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Ancient Philosophy on Obedience - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 308
Obedience/Principled disobedience/Ancient philosophy/Keyt/Miller: The shallow contractualism of the Crito raises at once the problem of principled disobedience. >Contractualism/Ancient philosophy, >Social contract/Ancient philosophy.
Crito/Plato: Since the covenant that Socrates, according to the Laws of Athens, tacitly consented to 'by deeds, not by words' (Cr. 52d) is not the origin of justice, nothing in the covenant prevents laws and lawful orders from being unjust. Indeed, the Laws concede that Socrates' lawful execution is unjust (Cr. 54bc). It is a Socratic principle, moreover, that one should never do anything unjust (Cr. 49b).
Problem: Suppose, now, that the man ordered to administer the hemlock to Socrates realized that Socrates' execution was unjust. Would the personified Laws of Athens allow him to disobey the lawful order? They insist, after all, that they do not issue savage commands, but offer two alternatives: persuade or obey (Cr. 52a). (Those who do neither are guilty of using force, the antithesis of persuasion, against Athens: Cr. 51c2.)
Persuasion: The interpretation of the 'persuade or obey' doctrine is the central interpretive issue concerning the Crito, and it has generated a mountain of commentary.
Authoritarianism: Interpretations range from authoritarian at one end of the spectrum - 'Change the law if you can; if you cannot, do what it commands or else emigrate' - to liberal at the other end:
Liberalism: 'You can disobey as long as you act justly and render a persuasive account of your action'. Every aspect of 'persuade or obey' raises a question. What is the nature of the disjunction? Persuasion: to whom is the persuasion addressed - the assembly or the popular courts?
Obedience: to what is obedience owed - an official's command, a particular law or decree, or the legal
Gaus I 309
system?
Persuasion: what is it to persuade? Is it to fry to convince or to succeed in convincing? Does it count as persuasion if one renders a reasonable account of a just action, whether one convinces anyone or not?
Crito/Plato: the interpretation of the Crito is further complicated by the fact that in Plato's Apology Socrates mentions several cases where he disobeyed or would disobey those in authority (AP. 29c—d, 32a—e). (Five lengthy studies of these matters are: Allen, 1980(1); Brickhouse and Smith, 1994(2); Kraut, 1984(3); Santas, 1979(4); and Woozley, 1979(5).)


1. Allen, Reginald E. (1980) Socrates and Legal Obligation. Minneapolis: Umversity of Minnesota Press.
2. Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Nicholas D. Smith (1994) Plato 's Socrates. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3. Kraut, Richard (1984) Socrates and the State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
4. Santas, Gerasimos (1979) Socrates: Philosophy in Plato 's Early Dialogues. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
5. Woozley, A. D. (1979) Law and Obedience: The Arguments of Plato's Crito. Chapel Hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press.

Keyt, David and Miller, Fred D. jr. 2004. „Ancient Greek Political Thought“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Ancient Philosophy
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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