Friday, February 24, 2023

Why Plato is important to me

 I wrote this as a comment in response to a post at Marginal Revolution. Tyler Cowen was explaining what he'd learned from Plato when he was in his early teens and was impressed with his method, the dialog.

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Ah, Plato. I read Crito in my freshman year at college. It turned out to be very important to me. Well, I'm an intellectual and was philosophy major, but that's not what I'm talking about.

That was the 1960s. A couple years later I drew 12 in the draft lottery, so I was certain to be drafted. What were my options?

First, I could have accepted induction. With my education it was very unlikely the military would have sent me into combat. For that matter, I could even have enlisted. I was well-educated and I got letters from several branches of the military with enlistment offers. No dice. I was opposed to the war.

I could have run to Canada; I knew people who did it. That did not appeal at all. It was the 60s. I could have gotten messed up on drugs before reporting for my pre-induction physical. It was risky, but had worked for some people. It was also undignified. No dice.

I was a middle-class kid at a good school affiliated with a medical school and a hospital (Johns Hopkins). I could have asked around and gotten/paid a psychiatrist to write a letter that likely have gotten me out. No dice. Undignified.

In effect, I took Plato's advice and decided to declare myself a Conscientious Objector. That got people sent to prison during WWII – a lot of Mennonites and 7th Day Adventists. But it was now legit.

In what way was that Plato's advice? In Crito Socrates is in prison after having been condemned to death. A rich friend comes to him, points out that the sentence is unjust, and offers to spring him. Socrates refused, pointing out that he was an Athenian citizen, that as such, the laws of Athens were the framework within which he lived his life. They gave meaning to his life. He couldn't reject them just because he came out on the unfortunate end of a judicial decision. He decided to remain in prison.

Subsquently Crito has become a central text for those undertaking civil disobedience, which is what I was doing. My draft board accepted my petition and I did two years of civilian service, as it was called, in the Chaplain's Office at Johns Hopkins.

Later, when I failed to get tenure and was unable to get another academic gig, Crito has been helpful in thinking about my relationship to the academic world. I have continued to publish, often enough in first-class venues, but more often simply to the web.

One needs principles. Plato is an important source of useful ones. Dialogic thinking is perhaps chief among them, at least in the context of intellectual life.

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