The Prudence of Polity: City and Sanity

Francisco Goya, “The Madhouse” (1812)

“Reason is not just the movements and actions of rational structures, but the movements of the structures and mechanisms of power. Reason is what sets aside madness. Reason is what gives itself the right and means to set aside madness.”
Michel Foucault, 1978

“Of the Foolish…”

The Crito is simultaneously an account of political right and an ethical work. Because of this it also speaks to something that would become a hallmark of Plato’s later philosophical focuses. Perhaps the most important concept, and the most elusive, in Plato’s henological metaphysics is, in fact, the ethical concept of the good life.

What readers are provided in the Crito is an examination of the co-origination shared between moral law and the material ethical practices taken in life that tend toward eudaimonia. This Socratic dialogue produces many distinct philosophical threads, ranging from the function of agreement and philosophical foundations to parental debt to the relationship between the foundation of sovereignty and the hold it maintains on life.

Beyond this, however, one finds a certain crucial signature of a theory of Sovereignty. Before the good life, eu zên, is even defined the entire groundwork of the discussion is to be agreed upon. “See whether the start of our inquiry is adequately stated, and try to answer what I ask you…” Socrates commands Crito (Crito 48e-49a). This “start”, or archê, is established in such a manner that it can only be produced by several distinct motions (which each have various implications). Primarily, the radical exclusion of the Many (hoi polloi) and, more importantly, the “foolish” (Crtio 47a). The constitution of a community that produces a covenant is predicated on an exclusion.

This exclusion does not, however, merely place this elusive figure on the outside, it remains at the core of the community’s function. “The ban is a form of relation” (Agamben 1998, 29). It is an “exclusive inclusion” (Agamben 1998, 85). It is truly an exclusive inclusion, because without this maneuver the founding of a supposedly rational discourse on the fate of Socrates is deemed impossible. This interaction on law and punishment remains unestablished before a community can be circumscribed and established. While this may seem initially like a small gesture, meant to highlight the differences in the argumentation between the boisterous crowds of Athens and the quiet and assured Socrates, it does something far more important – something that will serve as a signatory[1] touchstone for many subsequent theories of sovereignty, whether they be grounded in personation or consent of the governed predicated upon a certain kind of contract.

Reason and its Exclusions, Law and its Exceptions
Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Socrates” (1787)

In a strange way, Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates carries a particular literal, if not literary, accuracy in its depictions of the events of Phaedo. Not in who is present in the foreground, but who is departing. In the backgrounding frame, Xanthippe with a lifted hand is ushered away by a figure (one of “Crito’s people”) as they ascend a staircase, away from the unpleasant events of an execution (Phaedo 60a). However, Phaedo notes that this was not the nature of their final moments with their beloved friend. They philosophized (Phaedo, 59a). As noted earlier, this is precisely what happened when Socrates was initially sentenced to death (Apology 39e).

Such a discourse seemingly could not be pursued with those so deeply in mourning or crying out. The production of a rational community is one of the fundamental philosophical elements of Crito, and the series of refutations that produce this community are not merely inductive, but are foundationally exclusionary. Crito, when he first entered Socrates’ cell, was not in a state conducive to the formation of such a community. Socrates does two things when Crito finally completes his extensive, but disjointed, argumentation.

First, surprisingly, he completely abandons the line of thought centered solely around the consequences of his death for Crito. He notes that they do not in fact come from concerns of Crito himself, but they are the concerns of the majority. Crito is speaking for himself as an individual, but entirely captured by the concerns of others. But Crito is not entirely lost. Socrates tells him, “I am eager to examine together with you, Crito” (Crito, 46e). However, the dialogue cannot move forward with Crito so long as the concerns of the majority remain conceptually present in the cell (Kim 2011, 70-73).

Alan Kim, in his essay “Crito and Critique”, posits that Crito and Socrates produce a sort of Kantian “rational community” throughout the early stages of the dialogue. This claim is taken seriously here. Kim argues, very effectively, that this dialogue operates through a “Persuade or Obey” doctrine (Kim 2011, 94). If this doctrine is to be understood as that which Socrates preliminarily agrees to through the constitution of a rational community with Crito, then that rational community must be examined with political-theoretical care.

This process begins with an affective opposition between Socrates and Crito. Pleading for agreement, no matter how righteously, is the diametric opposite of the way Socrates has pestered the citizenry of Athens to take care of their soul and tend to what is most important, obviously:

We must therefore examine whether we should act in this way or not, as not only now but at all times I am the kind of man who listens to nothing within me but the argument that on reflection seems best to me. […] I value and respect the same principles as before and if we have no better arguments […] be sure that I shall not agree with you, not even if the power of the majority were to frighten us…

Crito 46b-c

Socrates then moves to acquire foundational agreements with Crito, as is customary in these “early” dialogues. Socrates has already accounted for his own rational autonomy, and has established this autonomy “as the ultimate condition of moral action” (Kim 2011, 94). Socrates’ own constitution has been established. Now, the same conditions must be established for Crito as his dialogical partner. First, that one should value certain opinions over others. Crito agrees. Then, that “one should value good opinions” (47a). Crito is slowly pulled away from his fright of the majority.

It is here, however, where a fascinating exclusionary circumscription takes place. This exclusion needs be commented on in a historical manner as it may point to a theory of sovereignty alongside the interrelation between moral and juridical law. The majority are to find themselves excluded from the discussion. Certainly this should not surprise a reader of Plato, as one quickly becomes accustomed to the anti-majoritarianism embedded in the elenctic process of the Socratic dialectic.

However, it is not simply for a reason of argumentation alone, but the nature of the individual positing the argumentation. Socrates asks, “[T]he good opinions are those of wise men, the bad ones those of foolish men?” (47a). Crito replies “of course” (47a).

In the production of this community of reason, there must not only be the essential exclusion of appeals to the “bogeys” or arguments of the many and the foolish, but the many and the foolish as such. It is in this exclusion, this setting aside of the foolish, that a properly constituent gesture is found. It is not just in the affirmation of Socrates’ and Crito’s rational being that is necessary, refutation of what is not – of who is not. The “foolish”, aphronōn, is a complicated translation choice to make. Liddell and Scott translate aphrōn as “senseless” or “crazed” (Liddell and Scott, 1889). This is a slightly confusing transliteration (in the text) and translation, given that phroneō is to pay mind to or often translated as practical reason as such and in relation to the human praxis of circumspection (phronesis).

Fascinatingly, phroneō often connotes a certain level of harmoniousness or like-mindedness in community. In Romans, Paul invokes the term to describe a cohesion of among followers of Christ. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5, NSRV).[2] However, let us first briefly focus on its utilization in classically ancient Greek philosophical texts.

When Aristotle, in Politics, outlines the differences between “natural slaves,” “lower animals” and “freemen” in “political life”, this diagnostic of practical wisdom becomes the operative distinguishing factor. “[H]e who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature” (Politics 1254b19-24). While practical reason is directly invoked, Malcolm Heath argues that, given what we know about Aristotle’s view on the impossibility for natural slaves to achieve eudaimonia (and what eudaimonia necessarily entails as it pertains to wisdom), that Aristotle is explicitly describing practical reason:

When Aristotle says that the natural slave ‘shares in reason to the extent of understanding it, but does not have it himself’, therefore, he is thinking specifically of practical reason.

Heath 2008, 247

It is worth quickly noting its appearances in Xenophon’s Memorabilia. In Book I it is used to oppose “senseless and motionless images” (eidōla aphrona) evoked by poets against the “sense and activity” of living, intelligent beings (Xenophon 1994, 1.4.4). In book II, it is explicitly tied to non-human animality when describing the risks of immoderation and the fate of those who cannot properly use their pleasure. “[I]s it not shameful, in your opinion, for a human being to suffer the same things as the most senseless of beasts?” (Xenophon 1994, 2.1.5).[3] This theoretical nomos established in the sovereign territory of the discussion between Socrates and Crito in the galley, even prior to the laws’ personification, has already indicated that Plato’s conception of sovereignty, like many that proceed him, is reliant on a founding violent exclusion – and specifically that of the “fool”.

While fool may be a complicated translation, the problem—and ever-present threat of discordance in the conducting of thought itself—is found in texts that speak to sovereign power and its limits directly. Of course, a certain level of careful study is needed when discussing these issues with any historical focus. However, our discussion remains separate from the monumentally important analysis of medical etymology and its relation to law. That will be dealt with in a subsequent piece on Hobbes, political theology, and aberrance.

Chapter XVI of Hobbes’s Leviathan contains an extensive deliberation on who/what can or has the capacity to author actions or to personate (which is the process by which the sovereign manifests). Hobbes lays out his theory of authorization in a manner comparable to the process of playwriting:

Of persons artificial, some have their words and actions owned by those whom they represent. And then the person is the actor, and he that owneth his words and actions is the AUTHOR, in which case the actor acteth by authority.

Hobbes 1994, 101

Inanimate objects can be personated, be it by an “overseer” or a “rector” who has such authority. However, “things inanimate cannot be authors, nor therefore give authority to actors” (Hobbes 1994, 102-103). Hobbes extends this foundational political incapacity in the forging of a covenant to three other figures. “Likewise, children, fools and madmen that have no use of reason may be personated by guardians or curators can be no authors” (Hobbes 1994, 103). Hobbes takes this further when discussing civil law. He attests that “[o]ver natural fools […] there is no law” (Hobbes 1994, 177).

The figure of the fool is, in the founding of the covenant and establishing of law, to be explicitly beyond the very bounds of its application, but this does not reduce this figure’s function to a secondary matter. To read Hobbes (or Crito’s initial dismissal of the fools) this way would be a mistake. That exclusion is paramount to its establishment in the first place – in its incipience. It is the constitutive gesture that makes the multitude possible. Michel Foucault writes of the constituent liminality of this figure in the century preceding the English Civil War this way:

[H]is exclusion must enclose him; if he cannot and must not have another prison than the threshold itself, he is kept at the point of passage. He is put in the interior of the exterior, and inversely.

Foucault 1965, 11

This suspended territory is the abode of the one “without mind.” It cannot simply be stated that “foolish” arguments are to be set aside for Crito and Socrates, but it must be affirmed that they are, in fact, not among the “foolish”. It is in the establishing of this “threshold” or “exclusion” that a faint echo is shared between reason and sovereignty.

Giorgio Agamben indirectly provides a helpful extension of the analysis of the marginality of the “madman” and “fool” by Foucault in the first volume of Homo Sacer, when discussing Hobbesian sovereignty. It is not an exception that, once it is made, leaves madness and the “fool” beyond the gates of the covenant. The figure that is subject to the exception, which is in this border space, is truly liminal. Agamben asks his reader to consider the figure who is subject to the circumscriptive gesture as being in a space between “physis and nomos, exclusion and inclusion”. This figure “dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither” (Agamben 1998, 105).

Hobbes, in fact, makes this quite clear when discussing the status of the law for “fools”. As already stated, for Hobbes, there is no law over the “fools”, however, it seems certain punishment can still be applied – as the Sovereign maintains the ability to invoke and apply, but not decree or constitute, natural law. To Hobbes any “law that obliges all subjects without exception” and is not written or codified, “is a law of nature” (Hobbes 1994, 177).

Spinoza, in his Political Treatise, clearly attempts to avoid this same inductive process of predicating his theory of sovereignty on “the teachings of reason” – and seems to explicitly target Hobbes in doing so. “[O]ne should not look for the causes and natural foundations of the state in the teachings of reason, but deduce them from the nature and condition of men in general” (Spinoza 2000, 36). And yet, the figure of the “fool” permits in his treatise a crucial break in the movement of nature and law.

For Spinoza, “a fool or a madman cannot be induced by any rewards or threats or carry out orders,” they are among “those things which cannot be a part of the commonwealth’s right and from which human nature for the most part recoils” (Spinoza 2000, 52). The broad foundation of Spinoza’s philosophy of the right of the commonwealth and its offices, has one constituent exception: the “fool” and the “madmen”. With this difference between Spinoza and Hobbes in mind, it is interesting to find that Spinoza starts from a position “natural foundations” and then discovers the necessary constituent exception, whereas Hobbes starts from the constituent circumscription then moves to “natural law” to maintain the liminality of those in the state of exception.

Returning to Plato, one sees a fascinating resonance between this small, but no doubt violent, gesture and the history of theories of sovereignty. It may be reduced to an argumentative idiosyncrasy within Socratic methodology, but this would be a mistake. Plato’s conception of what one could call speculatively sovereignty in this dialogue remains bound to Socrates’ personal ethics. Socrates abides by and territorially inhabits a particular kind of nomos defined by his rational autonomy and just living.

What is lost in contemporary discourses on constituent power is this ceaselessly updated exception, which nonetheless always portrays itself as necessary in its foundational position. In the quest to get to the heart of law, the practices of the self and the processes of subjectivation dissipate beneath the almost asphyxiating exegeses on code. What is important is the blood that has dried on the parchment (as Foucault reminds us in “Society Must Be Defended”). Even attempts to articulate the constituent gesture’s consequences, like Judith Butler’s masterful essay “We the People”, still fundamentally fail to capture the precariously mobile and liminal status of the exceptional figure.

It is not merely that they are on the outside of the constituent activity. It is that their exception makes the constituency possible. Through their exception, the fool, the madman, the one without sense, inhabits the city, or rational community – and maintains it. Perhaps what is needed is a new approach to these philosophical figures that we still, despite everything, consider peripheral (with no account of how that periphery moves and maintains the center). Reason needs madness. It needs it by right.

It is not only that “practical reason” produces, like in the Crito, a sovereignty whose foundation is the exclusion of the “foolish.” More importantly, it is that this exclusion is the practiced ethic of the wise, reasonable subject. Exclusion, therefore, as a clinical practice, is not just an echo of the circumscriptive groundwork of reason and its moralisms, but always in a direct and active relationship with it.

I would like to thank those who gave me notes (and even a title)…
As always, the conspirators know who they are…


Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. (D. Heller-Roazen, Trans.) Stanford: Stanford University Press.

__. 2009. The Signature of All Things: On Method. (L. D’Isanto and K. Attell, Trans.) New York: Zone Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1965. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. (R. Howard, Trans.) New York: Pantheon Books.

Heath, Malcolm 2008. “Aristotle on Natural Slavery.” Phronesis. 3(53): 243-270.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1994. Leviathan. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Kim, Alan. 2011. “Crito and Critique.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 1(41): 67-113.

Spinoza, Baruch. 2000. Political Treatise. (S. Shirley, Trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Watkin, William. 2014. “The Signature of All Things: Agamben’s Philosophical Archeology.” Modern Language Notes, 1(129): 130-161.

Xenophon. 1994. Memorabilia. (A. Bonnette, Trans.) Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[1] A “signature”, to the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, is a device that takes a philosophical paradigm (such as the exclusionary exception) and distributes it “through time and across discourses” (Watkin 2014, 140). If the paradigm can be understood through individual examples, the signature is what makes those examples legible in the history of philosophy. This paper, in part, contends that Crito carries this signature of the sovereign exception that is foundational to so many theories of sovereignty, political power, and right in the history of western philosophy. Literary scholar William Watkin even contends that the “signature” may be Agamben’s most important philosophical contribution. For a more complete analysis of the “signature” in histories of sovereignty, law, and authorship/authorization, see: Agamben 2009, 33-81; Watkin 2014, 139-141.

[2] “… ho de theos tēs hupomonēs kai tēs paraklēseōs dōē humin to auto phronein en allēlois kata Khriston Iēsoun…”

[3] For a treatment of this exact passage, but on the notion of kakodaimonia, see: Rosen’s Madness in Society, 1969, 90-93.

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