. My daughter, quite frankly, is furious with all of us. This is her very first presidential election as a voter "...and these are the choices you're giving me?" But, maybe we really do deserve exactly these choices. It's up to us to choose wisely and force the parties we have left after this election to make better choices in 2020.

Photo: "The Death of Socrates"  Jacques-Louis David (detail)

Want to read Crito for yourself? Click here to get access to a free online copy.

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