Plato's Dialogues: Crito

To the sorrow of all of his friends and students, us included, Socrates has been condemned, and normally would have been executed shortly after the trial. However, a state galley had been sent on a sacred mission at about the same time and no executions could be carried out until it returned, so instead he sat in a jail cell for almost a month. Shortly before its return, Crito, one of Socrates’ students, came to visit his teacher to say that he expected the ship to return soon, but that he could easily help Socrates escape by placing a few bribes. Socrates, though, always true to form, doesn’t jump at this chance to save himself, but instead insisted on discussing whether this would truly be the right thing to do. The dialogue begins, though, in unusual fashion. Crito expects the boat to arrive the day of his visit, but Socrates disagrees based on a dream, which he describes to the incredulous Crito:

SOCRATES: I thought I saw a gloriously beautiful woman dressed in white robes, who came up to me and addressed me in these words: Socrates, ‘To the pleasant land of Phthia on the third day thou shalt come.’
CRITO: Your dream makes no sense, Socrates.
SOCRATES: To my mind, Crito, it is perfectly clear.
CRITO: Too clear, apparently.

My initial reaction was much the same as Crito’s, but the editor of my edition of the book points out that Socrates is quoting Iliad 9.363, which is a speech by Achilles (er, Akhilleus) saying that he intends to abandon the war and return home. I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to read into this, but it does tell us a few things about Socrates. His lack of concern with worldly matters, for one thing, as well as a sense of the conclusion of his divine mission.

In any case, Crito sets that aside and puts forward his plan, noting that Socrates’ death would be a “double calamity” for him, since he would not only lose a close friend, but people would think that he failed Socrates. “Most people,” he explains, “will never believe that it was you who refused to leave this place although we tried our hardest to persuade you.”

Socrates tells him “I appreciate your warm feelings very much,” but shortly after adds, “I cannot abandon the principles which I used to hold in the past simply because this accident has happened to me.” The first point to address is that one shouldn’t concern oneself with the opinions of most people, but only with those who know something about the subject in question. Why does it matter what the majority of people think of Socrates and Crito? Those who know them, that is, those who have a worthwhile opinion, will understand the situation.

Socrates then moves on to whether life is always worth living:

SOCRATES: Well, is life worth living with a body which is worn out and ruined in health?
CRITO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: What about the part of us which is mutilated by wrong actions and benefited by right ones? Is life worth living with this part ruined? Or do we believe that this part of us, whatever it may be, in which right and wrong operate, is of less importance to the body?
CRITO: Certainly not.

Now, I disagree with Socrates’ first assertion because I believe there is value in suffering, but his overall point stands. Since life is not always worth living, it’s not worth saving under all circumstances. For example, it’s not worth saving one’s life if doing so means damaging the soul in some way. In Christian terms, it’s not good to gain the whole world but lose one’s soul.

Would attempting to escape be wrong? Socrates explains that he’s spent much of his time teaching obedience to the state, and for his whole life he’d accepted the state’s authority and all the benefits that the law had given to him, never considering leaving. It would be quite hypocritical of him, then, to disobey its laws. So, even though he disagrees with the state’s judgement, he will remain and abide by it.

There are a couple interesting observations aside from the primary arguments in this dialogue. One stems from a section where Socrates asks Crito to imagine a personification of the laws speaking to him:

Did we not give you life in the first place? Was it not through us that your father married your mother and begot you? Tell us, have you any complaint against those of us laws that deal with marriage?
Are you so wise as to have forgotten that compared with your mother and father and all the rest of your ancestors your country is something far more precious, more venerable, more sacred, and held in greater honor both among gods and among all reasonable men? Do you not realize that you are even more bound to respect and placate the anger of your country than your father’s anger?

His overall point about the gratitude and duties we owe to our country and its laws, I’ll agree with. However, this section is exactly backwards. We owe greater duties to those closer to us. I mentioned when writing about Euthyphro that the Fourth Commandment orders us to obey our parents, and that our obedience to the state is only an extension of that, and Confucius seems to have held a similar view. I won’t rehash that argument here, though.

Another thing I noticed is that in most previous dialogues Socrates has had an opponent, sometimes friendly as in Laches, and sometimes hostile, as in Euthyphro. Here, though, once Crito makes his initial case he’s mostly silent apart from answering direct questions. Socrates even urges him at one point to voice any objections he may have, but one can tell that Crito always knew what basic argument Socrates would make, and that Crito, ultimately, knows that Socrates is right. It’s only Crito’s love for his friend (and, it seems, his reputation) that made him try to save Socrates. Unfortunately, that could not be.

We’ve now covered seven dialogues, but we’ve only just finished the earliest stages of this journey. Now that we’ve covered some introductory work and the events around Socrates’ death, we will, I believe, start diving more deeply into what Socrates’ taught. Next up is Protagoras.