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I’ve been teaching some ancient philosophy lately, and was struck by something Plato has Socrates say in the Crito. To give some context for the dialogue: Socrates is in jail awaiting his execution which is assumed to be only days away. Crito, one of his students, visits him and suggests that the responsible, virtuous thing for Socrates to do would be to try and escape custody and live in self-determined exile. One of Socrates several objections to this line of argument is that every man owes to the State his obedience because the State has effectively made him who he is and given him all he has:

“Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?” None, I should reply. “Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?” Right, I should reply. “Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you.”

Obviously this wreaks of totalitarianism to our democratically-matured ears. We no longer allow the State to relate to it’s citizens in this manner, and we call this liberty. But think for a second about replacing the speaker, in this case the laws of Athens, with say, the modern workplace.  Isn’t this the kind of language we hear from politicians and capitalists about how the worker should relate to his or her boss? Or simply to the flow of capital itself? We were possibly given subsidized health care from the womb, educated in tax-financed public schools, etc. in order to become effective workers – how dare we question what it has given us? Maybe this is all a bit vague, but consider this next passage where we have the very famous occurrence of the nascent “social contract” in Plato, where Socrates claims that all citizens, by not leaving the city of their origin, have entered into an implied contract to obey its laws:

“Consider, Socrates, if this is true, that in your present attempt you are going to do us wrong. For, after having brought you into the world, and nurtured and educated you, and given you and every other citizen a share in every good that we had to give, we further proclaim and give the right to every Athenian, that if he does not like us when he has come of age and has seen the ways of the city, and made our acquaintance, he may go where he pleases and take his goods with him; and none of us laws will forbid him or interfere with him. Any of you who does not like us and the city, and who wants to go to a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, and take his goods with him. But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the State, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him.”

This rhetoric, if transitioned to the workplace, is especially sinister when you include the historical factor of current high unemployment. We can’t effectively leave our current job… because there aren’t any more readily available! I’ve had managers speak this way in the past: it is of no matter that the workers create the value in the workplace, they must subordinate their own desire for just and ethical treatment to the wishes of “the boss.” Questioning this logic is tantamount to heresy in the same way that Socrates speaks of above: if you think you aren’t treated well, then go get another job.

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