Dialectic in Action: An Examination of Plato's Crito. By Michael C. Stokes
Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 3, page 510, May 2009
How to Cite
Waterfield, R. (2009), Dialectic in Action: An Examination of Plato's Crito. By Michael C. Stokes. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 510. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_2.x
- Issue published online: 7 APR 2009
- Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
Pp. ix, 246 , Swansea , The Classical Press of Wales , 2005 , £46.99.
Michael Stokes is a recognized expert on Plato's early dialogues, and his new book is a thorough investigation of the arguments of Plato's Crito. The book starts with a very good methodological prologue, defending his approach to the early dialogues and slightly correcting it from earlier works. Methodology is still his preoccupation in an introductory chapter. Chapter 2 teases out everything we can possibly learn about the character of Socrates' friend Crito (he is law-abiding, prosperous, no philosopher, but not stupid, with a businessman's acumen). The next two chapters examine Crito's arguments in the dialogue as to why Socrates should escape, and then Chapters 5–9 give us the philosophical meat of the book in an almost line-by-line examination of Socrates' responses, both in his own voice and through his alter ego, the Laws of Athens. Two concluding chapters round the book off, and then there is the usual end-matter: notes, a modest bibliography, and indexes.
This synopsis of the book reveals one of its main characteristics: Stokes has long espoused a character-based approach to the dialogues (almost before it became fashionable), but combines this with hard argumentation rather than a postmodernist subjective ‘reading’ of a text. He is more generous to Crito than many other commentators, who have found him dull and a bit of a cipher. In fact, the entire book displays a charitable approach to filling in gaps or deficiencies in the arguments. Stokes extends charity not just by searching in each case for reasonable ways to fill in such gaps, but also by arguing that such gaps may be the result of the limitations of an interlocutor's character (as outlined by Plato) and/or of the situation in which the character finds himself. To take a straightforward example, at a couple of points when one might have expected Crito to draw attention to the hardship of exile, in response to arguments of the Laws, Stokes points out that he cannot do so, because of his original intention to persuade Socrates to go into exile. For Stokes, ad hominem and situational arguments are the very stuff of what he calls Socratic dialectic.
There are dangers with this kind of approach to the dialogues. In the first place, it is often hard to claim certainty about the character of one of Socrates' interlocutors. Plato rarely does more than give us sketches, and so the same, flimsy evidence suggests to some editors that Crito is dull and to Stokes that he is not dull, but just lacks philosophical intelligence. In the second place, although Stokes is sensitive to what he calls the ‘documentary fallacy’ of reading more into a text than an author gives us (and so manages to interpret the dialogue almost entirely from within itself, rather than by any references to other dialogues), he himself often seems close to doing just that. Plato was perfectly capable of giving his readers ‘stage directions’ and clear clues as to how to we are to read a character, so to interpret a dialogue along these lines when Plato chooses not to give us such directions is obviously risky. In the third place, this approach leaves us with very little, perhaps nothing, that we can legitimately call Socratic doctrine. One of the most startling of all Socratic assertions occurs in Crito– that it is never under any circumstances right to commit injustice. This remarkable claim, long championed as a core Socratic belief by Gregory Vlastos, is reduced by Stokes (and others before him such as Roslyn Weiss) to a kind of exaggeration produced by Socrates for the purposes of responding to Crito, given Crito's particular character and situation. In the fourth place, and relatedly, if Plato has Socrates tailor arguments in this way to the character and situation of the interlocutor, who was Plato trying to convince? Only those readers who firmly identify with Crito?
Despite my concerns, I wholeheartedly agree with one of Stokes's major conclusions, which is that, contrary to a vocal minority of recent scholars, Plato did mean the speech of the Laws to be taken seriously as a Socratic rebuttal of Crito. This, in large part, is what enables Stokes to come up with a coherent, interlocking dialogue. Stokes's arguments on this point will demand serious consideration by anyone who wants to resurrect the minority view. And the book as a whole will be impossible to ignore by anyone studying the dialogue. It is written with precision and clarity, sprinkled with a little verve (e.g. p. 128: Socrates' questions are ‘ambushes’); it demonstrates sensitivity to the nuances of the original Greek; it takes full account of others' views and possible objections; and, above all, it is well and thoughtfully argued.