Last Updated on August 27, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176
Crito is a relatively short dialogue that should be read in conjunction with and between Apologia Skratous (early period, 399-390 b.c.e.; Apology, 1675) and Phaedn (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Phaedo, 1675). Apology gives an account of Socrates’ trial and condemnation; Phaedo describes his last conversations and death; Crito recounts a friend’s urgent plea for Socrates to avail himself of the ample opportunity to escape and the latter’s justification on moral grounds for remaining in prison voluntarily, although the execution will occur two days later. The dialogue is probably meant to explain Socrates’ personal reasons for taking this course of inaction, rather than to prescribe a universally applicable norm for the individual unjustly condemned by the state, and some writers have suggested that Plato himself would probably have chosen to escape rather than to accept the sentence. Yet profound political, social, and moral issues are raised to which there are no easy solutions; their complications are such that readers may find their own judgments falling on either side of an exceedingly fine line.
A Discussion of Escape
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631
When the dialogue opens, Socrates has been in prison a month, for no death sentences could be carried out in Athens during the annual voyage of the state vessel to Delos, in commemoration of the legendary deliverance of the city from the Minotaur by Theseus. However, the ship is reportedly about to return, and Crito, having arrived at the prison before dawn, is waiting for Socrates to awake, in order to break the news and try to convince him to escape while there is yet time. It is typical of Socrates that he slumbers peacefully while Crito is wakeful and desperate, and that in the ensuing discussion it is Socrates who is the more rational and objective, though it is his own life that is at stake.
Crito’s reasons for urging Socrates to escape, though perhaps on a less lofty plane than the latter’s rebuttal, are not specious but are rather quite practical and persuasive. It is the weight of these, plus that of the circumstances under which Socrates was condemned, which gives the dialogue its moral significance. Crito begins by pointing out that if Socrates dies, an irreplaceable friend will have been lost, and besides, Crito will gain a reputation for loving money more than his friends, since many people will think he could have saved Socrates had he only been willing to put up the necessary cash; they will not believe that Socrates stayed in prison voluntarily.
Socrates answers that people of reason will believe only the truth; why should one regard majority opinion? Crito then points out that popular opinion is not to be taken lightly, which fact is confirmed by Socrates’ present circumstances. However, the philosopher replies that common people, unfortunately, are of limited capacity to do evil—because otherwise they could likewise do great good. This segment of the dialogue reveals the Socratic identification of wisdom and virtue, and his belief that no real evil can happen to a good person even if one’s body is destroyed.
Crito acquiesces in this point but continues by assuring Socrates that he need not be concerned about any consequences to his friends if he chooses to escape (which apparently would have been quite easy under the circumstances, if not actually desired or intended by those who brought Socrates to trial). They are prepared to risk a large fine, loss of property, or other punishment. There is plenty of money available to buy off informers, and Crito knows people who will take Socrates out of the country for a moderate fee. Not only Crito’s money, but also that of Simmias and Cebes—foreigners who would not be so liable to punishment—is at Socrates’ disposal. At his trial, Socrates had rejected banishment to a foreign society, but Crito assures him of comfort and protection among friends in Thessaly.
Furthermore, he continues, Socrates will do a wrong in voluntarily neglecting to save his life; he will be inflicting on himself the penalty his enemies wished. What of his young sons? Will he not be failing them by leaving their education unfinished and deserting them to the lot of orphans? Crito finishes his argument by expressing once more his concern for the reputation both Socrates and his friends will incur if he refuses escape, a reputation for cowardice and lack of initiative resulting from first, Socrates’ unnecessary appearance in court (it was customary for Athenians whose conviction was probable to leave the country before trial); second, the manner in which the defense was made (Socrates had refused all compromise and had deliberately taken a position that might, and did, result in conviction); and third, the present situation, which will suggest sheer bungling and lack of spirit. In short, the suffering of Socrates’ death will be augmented by disgrace.
Right and Wrong
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1374
To all this Socrates makes a reply remarkable for its calm, detached, and rational tenor. Much as he appreciates Crito’s concern, he points out that his choice to face death is not a sudden impulse; his practice has always been to follow the course reason shows to be best. The question, then, is whether the opinions he has previously adopted are still true or whether their truth has been altered by the turn of events. One must not be frightened into a change of outlook, he reassures Crito, by imprisonment, loss of goods, or execution. With characteristic but kindly irony Socrates asks Crito to consider the matter with him, for since Crito is in no danger of death he is more likely to be impartial and objective.
Is it not true, he asks, that only some opinions are tenable and not all, that those to be respected are the good ones, and that these belong to the wise? Is it not the case that the opinions of the few qualified experts, rather than those of the masses, are to be regarded, as is illustrated in the case of athletic training? If this is true in general, then it follows that in the present case Socrates and Crito should be concerned only with what the expert in right and wrong will think, not with what the majority will say. The fact that the latter have the powers of life and death in their hands is really irrelevant to the argument.
In the considerations that follow, it is clear that Socrates is not at all interested in discussing the possibility or the means of escape, but rather its rightness or wrongness. His premises are that “the really important thing is not to live, but to live well. . . . And . . . to live well means the same thing as to live honourably or rightly.” Crito’s concern about expense, reputation, and the upbringing of Socrates’ children are those of the common people, whose attitudes and acts are unrelated to reason. Socrates says:Our real duty . . . is to consider one question only. . . . Shall we be acting rightly in paying money and showing gratitude to these people who are going to rescue me, and in escaping . . . or shall we really be acting wrongly in doing all this? If it becomes clear that such conduct is wrong, I cannot help thinking that the question whether we are sure to die, or to suffer any other ill effect . . . if we stand our ground and take no action, ought not to weigh with us at all in comparison with the risk of doing what is wrong.
Wrongdoing, Socrates holds, is reprehensible not merely on most but on all occasions; there are no exceptions. Although most people think it natural and right to return wrongs done them, Socrates disagrees: “It is never right to do a wrong or return a wrong or defend one’s self against injury by retaliation.” If this is so, and it is agreed that one should always fulfill morally right agreements, then it follows, Socrates concludes, that it would be wrong for him to leave without an official discharge by the state, for he would be doing the state an injury by breaking an implicit agreement with it. He explains what he means by personifying the Athenian Laws and Constitution and imagining the dialogue that might occur between them and himself were he to favor escape.
They would first point out to him that such an act would subvert the Laws and the state; the latter cannot subsist if its legal decisions are to be set aside for the benefit of individuals. However, suppose that Socrates should retort that the proposed escape was in reprisal for the wrong done him by the state? The answer of the Laws to this would be that not only was there no provision made for such evasion and insubordination, but Socrates is under agreement to abide by the state’s judgments. He has no legitimate complaint against them, the Laws continue, but rather positive obligations to abide by them. The Laws, by sanctioning the marriage of his parents, in a sense gave him life itself; they also provided a proper education for him. He is thus their child and servant, and as such does not have rights equal to theirs, any more than a son has the right to rebel against his father. Indeed, “compared with your mother and father and all the rest of your ancestors your country is something far more precious, more venerable, more sacred, and held in greater honour both among gods and among all reasonable men.” Whatever it orders one must do, unless he can justly persuade it otherwise (and of course, during the trial Socrates failed to persuade the jury, though he was confident he might have done so if given more time).
Now, in spite of all the blessings vouchsafed to Athenian citizens, the Laws continue, any young man upon reaching maturity may evaluate the political order and the administration of justice, and if he disapproves, he is free to leave the state with all his possessions. If, on the other hand, he surveys the political and judicial arrangement and voluntarily stays, his act is equivalent to an agreement to abide by the state’s commands—or rather its proposals, because they are not blunt dictates and the citizen has the choice of either obeying or persuading the state to change its decision. If Socrates should run away now, he would be more blameworthy than any other Athenian: His implicit agreement to abide by the law has been more explicit than that of any other citizen because he above all has remained at home, never crossing the border except while on military duty. Although he admired Sparta and Crete because of their good governments and respect for law, he has never emigrated to those city-states. And again, during the trial when the defendant was given the customary opportunity to propose an alternative penalty, Socrates did not choose banishment. His covenant with the state was thus made freely, consciously, and under no stress in relation to time—after all, he has spent seventy years in Athens.
Furthermore, the Laws ask, what will Socrates gain by escaping? The risk of banishment or loss of property would be inflicted on his friends. If he entered well-ordered states, he would be regarded as a lawbreaker by their citizens and would confirm the jury’s opinion of him. However, if he chose to go to states with little or no respect for law and order, would that kind of life be worthwhile? He could not continue to converse as usual about goodness in persons and governments, for it would be hypocrisy to do so. He would not want to rear his children in such an environment, and if they remained in Athens, they would be more likely to receive good care with Socrates dead than with him alive illegally and in exile. Surely his friends, if true to their profession, would care for them.
In conclusion, the Laws advise Socrates, “Do not think more of your children or of your life or of anything else than you think of what is right; so that when you enter the next world you may have all this to plead in your defence before the authorities there.” To disobey by escaping will not really better either his friends or Socrates in this world or the next. “As it is, you will leave this place, when you do, as the victim of a wrong done not by us, the Laws, but by your fellowmen.” However, if he retaliates and returns evil for evil, breaking his agreement and wronging himself, his friends, his country, and the Laws themselves, he will incur the wrath of the Laws both here and in the next life.
Socrates thus concludes the speeches he has put in the mouth of the Laws and asks Crito whether he has anything to say in opposition to these arguments, which seem so persuasive that Socrates professes to be scarcely able to hear any others. Because Crito offers no refutation, the matter is decided: Socrates will obey the law even though it means his death.
Reasons for Socrates’ Decision
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480
Few readers will leave Crito without making a personal judgment on Socrates’ decision and his justification for it. The difficulty of making an adequate one is complicated by several factors: Socrates’ trial, as far as is known, was legal. In addition, the real reasons for which Socrates was prosecuted concerned matters for which general amnesty had been extended by the Act of Oblivion, and so the court could not have jurisdiction over these; hence the failure of Anytus and Meletus, Socrates’ accusers, to explain their charges. However, though the ostensible charges were thus specious, and though Socrates showed them to be ridiculous, the jury had voted in proper order to convict him, and so the letter of the law had been fulfilled. The very fact that this case clearly showed that an innocent and supremely good man could be condemned unjustly under the law and hence that the law needed revision was cited as an excellent reason for escape, but Socrates argued that such reform should be demanded at a time other than that at which his own fate was affected in order that reform would not be motivated by mere favoritism.
However—as Socrates makes the Laws say in the dialogue—it is not the laws but the people administering them who wronged him. Socrates argued that respect for law in general is more valuable than one person’s life lost by maladministration.
This again is a delicate point. Had the miscarriage of justice occurred merely through ignorance—though of course Socrates regarded vice as a kind of ignorance—it would have been easier to accept the sacrifice. However, the reader finds it difficult to avoid feeling that the court is more intent on ridding Athens of Socrates than it is on reaching a just verdict. It is true that Socrates argued that were he to evade the death penalty, people would think him insincere in his former teaching about integrity and obedience to the law—but Crito might well have turned one of his own statements against him by replying that it is only what reasonable and wise people think that really matters. Nevertheless, the example set by escape might have been harmful to people of less comprehension.
Socrates perceived the value of consistency and stability in the state and its dispensation of justice. A state does not consist merely of the persons administering and living in it at any give time; to function best, a state must have a continuity transcending the irregularities of individual fortunes. Presumably this was Socrates’ intent in valuing the state above parents and ancestors, though modern Western readers may feel that Socrates revered the state too much. However, whether or not readers agree with Socrates’ decision, they can hardly fail to admire the philosopher’s devotion to principle, nor deny that the nobility of such a death enhances life for the living.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437
Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.
Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.
Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.
Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.
Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.
Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.
Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.
Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.
Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.
Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.
Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.
Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.
Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.
Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.
Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.