Tag Archives: justice

Thoughts on “Crito” by Plato

This short dialog is included in The Last Days of Socrates which I originally read in college (and yes, I still have my old copy). It takes place while Socrates is in prison awaiting execution, and his friend Crito offers to help him escape and leave Athens. The two discuss whether it is right to do something that is wrong if something wrong is done to you, ultimately concluding that it is not justified, that the ideal of the social contract is more important than an individual’s self-interest. Essentially, Socrates would not break the law by escaping prison even though he was wrongly convicted, because upholding the ideal to which he agreed to live mattered more than his life.

Reading this in a time of social unrest as a result of individuals being frustrated with an unjust legal system raised a lot of questions for me, particularly: At what point does the social contract become invalid? If the laws themselves are just, but the people enforcing and applying those laws are unjust, is it right to respond unlawfully to foment social change which is clearly in the best interest of society? These are not easy questions to grapple with and I do not feel equipped to address them, but I felt I would put them out there for individuals to contemplate on their own.

There are a couple passages worth sharing and considering.

SOCRATES: I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have an unlimited power for doing good; which would be a splendid thing, if it were so. Actually they have neither. They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.

(Last Days of Socrates: p. 81)

There are some interesting things to think about here. First, it seems that Socrates is asserting that a person’s ability to do good is equal to that person’s ability to do wrong, and vice versa. This is important, especially in our current world of social media where people tend to view others as either good or bad, depending upon how that persons actions or ideologies correlate with the person making the judgment call. In our drive to squeeze everything down to a Tweet or a meme, we’ve lost the ability to recognize the complexity and range of scope that every individual possesses.

The other thing that struck me about the previous quote is Socrates’ claim that ordinary people “simply act at random.” At first glance, this seems rather insulting, but upon further reflection, one begins to see the truth in the statement. The problem with many people in the world is that they react to situations without taking the time to adequately think through the ramifications of their actions. A wise person would pause, consider the situation, and come to a logical conclusion. Conversely, a stupid person would pause, consider the situation, and come to an illogical conclusion. Too many people do neither. They react without consideration, essentially acting at random, as Socrates would claim.

Later in the dialog, Socrates debates whether it is best to listen to public opinion or to defer to a single authority.

SOCRATES: In that case, my dear fellow, what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth. So in the first place your proposition is not correct when you say that we should consider popular opinion in questions of what is right and honorable and good, or the opposite.

(ibid: p. 86)

Socrates builds on this to establish that the law is the one authority that represents truth and that the public opinion that he should break the law by fleeing prison is the wrong course of action. But this again leads back to my quandary, which is, at what point does public opinion outweigh the law and previously agreed-upon social contract? It is a really difficult question, and one worthy of analysis via Socratic Method. But that is beyond the scope of this post, so I will leave you with the questions to ponder.

This dialog is very short (a mere 16 pages), but evokes a lot of questions relevant to our society today. I encourage you to give it a read. I suspect you can find a digital copy online for free.

Thanks for stopping by and for reading and thinking.

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“Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare – #MeToo

I had not read this play since college, and it bothered me back then. But reading it now, in light of the whole #MeToo movement, it was even more infuriating.

This play is a “comedy,” not because it is funny, but because it ends with marriage (as opposed to a tragedy, which ends in death). It is definitely considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, along with Merchant of Venice. It is a play that explores questions of justice, law, punishment, and mercy. But what is most problematic for me is the depiction of how women are sexually exploited by men in positions of power and authority.

Basically, what happens in the play is that the Duke of Vienna places all authority to enforce laws upon his Deputy, Angelo. Angelo is strict and supposedly steadfast, and the Duke claims he wants to test Angelo’s resolve. Angelo begins enforcing a long-ignored law sentencing people to death for having sex out of wedlock. His first example is Claudio, who has a virgin sister named Isabella. Isabella goes before Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, and Angelo basically tells her he will only spare her brother if she agrees to have sex with him.

And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.

(Act II, scene iv)

I won’t spoil the details of how everything plays itself out, but suffice to say that Isabella manages to save her brother and her virginity, with the aid of the disguised Duke. But that sets us up for what, in my opinion, is the most offensive part of this play—the very end.

Long story short, the Duke pardons people, measures out justice that seems to be tempered with mercy, and thereby reinstates order out of the chaos. But it is the Duke’s “pardoning” of Claudio that is the major issue.

If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine.
He is my brother too: but fitter time for that.

(Act V, scene i)

Basically, the Duke is doing the same thing Angelo was doing, pardoning Claudio on the condition that Isabella giver herself to him. And while, yes, the implication here is that the Duke intends to marry her, it’s still not OK. He is still using his authority to get what he wants, taking advantage of a young woman, and even worse, not applying the scales of justice evenly to himself as to others (namely Angelo).

I don’t claim to know Shakespeare’s intent when he wrote this play. Maybe he was making a critique against the patriarchal hierarchy, or maybe he was claiming it is OK to take advantage of a woman as long as you are “responsible” and marry her. But the fact is, in the 21st century, this attitude towards women is offensive, to say the least.

In spite of the gender issues in this play, it is still worth reading for the exploration of law, justice, punishment, and mercy. As always, feel free to share your thoughts on the play. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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The Pledge of Allegiance

AmericanFlag

Since today is the Fourth of July—Independence Day—I figured I would write a post about the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by a socialist minister named Francis Bellamy. It is important to note that the original was quite different than what is recited today and historically underwent two critical changes.

Here is the original version:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In 1923, “the United States of America” was added and “my” was changed to “the”:

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Finally, in 1954, the phrase “under God” was added, particularly in response to fears over Communist threats.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I found it interesting that the Pledge of Allegiance in its current state is essentially a 20th century construct. It makes sense, though. This was a period that saw the rise of nationalism throughout the world, as well as McCarthyism in the US, requiring citizens to demonstrate their loyalty to country. But I think what is most fascinating is that it was a socialist who composed the original words, and that as a minister Bellamy did not include any reference to God. The fact that the mention of God is a fairly recent addition says a lot. Also, it should be noted that Francis Bellamy’s daughter opposed the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Anyway, here is the link to the source material I read.

ushistory.org

 

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