ENGLISH 101. ACADEMIC WRITING
for Lesson 7:
The dialogues of "the Last Days of Socrates" series seem to show Socrates in a variety of "fight-or-flight" reponses to his environment. Sometimes he attacks ("Euthyphro," "Apology") and sometimes he withdraws ("Crito," "Phaedo"). He seems to be a situational player, defined by the particular scene that he is playing, rather than a static, inflexible character type. His fighter and mystic personalities never meet in any of Plato's dialogues, and so we never see Socrates in any single situation that completely defines him. Instead, Plato shows us a series of scenes, or varying contexts, each of which has something a little different to reveal. The whole story about Socrates comes only from reading all of the dialogues.
This sequencing of situations, or narrative orientation, makes Plato an artist, not an argumentative "philosopher" in the modern stripe. Plato's story-telling isn't something easily boiled down into a few "main ideas" or logical arguments, as philosophy textbooks today usually summarize his "thought." He doesn't argue for any dogma or doctrine at all; he presents a series of images that play on the stage of our imagination, engaging many interesting ideas along the way certainly but always in context of a specific conversation in the life of Socrates. "Crito" is a personal favorite of Dr. G's, as it seems to reveal Socrates in a relatively personal, unguarded moment with a close friend.
Acceptance of public values distinguishes Socrates from the sophists of his day who held that values are personal and, hence, relative. Relativists, then and now, have contended that what's right for you isn't right for me, and neither one of us can prove the superiority of our values, so there's really no such thing as right or wrong. In this self-centered view of values, the "good" is merely something that I like or want, and what's "bad" is what I don't like or I don't want.
Socrates recognized that society is in trouble if its members think that "right" and "wrong" are relative terms without objective meaning, and that laws can be disregarded when individuals find them unwanted, disliked, inconvenient or arbitrary. Socrates' practical approach to the subject of conflicting values is relevant to our discussion of the problem still today.
No school building walled off Socrates from the world. His main classroom was out in the open air of the great marketplace of Athens, the agora. This market, like all others whether ancient or modern or even post-modern, established values--real, objective, verifiable and impersonal values. If the Sophists had looked around the marketplace, they might have seen that relative values don't work socially. There must be common or agreed values if trade is going happen.
Markets for goods and services quantify values as prices, whether the prices happen to be expressed in terms of dollars, Athenian minae, or oxen. For example, as we know from "The Apology," the asking price was five minae to get a sophistry course from Evenus the Parian. Socrates is amazed that Evenus can charge so much. Five minae is more than the cost of a year of college in the USA today; it would have taken an artesian or semi-skilled Athenian worker substantially more than a year's wages to pay Evenus' tuition! Different people have different ideas about the value of a college education, but that doesn't mean that tuitions are relative.
Unless governments meddle with them, market prices change continually over time, often radically, as conditions of supply and demand change. These price movements are unpredictable: some people are better or luckier guessers than other people, but nobody can foretell accurately the market price of anything at any future time. Witness the stock market where no investor ever has failed to place a mistaken bet. Ergo, different people can have and do have different personal thoughts about what value should be, but that doesn't mean that any of them are right, or that values don't exist, or that values are relative. It simply means that they must come to terms with one another in order for values to arise.
It may be too much to claim that values are never relative. There are limited circumstances --circumstances of injustice-- where relative values may be said to exist. For example, prices can be said to be "relative" in a market that is controlled by an unregulated monopoly, where value is whatever the seller says that it is. If Athens executes all educators other than Evenus, and yet requires that people be educated, then Evenus will have a monopoly on Athenian education, and the cost of college will be whatever he wants it to be.
Likewise, values may be said to be relative in the case of slavery or any similar economic tyranny where value is dictated by the buyer. Here the seller (slave or serf) is forced to accept whatever price is demanded by the buyer (master or bureaucrat). If Evenus is a slave (as many teachers were in classical times), then he can't set his fee at five minae or any other level. He will receive whatever his master thinks that he should be paid.
These one-sided situations of seller control and buyer control of markets really occur, and they sometimes have been suffered for very long periods of human history, but they are inherently flawed because they impede trade or the creation of genuine, agreed-upon values. Their arbitrary injustices create economic inefficiencies that doom them eventually to failure.
In a free market, any market that is just, prices are not relative. They are established by agreement of seller and buyer. The negotiation between them, or settlement of trade, establishes "fair value," legally defined as the price at which a willing seller will offer and a willing buyer will accept when neither of them is forced to trade. This is the reality of the free marketplace: although different people have different opinions about it, value actually exists only in the agreement of minds.
Socrates tries to achieve a meeting of minds when he searches for truth through argument with others. When Socrates says in various dialogues that there is a higher value than any individual conceives, an "Idea" with a capital "I" that is true for everybody, but that nobody really knows (like the idea of piety in "Euthyphro"), he is groping toward the concept of socially-defined value. No individual knows the value of anything, prior to discussion with others. Individuals may have opinions about values, and may argue to support their opinions, but they don't know values until they reach agreement with others.
The implied contract
In "Crito," shortly before his death, Socrates finally understands that morals are what people agree that they are. How is it that they agree? People don't necessarily sign written agreements about values, do they? Socrates sees that all Athenians have, if not an actual meeting of minds, an implied contract among themselves about their rights and obligations to one another.
An implied contract is a contract that arises solely from the actions of the parties, although no written or oral promises have been expressed. Example: I sit down to eat a meal at a restaurant. What's implied? I have agreed to pay for my food. I have a contract with the restaurant, even though nobody has said anything.
The character of The Laws, speaking in Socrates' head in "Crito," offers a similar example. Socrates was born in Athens, as a child he learned gymnastics and music in Athens, and he rarely left the city at any time in all of his seventy years, so he received the benefits of being an Athenian (just like receiving the meal in the restaurant). Having received these benefits, he is bound by the obligations and duties of an Athenian (just like the duty to pay for the meal). That means that he must obey the Athenian death sentence.
Laws, as Socrates' thinks of them, exist separately and apart from what any Athenian (including Socrates himself) happens to say, think or believe. They are personified as "The Laws." Within Socrates' own mind, they are heard as "voices," independent of Socrates' voice. He hears them "murmuring like a flute in the ears of the mystic" (54d), and this music drowns out the sound of Crito's arguments that he should run away from the city to avoid the Athenian law.
What if other people break the law? If others in the city are lawless, does that mean that the city's social contract is null and void? There are law breakers in Athens, but Socrates does not follow their examples. He accepts the implied contract even though disrespect for law seems to be prevalent among the Athenians. In "The Apology," Socrates recalls both tyrants and democrats flouting the Athenian law for their own personal advantage (32b). In "Crito" Socrates' jailers have been bribed, and the disciples have arranged for his illegal escape into exile.
A few years before Socrates' case, Anaxagoras (the first to teach that the sun is a stone) escaped from prison, to avoid an Athenian sentence for impiety, and he continued his sacrilegious teachings in other cities, distant from Athens. Historically in Athens of Socrates' day, trials in absentia of defendants who had fled from the city's legal jurisdiction appear to have been commonplace. Yet Socrates did not run away, in spite of all who ran before him and notwithstanding the arguments of his well-meaning friends.
Law is a marketplace for behavior, not unlike the economic market places for goods and services. It establishes the values of desirable and undesirable conduct. For example, as we learn in "The Apology," if you're an Athenian and you win the Olympics, the value of that behavior is that you get lunch at public expense for the rest of your life. (And, heroically enough, your descendants get it, too! In the golden age, a lot of free lunches were being eaten at Athens!) But you get whatever punishment the jury decides that you should get, if you invent new gods that are not on the city's official list of gods. The values of behavior are established by legislatures, judges and juries, acting within the scope of the constitutions and laws that govern them.
In Socratic thinking, and in democratic tradition, the values of various behaviors are no more fixed or God-given than prices in the market-place. We must obey the law, but we also have the right to persuade our fellow citizens to change the law. The amendment process doesn't make the law relative; on the contrary, it permits the law to continue to serve as our agreement. As new circumstances arise, and as the legislature changes, its meeting of minds also changes, so that laws are variable over time--again without being purely personal or subjective. We have the right to change the law, if others agree with us, but we have no right (according to the "The Laws") to break the law, even if we personally believe that the law is unfair, unjust, or evil.
"Crito" is the final social teaching of Socrates, and its message about values by agreement has relevance not only for Plato's Academy, where the primary studies turned to law and government, but also for later western political philosophy and social theory. Socrates' original idea that the fabric of society is an implied "social contract" later was picked up by Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), social contract theorists who strongly influenced the development of modern democracy, including the American and French Revolutions. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is based on the theory that King George did not keep his implied contract with his subjects in America, so they had the right to form a new contract among themselves.
Social contract theory still is very much alive and well in modern moral philosophy and political theory, too. Anyone interested in reading about this subject should look at John Rawls' A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism.
Put to death by "the many" of the Athenian democracy, Socrates in the long run proved to be the first important political theorist of modern democracy. He (or Plato) appears to be the inventor of the social contract.
Socrates tells his friends to consult the experts. He advises this in both "Euthyphro" and "The Apology" (where he says that only horse trainers are expert in training horses), and he says much the same thing again in "Crito":
Socrates' friend Crito has a basic problem with opinions. He thinks of himself as a respected member of the community. His public image is all-important to him. He tries to live according to public opinion, doing whatever he imagines people will approve, whether or not people's opinions are based on real knowledge. For instance, because of public opinion, Crito thinks that he should rescue Socrates from prison. If he doesn't rescue Socrates, people will think that Crito is a coward, or maybe they will say that Crito was not a good friend to Socrates at the end, when Socrates was down and out ("Crito" 44b-44c). If Crito bribes the jail-keeper; he will show everybody that he's no scoundrel, that he values Socrates' friendship more than he values money. (Crito's rich, and apparently he's worried that people will think he's a miser.)
Socrates sets Crito straight. Public opinion doesn't matter because the public isn't expert. The only opinion that really counts is informed opinion, based on real knowledge. This idea may seem undemocratic, but it clearly rings true. To decide on whether or not to undergo open heart surgery, we wouldn't take a public opinion poll, would we? We wouldn't ask Jack or Jill, unless they happened to be heart specialists.
opinions or advice do you follow? Whose do you ignore? These questions
extend well beyond the sphere of library research. Recall from Lesson 1
how our brains are influenced by other people, our local
"network." Who (in books or on TV or in real life) advises
you? Are they experts? If they are not experts, then why do you listen
to their advice? Just to conform?
Pieter Brueghel, The Parable of the Blind (1568)
We can be blind in library research, as in any other endeavor. We are all fond of familiar sources, and they exploit us. If, for example, we've been brainwashed from childhood by a particular newspaper's advertising, we may believe that this paper contains the most informative and important writing to be found anywhere on the planet. Notice how much advertising the television networks all use every hour to trumpet their news programming. They are afraid that you might not believe them, so they're telling you to believe!
Are the news people on TV really experts? No, they're reporters. They know a little more than you do, because they have researched a topic more than you have, but that does not mean that they know the truth. Basing a research paper on bad (non-expert) sources of information will result in a bad (non-expert) research paper. As the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out.
Library Assignment #2 asked each of us to find "better," more expert information than we found on our first visit to the library. What makes one book or article "better" than another? From a research point of view, a better source provides better evidence that a researcher can use in answering the research question:
common problems in Library Assignments #1 & #2
Let's suppose that I want to become a world-famous scholar, and I'll make my mark by writing a brilliant academic paper on the subject of Socrates' conscience. Of course, Socrates did not know that he had a "conscience" because the word came into English from Latin in the late Middle Ages. But Socrates invents other names for the wonderful power that opposes him whenever he wants to do something that is wrong or something that will turn out badly. In "The Apology," he describes this marvelous thing tentatively as his "divine. . . sort of voice" (31d) and "prophetic voice" (40a). Euthyphro refers to it more definitely as Socrates' "divine sign" ("Euthyphro" 3b). In "Crito," it's The Laws (50a).
How can I offer a new interpretation of these famous old passages? It's easy. I can borrow current scientific terms to describe what's stopping Socrates from doing things that are wrong. Playing neurologist, I can argue that Socrates' inhibitions resolve conflicts between his cerebral cortex and his lower animal brains.
In "Crito," for example, Socrates' lower brains drive him toward animal instinct for survival--to break of of jail and seek the good life in Thessaly--but his cortex (which he thinks of as "The Laws") resists their temptations. Socrates can't achieve peace of mind while his various brains are fighting each other. He attains peace only when his cortex wins a total victory that silences its opponents. This is the self-destructive psychological profile that prevents Socrates from mounting an effective defense at his trial. The tradeoff is that it allows him to face his death with blissful serenity. The cortex wins; the animal brains lose, and the overall mind of Socrates is at peace.
Before I try to write this terrific article, I'll have to research two things. First, I'll have to find out whether some other researcher already has discovered "my idea." (If so, I'll reconsider whether the article is worth writing, since it won't contribute anything new to scholarship.) Second, I'll have to research what other explanations already have been offered for Socrates' "conscience." (Maybe there are already better interpretations on the market.) In any case, I'll investigate the scholarship and take lots of notes about it so that, in my article, I can cite all of the relevant prior research.
These citations will be a pain. I'll have to be fair to my sources, but I don't want them to become the focus of my article. I'll have to strike a balance between saying too much about my sources and saying too little about them. I'll have to work and rework the wording of each summary and paraphrase at least several times to get it right.
Suppose that one source I'll use is Harold Tarrant's commentary in the 1993 Penguin edition of Plato's The Last Days of Socrates. Tarrant is a recognized authority in the field--and often a lousy writer. In his introduction to "Crito," he tries to explain the figure of "The Laws" in this way:
Why is this external voice [meaning The Laws] introduced? Not merely to distance Socrates from the views there expounded, nor simply to avoid Socrates having to deliver an uncharacteristic monologue in courtroom fashion. It was more important that the personification of the Laws of Athens in this way lends much-needed credibility to the notion that Socrates could have personal obligations towards them and could commit injustice against them. Socrates justifies his unwillingness to escape by claiming that it would be unjust to do so. Being unjust traditionally involved being unjust to somebody. (72 emphasis added)
My first reaction to these words is revulsion. Plenty of high school students, I think, would be ashamed to produce such pompous, grammatically tortured language and preposterous reasoning. However, an assault on Tarrant is not a high priority for my article--indeed, I've always been taught to avoid picking fights--so I turn my attention to the practical question of how to summarize his interpretation of "The Laws" in my paper. To find a suitable solution, I try several alternatives to see what works best. Here's a record of my word tinkering--which could have continued almost without end.
Alternative 1 (I try a standard form citation with signal phrase and parenthetical.)
Tarrant believes that personification of "The Laws" was intended to show that "Socrates could have legal obligations towards them and could commit injustice against them" (73), but surely these simple ideas could have been expressed very easily without using personification.
The personification of "The Laws," in Harold Tarrant's opinion, was intended to show that "Socrates could have legal obligations towards them and could commit injustice against them" (73), but surely Socrates could have expressed these simple ideas very easily without using personification.
The personification of "The Laws," in Harold Tarrant's opinion, was meant "to distance Socrates from the views there expounded [by The Laws and . . .] to avoid Socrates having to deliver an uncharacteristic monologue in courtroom fashion" and most importantly to show that "Socrates could have legal obligations towards . . . [The Laws] and could commit injustice against them" (73). But these arguments are not persuasive: Socrates' views are not different from those of The Laws, he delivered much longer monologues elsewhere (in The Republic, for instance), and he also expressed his obligations without personifying them.
The personification of " The Laws," in Tarrant's opinion, was intended mainly to show that "Socrates could have legal obligations towards them and could commit injustice against them" (73), but surely Socrates could have expressed these simple ideas about laws very easily without personification.
I'll accept Alternative 4 for now, until the next time I'm revising my paper, when maybe I will discover a better solution. Alternative 4 describes Tarrant's position fairly and efficiently, and my analysis of his position is skeptical without becoming disagreeable. A good academic tone is detached but not rude.
It takes hard work and patience to write citations well, so that they are fair to the source but not disruptive to our own writing. Source incorporation is often rather intricate, picayune work of the sort that I am illustrating on this page. I'll admit that sometimes I have labored over an individual citation for an hour or more, trying to get it right. My first drafts are never right, and neither are my second ones.
By the way, how will I finish off my citation of Tarrant in the works cited list? This is tricky. Don't be tempted to list it under Plato, the author of the dialogues in The Last Days of Socrates. We aren't quoting Plato. The right answer is illustrated in Hacker's form 32b15 ("Foreward, Introduction, Preface or Afterward") because we are quoting from Tarrant's introduction to his translation of Plato:
Tarrant, Harold. Introduction. The Last Days of Socrates. By Plato. Trans. Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant. London: Penguin, 1993.
Why the sophists and relativists are wrong.
Image left: marketplace scales are depicted on a very ancient Greek urn. The scales of justice were based on the scales of the marketplace.
Left: Hellenistic statue known as "the old market woman." The subjects of Greek sculpture tended toward realism after the time of Socrates.
Try reading "Crito" aloud to hear how Socrates dramatizes his thought, as if examining himself objectively from the outside. In your performance, to avoid confusion, you will have to adopt different-sounding voices when you are "The Laws," than when you are "Socrates." It's an interesting technique of dialogue within a dialogue, as Socrates examines Crito but is examined at the same time by "The Laws."
Jefferson (left) argued that the king is ruled by an unstated agreement with his people -- a concept that goes back to Socrates. But would Socrates have accepted Jefferson's argument for rebellion?
Even after we know the MLA rules, citation challenges our writing style. It's a struggle to incorporate source citations well, as this example shows.
Left: the huge and convoluted "human" cortex sits atop the smooth "mammalian" and "reptilian" brains near the brain stem below. Our animal brains sense and feel, but our human cortex thinks and usually overrides their thoughtless impulses. Many of our inner conflicts result from the fact that each of us has multiple brains, and those brains don't perceive the world in an identical way.