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The Duties to the State According to Socrates: Obedience and Installation of Justice

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    The first obligation of the man to the state is this- obedience. Socrates through several dialogues of Plato has made this both implicit and explicit. For instance, in the Crito, Socrates says, “The just man must always obey what the city commands of him even if it commands him unjustly to go to his death”. For Socrates, disobedience to the city is not conceivable because for him, obedience to the commands of the city is precisely what it means to be just. (Curtis, 1990)

    However there must be an elaboration here of Socrates regard for obedience as a just man’s duty to the city or the state. He also in another form would suggest that the state must be just because disobedience may be justified if one’s philosophy must supersede the Law. In the Apology of Socrates he admits that he has an occasion disobeyed the city and states that he would do so again if the city commanded him to cease the pursuit of philosophy. Socrates must be referring here to becoming a dutiful servant but not blind submission.

    In an article by Curtis Johnson, he claimed that both the Apology and Crito are mutually consistent with respect to what they say about the citizen’s duty to obey. The obedience to the state is closely linked to Socrates’ thought on justice. To state this, he has consistently referred to his experience of living a just life because of his past behavior involving obedience, in his persuasions of the jury.

    But the concept of authority to which we owe obedience appears to come in various levels and properties. At times Socrates claims it was a just thing to do to obey the rules of the city as when he was ordered to fight in the battles of Amphipolis, Delium and Potidaea. At other times he found such blind obedience to the rulers and their commands unjust, as when he refused to participate in the trial of the ten admirals in the Apology. To be just is to obey one’s superior but the confusion as regards obedience and disobedience may very well be resolved with the criteria that Curtis has made. In “Socrates on Obedience and Justice” he explained:

    • If there is only a single authority or superior with a claim on his obedience issuing commands to Socrates, he must obey that authority;
    • If more than a single superior is issuing commands, and the commands of one contradict the commands of another, he must obey that authority he tales to be higher (Curtis, 1990).

    In the Apology, the hierarchy of authority appears to be in descending order: Socrates’ daimonion or divine guide the gods, other gods; humans who are superior or beltion; the laws of Athens, and the legally constituted political bodies like the magistrates, councils, etc. Socrates perhaps has managed to disobey only with the interjection of a higher authority.

    Socrates said, “For thus it is, men of Athens, in truth; wherever a man stations himself, thinking it is best to be there, or is stationed by his commander, there he must, as it seems to me, remain and run the risks, considering neither death nor any other thing more than disgrace.” For why did Socrates chose to remain even if he questions obedience to an unjust verdict? He says to Crito, “it is the way God leads us”. Thus, he remains in prison to die, as it is for him, the order from God, the Law, the jury, and the logos (philosophy); which to him is the conduct of just man. Further, it is wrong for him to escape for according to him, “one ought never to return wrong with a wrong or an injustice with an injustice”.

    However, how can disobedience be tolerated? For as long as it will not contribute to the destruction of the city. The Laws states, “But whomever of you stays behind, seeing the way in which we decide our cases in court and the other ways in which we manage our city we say that he has thereby by his act of staying agreed with us that he will do what we command of him.”

    What is clear is that Socrates refers to his Logos as his source of decision. He says to Crito, “I am not only now but always, a man who obeys nothing but the reasoning which on consideration seems to me best”.

    What could perhaps truly resolve the issue on obedience is for the city and its laws itself to be prepared to give justice and reason for them to be followed. Plato resolves this in the introduction of a just society in his Republic. The Republic becomes the realization of a state that could expect obedience from the citizens because it is in the first place a creation of philosophy and a just ruler.

    The second duty hence of man to the state is this- to help create and preserve justice in the society. Plato’s Republic is a creative and analytical discussion of how men may be able to establish a perfect society and achieve justice. The dialogues between Socrates, being the lead character, Polemarchus, Glaucon, Adeimantus and Trasymachus revolve around the search for the definition and substance of justice. To achieve the Republic or his Utopia is what Justice is all about.

    Alongside with it is the search for the best person who is the most fit to rule- the Philosopher Ruler. The duty of the people in the state is therefore clear- take part in the installation of this so-called Republic to do justice with its people. How? By assuming the role bestowed upon them- either as auxiliaries (military and police), guardians (rulers) or craftsmen (commercial people and arts men). Socrates in the dialogue about the Three Parts of the Soul said: “…Well,  but we decided that a society was just when each of the three types of human character it contained performed its own function; and again, it was temperate and brave and wise by virtue of certain other affections and states of mind of those same types…”

    A state must be governed by those who have managed to control mind over body. Justice for Plato is being able to place the people in their proper position in the society- this will bring an orderly society that will pave the way for people to achieve happiness in the context of contentment and freedom from worldly appetites. Any sort of deviance will cause a disorder thus an injustice will thrive. In their discussions of the Allegory of the Cave Socrates made it clear:

    “You have forgotten again my friend that the law is not concerned to make any one class especially happy, but to ensure the welfare of the commonwealth as a whole. By persuasion or constraint, it will unite the citizens in harmony making them share whatever benefits each class can contribute to the common good; and its purpose in forming men of that spirit was not that each should be left to go his own way, but that they should be instrumental in binding the community in one.” “…you can have a well-governed society only if you can discover for your future rulers a better way of life than being in office; then only will power be in the hands of men who are rich, not in gold but in the wealth that brings happiness, a good and wise life…”

    The essence of this search for the most capable rulers evolves from the distinctions Socrates made among people with different natures and characteristics or skills. Some people are born as gold, silver or bronze. There are people in the society who because they need to satisfy themselves and be able to help also other people as well, concentrate on doing what they could be best at doing like farmers, fishermen, carpenters, etc. They trade commodities and offer services. This has been a result also of the desire for luxury in the state creating a demand for more craftsmen. In the “Rudiments of Social Organization” section of Plato’s dialogues Socrates said: “…for one thing that no two people are born exactly alike. There are innate differences which fit them for different occupations.”

    Also in the dialogue about the “Luxurious State’ Socrates said: “…you remember we agreed that no one man can practice many trades or arts satisfactorily…is not the conduct of war an art, quite as important as shoemaking?… But we would not allow our shoemaker to try to be also a farmer…these guardians of our state then in as much as their work is the most important of all, will need the most complete freedom from other occupations and the greatest amount of skill and practice…”

    It is the duty of the people to determine who among them is to be assigned the greatest task of all as Philosopher ruler. Thus Socrates stated: “It is our business to define, if we can, the natural gifts that fit men to be guardians of a commonwealth, and to select them accordingly. It will certainly be a formidable task; but we must grapple with it to the best of our power.”

    In simpler terms it could be explained by the logic; the character of the state is defined by the character of its people. The state as characterized by Plato must possess the following characteristics; wise, brave, temperate and just. These shall come from the foundations of a noble guardian who is likewise swift and strong, spirited and philosophic.

    Plato’s Republic specifies certain institutions and norms that must be established for the determination of the noble guardians; like a unique educational system, censorship of arts and literature, abolition of guardian’s family, deprivation of worldly pleasures, and a special way to bring potential golds together and produce the same breed of gold persons. These thoughts are evident in the following quotations from Plato’s dialogues:

    On censorship: “It seems then that our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends and rejecting all which are unsatisfactory…”

    On reproduction of the potential guardians: “We must then institute certain festivities at which we shall bring together the brides and bridegrooms… they will have to invent some ingenious system of drawing lots so that at each pairing off, the inferior candidate may blame his luck other than the Rulers…”

    On the abolition of family: “As soon as children are born, they will be taken in charge by officers appointed for the purpose, who may be men or women or both… The children of the better parents they will carry to the crèche to be reared in the care of nurses living apart in a certain quarter of the city. Those of the inferior parents and any children of the rest that are born defective will be hidden away, in some appropriate manner that must be kept secret”

    On education: “What is this education to be then? Perhaps we shall hardly invent a system better than the one which long experience has worked out, with its two branches for the cultivation of the mind and of the body. And I suppose we shall begin with the mind, before we start physical training.”

    It appears it is a part of our duty to accept what we are labeled with and to excel in our own fields. That is for the guardians and auxiliaries to undergo education and training and for the craftsmen to be most especially obedient. The kind of education the future rulers must engage into covers all areas like science, math, music, poetry, literature, and the most exceptional of all, philosophy. This is why the ruler must be a philosopher. “…that is to say, political power and philosophy meet together…”

     The best of all will emerge to be the Philosopher-King and must consider the entire society his own family sine he or she is already devoid of biological family since birth. The Philosopher-King may indeed be a Queen as Plato allows for equality of men and women.

    “Then if we are to set women to the same tasks as men, we must teach them the same things. They must have the same two branches of training for mind and body and also be taught the art of war, and they must receive the same treatment.”

    The Philosopher –King must according to the way he/she has been shaped and molded impose censorship as well during his reign. He/she is expected to be just which he/she will be because Philosophy is treated to be the highest form of analysis and knowledge in which he/she has devoted his/her whole life into.

    In the end, we say that man is successful in the fulfillment of his duty to the state, if upon the creation of a just society and state, he has not seized in obeying its Laws. This is how justice may be preserved.

    Works Cited

    1. Allen, R.E., “Law and Justice in Plato’s crito.” The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 69 No. 18 (Ocotber 5, 1972): 557-567.
    2. Ebenstein, William, and Alan Ebenstein. Great Political Thinkers 6th Edition. Singapore: Wadsworth, 2000.
    3. Greenberg, N.A., “Socrates’ Choice in Crito.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 70 (1965): 45-82.
    4. Johnson, Curtis. “Socrates on Obedience and Justice.” The Western Political Quarterly Vol. 43 No. 4 (December, 1990): 719-740.
    5. Johnson, Curtis. “Socrates’ Encounter with Polus in Plato’s Gorgias” Phoenix Vol. 43 No. 3 (1989): 196-216


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