In Plato’s dialogue Crito, we have an account of an attempt by Crito to rescue Socrates from death. Crito had devised a way of escape, but Socrates refused. Socrates’ adamant refusal to save his own life gives us yet another glimpse into the life of this humble philosopher who changed the course of Western civilization.
Unlike today in the West, executions in the ancient world were carried out very soon after the trial. But because of a religious custom, Socrates’ execution was postponed for a month. Every year, a state galley from Athens would set out on a religious mission to the island of Delos, sacred to the god Apollo. During the time when the ship was away, no executions were allowed.1 When the dialogue opens, the ship is expected to arrive back at Athens at any moment.
The story becomes heartwarming when we learn that Crito and Socrates were childhood friends. Imagine your best friend on the brink of death, and you’ve the power to save him from a certain end. Consider also the frustration and sadness you would feel when your friend refuses to take you up on your offer.
We also learn through the various Plato’s dialogues that Crito was a wealthy person who made his money through agriculture.2 In addition, he married into money, his wife being of aristocratic background. If someone was going to orchestrate an escape, Crito, with his connections, would be the one to do it.
Crito’s Early Morning Visit to Socrates
Crito enters Socrates’ cell before dawn and finds, to his disbelief, his friend Socrates sleeping peacefully. He debates to himself whether or not to wake Socrates and decides against it.
Finally, after what seems like hours, Socrates stirs a bit, opens his eyes, and eventually looks at Crito sitting by his side.
Socrates: “About what time is it?” Crito: “Just before dawn.” Socrates: “Have you just come, or have you been here for some time?” Crito: “A fair time.” Socrates: “Then why did you not wake me right away but sit there in silence?” Crito: “By Zeus, no, Socrates. I wish I myself were not so sleepless and sorrowful, and so I have been marveling at you, when I see how peacefully you’ve been sleeping. I deliberately didn’t wake you so that you would pass the time as peacefully as possible. Even before now I have often thought you fortunate on account of your demeanor towards your entire life, and even more so in your present misfortune, how easily and calmly you bear it.”43a-b
To what can we attribute this incredible peace in the face of death? Really, there are two reasons. Firstly, Socrates has known all along that his occupation as a purveyor of the truth was a precarious one. That could very well lead him to his death. Please see my post 68 for more discussion on this point. Secondly, and more importantly, Socrates was a virtuous man. Virtuous people excel in all of the virtues, not just some of them. We are not talking about perfection, but about a general mastery of the virtues. Of course, there is always room for improvement.
One of the four primary or cardinal virtues is what the Greeks called fortitude, or what we call courage. The other three are temperance, justice, and prudence. Virtuous people are courageous people even in the face of death. This is because they live by principle and not self-preservation. Cowardly people, on the other hand, live by fear even when there is nothing to be afraid of.
A good example of this was the reaction to the pandemic of 2020-2021. Fear ruled the day and was even upheld as a virtue, whereas those who exhibited courage were maligned. Courage was treated as a vice, and fear a virtue. At least from my vantage point in the United States, the general tenor of fear revealed in a stark manner that all of this went to prove that we are a people who lack virtue.
It reminds me of the following proverb:
“The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”– Proverbs 28:1
Of course, Socrates does not point to his virtue but instead, his old age as the reason for such calmness.
Socrates: “It’s because it would be out of tune, Crito, to be angry at my age if I must finally die.” Crito: “And yet others of your age, Socrates, have been caught up in such misfortunes, but their age does not prevent any of them from being angry at his fate.” Socrates: “That’s true. But why did you come so early?”43b-c
Socrates’ Imminent Execution
Crito explains the reason for his early arrival and his consternation:
Crito: “Carrying troubling news, Socrates, though not for you, as it appears, but deeply troubling for me and all of your friends, and I, it seems, am among the most heavily burdened.” Socrates: “What is it? Has the ship arrived from Delos, upon whose arrival I must die?”43c-d
Crito explains that, according to certain reports, it is expected to arrive today which means that Socrates would be executed the following day. Socrates calmly disagrees with that assessment. He confidently stated that the ship would not arrive until tomorrow. Which means that his execution would not occur until the third day. When asked how he knows, Socrates says something remarkable.
Socrates: “My evidence is something I saw in a dream a little while ago during the night. It’s likely that you chose a very good time not to wake me.” Crito: “Well, what was the dream?” Socrates: “A woman appeared, coming towards me, beautiful and shapely, wearing white clothing. She called to me and said, ‘Socrates, you shall arrive in fertile Phthia on the third day.'”44a-b
At the end of my previous post 68, I discussed how God communicated to Socrates through various means that included dreams and visions. Socrates was aware that he was on a divine mission to speak the truth, and eventually realized that this endeavor would lead him to his death. But the divine element of his calling is what gave him solace, knowing that he was accomplishing a purpose that went beyond mere self-preservation.
Achilles and Fertile Phthia
All that being true, I would be remiss if I didn’t unpack the richness of his dream. The imagery itself is striking, a beautiful woman in white clothing assuring him that he will arrive in a good place, “fertile Phthia,” three days hence. Most modern readers lose the true meaning, even though the imagery engages our imaginations. However, any Greek schoolboy who had to read Homer would have recognized a striking and unmistakable allusion to the great Achilles in this imagery. This is because Phthia, located in Thessaly, was Achilles’ boyhood home. This important reference in Socrates’ dream links the two men, Socrates and Achilles, together.
But was this reference actually part of Socrates’ dream or a revision placed there by Plato? I do not doubt that Socrates had such a dream informing him of the day of his execution, but Plato, being the great dramatist that he was, may have added this Achilles comparison. If this were true, it begs the question of what does a weak, elderly philosopher have in comparison with a great military hero? For the answer to this, we must turn to the Iliad.
At one point in the Iliad, King Agamemnon deeply offends Achilles when he takes Briseis, a beautiful young woman and a spoil of war, away from Achilles.3 Agamemnon quickly realizes his mistake and, in tears, tries to placate Achilles by not only returning Briseis, but also giving him more spoils of war including cattle, sheep, and horses. Achilles reasons that possessions like Briseis are not permanent but can be gained and lost again. Besides, Achilles was a very proud man who could not easily forget this great affront to his honor.
In a speech to the Greek assembly, he threatens to return home to Phthia:
You will see, if you want, and if such things could concern you– Iliad IX, 359-363
At early dawn upon the fish-filled Hellespont sailing,
My own ships, and men in them eager to row;
If he should give us fair voyaging, Glorious Earth-Shaker,
On the third day I would reach deep soiled Phthia.
The italicized line is quoted verbatim in Crito 44b, leaving no doubt that there is a comparison going on between Socrates and Achilles. What do these two men, who could not seem any different – a proud warrior and an aged, non-violent philosopher – possibly have in common? We must start by identifying this beautiful woman in white.
Thetis and Achilles
The woman in white who appeared to Socrates in his dream is none other than Thetis, the goddess mother of Achilles. When Achilles is going through his ordeal with Agamemnon, deciding if he should accept his gifts of reconciliation and return to the battle or go home to Phthia, Thetis appeared to her son. Thetis made it clear that Achilles’ real choice was not between receiving spoils or going home, but a long life on one hand with no glory or a short-lived life with the glory of a hero. After Thetis appeared to him, Achilles realized the true gravity of his choice.
Cattle and fat sheep can all be had for the raiding,
tripods all for the trading, and tawny-headed stallions.
But a man’s life breath cannot come back again—
Mother tells me,– Iliad IX, 406-415
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies…
true, but the life that’s left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.
Being a proud man, the choice was clear in Achilles’ mind: go for glory. But the problem was that he painted himself into a corner. By deciding to not fight and return home in order to spite Agamemnon, he was conceding the very glory that he lived for. What would deliver him from this dilemma?
Achilles Chooses the Glory of War
The turning point for Achilles was when Hector slew Patroclus, Achilles’ lifelong companion and trusted and loyal soldier. Achilles experienced deep mourning and rage because of this tragedy. It was this rage and desire for revenge that spurred Achilles to enter the battle against the Trojans again. The final catalyst for Achilles once again taking up the fight against the Trojans was his mother Thetis, who brought him new armor made by the god Hephaestus and who admonished him to reconcile with Agamemnon.
So saying the goddess set down the arms in front of Achilles, and they all rang aloud in their splendor…when Achilles saw the arms, then came wrath upon him yet the more, and his eyes blazed forth in terrible wise from beneath their lids, as it had been flame; and he was glad as he held in his arms the glorious gifts of the god. But when in his soul he had taken delight in gazing on the glory of them….– Iliad XIX, 12-19
Achilles could not resist. He was a warrior. Now he had an outlet to take his revenge upon Hector. Thetis’ words miraculously transformed Achilles from a brooding soul back into the fierce warrior that we know him to be. The following vivid imagery of Achilles striding on the shore is stunning.
So saying, she filled him with dauntless courage, and on Patroclus she shed ambrosia and ruddy nectar through his nostrils, that his flesh might be sound continually. But goodly Achilles strode along the shore of the sea, crying a terrible cry, and aroused the Achaean warriors.– Iliad XIX, 37-40
Comparison Between Socrates and Achilles
Much of the comparison between Achilles and Socrates centers around the use of the name “Phthia.” In the Iliad, before Patroclus’ death, Phthia simply denoted the hometown of Achilles, but after his death, it became more associated with dying and the descent into Hades. Homer does this in the latter part of the Iliad by making various associations between death and Phthia. The word Phthia eventually morphs into a metaphor for death.5 Achilles’s choice to avenge Patroclus’ death means that he will never return home, but will die on the battlefield. His destiny now – his final home – is not the Phthia in Thessaly, but Hades, the underworld of the dead.
His mother Thetis confirms as much when, with tears, she tells Achilles that his choice to kill Hector means his certain demise.
Doomed then to a speedy death, my child, shalt thou be, that thou spakest thus; for straightway after Hector is thine own death ready at hand.– Iliad XVIII, 96
Achilles concurs with Thetis and accepts his fate as necessary.
Then, mightily moved, swift-footed Achilles spoke to her: ‘Straightway may I die, seeing I was not to bear aid to my comrade at his slaying. Far, far from his own land hath he fallen, and had need of me to be a warder off of ruin. Now therefore, seeing I return not to my dear native land…but now let me win glorious renown, and set many a one among the deep-bosomed Trojan or Dardanian dames to wipe with both hands the tears from her tender cheeks, and ceaseless moaning; and let them know that long in good so have I kept apart from the war. Seek not then to hold me back from battle, for all thou lovest me; thou shalt not persuade me.’– Iliad XVIII, 97-101, 121-126
I think the comparison between the two men is now obvious. Both men were fearless and unmovable in the face of death. Both men were unwilling to compromise. Just like Achilles had the choice of living out his life in quiet obscurity, so too Socrates could have taken advantage of Crito’s escape plan and lived the rest of his life in quiet obscurity. He probably even could have groveled to the jury during his trial, promising never to cause trouble in Athens again, and most likely he would have been acquitted. But like Achilles, the action he chose to commit would result in his certain death. They were both warriors, one militarily and the other in the arena of truth.
Contrast Between Socrates and Achilles
For Achilles, it was a choice of his own death or the death of his glory. As Achilles stated above:
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies….
Socrates, on the other hand, was concerned not for his own glory but that others would be enlightened to the truth. If the similarities are obvious, their differences are even more so. Because of this, it is worth taking the time to contrast the two men.
Achilles’ main intent was to obtain the glory of battle, even if that meant death itself. This pursuit was fueled by hatred and vengeance for Hector and was characterized by overarching hubris. Socrates, on the other hand, was driven not by self-glory, but by the the love of truth that was rooted in humility. Both men sacrificed themselves, one for his own sake and the other for more sublime principles. Achilles accomplished his purpose through violence and Socrates through non-violent means.
Achilles’ final resting place, his Phthia, was Hades, the shadowy underworld of a nebulous existence, whereas Socrates’ Phthia was indeed fertile according to Socrates himself. In the Phaedo, right before he drinks the cup, he propounds on his view of the afterlife, painting a picture of his eternal destination as a beautiful dwelling abode that words fail to describe. This heaven was reserved for those who had “purified themselves through philosophy.” I will discuss more of his fascinating view of the afterlife when we come to the Phaedo dialogue.
Finally, we have a contrast between the two men in art. The painting below shows a stark contrast with the one of Achilles above.
In both paintings, each man is handed the instrument of his demise, in one case armor reflecting worldly glory, and the other the cup of hemlock representing the shame of punishment. In the West painting, Achilles cradles in his arm the reason for his vengeance, the death of Patroclus. He extends his other arm, as if to say to Thetis that he was ready to go into battle. In the David painting, Socrates points his arm upward to heaven, signifying that he is fighting on behalf of transcendent principles, that is, truth itself, or even God who is Truth itself. Achilles’ arm is buried in the earthly, while Socrates’ arm freely points toward heaven.
Achilles is clad with the majestic red cape of a Greek soldier and is about to don the helmet given to him by his mother, his breastplate at his feet. Everything about this painting speaks of military glory. Socrates, on the other hand, is in the humiliating circumstance of a dank prison, wearing not the majestic red of battle but white, reflecting purity and virtue. His modest white robe also denotes humility as contrasted with Achilles’ pride. Achilles’ eyes are fiery and reflect vengeance, while Socrates’ eyes reflect the sternness of a parent who seeks to instruct his children in the midst of their grief.
Achilles died ultimately because of the machinations of the gods, whereas Socrates died because of the machinations of the state. Therefore it is appropriate that Achilles is handed his armor by a goddess, and Socrates his poison by the unwilling agent of the state. In David’s painting, it is the agent of the state who wears red, for that is the instrument through which vengeance comes.
The main contrast between Achilles and Socrates is the contrast between violence and reason, which reflects the evolution of the Greek society from the Homeric age of heroes to the golden age of philosophy initiated by Socrates and continuing with Plato and Aristotle.
The contrasts between these two men really serve as a backdrop of foil to highlight this main similarity mentioned above, a persistence to pursue their causes with courage and fearlessness in the face of death. This is a great literary device of comparing two individuals who are very different on many fronts except for the main characteristics that are being highlighted.
For example, this would be like comparing Winston Churchill, the prime minister of the United Kingdom who led England through the darkest period of WWII, with Alexander the Great. Both men, who lived in completely different eras of history and could not be more different in many ways, shared the same tenacity and perseverance in the face of difficult challenges.
This comparison/contrast between Socrates and Achilles is further illustrated in the above paintings as we compare the eyes of each. The eyes of Socrates and Achilles convey very different emotions, but they both share the same characteristic of steely determination.
Socrates Identifies Himself with Achilles
Finally, Socrates himself had no reservations of using the example of Achilles. During his trial, as recounted in the Apology, Socrates not only invoked the example of Achilles but even compares himself to him.
His (Achilles’) mother, goddess that she was, had said to him, when he was showing his eagerness to slay Hector, something like this, I think: My child, if you avenge the slaying of your comrade Patroclus and kill Hector, you will die yourself. ‘Right away your fate’—she says—’is ready for you after Hector.’ And he (Achilles), hearing this, utterly despised danger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live like a worthless man, and not to avenge his friend. ‘Right away may I die next,’ he says, ‘and impose justice on the one who committed injustice, rather than stay behind here by the curved ships, a laughing stock and a heavy load for Earth to bear.’ Do you think that he had any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, but of disgrace. And this, O men of Athens, is a true saying.– Plato’s Apology, 28c-d
The point is that Socrates was a warrior for the truth. Linking Socrates to Achilles adds the element of power to the story. Socrates did not capitulate to the authorities out of weakness, but really out of strength, the strength of Achilles. This is why the linkage to Achilles is so important. This theme of strength in submission has resonated throughout history. For example, when Peter tried to prevent Jesus’ arrest, Jesus responded:
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?“– Matthew 26:52-54
Of course we have other famous examples of strength through peaceful resistance in history, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
Plato’s Purpose for Writing Crito
Now we can return to Crito’s escape plan. Crito’s biggest barrier was not organizing the actual escape for that was the easy part. Crito’s biggest difficulty was convincing Socrates to violate his principles, a monumental task to say the least. The first thing that he tries is a little guilt motivation. He tells Socrates that if he dies, Crito will undergo not just one, but two misfortunes! First of all, he will lose a good friend in Socrates, and secondly, he tells Socrates that if Socrates does not escape, then Socrates’ friends will think that Crito did not want to spend the money to facilitate his escape. What would they think of Crito? Crito’s approach is all about Crito, so it seems. Socrates’ reply is what we would expect:
But why should we, blessed Crito, care so much about the44c
opinion of the many? The best people, who are more deserving of our
attention, will believe that the matter was handled in just the way it was.
A couple things should be said about Crito. He is in the minority in the sense that as far as we can tell, he is the only one of Socrates’ friends with him in his final days who isn’t a philosopher. He is approaching this situation merely from a practical and self-centered way. Thus his role in this dialogue is as a foil to help highlight even more the virtues of Socrates. His virtues shine all the brighter against the backdrop of Crito’s self-interest. By contrast, in the Phaedo, which is the account of Socrates’ death, Socrates’ friends gather ’round Socrates in his final hours to have enriching philosophical discussions with him, desiring to get some final wisdom and instruction before he departs.
In that sense, Crito appeals to the common person. It is a general epistle, if you will, to the common person who is overly concerned with worldly affairs and his own interests. In other words, because there is a little bit of Crito in all of us, we would do well to take heed of Plato’s instruction. Plato, being the consummate teacher that he was, is trying to bring us out of ourselves and our own affairs in order to realize that there is more to life than living a few short years on this earth and dying. There are higher, more lofty ideals by which to live. In times of crisis, self-preservation comes to the forefront. Plato is teaching us that this does not have to be so. We can be free like Socrates rather than being weighed down by the burdens of life like Crito.
It is not by accident that Crito is not a philosopher. In this dialogue, Plato is contrasting between how philosophers and non-philosophers respond to crises. Socrates, Plato, and later Aristotle all believed that the philosophical way was the way of enlightenment. Aristotle believed that the best life is the contemplative life. Therefore, Plato, by using Crito’s negative example, is spurring us on to take our focus off of the earthly and to pursue the higher ideals of philosophy.
Crito reveals Plato as the teacher par excellence. His genius in teaching is not to tell us things directly necessarily, but to have us learn the subtle lessons implicitly embedded in the text. Yes, he wants us to learn philosophy as he presents various conundrums to us in his dialogues. But even more importantly, he desires that we pursue virtue. In this case, by juxtaposing Socrates and Crito, he is teaching us that life is worth living only if we live it for something greater than ourselves, a higher calling, if you will. As we examine ourselves, we should answer the question of whether we live more like Crito or more like Socrates.
Please leave your comments below and don’t forget to subscribe or press the follow button. Thank you!
Footnotes and Endnotes
- Plato, Five Dialogues, John M. Cooper and G.M.A. Grube, translators, p. 1, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; Second Edition,2 (October 1, 2002)
- Besides Crito, Phaedo, and Apology, we gain important information about Crito in Euthydemus.
- Iliad, chapter IX
- For more on the Greek view of the afterlife, please see post 56. In addition, I will cover this topic much more in depth when I discuss the Phaedo.
- Please see the following article for a more in-depth analysis of the association of death and Hades with Phthia: Mackey, C.J., “Homeric Phthia”, Colby Quarterly, Volume 38, no.2, June 2002, p.166
Bibliography and Sources
Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics; Reissue edition (January 1, 1998)
Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.
Mackey, C.J., “Homeric Phthia”, Colby Quarterly, Volume 38, no.2, June 2002, p.163-173
Plato, Five Dialogues, John M. Cooper and G.M.A. Grube, translators, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; Second Edition,2 (October 1, 2002)
Plato, Crito, Translated by Cathal Woods and Ryan Pack
The above recommended book includes Plato’s Crito if you’re interested in reading it in full. Please check out the following posts for more information about Socrates, his trial, and his death as well as additional bibliographical sources.
1-Post 2 Socrates’ Death and the Triumph of Reason
2- Post 3 Socrates, the Wisest Man in Athens
3- Post 4 Socrates, the Humble Revolutionary
5- Post 6 Socrates, Martyr for Truth
7- Post 8 Socrates and the Unexamined Life
8- Post 9 Socrates and Jesus Compared