16 March 2005

Phaedo 62c: When The Jig is Up

I promised that there would be other threads besides a discussion of Plato's Laws.

Here's another stray observation on the Phaedo (which comes out of an informal reading group I've formed with Eric Maurer). Stray but interesting, I think.

Here's the Greek text:

ou)kou=n, h)= d' o(/j, kai\ su\ a)\n tw=n sautou= kthma/twn ei)/ ti au)to\ e(auto\ a)pokteinu/oi, mh\ shmh/nanto/j sou o(/ti bou/lei au)to\ teqna/nai, xalepai/noij a)\n au)tw=| kai/, ei)/ tina e)/xoij timwri/an, timwroi=o a)/n;

pa/nu g', e)/fh.

i)/swj toi/nun tau/th| ou)k a)/logon mh\ pro/teron au(to\n a)pokteinu/nai dei=n, pri\n a)na/gkhn tina\ qeo\j e)pipe/myh|, w(/sper kai\ th\n nu=n h(mi=n parou=san.

This is Jowett's translation, slightly revised (which I select because it's easily downloadable):

“Well then,” said he, “if one of your possessions should kill itself, without your indicating that you wished it to die, would you be angry with it and punish it if you could?”

“Certainly,” he replied.

“Then perhaps from this point of view it is not unreasonable to say that a man must not kill himself until god sends some necessity upon him, such as has now come upon me.”

My question is: What is this necessity that Socrates is referring to?

Rowe in his commentary takes it to be the executioner's command. Rowe objects that Socrates' condition is singular; one could hardly find other cases like that:

w(/sper kai\ ktl. ['such as has now'] ...implies a reference to 'other, unspecified, examples'...But the only sense in which S. is or will be 'killing himself' is that he will willingly take the cup of poison from the prison warden and drink it; it is hard to think of other cases where quite so strong a 'necessity' would be in question.
I think this misses the point entirely.

These lines take place in the context of a discussion in which the question is implicitly posed, whether Socrates has in effect committed suicide by not putting up an effective defense at his trial and not escaping from prison when he had the chance. Socrates' reply, in effect, is that although a person may not licitly kill himself, he may act in ways that, he foresees, will result in his death, if to act otherwise would be to do something wrong.

When one is faced with a choice between doing something wrong and dying, then one is under a necessity to die (on pain of doing wrong), and that very necessity is, as it were, a sign from god, that he now wishes one's death.


David said...

The wider context of the passage is that Soc is trying to convince Simmias and Cebes that his lot isn't so bad after all. The argument from which you are excerpting that bit is actually monstrous for it implicates the gods in injustice. Thus, Simmias and Cebes object and Soc must embark upon a more elaborate if no less ridiculous argument asserting the immortality of the soul.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why you say that the argument 'implicates the gods in injustice'. Could you explain more? 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

David said...

If it is the god which sends the necessity and that necessity is an unjust death sentence, then the god is responsible for perpetrating injustice. The comparison of men to possessions was an important step in the discussion because it got Simmias and Cebes to accept a ludicrous comparison. Their strongly negative reaction to Socrates's conclusion forces Soc to take a longer route and argue for the immortality of the soul.

Anonymous said...

The god 'sends the necessity' in the sense that it can happen that we have to do what is right on pain of dying.

Socrates seems to agree that his own sentence is unjust, but he thinks also, that any steps he might take to avoid it would also be unjust, and he shouldn't act unjustly. (In the Crito, as you know, he compares escaping from prison to a child who strikes back--wrongly, he thinks--when his father is wrongly striking him. The striking is wrong; the being struck is not; the striking back would be wrong.)

God is not 'perpetrating injustice' unless you take the view (by why should we bring that in here?) that god is responsible for each action we do.  

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

David said...

It was just asserted by Soc that we are the possessions of the gods and are not to act to destroy ourselves without their approval. This approval comes in the form a certain anangke sent by the gods. Since the need for Soc to make a choice is based upon the injustice of his conviction and his sentence, it is difficult to assert that the gods are only implicated in the appearance of the choice and not the circumstances surrounding it. If
the gods send the necessity, they
must also send the circumstances
which surround the necessity. It
is worth remembering Greek tragedy
in this regard e.g. "Ajax". I think
Cebes' reaction is confirmation of
this reading.

Phil said...

I think Jowett's translation of anagke epipempse deserves a second look, "until God summons him", ie., sends him a command that must be obeyed. It would be nice to confirm that this phrase has an idiomatic legal/military use in this sense. I can't, but think it might. The subject of the sentence answers Rowe's question: it's God's command. Socrates, recall,believes that he has a mission from God to enlighten the Athenians and therefore leaving Athens would be desertion, unless of course God summons him.
Why is suicide unlawful? Because we are not just servants of God but one of his ktemata, and where he stations us, we must retain until he sends us a recall.
I find focusing on and taking anagkne as something literal and substantial intrusive and disruptive of the argument here.

Anonymous said...

Well, good enough, but how do we discern we've been 'sent a recall' or that God 'summons' us? Is this a special sign, or rather is it what anyone could conclude, when he finds himself in circumstances such that he could avoid death only by doing wrong--so that his death (through doing right and therefore being obedient to the gods) becomes 'necessitated' (and therefore is not suicide)?

I don't see that Socrates thought he had a special sign. (Admittedly, the daimonion  doesn't hinder him in the Apology.) Moreover, on your view, doesn't Rowe's difficulty break out again? What is this class of similar cases of God giving a particular order?

Posted by Michael Pakaluk