Crito: Why Socrates Should Have Left
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.