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Plato’s Crito, Part 2

Jacque-Louis David, "The Death of Socrates," detail [1]

Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Socrates,” detail

5,274 words

Part 2 of 2

Author’s Note:

The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of a lecture [2] on Plato’s Crito.  As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness. I have also added a few lines and repositioned some paragraphs. 

The quotes are from Plato and Aristophanes, Four Texts on Socrates [3]trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984). 

Socrates tells Crito, in effect, “If we’re concerned too much about what the many say about matters of justice we will corrupt our souls.” So, we shouldn’t do that. We should listen to what the expert, if there is such an expert, would say. The expert and the soul are not directly mentioned here—the expert is merely hypothetical, and Socrates never uses the word “soul”—which is very interesting.

Why is that the case? My answer is that for Crito, philosophical knowledge of the soul and its care are not possible. Crito cannot know what the soul is and what it requires. He cannot have the kind of expertise that can produce the greatest good and the greatest evil, namely to teach wisdom. He’s going to have to settle for something less.

The second best route for learning what’s right and what’s wrong are the laws of the city, the conventional laws. This is why the whole argument moves forward, step by step, by means of establishing conventions between Socrates and Crito. This is why the dialogue ends with the dream-like and beguiling speech of the Laws. Socrates is really trying to beguile poor Crito. But it’s for Crito’s own good, because Crito will become a better man if he can rise above this ethic of helping friends and harming enemies and attain, even at this late stage in his life, a certain reverence for law as such, even when it may not necessarily be in his interest.

People in the past used to give the most moral credit to somebody who did something because it was right, even if it wasn’t in his self-interest, and especially when it entailed loss. You don’t give a person moral credit for doing what’s right when it’s convenient or when it’s easy. You give a person moral credit for doing what is right precisely when it’s the most difficult.

Although the right and the legal often diverge, we give people the same kind of credit when they follow the law precisely when it’s not convenient, because it is clear that their primary loyalty is to the law rather than to their own convenience. A person like that is a good citizen, a member of a political order. And a person who isn’t like that, isn’t a good citizen. The trouble with a world of people who only follow the laws when somebody’s looking is that there are circumstances when someone isn’t watching, then the law breaks down.

Consider the old “prisoner’s dilemma.” The police arrest two guys near the scene of a crime. They’re pretty sure they have the crooks. But they don’t have any evidence. So what do they do? They put them in two separate interrogation rooms and offer them a deal. If you rat on your friend, we’ll give you lenient punishment.

Now, the best situation for both of them is to be able to trust the other guy not to rat on him, and not rat on the other guy as well. Then they both go free. But the only way to get the best outcome is if they trust one another. But that requires that both are willing to take the risk of putting their mutual good (both getting off) before their individual interest (ratting on their accomplice). If a person isn’t willing to take that risk, then social order collapses or never forms to begin with. The common good become unattainable.

Put it this way: the only thing that takes individuals or groups out of the competitive, cut-throat “state of nature” of pre-political association and brings them into political order is being willing to take the risk of laying down one’s short-term individual interests and submitting one’s self to a legal order that can produce a larger good that everybody can participate in. If you can’t take the risk of doing that, then political order will either never come into existence or it will collapse.

In societies where trust begins to break down, people stop following the laws. They say, “I’m only going to follow the law when it’s in my interest. I can’t count on my fellow man being a decent human being who will reciprocate in kind if I take the risk of decency.” All one needs to unravel the trust that holds up society are a few well-established cases of good people being screwed or exploited because of their goodness.

Here’s a great example. One of my students told me that a street gang decided that one of the ways they’re going to induct new members is to send them out in a car at night with their headlights off, and they were supposed to shoot at the first good citizen who flashed their lights at them to indicate that they were driving with their lights off. Now, all you need is just one case of that, and suddenly people don’t take the risk of good citizenship.

In Russia normal human trust was so crushed for more than 70 years by Communism that they’re really in a state of nature, and no one is willing to take the risk of following the law, because that always involves risking one’s short-term benefits for long-term political stability. So they’re in a terrible situation now. No one pays his taxes, even though the government still has enormous responsibilities, such as subsidizing 95% of people’s housing costs, which is absurd. But they can’t collect the taxes to make the system work.

These are serious issues. The only way you can have political order is if you take individuals who are self-seeking (for themselves and their families) and get them to submit to common impersonal rules, even though submitting to those rules entails the risk of being exploited if one’s good citizenship is not reciprocated.

What one needs is another motivating factor that counter-balances one’s calculations of self-interest. That factor is the idea of the noble. The noble person does his duty, does what the law states, even when it is difficult and does not redound to his selfish interests. Without nobility, political society collapses into pre-political society. It’s very, very difficult to take pre-political societies and put them into political order.

The greatest legislators in the history of mankind have been people like Moses and Mohammed. What did they do? They took people who were existing in a pre-political state of life, and, by giving them a law and backing it up with divine sanctions, they were capable of making these people take the risk of subordinating their personal short-term interests to a greater good. Mohammed took a bunch of people who were wandering around in extended families and clans and created an empire that stretched from Central Asia all the way to Spain and lasted about 500 years before it broke down. Even today in Arabic countries, though, you find that the pre-political form of life is still very powerful. In Arab countries, if you’re a stranger they’re willing to screw you nine ways to Sunday. There’s still not an ethic of fair dealing with strangers. That’s what you find in the pre-political plane: help your friends and screw the stranger. To be able to take people who lived in that form of life and turn them into a formidable political society—a massive empire that stretched for thousands of miles—that is a great feat of legislation.[1]

What political life requires is the creation of a conception of the common good that people will submit to at the risk of their short-term private interests. Once people are willing to take that risk, then they find that there are larger goods available to them: political life. Political life is extremely important because it is the basis of any higher form of civilization. This is why Aristotle was for the polis, because you can’t find high culture when you’ve got a bunch of Sicilian clans. It’s an extraordinary thing to take people out of that pre-political state and create political order.

Let’s return to the text. Socrates says, in effect, “You say that the many are able to kill us, so why shouldn’t we pay attention to that?” His basic point is that what’s most important is not living, but living well. And living well is equivalent to living nobly and justly, which is equivalent to the care of the soul, a virtuous life. If simply living requires that you compromise on living well, then that’s not worth it. You’re better off to die with your integrity intact than to continue living badly, because life at any price is not unconditionally good. Life is only good on the condition that it is virtuous and well-lived. Again, the only unconditionally good thing for Socrates and Plato is wisdom. Life without wisdom is, therefore, not unconditionally good. It’s only on the condition of virtue or practical wisdom that your life is really worth living. So, he’s saying that if he had to give up on virtue, if he had to take part in his own corruption in order to maintain his physical existence, that’s a bad bargain. That’s trading gold for lead. Dying is not that important to him. Living well is more important.

On the next page, Socrates says something very interesting:

Let us consider in common, my good man [again, he’s always bringing the two together in common discussion, establishing a common viewpoint], and if there is some way you can contradict my argument, contradict it, and I will obey you. But if not, blessed man, then stop telling me the same argument again and again, that I ought to go away from here although the Athenians are unwilling. For I regard it important to act after persuading you, not while you are unwilling. (p. 107)

Why is it important for Socrates to persuade Crito? Socrates is already there. He doesn’t have to persuade Crito to stay. He could say, “Get out of here, Crito! I don’t have to justify myself to you!” Why does Socrates think it’s important to persuade Crito? He definitely wants to teach Crito something. He doesn’t have to say a word if he wants to stay in the jail. He doesn’t have to go through all this. The only person who is going to benefit from this is Crito. But how is Socrates going to make Crito a better man? Crito is somebody who needs to be ennobled.

Aristophanes is not under any illusion that Strepsiades can know what’s right by nature and act on it. Nor is Socrates under any delusion that Crito could do this either. So, they recognize that these men will be the best they can be if they can learn reverence for the law. And what does reverence for the law do? It takes you outside of your private and personal interests and allows you to make civilization possible. It allows you to make a higher order of life possible for human beings. So, a good citizen is a very good thing indeed. Good citizenship has its limits, but the limits are not visible to Crito.

We bump up against those limits a little later on the same page:

Socrates: Do we assert that in no way ought injustice to be done voluntarily?

Crito: Yes.

Socrates: And should we not do evil voluntarily?

Crito: We shouldn’t do evil voluntarily either.

Socrates: Surely there is no difference between human beings doing evil and doing injustice.

Is there? Is there a difference between doing evil and doing injustice? What’s the difference? Injustice means breaking the laws of the city, right? What does doing evil mean? Going against the laws of nature.

Doing evil and doing injustice would only be the same thing if the laws of the state were in complete harmony with the laws of nature, and that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s very seldom the case. Thus when Socrates equates doing evil and doing injustice, this is one of those live ones that he throws out there waiting for someone to say, “Wait a second here! Wait a second!” But Crito says, “What you say is true. There is no difference.” Well, there is a difference, but for Crito there’s no difference, because Crito doesn’t see anything above the conventional law.

But Socrates does, and the clearest indication of that is in the Apology. Remember when Socrates says, “What if you were to offer me the following deal: ‘We’ll let you live. Just don’t do philosophy’?” And what does he say? “No way!” But the enactments of the courts were laws. He would not obey a law against philosophizing, because philosophy is required by what is right by nature, and no human law can contravene that, no human law that Socrates will respect. So Socrates believes in civil disobedience. Socrates believes in breaking the laws, if the laws of the state contradict the laws of nature.

However, Crito doesn’t have access to that higher standard. So he doesn’t see any difference between evil and law-breaking, between what’s legal and what’s moral. That’s the limitation of the good citizen. The good citizen, by identifying what is legal with what is moral, can sometimes very piously and zealously do evil things because they are duly enacted by the state.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail appeals to the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito in various places, and the point that he makes about civil disobedience basically appeals to a notion of natural law. Civil disobedience is perfectly justified if the laws of the state contradict the laws of nature, what’s right by nature. That’s exactly the Socratic position. So, we know that Socrates doesn’t buy the position about law that he’s just handed to Crito. We have to keep that in mind. This is especially important to keep in mind when you read the speech from the Laws that follows.

Let’s turn to the speech itself. Again, it’s cast in the language of a dream-like apparition. These are the kinds of flickering, beguiling shadows that one sees down in the cave. Socrates is using these to beguile Crito. Why? To make him a better man.

What if the laws and the community of the city should come and stand before us who are about to run away (or whatever name we should give it) from here and ask: “Tell me, Socrates, what do you have in mind to do? By this deed you’re attempting, what do you think you’re doing if not destroying us laws and the whole city as far as it lies in you? Or does it seem possible to you for a city to continue to exist and not to be overturned in which the judgments that are reached have no strength, but are rendered ineffective and are corrupted by private men?” (p. 108)

The private man is the pre-political man. This is a good question. How can political order exist if the judgments of the laws are turned over by private men? This is the anti-civil disobedience argument. If everybody just says, “I’m going to opt out of obeying the law, because of my conscience,” we’ll have chaos. There’s truth to that, too. This is why it’s a delicate issue. I would rather live in Stalin’s Russia than in a state of anarchy, because bad laws are better than no laws at all, on the average. That’s an important issue, and the laws are raising a valid question.

Socrates: What shall we say, Crito, to these and other such things. For someone, especially an orator, would have many things to say on behalf of this law if it were destroyed, the law that orders that the judgments reached in trials be authoritative, or shall we tell them the city was doing us injustice and did not pass judgment correctly? Shall we say this or what?

Crito: Yes, this, by Zeus, Socrates!

Socrates: Then what if the laws should say, “Socrates, has it been agreed to by us and you to do this or to abide by whatever judgments the city reaches in trial?’” (p. 109)

And so, he’s saying, “Socrates, you’ve agreed to abide by our judgments. You’ve signed on the dotted line.” It’s a sort of social contract view. But it’s very important to ask the question: “On what grounds does Crito so readily agree that we should say to the city that it’s doing injustice?” Is it an appeal to natural law over and above the enactments of convention, or is it an appeal to some other notion of right and wrong?

The city’s doing injustice by harming my friend! That’s why he’s so ready to agree to this. Socrates wants to give up that attitude. Socrates says, “But I’ve made a convention with the city, a compact to obey the laws.” He goes on to explain later that it’s a sort of tacit agreement—that he had every right to leave the city once he was an adult, but he chose not to, and, therefore, by tacit consent he has consented to obey all the judgments of the laws.

But before Socrates goes into that, he gives a completely different ground for the authority of the laws: The Laws say, in effect, “Did we bring you into existence? Your mother and father begat you, but you weren’t a bastard. They weren’t farm animals. They were man and wife, legally wed and you were their legitimate offspring. By what? By us, the laws.”

Human beings, unlike farm animals, marry and breed under law, and, therefore, we have legal marriages and legal offspring. So, the Laws say, “We are the third begetter of you, Socrates. We are just as much your parent as your parents were. We brought you into this world, and we can take you out, too.” The Laws ask, “Didn’t we nurture and educate you?”

They continue: “What about those that concern the nurture and education in which you, too, were educated of the one born? Or didn’t those laws among us which have been ordered for this end order your father nobly when they passed along and commanded him to educate you in music and gymnastic?” (p. 109). Now, gymnastic educates the body, and music—which refers to all things connected with the muses, not just music proper—educates the tastes and sentiments and the spirited part of the soul. But there’s no mention of the laws providing for the education of the higher part of the soul. Specifically, the laws don’t provide for the cultivation of reason.

If, however, you look at the educational regime in the Republic, the kallipolis, the “city in speech,” we find that beyond musical and gymnastic education is another level of education that cultivates reason, which ultimately culminates in the production of philosopher-kings. The laws of Athens make no provision for that. Thus the laws are indicating that they make possible a certain kind of political excellence, but not the highest form of human excellence, which is, in a sense, trans-political—namely the cultivation of rationality. Because the laws don’t make this possible, there are grounds for breaking the laws, not because you’re beneath them, but because you’re above them. This is an important factor.

The Laws continue in a passage filled with echoes of the Just and the Unjust Speeches of the Clouds: “Well then, since you were born and nurtured and educated too, could you say first that you are not ours, both our offspring and slave, you yourself as well as your forbearers? And, if this is so, do you suppose that justice is equal for you and for us?” (p. 109). Remember the Unjust Speech? Remember Pheidippides? Pheidippides, who listens to the Unjust Speech, thinks that justice is equal between fathers and sons. He doesn’t see that there is an inequality between fathers and their children and between ancient laws and the modern demos, because he also says about the laws of the city: “Well, men made those laws, so why can’t I make new ones?” That’s the teaching of the Sophists, or the Unjust Speech, that justice is equal, that there are no unequal relationships. Here the Laws offer a Just Speech that’s far more powerful than the weak, flimsy Just Speech in the Clouds:

Do you suppose there’s equality between us? Think again. And do you suppose that it is just to do in return whatever we attempt to do to you? Now, in regard to your father, or a master if you happen to have one, justice was not equal for you, so that you didn’t also do in return whatever you suffered. You didn’t contradict him when he spoke badly of you, nor did you beat him in return when you were beaten, or do any other such thing. So, is it then permitted to you to do with regard to the fatherland and the laws so that we, believing it to be just, attempt to destroy you then you too, to the extent that you can, will attempt to destroy us laws and the fatherland in return. (pp. 109–10)

In effect, they’re saying: “We can destroy you, but you have no right to destroy us. Justice is not equal between us.”

Most people would think, “Eeegh, the ‘fatherland!’” It sounds awful. But what he’s trying to do is instill an entirely proper and salutary reverence for the laws. That reverence gives the laws the power to trump one’s personal interests. One goes to them not on equal terms for a self-interested exchange. There are certain things a citizen owes that might not be in his interest. That’s what nobility requires. That’s the whole notion of nobility really.

Now one might ask, “Is political association a necessary antecedent—a prerequisite—to the trans-political?” Yes it is. The laws say, “Socrates, you obviously loved Athens and us enough that you never wanted to leave.” Well, there are other explanations for why Socrates didn’t leave Athens, other than because he loved the laws so much. In fact, the laws in Athens were in chaos, and he thought the laws in Sparta and Crete were better. But he didn’t go to Crete or Sparta.

Why? Because Crete or Sparta, though they had excellent laws and produced excellent citizens, did not have the conditions of freedom or the flourishing culture that Athens had. That kind of freedom and that kind of high culture is one of the primary conditions for the creation of philosophy. It’s precisely because Athens was so decadent, in some ways, and so badly governed, that there was an atmosphere conducive to philosophizing.

For a very long time, people have recognized that philosophy flourishes best in slightly seedy and decadent climates, because as soon as you can philosophically understand what’s good about a particular society that’s because it is basically already dead. This is Hegel’s metaphor: “The owl of Minerva takes flight only at dusk.” Meaning that wisdom, represented by the owl of Minerva, only happens at the twilight of a civilization when it’s a little too ripe. Of course, decadent societies can last for hundreds of years.

But let’s listen to the Laws, and try to imagine some Wagner playing in the background. At the top of page 110:

And will you say that in doing this you are acting justly? You, who in truth care for virtue, or are you so wise that you have been unaware that fatherland is something more honorable than mother and father and all the other forbearers and more venerable and more holy and more highly esteemed among gods and among human beings who are intelligent? And that you must revere and give way to and fawn upon a fatherland more than a father when it is angry with you and either persuade it to do whatever it is or be quiet and suffer if it orders you to suffer anything, whether to be beaten or to be bound. Or if that it leads you to war to be wounded or to be killed, this must be done, and that this is just, and you are not to give way or retreat or leave your station, and that in war and in court and everywhere you must do whatever the city and the fatherland bid or else persuade it what the just is by nature. (p. 110)

This notion of the “just by nature” is the first and only inkling of the trans-political dimension here. The laws recognize that the only way to get above them is to appeal to what is just by nature. But, of course, Socrates is aware of how impossible is the task that the laws set.

How could he persuade the people in the court that the life of philosophy is just by nature? We saw what he had to do. We saw his careful, Clintonesque irony, the artful perjury that he engaged in, particularly his extravagant and false tale about how philosophy is dear to the god Apollo. That’s what he had to say. There’s no way of communicating what’s just by nature to the Strepsiadeses and the Critos of the world, and that’s the rub.

This is why philosophers who recognize the nature of political life give up on any type of utopian dreaming that they can completely transform the world with philosophy. That doesn’t mean that they give up entirely, or that they’re entirely irresponsible gadabouts, and they just sit about and engage in mental masturbation while the world goes to wrack and ruin. But there’s a recognition that a political order, especially a direct democracy, is not the kind of place where philosophy can provide any kind of moderating influence.

If you want an image of a society where philosophy can play a positive role, you have to look at the whole drama of the Republic, because in the Republic what Socrates is doing is taking a young man from a well-connected family, namely Plato’s family, and he’s moderating him, making him wiser. Philosophy can have a very powerful effect on a society through education, specifically educating the people who lead or who will lead, but certainly not by going out and persuading the masses. And that’s exactly what Socrates spent his time doing. He educated people from the best families, the most influential families, and tried to make them better men, better citizens, and that’s a very valid way in which philosophy can involve itself in politics.[2]

Socrates concludes, basically, by saying that he has no answer to the Laws. He asks Crito, “Do you have any answer?” And Crito says, “No.” Socrates replies, in effect, “So, we have to abide by what the laws say. They brought me into this world, they nurtured me, they educated me, and I owe them a debt that I can’t repay.”

There is a certain truth to that, when you think about your relationship to your parents and to your society, provided that your parents aren’t monsters and your society isn’t so bad that you would be better off being raised by wolves. There are certain people who would be better off raised by wolves than by the parents they have, but even rather imperfect parents are better than wolves, and they do a lot for you, such as create you, that you can’t ever repay.

So, the relationship between parent and child is never going to be on equal terms. There’s always going to be a kind of indebtedness that can’t be bought off, and, therefore, has to be just marked with a certain amount of respect. Even when they’re old fools, you have to respect them and treat them well.

It’s the same with a society. A society does all kinds of things for you that are so fundamental to your early education and nurturing that a decent person has to say there’s a certain amount of piety that’s required by that, a certain amount of respect. That respect, that concern, is really one of the bases for being a good child of a parent and a good citizen of a society.

Socrates also gives another set of reasons for staying, a sort of social contract. He had every opportunity once he grew up to leave, and if he didn’t take advantage of that, it’s an indication that he agrees with the Laws. It doesn’t really follow, but he says he has no answer, and Crito can’t think of any answer to that either. So Socrates says, “Well, Crito, I’m persuaded by this, and so I’m going to stay.” We know, though, that Socrates does not have this view of law.

Why, then, did he stay? That’s an important question. Socrates was an old man. Even if he did leave, he’d lead the life of an old man in exile in a hostile world. That wouldn’t be a very enviable fate. It’s certainly not a good fate for somebody who believes that life at any price is not really desirable. So I think that he regarded staying as the noblest thing to do, not because the conventional laws of the city, but because of a higher view.


1. The Jews were a very stiff-necked, pre-political people. They didn’t have any sort of a political order. They were nomads and they were guest-workers in Egypt for a very long time after that, but they never had a political society above clan structure. After Moses, they were eventually able to found a kingdom that was quite successful for some time. The Jews went into Egypt and they became a very large people who had been ruled by the Egyptians. They had never ruled themselves before that and they became a large enough group of people that they couldn’t have pre-political order, because pre-political order requires face-to-face interactions, which means very small groups. So, what you need is impersonal rules and what he created was a system of laws that were general impersonal laws that allowed people to interact on a very large scale and found a very successful kingdom that lasted, with ups and downs, until finally the Romans finally destroyed it after the last revolt in the first century AD.

2. I wanted to bring this up at Richard Parry’s talk, because he said, in effect, “Well, what do you do? Do you go into politics and get killed or do you just huddle by the wall while the wind blows by?” There’s a third option, and that is the exact option that Plato and Socrates followed, which is to try to influence politics behind the scenes. Plato was certainly concerned with that. Witness his whole involvement with the government of Syracuse, trying to improve the system that way.

You find philosophers doing that throughout antiquity. Plotinus, for instance, was very much connected with several Roman emperors. He went to Mesopotamia with the Emperor Gordian III for some reason. We don’t know why, but he accompanied the emperor on his campaign, and when the emperor was assassinated, Plotinus scuttled back to Antioch. Then he went straight to Rome and opened a school, where he was advisor to the most powerful people in Rome, including other people who were emperors later on. He did toy with founding a city, though, which is interesting.