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.
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...
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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...
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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...
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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....
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