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Socratic loyalty


« The Death of Socrates » (1787) by Jacques-Louis David (Wikipedia)

Socrates was so critical of his country that he was put to death by it.  Yet he could have escaped execution had he wanted to.  The reason he did not, as he famously explained in Plato’s Crito, was out of loyalty to the country of which he was so critical, and which willed to destroy him.  I don’t think that Socrates’ example is, in this case, one that we are bound to follow; Aristotle did no wrong in fleeing, lest Athens sin twice against philosophy.  All the same, that example is worth pondering for contemporary conservatives tempted to oikophobia by the sorry state of the West, and for Catholics tempted by the sorry state of the Church’s human element to depart from her, or to refuse due submission to the Roman Pontiff. 

The argument of the Crito

Socrates’ argument, in brief, is that one’s country is like one’s father or mother, so that to deny its authority over one would be like denying the authority of one’s parents.  Now, to flee Athens so as to avoid execution would, Socrates continues, be tantamount to denying its authority.  Hence, he concludes, it would be wrong for him to flee.  However unjust, his execution was in his view something he had to suffer out of a kind of filial loyalty.

Naturally, one might object to this argument in several ways.  But one objection that I think has no force is the claim that Socrates is being inconsistent.  In Plato’s Apology, Socrates had, of course, refused to submit to the command that he cease philosophizing.  Continuing to philosophize was, he argued, required by obedience to a higher law than that of Athens.  Because of this, it is often suggested that there is a tension between the views presented in the two dialogues.  (This has come to be known as “the ApologyCrito problem.”)  But the parental analogy shows, in my view, why there is no genuine inconsistency here.

Suppose you are a minor and your father commands you to do something immoral – to steal a bottle of whiskey from the supermarket, or to bully other children, or whatever.  You ought to disobey those particular unjust commands.  But that doesn’t entail that he is no longer your father or that you can in general deny his authority over you.  He is still owed the minimal respect that any father is owed.  He still possesses the general authority over you that a father has over a child, and still ought to be obeyed when his commands are lawful.  And you may have to suffer unjust punishments for your refusal to obey particular unjust commands.  For example, if he grounds you for a week for refusing to steal, you’ll just have to grin and bear it until you reach adulthood and are no longer under his authority.

Obviously there are going to be extreme cases (such as those involving sexual or extreme physical abuse) where a parent ought to lose custody of a child.  I put those cases aside for present purposes, and focus just on the less extreme sort of case, in order to understand Socrates’ argument.  The general principle he is appealing to, it seems to me, is that in the case of parental authority, it is possible for a child to have a right to refuse obedience to a specific unjust command while still having no right to deny a parent’s general authority over one.  And he argues for a parallel to his relationship to Athens.  He is saying that even though he has a right and indeed a duty to disobey certain specific commands (such as the command to cease philosophizing), it does not follow that he has a right to reject the city’s general parental-like authority over him (as, he thinks, he would be doing if he fled the city in order to avoid execution).  Hence there is no inconsistency between the positions he takes in the Apology and the Crito.

That doesn’t by itself guarantee that the argument is, at the end of the day, correct.  One might still challenge the assumption that the city is relevantly like a parent.  Or one can accept this assumption, but then argue that the injustice in the case of Socrates’ execution is so grave that the city is acting like an extremely abusive parent, who ought to lose “custody” of Socrates (so that he can justly flee).  My point is just that I don’t think the charge that Socrates is being inconsistent is a good objection.

Now, in fact Socrates is also on strong ground in comparing one’s country to one’s parents.  Modern readers, who tend to think of politics in terms of the individualist “social contract” model inherited from Hobbes and Locke, are bound to find this odd.  But from the point of view of classical political philosophy, for which human beings are by nature social animals, the family is the model for social life in general and parental authority the model for political authority.  Hence, for Aquinas (and indeed for Catholic social teaching more generally) patriotism and a general respect for public authorities are moral duties falling under the fourth commandment.

Suffering for one’s country

The weakness in Socrates’ argument is rather that he takes it too far.  Again, even in the case of literal parents, it is possible for them to lose their authority over a child when the abuse is sufficiently egregious.  And the analogy between one’s country and one’s parents is in any event not an exact one, insofar as one’s duties to one’s country are weaker than those to one’s parents.  Hence the threat of unjust execution would in fact justify Socrates in fleeing the city.

All the same, there is a nobility in Socrates’ decision, and if he goes too far in one direction, it is also possible to go too far in the other direction.  What Socrates gets right, I would argue, is that there is at least a presumption in favor of being willing to suffer injustice from one’s country for the sake of one’s country.  And this flows from a filial love and duty that is at least analogous to the love and duty one owes one’s parents.  The presumption can be overridden when injustice has too deeply permeated the basic institutions of one’s country.  But the presumption is nevertheless there, and we are duty-bound to be careful lest we judge too hastily that it has been overridden.

The “Don’t tread on me” spirit of traditional American thinking about political matters can blind us to this presumption.  I’m not entirely knocking that spirit; I largely share it myself, and it has its salutary aspects insofar as Americans are sometimes less inclined than others are to go along with idiotic and immoral governmental policies (like open-ended lockdowns, for example).

But at least in the view of some observers, some right-wingers have judged that “wokeness” has so thoroughly corrupted our country and civilization that they no longer merit our loyalty.  And in my view this is a rash and irresponsible judgment.  That is by no means to deny the danger of wokeness, which I regard as a satanic menace that cannot be compromised with.  Wokeness delenda est.  But it is, to say the least, premature to judge that this menace will win the day, as is manifest from the revulsion that its excesses have generated in the electorate.

Twenty-five years ago, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’s First Things magazine generated a fierce intra-conservative controversy by raising the question of whether the principles governing the American judicial system might at some point become so contrary to the natural law that citizens will no longer owe it their allegiance.  This is an even more serious question today than it was then, and the debate merits re-reading.  All the same, it is premature now, as it was then, to judge that we have reached the dreaded point of no return.  We clearly have not – as is obvious from the fact that we still have the freedom to discuss the matter.

Our forebears literally shed their own blood to save their country from tyranny.  It would be the most contemptible softness and “sunshine patriotism” to think that (say) getting kicked off Twitter, or being required to wear a mask – obnoxious as these things are – mark the End of Democracy and absolve us from any further loyalty to our country and its institutions.  Yes, wokeness is a monster.  So we should work to save our country from it, rather than retreating into a fantasyland of crackpot conspiracy theories and political fanaticism and sympathy with the West’s enemies.

Suffering for the Church

Loyalty to country is not absolute, but loyalty to the Church must be, because unlike one’s country, she is divinely protected from total corruption.  The project of saving one’s country from tyranny and decadence can fail.  The project of saving the Church from bad prelates and heretics cannot fail.  To despair of such salvation – to fret that the problems remain unresolved after ten or fifty or a hundred years – is to sin against the virtues of faith and hope, which demand of us that we take the long view.

But it is also a sin against charity.  It is a shallow love which endures only to the extent that the beloved remains attractive.  Caritas demands more.  As St. Paul wrote, “perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).  Similarly, we must love and pray for our own enemies, and not just our friends and families.  How much more must we love the Church, even when her human element is dominated by immoral and faithless men?  Indeed, especially then, since this is when the Church most needs us?  How much more must we love and uphold the foundation of the Church, the papacy, even when (and again, especially when) the office is held by someone who fails to do his duty?  And yet there are those Catholics whose personal disappointments lead them to abandon the Church, and those who strain to find fanciful rationalizations for refusing submission to Christ’s vicar.

This is not to deny for a moment that there can be legitimate respectful criticism of the Church’s authorities, including the pope, as the Church has always recognized.  But if such criticism does not have the desired effect, then the only option is patient forbearance rather than picking up one’s marbles and stomping off.  As the instruction Donum Veritatis teaches:

For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial.  It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.

We find here too a parallel with Socrates, who simultaneously criticized the governing authorities while refusing to subvert their authority, even to the point of submitting to unjust punishment.  But the more apposite parallel is to Christ.  As Socrates rebuked Crito, so too Christ rebuked Peter, who similarly, and wrongly, urged him not to put up with the injustice that the authorities of his day sought to inflict on him: “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matthew 16:23).

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Dr. Feser’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.)


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