In dialogue with Socrates 3: ‘I vow to thee My Country’ – What?

21 October 2007 at :00 am

I have been trying to listen to some of the questions that Socrates raises for us today. For those of us who are Christians, we can see in the state-sponsored execution of this good man striking parallels with the death of Jesus. Very often, it is Socrates who raises the questions, and Jesus who points towards an answer.

There is one respect in which the story of Socrates’ last days comes closer to our modern experience than that of Jesus. Socrates speaks to us because the experience of being imprisoned, and even of being condemned to death, has been so widespread in recent years. We can readily identify with it today, even if we have not been through it ourselves. The reports of Amnesty International, and what takes place in our own asylum courts, bring this home powerfully. In Plato’s description of his last days, we can listen in to the conversations in his prison cell, after the sentence of death, while he waits for it to be carried out. Today I want to look at the short dialogue called the Crito. Though Plato probably made a good deal of this up, the spirit of Socrates is clearly there in his extraordinary and surprising behaviour.

Plato’s dialogue opens with Crito, the close friend of Socrates, coming to visit him in his death cell and finding him asleep. He is amazed that Socrates, so close to death, can sleep so peacefully. For a Christian, there an immediate parallel with Jesus sleeping in the boat while the storm rages, and his disciples fear for their lives. Just as with Jesus, in a situation which brings others to panic and terror, Socrates is completely calm and shows no fear.

Crito is astonished. He dreads the loss of his teacher and friend and has come to make him an offer. It would be easy for him to arrange for Socrates to escape. They could smuggle him out of the city, and he would surely be safe somewhere else. Socrates refuses point blank, and in the dialogue shows Crito why. He imagines the Laws of Athens – we might say the Constitution – coming to him and saying,

    Now, Socrates, what are you proposing to do? Can you deny that by this act which you are contemplating, you intend, so far as you have the power, to destroy us, the Laws, and the whole State as well? Do you imagine that a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down if the legal judgements which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?

The Laws go on to talk about all that Athens has done for Socrates: through the laws of Athens Socrates’ father married his mother; through the laws of Athens he was brought up and educated; as a citizen of Athens he has himself begotten children. What is Socrates now going to do for the laws of Athens? The Laws challenge him:

    Both in war and in the law-courts and everywhere else you must do whatever your city and your country commands, or else persuade it in accord with universal justice; and if violence is a sin against your parents, it is a far greater sin against your country.

If Socrates has accepted the Laws of Athens in good times, he should accept them in bad. It is not his place to flout them when they condemn him to death.

Socrates clinches the argument with a stinging point. He has been condemned to death because it was said he corrupted the minds of the young by teaching them to question the wisdom of the elders. ‘Who would care for a city without laws?,’ he asks. ‘A destroyer of laws might well be supposed to have a destructive influence upon young and foolish human beings’, says Socrates. He will not show himself to be someone who disobeys the laws, even if they condemn him to death. He refuses to walk out of his death cell when he has the opportunity to do so. By the laws he has been condemned, so by the laws he shall die.

Once more Socrates shocks us into new questioning. Through his surprising refusal to escape, he gets us to think about the power of the state and when the state should be obeyed. This speech of Socrates made me see more clearly than I had ever seen before that for a society to be healthy and stable it must have laws that command popular assent. The society that does not have such laws is in serious trouble. This is one of Iraq’s fundamental problems now. There is in Iraq no system of law that commands assent and it is very hard to see where it will come from. Certainly not from the Americans. The Iraqis have to develop it for themselves, but at the moment the nation is torn by violent factions who have very different ideas about what sort of laws there should be in their society. In the absence of laws that people readily obey, the only way to govern society is through violence and through fear, as with the dictatorships in Zimbabwe, Burma or Tibet.

Socrates saw this very clearly, and for this reason he chose not to subvert the laws of Athens even to save his own life. For what other laws might young people then disobey? Paul saw it very clearly when he spoke of the Torah, the Jewish Law, as ‘holy and just and good’ (Rom 7:12). For a Christian, a system that commands the assent of the people, wherever it comes from, is a great gift of God. It certainly won’t be perfect, and in a democracy we have to go on working at its reform through the democratic system. By his complete and calm acceptance of what the law demands – his own death – Socrates challenges us to distinguish between the good of there being a system of law which people readily obey and the evil of that system being abused to produce bad outcomes.

A Christian has to ask, then, should we always, like Socrates obey the law, or are there circumstances in which is right not to obey the law? Is there another law, a law of God, which Christians sometimes have to obey instead of the law of the state? For Socrates, the answer is no; for Jesus the answer is yes. In his own lifetime Jesus clashed repeatedly with the Pharisees, who thought that because the Jewish law had been given by God, it was to be obeyed in every detail. Jesus accused them of losing touch with the spirit of the law. They observed the letter of the law. He taught that if on the sabbath day somebody needed help or healing or food, even if it meant technically breaking the laws for the sabbath, it was right to do so. Jesus thought the whole system of law could be boiled down to two very simple principles: you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and your neighbour as yourself. Everything else flowed from that. No wonder there was conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities - so much conflict that the religious authorities handed him over to the political authorities and he was executed as a blasphemer and a threat to the state.

For Paul, the Christian is a citizen of two realms. Paul was himself a citizen of Rome. He benefited from his Roman citizenship so that he was saved from being flogged after a riot. He was also a citizen of heaven, and when condemned to death by an earthly ruler, was far more concerned that he should not lose his heavenly citizenship. In a real sense, earthly condemnation was for him, like Socrates, his liberation. In the end, his loyalty to the heavenly city, the city that the New Testament calls the New Jerusalem, was far more important than his citizenship of the earthly Rome. There were certain things he would not do, even if ordered to by the laws of Rome. He would not cease to preach and to live by the values of the Gospel.

After the horrors of the twentieth century, the totalitarian regimes of Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia, Uganda, and today, of Zimbabwe and Burma, Socrates’ attitude of total loyalty to the state may strike us as terrifying. Perhaps one of the things he wanted to show was that if the state had his unswerving loyalty, then the state must prove itself worthy of that loyalty. If Socrates had received good things from Athens, he must still serve Athens when it turned to the bad. When it condemned a man who merely asked embarrassing questions, the best way of showing up this disastrous turn of events was to let them play themselves out to their tragic conclusion. The logic is parallel to that by which Jesus went to Jerusalem to die. By his death he showed the fallibility and weakness of all earthly religious and political powers. We need to put our trust in these powers, but we put our absolute trust in them at our peril. The only authority in which we dare put our absolute trust is the authority which has proved itself in Jesus - through his peaceful obedience to the earthly powers that combined to have him executed. This is the same divine authority by which we can see in all such executions – whether of Socrates, Jesus, or any other innocent victim of the brutal misuse of this world’s power –the seeds of a new humanity.

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