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The Crito of Plato

The Crito is an interesting addition to the Platonic canon. Stylistically and linguistically, it doesn’t seem to fit with the other dialogs. Most scholars explain these by assuming that it is either a very early or very late work. In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Hugh Tredennick explains that either of these poses difficulties. The majority theory that the Crito is one of Plato’s first dialogs is appealing because of the extreme simplicity of Socrates’ line of questioning–more a series of rhetorical questions than the knife-like elenchus we see in the other dialogs. However, there is still the problem of the inconsistent language and lack of Socratic Irony, as compared to the other earlier, more “Socratic” dialogs. There is also a line which seems to reference a later work by Polycrates the Sophist.

The less popular theory, that the Crito was written either by an elderly Plato or another Platonist, perhaps his nephew Speusippus. The simplicity of the Crito works against this theory, as does its failure to reference any of the sophisticated metaphysics which were such a feature of later Platonic works. These objections can be partly dealt with, however, if we assume that the Crito was deliberately kept simple because it was intended for a lay audience. This would explain the choice of Crito himself (respectable and affluent, but no intellectual giant) as a relatable interlocutor. The text itself also seems to imply that it was intended to overcome the criticism of Athenians who essentially asked, “If Socrates was so great, why did he let himself be killed?”,

Crito: …But, O! my beloved Socrates, let me entreat you once more to take my advice and escape. For if you die I shall not only lose a friend who can never be replaced, but there is another evil: people who do not know you and me will believe that I might have saved you if I had been willing to give money, but that I did not care. Now, can there be a worse disgrace than this- that I should be thought to value money more than the life of a friend? For the many will not be persuaded that I wanted you to escape, and that you refused.

 

Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy.  From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy. From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Despite its failure to joint neatly into the rest of the corpus, the Crito is unmistakably a Platonic work, even if it is not a work by Plato. The primary question is whether Socrates should allow himself to be rescued by Crito and his other friends. Crito argues that public opinion would be on Socrates’ side and that he has an obligation, under the general norms of their culture, so preserve himself so he can care for his family. Socrates reduces the argument to one of justice. In the eyes of Justice, any obligation he owes do to public opinion or norms is insignificant compared to that he owes to the laws–what we today might call “rule of law”. Socrates has been fairly condemned through due process of law. His conviction may have been unjust, but that does not free him to commit his own injustice against the law and reason.

To me this offers the most digestible justification for why Socrates allowed himself to die: he was a martyr for Reason. Having reasoned his way through an ethical dilemma and convinced himself of the just path, he could do nothing else without ceasing to be a philosopher; a philosopher who does not trust reason is no philosopher at all.

I like this justification much better than Xenophon‘s, that Socrates was ready to die and wanted to do so before his powers failed. It also seems more noble than the argument in the Phaedo that philosophers are destined to a better afterlife, or at least a more pleasant reincarnation, than normal people and should welcome death, particularly since they are forbidden to suicide. That point, however, will have to wait until I write about the Phaedo in a future post.

Lady Justice.  J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]

Lady Justice. J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]

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Eugenics in the Early 20th Century

A Review of the Book Race Improvement, or Eugenics (1912)

I’ll be getting back to my survey of the Great Books soon, but it has been a while since I wrote a book review, and I read an interesting work yesterday.

Throughout my life, eugenics has been something of a dirty word in intellectual circles. It usually comes up in reference to the social dangers of out of control human genetic science. From the mid twentieth century on numerous science fiction stories had cast totalitarian Eugenicists as antagonists–the best known early example is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In the Star Trek chronology the Eugenics Wars almost wiped out humanity and produce Khan Noonien Singh and his genetically engineered goons. The trope is still popular today. For example, in David Weber’s long-running Honorverse space opera series the Mesan Alignment, a group dedicated to perfecting the human genotype through genetic engineering and selective breeding, are recurring villains.

Eugenics has so many negative connotations today that we forget that in the early 20th century it was a fairly respectable idea. People were just beginning to grasp a modem understanding of things like hereditary diseases. Watson and Crick would not discover DNA for another five decades, but empirical statistical analysis was already being done to estimate the probabilities that certain human traits would be handed down to peoples offspring. There was real interest in the health implications of heredity and the possibilities of “improving the race” through selective breeding.

In 1912 La Reine Helen Carter wrote the book Eugenics or Race Improvement: A Little Book on a Great Topic. Last month Project Gutenberg released a well-proofread electronic edition. The book is short enough to read in a couple hours and gives a fascinating snapshot of the state of thought in the Eugenics Movement at the end of the Gilded Age.

La Reine Helen Baker lived in Spokane, Washington and was one of the main leaders of the women’s rights movement on the West Coast. Her influence peaked between about 1909 and 1912, when she was in high demand as a speaker at suffragette conventions and orchestrated a two year European grand tour to network with suffragettes internationally. She seems to have shamelessly leveraged this platform, along with a very modern understanding of book publicity, to sell her book and several magazine articles on her other passion: eugenics.

Baker in 1910 [from The Spokesman Review, Public Domain]

Baker in 1910 [from The Spokesman Review, Public Domain]

In the book she recommends a program of education to teach people about heredity, combined with physical examinations to allow the fittest individuals to marry each other. She also advocates the sterilization of “the unfit”, by which which she means idiots, habitual criminals, and those with serious hereditary diseases. She seems to think that leprosy and most sexually transmitted diseases are hereditary. In a newspaper article of the same period she criticizes the government for funding the leper colony in Molokai, Hawaii where “lepers are allowed to marry and perpetuate their kind”. She waivers a bit on the question of whether to sterilize alcoholics, but concludes it probably isn’t necessary since natural selection tends to destroy them and since their children “aren’t always” alcoholic themselves.

She also makes a kind of neo-Malthusian argument. The standard neo-Malthusian position is that technology increases production to counter the exponential rate of population increase. Baker argues that fitter people will produce more and that, “The world does not contain too many people, it only contains too many of the wrong sort of people.”

Baker’s writings are, unsurprisingly, infused with a strong feminist strain. She also seems to have had an ongoing flirtation with socialism and ideas about equality and social welfare appear throughout her book. She calls for paid maternity leave, sex education in school, co-education, easy divorce, and a welfare program for new mothers, including fresh milk, which sounds substantially similar to the USADA’s current Women Infants and Children (WIC) program. In fact, other than paid maternity leave, all of these things now exist in the US. Baker herself was wealthy. In the same newspaper article she claims to personally support three children’s hospital wards. Today we might be tempted to label her as a “limousine liberal”.

She was also prone to the prejudices of her time: She is horrified by the idea of mixed marriage and says that “each race” should look to its own improvement. Once, when invited to speak at a banquet, she was astounded to find out that Chinese women had been invited. She betrays a deep distrust at the idea of women pursuing careers outside the home. She believes that people are criminals because they are born to “degenerate” bloodlines, and that environment plays little role.

The main reason modern intellectuals are so distrustful of eugenics is because we know what happened later. Tthe well-meaning ideas of people like La Reine Helen Baker became fused with the more dangerous pseudo-science of Arianism. By the 1930’s the Nazis had discovered how easy it was to broaden the definition of “degenerate” to include any group that got in their way. Genocide was their preferred tool to protect the “Master Race”, not sterilization. Baker herself specifically states that she is against abortion, infanticide, or “the lethal chamber”. The fact that any of these options was under discussion by 1912 is scary in itself.

When we read an old book like this, our first impulse is to dismiss it as hopelessly archaic. Look how much our ideas have changed in the last century, right? But we will never completely escape the ethical question of how much eugenic manipulation is acceptable. Today we have sequenced the human genome and genetic testing is standard during pregnancy. We already know enough to advise certain people not to breed. We will soon have the ability, if we don’t already, to engineer custom people the way we already do seeds and vegetables. It can even be argued that, now that technology removes most forces of natural selection, we need to take control of our own evolutionary destiny. It is inevitable that some government or group, somewhere will again experiment with a policy of Eugenics because while the underlying science has advanced, the basic temptation hasn’t changed in a century.