Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.12.20

Michael C. Stokes, Dialectic in Action: An Examination of Plato's Crito.   Swansea:  The Classical Press of Wales, 2005.  Pp. 246.  ISBN 978-0-9543845-9-3.  $90.00.  



Reviewed by David Foster, Ashland University (dfoster2@ashland.edu)
Word count: 2679 words

Plato's dialogues have retained their freshness through the ages partly because of the author's skillful handling of the dialogue form. Who doesn't enjoy his complex settings, subdued dramas, rich characterizations, and the subtle and often funny give and take of Socratic conversation? Many readers, however, particularly those with backgrounds in academic philosophy, deny that these dramatic elements contribute anything significant to the philosophic meaning of the dialogues. With this opinion, Michael Stokes (henceforth MS) strongly disagrees. The present volume is his second book length effort to persuade us that to understand the dialogues we must integrate their literary and philosophic elements.

With some very slight modifications, Dialectic in Action employs an approach introduced in MS's earlier book, Plato's Socratic Conversations: Drama and Dialectic in Three Dialogues (1986), but whereas the latter book examined several dialogues, the present volume is a detailed reading of a single one, the Crito. No direct argument is made that the Crito is a good or necessary test of the approach, but MS does argue that because it is the only extended Socratic examination of a particular moral action (as opposed to a general question such as "What is justice?"), the Crito is paradigmatic for Socrates' approach to moral argumentation.

Dialectic in Action consists of a prologue on methodology, followed by ten chapters that aspire to give a "close analysis, step by step of everything that the parties to the dialogue (in the Crito) say" (1). The first four chapters examine Crito's character and his case that Socrates should escape from prison. Chapters five through ten take up Socrates' response to Crito, and fall into two main groups: chapters 5-7, which examine the arguments Socrates presents in his own name; and chapters 8-10, which examine the arguments Socrates famously offers in the name of the laws of Athens. The question of whether or how the two parts of Socrates' reply fit together has proved a fertile source of scholarly controversy, and probably the main contribution of MS's book is the attempt to show that the dialogue makes sense "as a continuous and cogent piece of dialectical argument" (100: a summary of the argument can be found in chapter 6). The book ends with an Epilogue, an Appendix on a scholar (R. Weiss) who denies that the Crito presents one coherent continuous argument, a bibliography, and three indices (proper names, Greek words and phrases, and topics).

The overall character and tone of MS's book arises from the method he applies throughout. That method centers on Socrates' questions. Arguing that the Crito is a genuine dialogue between two characters, not just one mind laying out a doctrine, MS urges us to take Socrates' questions seriously as questions rather than treating them as disguised assertions. Because MS also believes that a question's primary (though not exclusive function) is to solicit the views of the interlocutor, he argues that when Socrates asks questions he reveals nothing (or almost nothing) of his own opinion.

Thus, the refutation of Crito mainly reveals problems or contradictions in Crito's own position. In other words, Plato's Socratic dialogues are something like extended thought experiments: they say, in effect, that if you start with these assumptions, these are the contradictions or absurd conclusions that you must accept. That result could seem to be insignificant, but in fact it means that each dialogue helps us think through the consequences of the examined opinions. If the reader happened to share those opinions, the Socratic examination could move him or her towards self-knowledge. Even if the reader does not hold the opinions in question, they might be worth understanding if the person who does hold them is worth understanding. In the case of Crito, we are considering, according to MS, a typical, decent Athenian gentleman, one who is well-disposed to the philosopher Socrates. And we have some idea of what it means (to Plato) to be such a person partly because of the information conveyed through the literary or dramatic elements of the work.

Now, although MS argues for the importance of the dramatic elements, and goes some distance in identifying and using them, in the end he does not actually take them seriously enough. The reason lies in the way he employs them. MS turns to the literary elements to solve problems that arise in connection with his analysis of Socrates' questions. When Socrates asks a question, MS argues, the reader must consider all the possible responses that are rationally available to the interlocutor (including any that the interlocutor would not perceive). Then, comparing these possibilities to the response actually made by the interlocutor, the reader must note any "gaps" in the argument. Thirdly, the reader must explain why the interlocutor chose the response he did choose, and it is mainly for this purpose that MS turns to the literary elements for help. These help us "read between the lines" or "extend the context" of a given exchange, by which MS means to refer us to what we know of the character from other parts of the dialogue. Thus, to account for some answer, or to supply a premise that might make sense of an answer, it might help to know Crito's age or to remember something he said earlier.

The primary step in the method is the search for these (logical) gaps. As he proceeds "step by step" through the dialogue, MS stops at each question, and sometimes at each word, to consider all its possible meanings, in the light of scholarly commentary and detailed philological analysis. This step by step analysis and frequent long arguments with scholars chop up the argument and make the book a difficult read. More importantly, the logical problems determine what dramatic elements receive attention. Because he turns to the dramatic elements mainly for answers to problems he has already discerned, and not as possible clues to what the issues (as Plato sees them) are, or to establish the general context within which the particular arguments should be understood, MS overlooks or underestimates some important information conveyed by the drama. To take a very simple example, in his commentary on the laws' argument that they are in effect Socrates' parents and master (see pp. 126-132), MS seems aware that to some questions Socrates gives the answer in his own name ("I would answer" 50d5 and e2), but to others Crito or "we" answer, but he too conveniently explains this away as mere rhetoric, a Socratic mirror of something Crito had done earlier. In fact, this dramatic or conversational subtlety points to different degrees of Socratic assent to what the laws say and thus implies a possible objection to MS's claim that the laws are a rhetorically pleasing mouthpiece for Socrates.

MS is rightly aware that "reading between the lines" exposes him to the danger of arbitrary readings, and he proposes to guard against this danger by arguing that the "extension of the context" cannot go "beyond the abilities of all the readers Plato may have had in view" (5). Accordingly, at many steps in the dialogue, in addition to considering all the logical possibilities, MS also considers how various types of readers might have understood them. There can be no doubt that in an author whose main character is notorious for his irony, it is appropriate to consider different possible audiences. But what differences or what audiences are relevant? Arguing that Plato wrote for "raw freshmen" and their "teachers" at one and the same time, MS mentions a variety of readers. At the high end are those who are prepared and inclined to do "detailed" analysis of arguments; these are the more "sophisticated," "studious," "alert," "initiated," or "philosophical" readers, the "fully-fledged dialectician" among them. Other, less sophisticated readers, who are "alert but unsubtle", might, like Crito, follow the general argument, but "certain inconsistencies detected by recent scholarship, and noticeable only to practiced and sophisticated readers" will elude them, though they might well appreciate Plato's stylistic virtuosity (113, 196). Still others, like the "casual, uninitiated reader" (196), may read for and be moved or amused by Socrates' or Plato's rhetoric (6). MS makes no systematic attempt to define or catalog these readers, but there is a general tendency to divide them into two classes: those trained to (and with the intellectual equipment for) precise logical analysis, and "ordinary" people, i.e., those who, whatever other sensibilities they may have, lack these intellectual skills (5). Thus, the main divide - between sophisticated scholars and everyone else - is based on a certain capacity for logical analysis. But is this the distinction Plato had mainly in view? A doubt about that is suggested by Socrates' crucial statement that there can be no common deliberation (at least on the question at issue in the Crito) between those who hold and those who do not hold the opinion that "no human being should do injustice in return or do evil, whatever he suffers from others" (49c-d).

MS's step-by-step method means that his book is more a series of very detailed comments on particular passages than it is the systematic development of an argument. Nevertheless, two main overall aims stand out. One is an attempt to defend the dignity of the conversation presented in the Crito by trying to show that Crito himself is an interlocutor of at least respectable capacity. MS does not think Crito is a philosopher, but he does argue that the old friend of Socrates is not, as some scholars have suggested, an idiot, unusually lawless, so intellectually weak that he is putty in Socrates' hands, or intellectually disabled by a powerful grief. In this, the book is largely successful and provides a useful corrective to the scholars who treat Crito with contempt, but the emphasis MS puts on logical consistency in his account of Crito's character is also somehow wrong. At a crucial point in the book, MS argues that because we know that Crito is not "stupid to the point of self-contradiction," an apparent contradiction of his justifies the reader in digging beneath the surface for another possible but much less obvious meaning (125). But this argument seems backwards: if a later statement (or agreement) of Crito's contradicts an earlier one, it makes at least as much sense to revise our earlier view of his character as it does to accept a strained reading of the later statement. More importantly, the argument is odd because self-contradiction is not necessarily a proof of stupidity -- consider Thrasymachus in the Republic , who contradicts himself, but is far from stupid. On the contrary, such contradictions may in fact suggest important questions or problems that Plato would have us consider. MS underestimates the power of the non-rational elements of character, which are such an important aspect of the dialogue form, because of his rather narrow focus on a certain kind of logical consistency. He assumes, for example, that, once Crito has agreed to something, that is his position. But the fact that Crito verbally agrees that one ought not to fear or honor the opinion of the many does not mean that his evident fears for his own reputation (among the many) have no influence over the subsequent conversation. The problem is revealed from another angle when MS describes what Socrates is doing at a certain point as an (intellectual) "attack on Crito" (53). Socrates had just said that he wants to "investigate in common" with Crito, and there is evidence that his overall intention is to console Crito or reconcile Crito to his decision to die, an intention that may include, but is not identical with the disinterested pursuit of dialectic. In sum, MS's desire to rehabilitate Crito is laudable, but one may suspect that his rationalistic assumptions prevent him from understanding the role of irrational factors in Crito's character.

The second overall aim concerns the relation between the two parts of Socrates' reply to Crito. Against a common scholarly view, MS argues that the laws "put forward no argument which contradicts what Socrates and Crito have agreed earlier in the dialogue or violates Socrates' dialectical practice" (118). Indeed, the "Laws furnish a continuation of the Socratic argument by other means" (117; see also 78, 188, and the appendix). Many complex arguments go into defending this thesis, but the main one has to do with an apparent contradiction regarding what Socrates presents as a fundamental principle. Socrates first argues that one must never return injustice for injustice and that it is always wrong to harm (kakourgein) anyone, even in retaliation and even to prevent harm to oneself (49a4-c3). It follows that even if the city of Athens had harmed him in finding him guilty and putting him to death, it would still be wrong to escape -- if that escape harmed the city (or some part or parts within it). Later on, however, the laws of Athens argue that the laws and Socrates are not equal, so that even if the laws do injustice to Socrates, he must not harm them in return. And this implies, according to MS, "that if justice were equal, if the playing field were level, between Socrates and the Laws, it would not be unjust for him to retaliate in kind" (79). Thus, speaking in his own name, Socrates rules out all retaliation, but speaking as the laws, he seems to allow for at least some retaliation. On this crucial point the two parts of Socrates' reply to Crito seem to contradict one another.

Whatever we might think of this argument, MS maintains that the contradiction is only apparent. He holds that Socrates' first statement, which seems categorically to prohibit retaliation, is ambiguous: properly understood (and the exploration of this point is the fullest and most important example of MS's method), it may mean one of four different things, three of which allow for some retaliation. The key question is what counts for injustice in the context of retaliation for injustice, or, what does it mean to return injustice if you have been the first victim of injustice? According to MS, Socrates believes that one should never do injustice, but he denies that Socrates identifies doing evil or harm (kakourgein) with doing injustice. Thus, the argument comes to rest fundamentally on the meaning of the word, kakourgein. If it means "harm", all retaliation would be ruled out, but not if it means something like "wrong" (chapter 6, especially pages 101-105). To resolve the difficulty, MS presents a complex philological argument, which appears to show that although kakourgein never means wrong or "wickedness" (top of 102), that is how the "more practiced readers" should take it (105).

MS's step by step analysis of the Crito highlights an important problem in the dialogue, but in the end his interpretation is unpersuasive. The fundamental problem is that appealing to ambiguities and fine distinctions that only "practiced" readers can perceive is not a sufficient response to several massive facts in the dialogue. For example, at the outset of the dialogue Socrates says that "not only now but always, [I] am such as to obey nothing else of what is mine than that argument which appears best to me upon reasoning" (46b). And soon after that, he argues that one must pay attention to or honor or fear only the opinions of the "upright" and "prudent" or of the one expert (if there is one), and not those of the "many" non-experts. But the "laws and the community of the city," especially in democratic Athens, express precisely the opinions of the "many." Moreover, the argument that the laws make is fundamentally an appeal to authority and how can this be reconciled with the man who claims that he " always" relies on his own reasoning about what is best? These problems do not mean that the dialogue is a morass of contradictions and faulty arguments, or that it does not have a single and cogent argument. But they do suggest that that argument might not be discovered on the assumption that the dialogue presents a "continuous . . . piece of dialectical argument."

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