In part I of this story, I explained how Crito tried unsuccessfully to convince Socrates to abandon his noble stance of proceeding with his execution and implored him to take the escape route planned out by Crito and others. I discussed how Crito approached the situation from a totally self-centered perspective: What would Crito’s friends think if they thought that Crito did not help his friend escape? It was all about Crito. He was approaching the situation from a common person’s perspective and not from a philosopher’s perspective.
Now Crito, in desperation, tries one last time to deter Socrates from the cup of poison hemlock.
Since a little bit of guilting didn’t work, Crito lays it on even heavier.
In addition, I think you are betraying your sons, whom you could raise and educate, by going away and abandoning them, and, as far as you are concerned, they can experience whatever happens to come their way, when it’s likely that as orphans they’ll get the usual treatment of orphans. One should either not have children or endure the hardship of raising and educating them, but it looks to me as though you are taking the laziest path, whereas you must choose the path a good and brave man would choose, especially when you keep saying that you care about virtue your whole life long.45c-d
The fallaciousness of this argument does not need pointing out since it is so blatant on its surface. This same line of reasoning could be applied to men going off to war where there is a high probability of them not returning. Imagine telling one of them that the courageous and virtuous thing to do is to stay home for your children’s sake rather than risking your life for a higher cause. In Socrates’ case, consider what the psychological impact on them would have been to know that their father had compromised his principles to save his own life.
Socrates Holds to His Principles
Socrates wastes no time in dismissing Crito’s arguments as, in essence, zeal without wisdom. This goes back to the end of my previous post where I discussed Plato’s true intention with this dialogue, of spurring the reader to a life of philosophy as he contrasts the noble actions of Socrates sticking to his principles with the self-centered motives and actions of the non-philosopher Crito. This is illustrated by Socrates’ cutting remark:
My dear Crito, your eagerness would be worth a lot if it were in46b
pursuit of something righteous, but the more it is not, the more difficult it is to deal with.
Ouch! The only thing worse than being disagreed with is being dismissed outright. Rather then dealing with the argument itself, Socrates dismisses Crito’s entire line of approach as spurious, not even qualifying as fodder for philosophical debate. With Crito’s fallacious argument as a backdrop, Socrates’ ideas shine even brighter.
We must therefore examine whether we should do this or not, because as always, and not just now for the first time, I am the sort of person who is persuaded in my soul by nothing other than the argument which seems best to me upon reflection. At present I am not able to abandon the arguments I previously made, now that this misfortune has befallen me, but they appear about the same to me, and I defer to and honor the ones I did previously. If we have nothing better than them to offer under the present circumstances, rest assured that I will not agree with you, not if, even more so than at present, the power of the multitude were to spook us as though we were children, imposing chains and deaths and monetary fines upon us.56b-c
We see, of course, Socrates holding to his principles at all costs, that he is a man of integrity. The question, though, which is the implicit question of this dialogue, is why does Socrates feel that it is necessary to stay and be executed rather than to flee, especially since he realizes, too that he was convicted on trumped up charges? What aspect of Socrates’ principles allows him to suffer death in some kind of twisted justice?
If Crito had any awareness, he would have asked a more pertinent question like, “Why do you feel that it is necessary to accept a sentence of death from an unjust court?” That, I think, is the legitimate approach. This would have brought everything down to the heart of the matter – the question of justice, a topic of so many other Platonic dialogues featuring Socrates. More specifically, it brings up the question, relevant for us today, of whether or not it is ever legitimate to not participate in a justice system that we feel is, for the most part, corrupt.
Injustice in America
During the Jim Crow era of the southern United States, the justice system was heavily weighted against blacks. Edwin Grimsley, a senior case analyst for the Innocence Project, states the following to that effect:
Racially disparate treatment has permeated the United States criminal justice system throughout history. During the Jim Crow era, blacks were legally barred from voter rolls in several southern states and were therefore barred from serving on juries. In this era of racial strife, the police, prosecution, defense attorneys, judges, and jurors were almost always white. Cross-racial misidentifications, forced confessions, all-white juries, and blatant racism led to the wrongful convictions of countless innocent black people.1
Mr. Grimsley believes that, in the U.S. today, race and class both play a part in the injustices within the current legal system, and in many cases, his research and investigations have proven true. If someone facing trial or incarceration in such corrupt systems has the opportunity to flee, should they or not? This was the solution that Crito was putting before Socrates – don’t participate in an unjust system.
Even today in the United States, under the guise of fighting racial injustice, there is a movement to allow certain segments of the population to opt-out of the justice system through programs such as cashless bail, failing to bring people convicted of serious crimes to trial, and letting violent offenders out of prison early.
Socrates’ True Compass
Earlier in the dialogue, Crito was concerned that if Socrates did not avail himself to his escape plan, people would think that Crito was not willing to spend the money that he had on facilitating Socrates’ escape. Socrates used this point to begin to dialogue with Crito to get him to see the error of his ways and point him to the true issue, justice versus reputation. Another way of phrasing Socrates’ point is having principles versus pandering to the crowd.
After dismissing Crito earlier, he now indulges him again, but this time, in true Socratic fashion, Socrates is now the questioner. Socrates’ lead-in question sets the tone for the rest of the dialogue:
Because you, as far as any human can tell, are in no danger of being executed tomorrow and the present misfortune should not lead you astray. Have a look, then. Is it fair enough to say that one should not value every human opinion but only some and not others? And not the opinions of everyone but of some and not others? What do you say? Isn’t this right?46e-47a
I include the next excerpt as very representative of Socratic dialogue as found in Plato’s writings.
Cr: Yes, that’s right.47a-c
So: Shouldn’t we value the good opinions, and not the worthless
So: Aren’t the good ones the opinions of the wise, while the
worthless ones come from the ignorant?
Cr: Of course.
So: So then, what did we say, again, about cases such as this: should
a man in training, who takes it seriously, pay any heed to the praise and
blame and opinion of everyone, or only to one person, the one who is a
doctor or a trainer?
Cr: Only to the one.
So: So he should fear the criticisms and welcome the praises of that
one person, and not those of the many?
So: He must practice and exercise, and eat and drink, in the way
that seems best to that one person, the trainer and expert, more than to all
the others together.
Cr: That’s right.
So: Well then. If he disobeys this one man and dishonors his
opinion and his praises and instead honors those of the many who know
nothing about it, won’t he suffer some harm?
Cr: How could he not?
So: What is this harm, and what does it tend to do, and in what part
of the disobedient person?
Cr: It’s clear that it’s in the body, since this is what it destroys.
So rather than following the crowd, we should listen to the “one man” or the wise man. In any culture, the wise are a minority, but we should listen to them. Like our health, we should listen to our personal trainer, not society.
Socrates then says something very interesting:
If we do not heed his opinion we will corrupt and harm that part of us which becomes better with justice and is destroyed by injustice.47d
Even though he doesn’t use the word in this dialogue, Socrates is referring to the soul as that part which becomes better with justice and is destroyed by injustice. In other words, our decisions should be based, first and foremost, on what benefits our soul over and above our bodies. This fits in well with Plato’s dualism, which he develops later, that considered the body not just unimportant but actually a hinderance. There is a similarity with Christianity in that the soul does indeed take priority over the body, the spiritual over the physical, but that is where the similarity ends.2 The body itself is still very important and integral to our identity to the point of being included in a resurrection at the end of history.
Socrates adds that if life is not worth living with a wretched and corrupt body, how much more so with an injustice-corrupted soul?. Socrates really puts forth a two-part argument in Crito when explaining these principles. In the first part of his argument, he states that the concerns of the soul are preeminent, and in the second part, he states that the chief concern of the soul is pursing justice. This in effect destroys all of Crito’s prior worldly reasons why Socrates should not go through with his execution. After clearing the slate on this matter, Socrates then put forth the positive justification for the path that he has chosen, which focuses squarely on this idea of justice.
It will be interesting to see how Socrates resolves this bit of a paradox of using justice as the pretense for staying in an unjust Athens.
Socrates’ Argument for Justice
Socrates sums up his arguments about justice in a statement which succinctly summarizes the main theme of this dialogue:
Therefore, based on what you’ve agreed, we must examine the
following, whether it is just or unjust for me to try to leave here, when I
was not acquitted by the Athenians. And if it seems just let’s try it, and if
not, let’s abandon it.
As for us, since the argument requires it, I suppose we should48b-d
examine precisely what we just mentioned, whether we will act justly, we
who lead as well as we who are led, by giving money and thanks to those
who will get me out of here, or whether we will in fact act unjustly by
doing all of this. If we think that we’re acting unjustly by doing these
things, I don’t think we should take into consideration whether we will die if we hold our ground and keep our peace, or anything else we will suffer, rather than whether we’re acting unjustly.
Death, then, is not even the issue for Socrates, but rather justice. The corollary of the above premise is that it is never right to act unjustly under any circumstances, to which Crito agrees.
So: Nevertheless acting unjustly is evil and shameful in every way49b
for the person who does it. Do we say this or not?
Cr: We do. So: And so one must never act unjustly. Cr: By no means!
The next point of the argument is that since harming someone is the same as doing them an injustice, then it is never right to harm someone who has harmed you or to repay injustice with injustice. To put these principles another way, Socrates is asserting that one should never return evil for evil.
One must neither repay an injustice nor cause harm to any man,
no matter what one suffers because of him. And see to it, Crito, that in
agreeing with this you are not agreeing contrary to what you believe.
So think carefully about whether you yourself agree and believe it and let us begin thinking from here, that it is never right to act unjustly or to return an injustice or to retaliate when one has suffered some harm by repaying the harm. Do you reject or accept this starting principle?49c-d
Crito, not an unwilling pupil at this point, consents to this premise.
Socrates and the Social Contract Theory
Socrates goes on to formulate what has since been called the social contract theory, which was later expounded upon by Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke. This concept has fascinated people throughout history and has been discussed in one form or another since the time of Socrates. More importantly, social contract theory helped form the basis, for good or ill, of the government of the United States of America.
Socrates uses this theory to explain why he should stay in prison and be put to death instead of running away from Athens. In essence, the social contract theory says that citizens of a state give up some of their rights to the state in exchange for protection from the state and keeping social order. This can be done either unconsciously or consciously. The citizen offers obedience to the state and in return gets an ordered society instead of anarchy.
So: Here in turn is the next point. Or rather, I’ll ask you: when49e-50a
someone has made an agreement with someone else, and it is just, must he
keep to it or betray it?
Cr: He must keep to it.
So: Observe what follows from this. By leaving here without
persuading the city, are we doing someone a harm, and those whom we
should least of all harm, or not? And are we keeping to the just agreements
we made, or not?
Cr: I’m unable to answer what you’re asking, Socrates; I don’t know.
The heart of Socrates’ argument lies in this idea of a social contract – in theory, an agreement between citizen and state. If justice involves keeping this contract, then it is an act of injustice to break the contract. Since injustice is the same as harm, then if Socrates leaves Athens, he is committing an act of injustice against the state, thus causing harm to the state. If he were to do this, according to his principles, he would corrupt his own soul.
Well, look at it this way. If the laws and the community of the50a-b
city came to us when we were about to run away from here, or whatever it
should be called, and standing over us were to ask, “Tell me, Socrates, what are you intending to do? By attempting this deed, aren’t you planning to do nothing other than destroy us, the laws, and the civic community, as much as you can? Or does it seem possible to you that any city where the verdicts reached have no force but are made powerless and corrupted by private citizens could continue to exist and not be in ruins?
Socrates personifies the laws and the community as they speak with him about leaving. Through them he says something very profound and insightful. If the laws and community are destroyed, then court verdicts would have no force, being rendered powerless and corrupted by private citizens. Such a city characterized by lawlessness would cease to be and end up in ruins. This is what we term in modern parlance as “the rule of law.”
I doubt if Socrates meant that by one person leaving, the entire city would collapse. What he most likely meant was that every citizen who breaks the social contract causes harm to the body politic and by implication, if enough people do so, eventually the social structure will collapse. This is evident in certain cities in the West today, where the rule of law has been in large part eliminated by failure to enforce the law, as described above, leaving many cities on the verge of collapse due to anarchy and lawlessness. In this case, Socrates would say that it is the state and not the citizen who is breaking the social contract by failing to enforce the law, but either way, the result is the same.
Now Socrates addresses the age-old question:
If I feel that a court verdict is unjust, do I need to obey the state anyway?
So: What will we say, Crito, to these questions and others like them?50b-c
Because there’s a lot more a person could say, especially an orator, on
behalf of this law we’re destroying, which establishes the verdicts that
have been decided as sovereign. Or will we say to them, “The city treated
us unjustly and did not decide the case properly”? Will we say this or
something like it?
Cr: By Zeus, that’s what we’ll say, Socrates.
This is of course the emotional response that we are all prone to. Crito is on board with that approach. The personified laws appeal to the social contract.
What if the laws then said, “Socrates, did we agree on this, we50c
and you, to honor the decisions that the city makes?
Honor Due the State
How does one respond to this seeming conundrum regarding the social contract theory? Socrates says something remarkable as a rationale for obedience to the state in the face of perceived injustice. The personified laws say the following:
For we gave birth to you, brought you up, educated you, and gave you and all the other citizens everything we could that’s good.51c
To look at this from a 21st century perspective, we owe a certain allegiance to our countries. Because that is where, for most of us, we got our start in life and by which we have gained the many benefits that we have. In section 50 of Crito, Socrates discusses all of the just laws that enabled him to thrive for many years. We can all think of laws that have kept us safe and helped us do well in our jobs. We should also think about things like infrastructure, transportation, and other things that make our lives easier and our success possible, such as infrastructure, transportation, and other conveniences.
Because of this, Socrates has a high view of the state:
Are you so wise that it has slipped your mind that the homeland is51a
deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother
and father and all of your other ancestors?
St. Thomas Aquinas says something similar, but with a different priority and emphasis. According to Aquinas, piety, pietas in Latin, comprises a duty to and veneration of a rational being to whom we have some sort of debt. He states the following:
Man becomes a debtor to other men in various ways, according to their various excellence and the various benefits received from them. On both counts God holds first place, for He is supremely excellent, and is for us the first principle of being and government. On the second place, the principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give veneration to one’s parents and one’s country.– St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Second Part of Second Part, Question 101
We owe a debt of piety to those from whom we have received various benefits. According to Aquinas, God would be first since He is “the first principle of being and government.” In the second place, we owe piety to our parents and our country since they have “given us birth and nourishment.” According to St. Thomas, religious worship is reserved for God alone. But a type of honor or veneration is owed to parents and country. Now when St. Thomas mentions “country,” he has in mind the fellow citizens that comprise that country rather than the idea of “the country” as a whole.
But whether we’re talking about Socrates or Aquinas, both would agree that we owe our country and fellow citizens some respect or honor for the benefits we’ve received.
Athens – Love It or Leave It
What if we really don’t like our country because we think it is very unjust overall? Socrates has some surprising things to say about that. Even though an Athenian is indebted to Athens for all that he has received…
When he (any Athenian) has been admitted as an adult and sees the affairs of the city and the laws and is not pleased with us, to take his possessions and leave for wherever he wants. And if any among you wants to live in a colony because we and the city do not satisfy him, or if he wants to go somewhere else and live as a foreigner, none of us laws stands in the way or forbids him from taking his possessions with him and leaving for wherever he wants.51d
If Athens displeases you, no problem; you can simply leave. Those who really don’t like the government where they reside should move. Socrates then reasons with Crito that he he chose Athens for many years and raised his children there. He could have gone to any other city, but he didn’t. Obviously, what he saw there, including the laws, pleased him more than any other place. By staying, he had, in effect, signed a contract that he would obey the government whether it’s good or bad. In exchange, he could use the city’s benefits and protections. And by implication, he would incur guilt for breaking the contract if he leaves. Plato has presented to us, through Socrates, social contract theory in seed form.
Modern social contract theory has much to be critiqued. But, one criticism that is not valid has to do with the implicit nature of the social contract. According to Socrates, a social contract does not have to be explicitly entered into to be valid. Direct contradiction to critics, the contract is not valid unless the parties enter into it willingly.
Modern Challenges to Socrates’ Arguments About Justice
Socrates’ arguments regarding social contract theory and justice could be summed up as follows. By escaping his execution, he would be acting unjustly by breaking the social contract with Athens, thus harm to Athens. By doing so, he would corrupt his own soul. If he felt that Athens was unjust, he should have left years ago. I must say that I think his argument is very compelling and very sound.
Today, it’s ironic that media personalities and politicians who have benefited from the US are now its biggest critics. The question becomes: If they believed that the U.S. was so unjust and racist, why didn’t they leave? It is also very inconsistent that the zealous “social justice warriors” are pursuing justice in one realm. However, neglecting justice’s larger aspects, such as worshiping God and honoring one’s country, parents, and the elderly. These, according to St. Thomas, are obligations of justice also. How can we bring about racial justice, for example, if we neglect these weightier aspects of justice? Even Athens knew the importance of these things.
God will not bless our efforts of establishing justice between people in our society if we don’t honor Him. So, it is not to say that we ignore injustice and blindly follow the government. But, we should seek justice and pay our debts to our fellow man, to God and country as well. This is a full-orbed, comprehensive view of justice that eventually leads to a healthy body politic versus. This is the one-dimensional and simplistic view of “social justice” that we all are familiar with. Athletes who “take a knee” to protest racial injustice are committing larger injustices to achieve smaller justice.
The Importance of Localism and Regionalism in Today’s World
It would be like slapping our parents across the face because you felt that they treated your brother unjustly. This is futility at worst and stupidity at best, and it will not produce the justice desired on any level.
This is not to say, again, that we blindly follow the government. Showing honor to the government may require things like peaceful protests and civil disobedience. These are effective tools available in our times vis-à-vis the all-powerful nation-state. But this is a topic for another time.
Finally, it’s helpful if you live in the US and consider your state as your main “country.” This was the original constitutional intent anyway. Prior to the Civil War, people in the United States considered their state as their country of residence. The people who made the constitution only gave government the power to do things that the states couldn’t do. This left the states with most of the power. The federal government in the United States is corrupt and highly dysfunctional. The good news is that the majority of our state and local governments are effective and perform their intended functions.
Localism and Regionalism: A Return to Decentralization
Aside from paying my taxes, I personally don’t have much interaction with the federal government. Most of my day-to-day interactions with government are at a city and county level, and then a state level. Those entities please me well in my situation. If not, I would move. Therefore, I give most of my attention to the state of Ohio, which I consider as my primary country. Socrates was not concerned with all of Greece or any type of league binding cities together. His world was Athens.
I know the world is different today, but returning to localism and regionalism instead of focusing on these massive nation-states could help us get out of this mess. The key to moving forward is decentralization, especially here in the U.S. It’s absurd to think 635 Washington, D.C. residents can run a 350 million-person, 3.8 million-square-mile nation. Breaking the US into smaller regions would make more sense, but that’s another topic.
I’ll leave you with one more line from Socrates:
Then let it be, Crito, and let us act in this way, since this is where54e
God leads us.
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Footnotes and Endnotes:
- Grimsley, Edwin, “African American Wrongful Convictions Throughout History”, Innocence Project, 2.18.13
- Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Hell,” Matthew 10:28
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
4- Post 5 Socrates, an Ambassador of Truth to Athens
5- Post 6 Socrates, Martyr for Truth
6- Post 7 Socrates, a Philosopher of Virtue and Truth
7- Post 8 Socrates and the Unexamined Life
8- Post 9 Socrates and Jesus Compared