Plato: The Crito

PLATO: The Crito

• Crito visits Socrates in prison at dawn. Socrates asks Crito why he did not wake him when he arrived. Crito answers that he was wondering at Socrates’ peaceful slumber, and wanted Socrates to continue in a state of peace free from pain. Crito extols Socrates’ ability to remain calm under the circumstances. Crito has never seen or heard of anyone bearing the sentence of death so calmly and joyfully as Socrates.

• Crito has come to Socrates to inform him that tomorrow he will die. Crito implores Socrates to heed his advice and escape. If Socrates does not escape, then not only will Crito lose a dear friend, but people will slander Crito, saying that he did not wish to spare money which could save Socrates’ life. The multitude will say that Crito values money more than the life of a friend.

• Socrates asks Criot why they should care about the opinion of the many. They ought only to regard the opinion of good men.

• Crito asserts that they must regard the opinion of the many because they are capable of inflicting the greatest evil.

• Socrates retorts that he wishes they could because then they would also be able to do the greatest good, and all would be well. But the many can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.

• Crito inquires of Socrates whether he does not escape because he fears that evil will befall his friends upon suspicion that they aided his escape. If Socrates does fear this, then Crito assures him that he and Socrates’ other friends are willing to risk and endure far worse for Socrates’ sake.

• Crito informs Socrates that he has frineds in Thessaly who will welcome Socrates and protect him. Crito does not believe Socrates is justified in betraying his own life when he might be saved. Crito says that Socrates is merely playing into his enemies’ hands. Crito accuses Socrates of betraying his children, leavin them as orphans. Crito asserts that no man ought to bring children into the world and not persever to the end in their nature an education. Crito is ashamed of Socrates and of himself and Socrates’ other friends when he reflects that posterity will regard them as cowards for not saving Socrates’ life. Crito again implores Socrates to escape that night.

• Socrates proposes that they consider whether fleeing is something they ought to do. Socrates admits that he has always been guided by reason. Socrates asks Crito is the opinion of some men should be valued and the opinions of other men should be disregarded. Crito answers affirmatively.

• Only good opinions should be regarded. Wise men maintain good opinions.

• The disciple of gymnastics does not attend to the opinions of every man, but only to the opinion of his trainer. If the athlete disregards the opinion of his trainer and values the opinion of the multitude ignorant of gymnastics, then the athlete will suffer harm.

• Life would not be worth having if soul is depraved and deteriorated by injustice because it has heeded the advice of the multitude that does not have understanding.

• Although the many can kill us, one ought not to value life, but rather a good life.

• The considerations of money and loss of character and duty to educate children are the doctrines of the multitude, who would be as ready to call people to life as they are to sentence people to death for no reason.

• Injustice is always an evil and dishonor to him who acts unjustly. We therefore must do no wrong.

• The morality of doing evil in return for evil is the doctrine of the many and should not be followed.

• Socrates imagines the Laws of Athens coming to Socrates and scolding him for disobeying the laws and fleeing from prison. A state cannot subsist if the decisions of the laws have no power, and individuals set aside and overthrow the laws.

• But what if the State injures an individual and passes an unjust sentence. This is not the agreement which individuals enter into with the State. Individuals agree to abide by the sentence of the laws.

• The State brings citizens into existence. They provide the means by which parent marry and beget children. The State provides education. Therefore, the State is like a father to its citizens, and citizens ought to respect the State. Indeed, citizens ought to value the State more than any father, mother, or ancestor.

• If citizens cannot change the State’s view of what is just, then they must obey the commands of the State.

• After receiving an education and seeing the ways of a city, any citizen is free to leave the city if he does not like what he sees. But the citizen who remains in the State implicitly agrees to abide by the laws of the State.

• Socrates rarely ever left Athens. He raised his children in Athens. He was able to leave the city whenever he might want, but chose to remain. All of this proves that Socrates agreed to be governed by the laws of the State.

• If Socrates now flees to another city, then the patriotic citizens of that county will cast an evil eye upon Socrates as a subverter of laws. Is such a life of dishonor worth having? Socrates would dishonor himself so that he may live a little longer, eating and drinking, staining his reputation by going abroad to get a dinner.

• Socrates thinks not of life and family first, but of justice first, so that he may be justified before the princes of the afterlife.

• Now, Socrates departs from life innocent, a sufferer of evil not an evil-doer, a victim of men not of the laws. But if he listens to Crito, returning evil for evil, then the laws will punish Socrates while he lives and in death.

• Socrates resolves to remain in prison and accept death.

“The many can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.”

“Men should only regard the opinions of wise men. If he listens to the advice of the ignorant, then he will suffer harm.” (Gymnast and trainer analogy)

“Not life, but a good life, ought to be chiefly valued.”

“Injustice is always an evil and dishonor to him who acts unjustly. We therefore must do no wrong. Neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off of evil by evil is just.”

“Do you imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?”

“Anyone who does not like us and the city, and who wants to emigrate to a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, retaining his property. But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the state, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him.”

“Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below.”

The Crito is a Platonic dialogue that relates a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito while Socrates is in prison awaiting his day of execution. There are four important ideas that the dialogue considers.

The first idea is that the multitude can do neither good nor harm, and that the multitude’s actions are utterly random and irrational. Shakespeare noted the fickleness of a crowd in the following quote – “was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro as this multitude?” Indeed the judgment of the multitude constantly changes with remarkable celerity. It is also impossible to determine why their judgment changes. Their judgment appears to be irrational and random. The multitude will love someone for a certain quality and hate another for the same exact quality. They will love one person today, and hate the same person tomorrow.

The second idea examined in the dialogue is that men should only regard the opinions of wise men. Socrates uses an analogy of a gymnast and his trainer. The gymnast should only regard the praise, criticism, and teachings of his trainer, and should disregard everyone else’s opinion. If he does not regard his trainer’s wisdom, then he will likely suffer harm and not improve his gymnastic ability to the utmost. Furthermore, if he regards the opinion of the multitude that is ignorant of the proper techniques and exercises required to improve in gymnastics, then he will again suffer harm and fall short of the greatness of which he is capable. This analogy holds true in all other endeavors. A man who wants to improve his soul should only regard the opinion of one who knows how to improve the soul, who has an understanding of justice, and who knows how one ought to live.

The third idea presented in the dialogue is that one ought never to do harm. Neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off of evil by evil is just. To do injustice is always unjust, regardless of the situation. This sentiment contradicts Socrates’s earlier exhortation to disregard everything except honor. In the Apology, Socrates recalls the story of how Achilles avenged Patroclus’ death by slaying Hector. Socrates extols Achilles’ virtue, and his desire to die honorably to avenge Patroclus’ death rather than live a dishonorable life. Furthermore, Socrates asserts that one must obey the commands of the State in the court of law and the battle field. If the State commands its citizens to kill citizens of another State with which they are at war, then the citizens must obey; it would be dishonorable and unjust to do otherwise. However, Socrates states that it is always unjust to do harm. Socrates appears to give inconsistent guidance. On the other hand, Socrates could assert that killing a foe in battle is not unjust because the slain soldier does not suffer harm, but rather an honorable death in battle.

Finally, the fourth idea is the social contract theory. In the last few paragraphs of the Crito, Socrates asserts that every citizen is free to leave the city after learning of the structure of the laws, and how the laws function. But if a citizen chooses to remain in the city of his own volition, then he implicitly agrees to enter into a contract with the State to abide by its laws. Socrates does claim that a man can try to persuade the State to change laws which he deems to be unjust, but if he cannot, then he must abide by them. I am interested to see how future men address this theory. In particular, Martin Luther King Jr and David Thoreau come to mind as examples of men who peacefully protested against the injustices of America’s laws by disobeying them.

Complete Works of Plato


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