Plato, Patriotism, & the Polis

One of Plato’s dialogues which I assign for my undergraduates is also a text appearing on my upcoming comps exams at UD: the Crito.

In it, Socrates’ friend pleads with him to escape (with the friend’s own help) from the prison where he is being held. Time is of the essence: the one month grace period (resulting from a sacred season of non-violence and mercy toward convicts) is about to end.

In the end, Socrates turns down his friend’s persuasive offer to rescue him and spare his life. Why? There are many detailed reasons and arguments that Socrates gives, including that to escape death would be to renig on an agreement that he had implicitly or tacitly made with city (a kind of social contract). But for me the most compelling motive for Socrates’ resistance has to do with a kind of patriotism, which for Socrates, is constitutive of his identity.

For Socrates, that is, no longer to be Athenian is to be no longer Socrates. There is not such thing as non-Athenian Socrates. For him, the political community to which he belongs is so important that it makes him who he is. For him, the political community is prior to the individual.

Sometimes, this kind of “priority of the corporate” is true for modern people (for example, members of a street gang such as the Crips or the Bloods, or members of extremely tight-knit families, such as the Sopranos family in the HBO series of the same name from a decade ago), but even then it is almost never a political community which takes precedence, thus forming the identity of the individual.

And even though I do sometimes say that I am Texan before I am American, neither of these political entities hold the same sway for me as Athens did for Socrates.

To my mind this leads in as straight line to the sole political community which truly is constitutive of human identity, and only one from which alienation seems worse than death itself: the Church of Jesus Christ.

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