The dialogue Crito is an early composition by Plato. By having Socrates resist Crito's offer to help him escape prison, Plato takes up the major issues of justice and obedience to law.

Scenery of the dialogue

Socrates engages in a discussion with his wealthy friend and student Crito. The discussion takes place in Socrates's prison cell, where the philosopher waits for his execution. Crito comes by dawn to tell his friend that he will be executed the next day. The dialogue is played out between the two dramatic persons, while, in the middle of the work, Socrates introduces the Laws as his personified interlocutor. References to Crito and his relation to Socrates are also made in Plato's Apology, Phaedo, Euthydemus, as well as in Xenophon's Memorabilia.

Structure and content

The dialogue is introduced with Crito bringing to the imprisoned Socrates the urgent news of his imminent execution. His advice to his teacher is to break out and save himself. To underpin his proposal, Crito appeals to the following arguments: a. Losing his friend would inflict him a great damage. b. Most people would accuse him of not helping out his friend. c. The bribe for the jailers is rather small. e. Socrates would be received with enthusiasm in any city of refuge. f. It is unjust for Socrates to surrender to his conviction when his evasion is feasible. g. He should not leave his children alone.

In his attempt to refute Crito's argument, Socrates postulates that only reason can convince him. He, then, secures Crito's consent that it is the opinion of the experts and the wise that should be taken into account, and not that of the majority of men. Furthermore, what is important is not life but the good life. The only thing left for examination is whether the jailbreak is just or unjust. Socrates stresses out that one should not do wrong even when one is wronged. Crito, however, finds it hard to see what is wrong in his suggestion to break out. This is the moment when the personified Laws take the stage and explain that setting at naught the verdicts of the courts results in the distraction of the city. The Laws present themselves as Socrates's ancestors to whom he owes his nurture and education. Given that the highest good is one's country, one is not justified to disobey its commands even if they are wrong; instead he should try to persuade it to do better. At any rate, Athens gives its citizens the right to move to any other city of their choice; however, the ones who choose to stay agree to comply with the city's laws. Socrates indeed never left his home. Through the mouth of Socrates, the Laws claim that if the philosopher flees to another city he will be suspected as an enemy to that city's government, and a destroyer of the laws. What is more, his philosophical doctrines will be discredited. The final judgement of a person's deed takes place in Hades, and for that reason it is better for one to suffer the evil on earth instead of committing it. The Laws close their speech with a significant remark: that Socrates was not wronged by them, but by men. The dialogue comes to a closure with Socrates stating that after the compelling teachings of the Laws, he cannot hear anything else.

Date of composition

Most scholars place Crito among the works of Plato's early period of authorship, after the death of Socrates (399 B.C.), and maybe right after the composition of the Apology.

Interpretation

Most of the initial arguments put forward by Crito in his attempt to persuadeSocrates to slip away are rather naïve, for they appeal mainly to the material conditions and the incidental consequences of the jailbreak than to the very nature of the action itself. His following arguments, however, place the weight on the moral duty of Socrates: Crito claims that it would be unjust on Socrates' part to suffer the evil inflicted upon him by the Athenians (45d). A similar thesis is conveyed by Callicles in the Gorgias (483a-b), where he claims that suffering the wrongdoing is the worst thing, and it befits only a slave.

The appearance of the personified Laws is the most important part of the dialogue. Socrates advances by invoking the arguments that the Laws would put forward if they could speak (50a ff.). At no point of the dialogue are those arguments objected, and in this regard they assimilate to a rhetoric speech than to a dialectic account. The Laws of Athens are probably the experts in the matters of justice that Socrates was seeking earlier in the dialogue.

The basic problem ensuing from Socrates' position is the unconditional obedience of the citizen to the laws of the city. Does Socrates subscribe to the definitive thesis that one should comply with the laws even if one is damaged by them? What is the philosophical attitude as to the unjust laws? Some scholars point out an inconsistency between the law-abiding posture of Socrates in Crito, and the more "defiant" attitude he assumes in the Apology. There, we read that Socrates defied the decrees of the Thirty Tyrants because they were unjust (32c-d). In the same vein, he claims that even if his judges order him to abandon his philosophical teachings in order to save his life, he wouldn't comply, for it is preferable to obey God than them. Some think of this inconsistency as irreconcilable, and remain puzzled over Socrates' lifelong interest in justice, and his pronouncement for blind obedience even to unjust laws. Other researchers have proposed that the inconsistency is resolved with the last word of the personified Laws in Crito: it is not the Laws themselves that inflict wrong on Socrates, but men. Therefore, if Socrates escapes, he will do wrong to the laws who were not the ones to have harmed him in the first place (54c).

One thing is certain, Socrates dismisses the logic that has a wrongdoing atone for another wrongdoing. Socrates puts in practise his moral value, and sacrifices his life in order to abstain from committing an unjust act: "One should never do wrong in return, nor do any man harm, no matter what he may have done to you" (49c-d). The rejection of returning the wrong is the new ethic principle that Socrates opposes to the archaic mentality of retaliation.

Refraining from wrongdoing is important for Socrates because it helps keep one's soul unharmed. The philosopher's death is exemplar in that it results from the implementation of theory to practise. According to Hannah Arendt, the philosophical truth becomes in this case ultimately persuasive on account of its application to life.

Author: Deny Konstantinidi
  • Bostock, D. "The Interpretation of Plato’s Crito’." Phronesis 35 (1990)
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Rex, M. "Socrates on disobedience to law." Review of Metaphysics 24 (1970)
  • Vlastos, G. Socrates. Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge, 1991.
  • Young, C.M. "Crito." Press, G. ed. The Continuum Companion to Plato. London, 2012.
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