Crito Review

The opening of Crito, the third dialogue of the last days of Socrates, involves the appearance of the title character at Socrates' prison cell before dawn, having "done a kindness" to the warden and gained ingress. Crito does not initially awake Socrates for he is in such a peaceful slumber given the burden he bears. As with the Apology, Socrates again mentions that at his age death should not be something that someone at his age should be worried about. In any case, Socrates has dreamt that on the third day a ship from Delos will arrive and that will be when he dies. In a society that believed heavily in the Fates and the legitimacy of prophecy, the dream provides additional tranquility to Socrates in the same manner that Camus' character Meursault feels in "The Stranger". Knowing when one is to die can provide a sense of freedom. Of course, as made explicit in The Apology, Socrates has no fear of death, merely a fear of lacking virtue.

Crito pleas with Socrates to take the opportunity to escape, and indeed he worries about his own reputation: "For the many will not be persuaded that I wanted you to escape, and that you refused". This provides the foundation for dialogue that follows, for Socrates asks Crito why he should worry what the many think, for it is only the opinion of the good that one should be concerned with. Crito points to the situation that Socrates finds himself in as an example of why the opinion of the many must be regarded; this is often been portrayed as a legitimate complaint against democratic governance, where an malicious majority is given power. Socrates argues that if this was the case, then too would be the potential for good. An argument is presented here that knowledge of good and evil is can be clearly distinguished from hurtful actions that are carried out in ignorance. Some four hundred year later it wouls also be recorded; Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).

Attempting a different tack, Crito assures Socrates that he should not fear fleeing in case the plan is unravelled and his friends are punished (Crito has some insight on Socrates' consideration of others). Crito mentions that the informers are inexpensive and that Socrates has numerous allies who are prepared to spend money to secure his safety. Further Crito attempts to lay a sense of responsibility and guilt on the gadfly; "in betraying your own life when you might be saved; this is playing into the hands of your enemies and destroyers; and moreover I should say that you were betraying your children... No man should bring children into the world who is unwilling to persevere to the end in their nurture and education".

Socrates is impressed with Crito's passion but returns to the argument of opinions. Crito agrees that only the opinions of some are to be valued, specifically that of the good and the wise or the expert in their area of expertise. So regardless of the fact that the many can even kill the few, it is the opinions of the few that are worthwhile, "that not life, but a good life, is to be chiefly valued", and that a good life is just and honourable. Socrates thus rejects Crito's argument of financial losses and even the family duty towards his children, as those are the doctrines of the masses. The only thing that is important to him is whether escape is the right thing to do. So he appeals to Crito to convince him: "I am extremely desirous to be persuaded by you, but not against my own better judgment". One is almost tempted to think that this is a tragi-comedy; trying to rescue a philosopher from death-row and he refuses to escape unless he is convinced it is the right thing to do.

Socrates begins his argument that to do wrong is always dishonourable, regardless of the consequences or the circumstances. This absolute ethic is taken to its logical conclusion, in stark contrast with conventional thought. No injury shall be applied, even when one is injured, no evil shall occur, even in return for evil: "Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him." This perspective, common to the Religious Society of Friends and Gandhi, is certainly challenging - Gandhi even tried to advocate non-violent resistance against the Nazi regime. It seems very unlikely that such a strategy would succeed (for example The White Rose group). It also unavoidable at this juncture to mention that Socrates engaged in military service for Athens and there are numerous reports of him injuring others; perhaps at the age of seventy he had decided to give that up. Nevertheless considering Socrates' response that it is not life and death, but righteousness that is important is still problematic. Engaging in the grim utilitarian calculation, does not the efficient active prevention of evil increase the potential for righteousness? After all, to live the good life and to the good one must be alive in the first place.

Finally, using what is typically described as an early version of social contract theory, Socrates argues that as he has lived in Athens for his entire life he has given implied consent to be governed by its laws. Surprisingly, differentation between just and unjust laws is not seriously explored here. Socrates views the laws of the city as a whole, rather the parts in which the are applied. "Whereas you, above all other Athenians, seemed to be so fond of the State, or, in other words, of us her laws (for who would like a State that has no laws)". The possibility of laws without a State is not examined and to turn his famous phrase, this lack of examination perhaps Socrates to an unworthy political commentator.

There is a notable contradiction in a comparison between Apology and Crito. In the former, Socrates is adamant that between his conscience and the laws of Athens he will always choose the former. In Crito, it seems that he is arguing the opposite. An attempt can be made to argue that in the former Socrates is arguing against the application unjust laws, or edicts, whereas in the latter he is complying with what he considers a moral duty to accept the outcome, having accepted the process to be just. Interpreted this way Socrates' patriotism towards the Athenian state is actually a patriotism towards democracy (the unique feature of Athens) even in recognition that the many, through ignorance and moral failure, do not always apply just outcomes. Whilst this is certainly an unusual and possibly unique position, especially given the numerous commentaries on Socrates and Plato's own ideas of governance, it is perhaps the only satisfactory way to resolve the conundrum between a Socrates who is prepared to break laws (Apology) and a Socrates who is prepared to accept the death penalty (Crito).

Review for The New Seminary