Plato’s Crito – Run, Socrates, Run!

Plato’s Crito takes place just after the apology. Crito, one Socrates’ friends, comes to visit him in prison while Socrates waits for his death sentence to be carried out.

Crito tries to convince Socrates to run, saying that he and others can bribe the guards and arrange for safe passage to another city, but Socrates argues that he should stay and accept the death penalty.

Socrates begins his argument by saying that people should not worry about what popular opinion is about their actions, but only that they should do right. In addition, he says that even if someone is injured or wronged, they must do the right thing and cause no injury to those who have harmed them. “Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him,” Socrates tells Crito.

The dialogue shifts from one where Socrates and Crito discuss what to do to one where Socrates has an imaginary conversation with the laws of Athens. The laws tell him that the state, and thus its laws, brought him into existence by helping his mother and father marry and educating him. They also tell Socrates that he has lived by the city’s laws and that he acquiesced in their governing him and his children. The laws say Socrates could have asked for banishment at the trial and chose not to do so.

“An he who disobeys us is, as we maintain, thrice wrong: first, because in disobeying us he is disobeying his parents; secondly, because we are the authors of his education; thirdly, because he has made an agreement with us that he will duly obey our commands; and he neither obeys them nor convinces us that our commands are wrong; and we do not rudely impose them, but give him the alternative of obeying or convincing us; that is what we offer, and he does neither.”  This is what the laws tell Socrates.

Now, I have never quite bought all of these arguments. Maybe Socrates is just an old man who feels like it is time to die, or maybe he really believes in an afterlife that is better. But if the first part of his argument is right, then to me it is wrong to submit to an unjust punishment.

Maybe this is because I am an American, where the individual has a certain revolutionary responsibility vis-à-vis the state. I read Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” too early in my formative years, I guess. But it seems that if doing what is right is the most important thing, then one should not let men with an axe to grind use the laws of the state to get revenge on someone else by sending them to death. If Socrates is the good guy we’ve always thought he is, then it seems that he has not really done anything wrong. Instead, some of the people he showed to be foolish used those laws the Socrates obeys in the worst way possible.

In his essay “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster writes “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” I think Crito is the more enlightened one in this dialogue because he is trying to saving his friend and is willing to betray his country.

I wonder what would have happened if Henry David Thoreau (who spent time in jail for tax evasion) and Socrates were in the same jail. One of the weaknesses of my Great Books, which Britannica has corrected to a certain degree in later editions, is its lack of American authors. I will try to bring some of the other relevant authors in as I go along. I will try to imagine the conversations between the authors of these books.

Next Time: Jailhouse Rock with Thoreau and Socrates


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