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…
Cr. He ought to do what he thinks right.
Cr. I cannot tell, Socrates, for I do not know.
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.
Cr. I think that they do.
“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.
Cr. There is no help, Socrates.
“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.”
Cr. I have nothing to say, Socrates.
Escape would be an act of sedition, which would damage the welfare of the nation.
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?)
We have an obligation to support the government that defends the conditions which sustain our family and education.
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.
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.
Socrates, given a chance, failed to convince the State that he was right. (Though, admittedly, his “trial” would hardly pass muster today.)
Socrates’ special love of Athens should dissuade him from doing anything to injure its authority.
Socrates, apperently, could have made a deal for a lesser sentence, as it were, but chose not to.
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.
His escape would bring persecution upon his friends and family still in Athens.
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.)
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.
Justice and virtue are more important than personal safety or satisfaction.