So the post I was planning to do this week was my review of my non-fiction read of the month, which this time is The Innocent Man by John Grisham, my first time reading something from the true crime genre (unless one counts Arthur and George, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s shorter account of the same case) but I am only a little over a third of the way into that one, and though very readable, I also find it disconcerting in a way, which means I’m reading fewer pages at a time than I normally would. But without rambling again, the point was that I wondered what I my post should be about instead.
Flicking through my old book journals, I came across this entry on Socrates’ dialogue Crito, and while mostly a description of some of the ideas that this dialogue picks up, it reminded me of something else on that theme, and so this post. All the discussion about Crito (which I read back then for a course) is from that old journal entry (30 May 2008).
Sting [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Crito is a dialogue between Crito and Socrates on the day before the boat bringing the final word on Socrates life is expected, and where Crito, a friend of Socrates is attempting to convince the latter to escape prison and save his life, while Socrates argues instead to stay on, and accept his punishment, which would be the only ‘right’ course, and he has throughout advocated taking the right course. Some of the points that stood out to me in this dialogue, besides the compact issue which I am coming to, were firstly, Socrates’ argument that we mustn’t act on the basis of what the world says or what the world will say but be guided only by our reason and principles. And following from that, secondly, that we must stick to our principles irrespective of whether the result is unfavourable to oneself (this second was a question I’d noted needs more thought but not sure whether I ever got back to it).
Jacques-Louis David [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anyway, the dialogue also brings up the issue of the compact between state and individual, reflecting upon the duty of the latter to obey the law, and what I found interesting about it was the interpretation of this social contract (applicable to all of us) which I hadn’t really come across elsewhere (other than the common understanding that people entered into the ‘contract’ at some point in the past to escape the nasty, short, brutish, etc. life). Socrates’ argument was that when the individual accepts all that the state has to offer, and accepts what the state does, the individual implicitly agrees to be part of the state and must consequently keep his part of the bargain and obey the law that the state has laid out. By disobeying or not following the law, one is not only breaking the framework of the state but also causing oneself injury with which one can’t really live. More proof of our acceptance of that contract lies in our continuing to life in that state and not leaving it (again something that could be debated). This is of course not all of the dialogue not all of the issues thrown up by it but the crux of the points that made me understand the notion of the social contract very differently.
Jane Austen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But what has all this to do with Emma, for in that there was no individual versus state, not was anyone ordered to drink Hemlock, but Emma comes in here for a different reason. And this was that it, or rather the introduction to Emma by Peter Conrad in my Everyman Classics edition of Emma, gave me another new view of this implicit social contract. As Conrad writes, “…Emma, within its pastoral and domestic limits, is a political novel, a work about the contract which convenes and maintains society”. This contract is not one between state and individual but between individual and individual who live together in one society, and as Conrad puts it, “[p]articipation in society means self-suppression, dissembling, compromise”. “Emma too is about the sacrifices to which we must reconcile ourselves when we life communally, and it shows Rousseau’s process of evolution at work both in society and in the development of individuals. The stubborn, vital self―the untamed individualism which is the glory of Elizabeth Bennett tramping through the mire to Bingley’s house―must, as Emma learns, be bullied into acquiescence, apprenticed to society.”
These two works certainly had me thinking of the social contract idea differently. It isn’t just something that happened in some time in the past when society came into being, but something we live every day. And it isn’t something that is relevant only when we are dealing with the state/government but when we’re dealing with, living with each other as well. While I am not at the moment even attempting to analyse the points or to go into their merits or otherwise, one question they do throw up is what the idea of the social contract means (more so in the “social” context rather than individual and state) when we think in terms of our individuality. Are we really keeping up our end of the bargain?