was convicted of impiety
and corrupting the youth as detailed in The Apology
, he was imprisoned in a jail
cell to await execution
. Since there was a ship out of port on an important mission, no executions were to be performed in accordance with tradition
. Because of this, Socrates remained in jail for approximately a month waiting to die
"'I understand,' Socrates said, 'yet I may and must pray to the gods
to prosper my journey from this to that other world
may this, then, which is my prayer, be granted to me.'
Then holding the cup to his lips, he then drained it calmly and easily.
And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow;
but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught,
we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast;
so that I covered my face and wept over myself, for certainly I was not weeping over him,
but at the thought of my own calamity in having lost such a companion." 1
This situation is the background for this dialogue written by Plato, which chronicles Crito's visit to Socrates' jail cell two days before the ship was scheduled to return to the harbor. Crito is an old friend of Socrates' and comes to tell him that plans have been set for his escape and to get him far away from Athens. Socrates says that escaping would be against the law and as such begins to question the nature of the laws themselves. During this process, Socrates attempts to take a rationally objective standpoint in his evaluation of what is the morally correct thing to do; throughout the dialogue he recognized the importance of not succumbing to the traditional positions of one's society or religion.
The Validity of Majority Opinion
Crito introduces the idea early on in the dialogue "that one must also pay attention to the opinion of the majority."2 Crito sees that it is the opinion of many men with brought Socrates to his situation and as such, it must be understood what is behind such mass opinion. Socrates elaborates further by saying:
"How should we examine this matter most reasonably? Would it be by taking up first your argument about the opinions of men, whether it is sound in every case that one should pay attention to some opinions, but not to others? Or was that well-spoken before the necessity to die came upon me, but now it is clear that this was said in vain for the sake of argument, that it was in truth play and nonsense? I am eager to examine together with you, Crito, whether this argument will appear in any way different to me in my present circumstances, or whether it remains the same, whether we are to abandon it or believe it."3
Socrates outlines his concerns about examining the validity of the opinions of men; he wonders if his curiosity is driven by the fact that his death is quickly approaching him. Given these circumstances, he desires to suspend any influence they have over his understanding of the argument presented to him and gain some insight into the nature of majority opinion and whether or not some opinions are to be preferred over others.
- First Premise: Socrates outlines with Crito that majority opinion in itself is not valuable,4 rather only individual opinions have merit if they have knowledge of moral concepts like justice and injustice. He then proceeds to say that "the most important thing is not life, but the good life."5
- Second Premise: Continuing the discussion, Socrates recalls previous discussions that took place between himself and Crito where they agreed that any sort of wrong doing was to be avoided. However, the important moral extension is made that applies in particular to Socrates' situation and the question of whether or not he should leave:
SOCRATES: So one must never do wrong.
CRITO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: Nor must one, when wronged, inflict wrong in return, as the majority believe, since one must never do wrong.
CRITO: That seems to be the case.
SOCRATES: Come now, should one mistreat anyone or not, Crito?
CRITO: One must never do so.6
- Third Premise: The arguments delivered in this section of the dialogue are perhaps the most interesting here, Socrates creates a basis for moral authority in the form of the laws of Athens. As he puts it to Crito:
SOCRATES: When one has come to an agreement that is just with someone, should one fulfill it or cheat on it?
The obvious question, then, is whether or not Socrates has entered into a just agreement with the laws which have determined his present situation. He has, according to Socrates, since he swore to uphold and honor the laws of Athens when he pledged his military allegiance to the city around age eighteen.
CRITO: One should fulfull it. 7
- Conclusion: Because of this, Socrates concludes that it would be wrong to break (in his view, this can be equated with "punishment" of) the laws. According to him:
" ... the echo of these words resounds in me, and makes it impossible for me to hear anything else. As far as my present beliefs go, if you speak in opposition to them, you will speak in vain ... let us act in this way, since this is the way the god is leading us."8
I identify this work as being an attempt by Socrates to explain to Crito that he has come to understand and accept his circumstances. Even though his arguments throughout the dialogue rest on the fact that he vowed to uphold the laws of Athens and therefore he must stick to that promise despite his conviction being based on the judgment of a jury, he is trying to bring some sort of closure to his life. In that context, I see this dialogue much differently than I do many of Plato's others. In such major treatises as The Republic or the Meno, the emphasis is on the explanation of the philosophical foundations of Socrates' and Plato's ideas. In Crito, however, I see a much more personal look at Socrates' life and the course thereof.
This is one of my favorite dialogues, despite how short it is. I enjoy it mostly because Socrates is conversing with one of his greatest friends rather than someone whom he doesn't respect and is seeking to discredit. This piece takes place at the end of his life while he attempts to give philosophical justification for his actions and, remarkably, for why his death is necessary in terms of his situation and his beliefs.
1Plato. Phaedo. tr. Benjamin Jowett. Stephanus p. 117 c.
2Plato. Crito. tr. G.M.A. Grube. Stephanus p. 44 d.
3Stephanus p. 46 d.
4Stephanus p. 48 a.
5Stephanus p. 48 b.
6Stephanus pp. 49 b-c.
7Stephanus p. 49 e.
8Stephanus pp. 54 d-e.