Plato – Notes on Crito

June 20, 2013 — Leave a comment

The Premise

Whilst Socrates is imprisoned and awaiting his death sentence, Crito comes to persuade him to allow an attempt to save him by allowing his friends to bribe the guards and ferry him out of the city and away from Athenian law whilst there is a window of opportunity. Socrates refuses. Crito’s arguments for and Socrates arguments against the escape form a narrative that explores the right of the state (the polis) to pass judgement and the nature of justice and injustice. This is also one of the first blueprints for what we now know as social contract theories.

Point to keep in mind: cited in The Republic Book 1, the status quo position on justice in Athens at this time is helping ones friends and harming ones enemies. Crito uses this position to argue that Socrates actions (accepting his sentence) are unjust as he allows his enemies to triumph over him and harm his friends and family. Also, society and the city in this context means the polis – Athenean democracy

Crito explains that if Socrates does not accept his escape offer, Crito will be the subject of scorn as friends will believe that Crito did not bribe high enough, and so values money more than his friend. Crito introduces a tyranny of the majority warning, explaining that if one becomes unfavored the majority can inflict the greatest evils, as evidenced by Socrates own sentence. Crito goes on to plead that Socrates actions in accepting his sentence will be perceived as cowardice (Crito and company did not act throughout the process to save Socrates), as shameful (cowardice is shameful) and as irresponsible and unjust (Socrates leaves behind sons whose education and upbringing will now be uncertain, hence he harms his family).

Is it just for Socrates to escape and evade his death sentence?

Socrates starts by breaking down Crito’s appeal. With regards to the tyranny of the majority, Socrates points out that in all past discussions it has been agreed that one need only value some opinions and not others:

” … one must not value all the opinions of men, but some and not others, nor the opinions of all men, but those of some and not of others …” (Crito; 47a)

This is typical of Socratic dialogue. The instant reaction is to see that Plato comes up with a generalised logic that should blanket all situations i.e. on matters of building a table one should listen to the opinion of a carpenter, but not necessarily a fish monger. In this case, the tyranny of the majority is an entirely different premise to which the logic is being applied. However, by breaking down to fundamentals Plato can build models; political, social and economic.

To walk through this argument: a man who is an athlete should pay attention to the opinions of a doctor or trainer. Therefore he welcomes the praise or fears the blame of this one person (doctor or trainer) and not those of the many. He must act and exercise according to the recommendation of the trainer/doctor and not that of the many. If he disobeys the one, and seeks the praise of the many (who have no knowledge) he will suffer harm. Therefore we should follow the opinion of one who has knowledge of the matter in question or otherwise harm and corrupt that part of ourselves that is improved by just actions and harmed by unjust actions. Justice and virtue are the highest ideals and Crito should seek only the opinion of he who knows about justice and injustice and not the majority. However, one could argue that the majority has the strength to inflict harm. Socrates response is that it is the good life that counts (justice and virtue) above and beyond life itself (a good point in which to refer to Nietzsche). By valuing a high ideal of the virtuous life, Socrates allows for the tyranny of the majority; the zeitgeist. The implications of this statement have huge consequences for the plight of the individual. Does Plato in his view of the state allow for protection against the tyranny of the majority?

Socrates establishes the premise that to do wrong is never good. One must never do wrong. When one is wronged one cannot inflict wrong in return. This is where the status quo point of view of justice is highlighted as a contradiction to the ideal of never inflicting harm.

” … when one has come to an agreement that is just with someone, should one fulfill it or cheat on it? {…} if we leave here without the city’s permission, are we harming people whom we should least do harm to? And are we sticking to a just agreement or not?”

Private individuals in this scenario have the ability to undermine the law and due process of the city and thereby also have the power to destroy the city. Ultimately to escape is to inflict harm upon the polis by destabilising the city. There are two important points implied here: that the city is justified in its rule over the polis, and the right of the individual to appeal to the ruling of the city. Socrates cites that the city provided the conditions for his birth, nurture, education and life. See Crito 51a. Essentially Socrates respects law and order and recognises the right of the city to govern and pass judgment. What is in question here is the right of the individual to appeal and challenge authority. By escaping Socrates confirms what he has been accused of as any city that would receive him would have to see that in escaping he disregards the authority of the polis and so as a teacher is a corruptor of youth.


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