Why Socrates Is Still The Man

If you’d been unfairly convicted of a crime and sentenced to be executed, and then had an opportunity to escape, would you do it?  Should you do it? 

I first came across Plato’s Crito a few years ago when my family was reading Bill Bennett’s Book of Virtues.  It strikes me as a superlative example of dispassionate logic, a surgically precise chain of ideas that build on each other to form a flawless defense of a thesis.  In the age of Jerry Springer, the very concept that we must form our arguments not on convenient passions, but on objective reasoning, has been all but lost.  I’ve used this text in English 102 to study that principle, and in honors high school classes just to get them to consider its existence. 

Socrates isn’t being selfish here; he’s cooly analyzed the facts and has submitted himself to the truth as revealed by that process.  Who does that anymore?  Also, I’m impressed that so much of Socrates’ argument here rests on the assumption that patriotism and loyalty are inviolable virtues.  It’s a cliche that Western Civilization needs to emphasize repsonsibilities again as much as rights, but Socrates actually walked the walk: he lets himself be unjustly executed because of his devotion to his country and, by extension, reason itself.  That’s nothing short of heroic.

I’ve edited the text below from the Internet Classics Archive at M.I.T.  Also, I’ve marked where Socrates introduces each of his major points, which I’ve summarized at the end.  This is a valuable reading exercise because it just goes so strongly against our culture’s assumptions these days, and does it so powerfully.  We might be inclined to disagree with Socrates, but who can deny, much less refute, the strength of his mind?  That alone should be pretty compelling evidence that his perspective demands respect. 

 

From Crito, by Plato, 4th c. B.C.

 

Socrates has been tried and sentenced for leading the citizens of Athens to question and analyze their society’s assumptions, and by promoting a rigid devotion to personal integrity.  His friend Crito visits him in jail before the execution to convince him to escape, which he easily could.  Socrates, however, reasons that, even though the punishment is unjust, he should submit to it.  It is for this unusual thesis that Plato has his old teacher argue with alarming power…

 

 

Soc.

Ought a man to do what he admits to be right, or ought he to betray the right?
          Cr. He ought to do what he thinks right.

Soc. But if this is true, what is the application? In leaving the prison against the will of the Athenians, do I wrong any? or rather do I not wrong those whom I ought least to wrong? Do I not desert the principles which were acknowledged by us to be just? What do you say?
          Cr. I cannot tell, Socrates, for I do not know.
  

 

 

 

 

Soc. Then consider the matter in this way: Imagine that I am about to play truant (you may call the proceeding by any name which you like), and the laws and the government come and interrogate me: “Tell us, Socrates,” they say; “what are you about? (1) Are you going by an act of yours to overturn us- the laws and the whole State, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?” What will be our answer, Crito, to these and the like words? Anyone, and especially a clever rhetorician, will have a good deal to urge about the evil of setting aside the law which requires a sentence to be carried out; and we might reply, “Yes; but the State has injured us and given an unjust sentence.” Suppose I say that?
            Cr. Very good, Socrates.

 


Soc.(2) And was that our agreement with you?” the law would say, “or were you to abide by the sentence of the State?” And if I were to express astonishment at their saying this, the law would probably add: “Answer, Socrates, instead of opening your eyes: you are in the habit of asking and answering questions. 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, (3) 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. (4) Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?- you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? And will you, O professor of true virtue, say that you are justified in this?”  What answer shall we make to this, Crito? Do the laws speak truly, or do they not?
              Cr. I think that they do.
Soc. Then the laws will say: “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, (5) 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.

“And he who disobeys us is, as we maintain, thrice wrong: first, because in disobeying us he is disobeying his parents; secondly, because we are the authors of his education; thirdly, because he has made an agreement with us that he will duly obey our commands; and he neither obeys them (6) nor convinces us that our commands are wrong; and we do not rudely impose them, but give him the alternative of obeying or convincing us; that is what we offer and he does neither. These are the sort of accusations to which, as we were saying, you, Socrates, will be exposed if you accomplish your intentions; you, above all other Athenians.” Suppose I ask, why is this? They will justly retort upon me that I above all other men have acknowledged the agreement.

“There is clear proof,” they will say, “Socrates, that we and the city were not displeasing to you. (7)Of all Athenians you have been the most constant resident in the city, which, as you never leave, you may be supposed to love. For you never went out of the city either to see the games, except once when you went to the Isthmus, or to any other place unless when you were on military service; nor did you travel as other men do. Nor had you any curiosity to know other States or their laws: your affections did not go beyond us and our State; we were your especial favorites, and you acquiesced in our government of you; and this is the State in which you begat your children, which is a proof of your satisfaction. (8)Moreover, you might, if you had liked, have fixed the penalty at banishment in the course of the trial-the State which refuses to let you go now would have let you go then. But you pretended that you preferred death to exile, and that you were not grieved at death. And now you have forgotten these fine sentiments, and pay no respect to us, the laws, of whom you are the destroyer; and are doing what only a miserable slave would do, running away and turning your back upon the compacts and agreements which you made as a citizen. And first of all answer this very question: Are we right in saying that you agreed to be governed according to us in deed, and not in word only? Is that true or not?” How shall we answer that, Crito? Must we not agree?
              Cr. There is no help, Socrates.
Soc. Then will they not say: “(9) You, Socrates, are breaking the covenants and agreements which you made with us at your leisure, not in any haste or under any compulsion or deception, but having had seventy years to think of them, during which time you were at liberty to leave the city, if we were not to your mind, or if our covenants appeared to you to be unfair. You had your choice, and might have gone either to Lacedaemon or Crete, which you often praise for their good government, or to some other Hellenic or foreign State. Whereas you, above all other Athenians, seemed to be so fond of the State, or, in other words, of us her laws (for who would like a State that has no laws?), that you never stirred out of her: the halt, the blind, the maimed, were not more stationary in her than you were. And now you run away and forsake your agreements. Not so, Socrates, if you will take our advice; do not make yourself ridiculous by escaping out of the city.
                “For just consider, if you transgress and err in this sort of way, what good will you do, either to yourself or to your friends? (10) That your friends will be driven into exile and deprived of citizenship, or will lose their property, is tolerably certain; and you yourself, (11)if you fly to one of the neighboring cities, as, for example, Thebes or Megara, both of which are well-governed cities, will come to them as an enemy, Socrates, and their government will be against you, and all patriotic citizens will cast an evil eye upon you as a subverter of the laws, and you will confirm in the minds of the judges the justice of their own condemnation of you. For he who is a corrupter of the laws is more than likely to be corrupter of the young and foolish portion of mankind. Will you then flee from well-ordered cities and virtuous men? and is existence worth having on these terms? (12) Or will you go to them without shame, and talk to them, Socrates?

“And what will you say to them? What you say here about virtue and justice and institutions and laws being the best things among men? Would that be decent of you?  And where will be your fine sentiments about justice and virtue then?

“Listen, then, Socrates, to us who have brought you up. (13)Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below. For neither will you nor any that belong to you be happier or holier or juster in this life, or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids. Now you depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will receive you as an enemy; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us. Listen, then, to us and not to Crito.”

This is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic; that voice, I say, is humming in my ears, and prevents me from hearing any other. And I know that anything more which you will say will be in vain. Yet speak, if you have anything to say.
        Cr. I have nothing to say, Socrates.
Soc. Then let me follow the intimations of the will of God.

 

 

  1. Escape would be an act of sedition, which would damage the welfare of the nation.
  2. Do we agree to obey the laws at all times, or only when it’s convenient?  (If only when it’s convenient, then what’s the good of law at all, if it’s subjective and flexible?)
  3. We have an obligation to support the government that defends the conditions which sustain our family and education.
  4. As the State maintains the good of all citizens, the individual is not equal to the State and, therefore, is not justified in reacting like a peer in rebellious activities.
  5. As he is free to leave, an adult who remains in a place implicitly enters into a contract to support and obey that area’s government. 
  6. Socrates, given a chance, failed to convince the State that he was right. (Though, admittedly, his “trial” would hardly pass muster today.)
  7. Socrates’ special love of Athens should dissuade him from doing anything to injure its authority.
  8. Socrates, apperently, could have made a deal for a lesser sentence, as it were, but chose not to.
  9. Socrates’ steadfast loyalty to his nation would become hypocritical if he spurned it now, after freely choosing to submit to it his entire adult life.
  10. His escape would bring persecution upon his friends and family still in Athens.
  11. Anywhere he would conceivably flee to would know him as a criminal who cheats his country when it suits his whims, and treat him accordingly.  (This same logic warns us not to get involved in relationships with someone who has a history of cheating.)
  12. Socrates’ lessons about virtue and justice would thus also become hypocritical if he were to betray his administration for personal gain…a thought that would be unbearable for a hero like Socrates.
  13. Justice and virtue are more important than personal safety or satisfaction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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