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Crito: Why Socrates Should Have Left

January 11, 2011
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When I read Socrates’ argument for laws, I can’t help but ask myself how I understand my relationship with the state and its laws. I do understand, and to an extent, agree with Socrates’ argument for sustained respect for the law, even in the face of an unjust law. However, I see two counterarguments to Socrates’ line of thinking: the including/excluding properties of law and a pluralistic conception of values.

The idea of law is a tricky one. The two most important questions are, “What is a law?” and, “Can an unjust law exist?” I feel that three definitions are important to consider in this case. The first is law, the second is society, and the third is democracy. Laws are codified manifestations of the public’s expectations of conduct within the society. A society is a collection of people who feel comfortable identifying with the values of one another. A democratic society affords all citizens with the right to form a part of the public and contribute their personal values and opinions towards the creation of this code of conduct and the consequences of disobedience with equal influence.

So the law can be understood, in short, as an expression of commonly held values with an inclusive and exclusive property. If I disagree with a certain law and it cannot be amended, then my beliefs are at odds with what is held to be right by society. Since the law does not express my values and society is a collection of people who have similar values, then I am not a part of such a society. Therefore, the society’s laws do not have the power of law over me. If this notion reminds anyone of something they have heard before, then they’re right. St. Augustine became the founder of the non-violent resistance movement with the phrase, “An unjust law is no law at all” (Law and Lawyers).

I can understand if that does not seem like a very convincing argument. After all, it seems to be a “Get Out of Jail Free” card to anyone who wants to escape the consequences of their actions. It is important to remember then, that it is impossible to live and contribute to society without coming under its jurisdiction. If one feels that they do not agree with essential parts of the law, then that disagreement must be made explicit by leaving that society. Society is an “opt-out” policy that assumes complete adherence to its rules simply by one’s presence within its domain.

So, as Socrates said, he was born, reared, and remained in Athens, and so must obey by its rules. However, he misapplies the principle that, “One should never do wrong in return, not do any man harm, no matter what he may have done to you” (49d) in the Crito. In his mistake, Socrates betrays an incomplete understanding of the pluralistic nature of values.

It seems as though a fair way to rephrase Socrates’ statement would be to say, “Man should never do wrong.” If Socrates really has “held it for a long time and still hold[s] it now” (49e), them he must consider himself as a man who should have harm done to him. It could be true that Socrates would do a wrong to the Athenian state by escaping. But by failing to act to save himself, he also does a wrong. This is the foundation of the principle of “omission” that is considered law in our society today (Wikipedia). Socrates does not appear to be aware that it is possible to do wrong through both action and inaction.

It is often accepted that in situations such as these, the contract first entered determines the validity of all following agreements. This is because any proceeding commitments that endanger the ability to fulfill the first are not valid if another of Socrates’ core beliefs is to be followed: one should always fulfill just agreements (50). Socrates’ has always had a commitment to himself, even before the Athenian state influenced his life.

Socrates had an obligation to save himself and by remaining in the prison showed his ignorance of the pluralistic character of virtues – it is possible for multiple values to be simultaneously true and in opposition. What is more, the law to which Socrates became determined to submit himself had already cast him out of Athenian society. It seems tragic to me that Crito so spectacularly fails to become the sort of disciple that Socrates so desired: one who would show Socrates that by making all of these claims of right and wrong, he reveals himself to be no wiser than the rest – Socrates does not even know that he knows nothing.

7 Comments
  1. Josh Platko permalink
    January 11, 2011 10:51 PM

    Your point is valid when you address the part about Socrates contradicting himself. However, the “omission” principal may be a law here today. But some time ago in the Athenina State, that doesn’t seem to apply to Socrates in this situation. Personally I think she should stay, after his original performance in court he would be seen as a hypocrate if he were to escape. People would think that all that stuff he said in court, whether he belived it or not, was all just a joke to him.

  2. molliefein1 permalink
    January 12, 2011 12:24 AM

    I think that it is a difficult situation to decipher considering the context. To us now, as we learned in lecture, Socrates “crime” would never be perceived as crime, or further as a crime deserving capital punishment. But in his time, under an Athenian democracy, the actions of Socrates went against the laws, and therefore were perceived as bad. I saw much of Socrates’ argument as hypocritical, both in “Apology” and “Crito”. Throughout “Apology,” Socrates states his wisdom implicitly, while also saying that he knows nothing. In “Crito”, Socrates continues to talk about how one should not care what the majority thinks (44c, 48a) and rants of this until his “Speech of the Laws”(50a) where he changes his attitude entirely to support laws even if they are unjust. I don’t understand how following unjust laws is anything but subjection to the thoughts of the majority. Josh, you believe that Socrates should stay because he would be seen as a hypocrite by the public if he escaped, and on some level, I do agree with this statement, but I think that if Socrates’ decision to stay also proves him a hypocrite, because he is submitting to the opinions of the majority. I find Socrates’ trial and the following conversations extremely confusing because there is no right or wrong answer and no way to tell if Socrates really is guilty, but I suppose that forming opinions based on the evidence is what political theory is all about.

    If I did have to decide, I think that Socrates should escape, simply because as lernerm said “Socrates has always had a commitment to himself…” and “by remaining in prison showed his ignorance of the pluralistic character of virtues.” In an unjust situation, given voluntary followers (who also prove his innocence in “corrupting the youth”) who are willing to sacrifice majority opinion or consequence to help him escape, Socrates should have followed his own logic from the beginning, and done what he perceived as right.

    If Socrates believed that the “unexamined life is not worth living,” he should have chosen to spare his own very examined life by his own logic.

  3. jdadamo permalink
    January 12, 2011 6:36 PM

    Socrates should not have escaped. Despite the fact that the charges he was being executed for are charges of ignorance- “corrupting the youth” and “worshiping non-state gods” – but Socrates I think believed that he was an old man and would’ve died anyway, and would rather become a martyr and highlight the problems with Athenian democracy than seem like a coward and escape. As the Professor said in lecture today, that’s what wound up happening- Socrates’ sacrifice was necessary in order to highlight the injustices of society at that point in time. I’d like to think he was intelligent enough to know that that’s exactly what would happen if he went along with the charge of death.

  4. Justin Kucera permalink
    January 23, 2011 6:18 PM

    I agree with you 100%. Of course he should have left. He does offer a convicing argument for staying but if you just think about his trial in a modern day point of view it would have been smart for him to leave. The punishment obvioulsy didn’t fit the crime so leaving would have been the best way for him to protest. Plus just think about the human aspect of it, of course he didn’t want to stay in jail and die, wouldn’t anyone much rather live than die. It is a simple answer if you don’t over think it.

  5. Justin Kucera permalink
    January 23, 2011 6:28 PM

    I agree with you 100%. Of course he should have left. It seems like an easy answer. Even though he does offer a good argument for staying but just take a view on this trial and situaion through the lense of a person from the present-day. Why would some one stay in jail when they have the chance to leave? Even if he is trying to prove a point, it might go unnoticed. It is an easy answer, you have to use the “get out of jail free” card when you have the chance, and Socrates didn’t. That was a mistake.

    • melanied1092 permalink
      January 24, 2011 1:33 PM

      I don’t think it was a mistake. The “get out of jail free” card actually wasn’t “free” for him. It would have cost him his reputation and a chance to bring awareness to the injustice. After saying things like: “What has happened to me may well be a good thing..”, and “I will never fear or avoid things of which I not know…”, he can’t just chicken out. He seemed curious about life after death anyways. (“No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man.”) If he escaped he probably would have died shortly after arriving or even on the way to his new city. By staying he at least uses this as an opportunity to go out with a bang, by looking like a cool martyr.

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