Hauptli's Lecture Supplement on Plato's Crito:

Copyright 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli

1. Introduction:

Socrates is convicted of corrupting the youth and vilifying the gods and after this trial one of his friends comes to him and details a plan for escape.  In response Plato’s Socrates asks if it can ever be right to defend oneself against evil by doing evil.  Granted that it was unjust to condemn him to death, can it be right for him to escape by breaking the law?  What will happen to a state if individual men are able to set aside the laws? 

     Two senses of ‘law’ (law in general vs. the specific laws of a particular state):


Is the polis natural?  Is it conventional? 

On the need for law—traffic rules, for example. 

For Plato, man as a social animal. 

While Athens (the particular City-State) is not natural, society is natural and necessary for man! 

     We saw that Euthyphro was not a philosopher, and thus we should ask “Is Crito a philosopher, like Socrates?  Clearly, unlike Euthyphro, Meletus, Anytus, and many others, Crito is Plato’s friend.  Moreover, it is clear that Crito has been exposed to many of Socrates’ philosophical discussions.  Of course, these factors do not, on their own establish that he is a philosopher.  In her Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, Roslyn Weiss argues, contrary to the more common picture, that Crito has an “unphilosophical nature”[1] maintaining that:  

since it was fully expected of an Athenian gentleman that he put the welfare of friends and family above fidelity to the city and its laws, Crito’s readiness to break the law in order to save the life of his friend might well be simply the right thing to do by Athenian standards.  Crito is certainly no worse from a moral perspective than his peers.  And his offenses and potential offenses involve little more than fibbing and using money in mildly unsavory ways....it is practices such as these that Socrates seeks to discourage.  Just as Socrates condemns the begging and wailing and other such behaviors that are regularly employed in court to secure life and freedom, so he shuns practices such as bending the truth and offering money for the sake of achieving similar ends.  As Socrates sees it, that one indulges in behaviors such as these indicates deficiencies in one’s soul.[2] 

Thus, we will have to look at what Crito says, does, and agrees to as we try to determine whether he should be counted along with Plato’s Socrates as a philosopher. 

2. The Text: [divided into three parts]

A. The Expert vs. The Many [44c-49e]:

the “second part” will be: “justice and fairness” [49b-50a] and

the “third part” will be “the Law’s Speeches” [50b-end].   

44c Crito: If you die, I’ll be deprived of a unique friend and many will think ill of me because I did nothing to aid you. 

44d Crito: The opinion of the majority [or “the many”] must be regarded—as your condition shows, they are capable of doing great harm! 

Soc: The many can not do great harm or good. 

-Does he here express a “contempt” for the many?  If so, then I think we need to wonder why he seems so motivated to stay and try and “improve” them. 

45a-46 Crito: A plan for escape which will not harm Socrates or his friends, a new city to live in, and reasons to go.  Others will help—no one will suffer; men will love you in those other places, think of your children and their education, think of your reputation and of your friends. 

46b Soc: Dear Crito, your zeal is invaluable, if a right one, but if wrong the greater the zeal, the greater the evil...We must examine whether..... 

...I am the kind of man who listens only to the argument that on reflection seems best to me. 

-Does Plato’s Socrates mean that he only listens to the argument that pleases him (and him only)?  That is, what determines whether an argument is worthy—personal decision based on arbitrary likes and dislikes?  Contrast and compare this passage with passage on 49d regarding “let this be the basis of our deliberations.” 

--One scholar, Ronald Polansky, usefully translates this passage as: “I am the kind of man who listens only to the best arguments (logos).”[3]  It is clear that this expresses Socrates’ basic attitude—it is philosophic argument that “moves” him, and it is this sort of argument that he thinks should “move” others also.  As the Euthyphro and Apology show, others are not so “moved,” however, and given this Socrates must sometimes “tell stories,” rather than argue.  In this dialogue, he will try the path of philosophic argument first with Crito. 

-Contrast this passage with the one in the Euthyphro [33d] where he claims that what he is doing has “been enjoined by the gods”—is Plato’s Socrates primarily on a “divine mission enjoined by the gods,” appealing to “the gods” to help Athenians understand his “activity” of philosophizing, or some combination of both (it is the right thing to do in and of itself, and would be approved by gods worthy of piety)?  In addition, contrast this passage with the one in the Apology [33c-d] where he says that his philosophical activity has been ordained by the god(s) by all possible signs and portents.  This raises the question “How pious is Plato’s Socrates?”  See the supplement “Socrates, Divine Voices, and Listening [Only] To Reason” on the course website. 

46d Soc: Some opinions, and the opinions of some men only, are to be valued...[Shouldn’t we listen to the one expert if there is such a person?] 

-Physical training example (expert trainer and others—whose advise should we take?).   

-47d-48e Soc: with regard to the just and unjust, the shameful and beautiful, the good and bad—should we follow the opinion of the many and fear it or that of one, if there is one who has knowledge of these things, who has knowledge of these things?  If we do not follow his directions, we shall harm and corrupt that part of ourselves that is improved by just actions and destroyed by unjust actions. 

--Note that Plato does not imply that there is such an expert here!  However, if there is no such expert, then there is little we can do which is right except engage in dialectic: when there are no experts and the knowledge is important, we must seek it ourselves using the best critical tools at our disposal!  The only other choice seems to be to allow hatred, anger, and hostility to manifest themselves—cf. Euthyphro 7d-e. 

--47d One translator, Hugh Tredennick, translates the passage as: “...what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth.”[4] 

47d-48c Soc: Bodily metaphor—health and disease.  Is life worth living with a body that is corrupted and in bad condition? 

-47e-48c Soc: And the soul [psyche] is more important than the body! 

-So we should not listen to what the many say about justice. 

-48b While “the many are able to put us to death,” “...the most important thing is not life, but the good life.” 

B. Justice and Escape [49b-50a]:

49d “So then consider very carefully whether we have this view in common, and whether you agree, and let this be the basis of our deliberation, that neither to do wrong or to return a wrong is ever right, not even to injure in return for an injury received.  Or do you disagree and do not share this view as a basis for discussion?  I have held it for a long time and still hold it now....  Crito indicates that he continues to hold to this principle. 

-What is it that Crito would have Socrates do? 

-Does this passage suggest that Plato’s Socrates does know things after all?  Does he claim to know that it is never right to return a wrong for a wrong?[5] 

49e Soc: “...when one has come to an agreement that is just with someone, should one fulfill it or cheat on it?”  Crito agrees that one should fulfill such agreements.   

-“See what follows from this: if we leave here without the city’s permission, are we injuring people whom we should least injure?  And are we sticking to a just agreement or not?” 

-Here Plato’s Socrates is simply asking Crito to complete what should be an easy inference from what has transpired thus far in the dialogue, and in the Apology (of which he is, of course, supposed to be fully aware):

--1. Crito should be fully aware that there has been an “agreement” on Socrates’ part to the punishment.  He had the opportunity at the time of the trial to propose banishment (along with a jail term, and he was certainly aware that the jury would have found it acceptable.  But he did not take this alternative then, because he felt that it would be wrong for him to propose this punishment.  Roslyn Weiss maintains that “for Socrates, the injustice of proposing imprisonment or exile is related to the following two facts: (1) that he would be proposing—not merely submitting to—these punishments and (2) that these punishments are “bad.””[6]  Of course, Crito should also be aware that this “agreement” was a carefully considered one that Plato’s Socrates entered into fully consciously.   

--2. Given the above principles (that is, it is never right to return a wrong for a wrong, and not right to cheat upon just agreements), which Crito has indicated he accepts, clearly, then,  

--3. It would be wrong for Socrates to escape from jail.  Given the views expressed (and accepted by Crito) earlier in this dialogue, we should not listen to “the many,” nor should we care about the things they care about (the body, what they view as honor, etc.), but, instead, should devote ourselves to the soul (psyche) and its care. 

--4. Since Plato’s Socrates (and presumably Crito) is the sort of man who listens only to the best argument (46b), and since we seem clearly led here, Crito should agree! 

50a But, Crito indicates that he doesn’t understand!  How can this be?  If he has truly agreed with Socrates about the principle that it is wrong to return a wrong for a wrong; agreed about the relative roles of the experts and the many, and about the relative importance of the body and soul; and understands why Socrates could not propose one of the alternate penalties; then how could Crito not, at this point, understand why Socrates can not escape?  Because Crito doesn’t properly digest the philosophic arguments here, Socrates tries a different tactic—he gives Law a voice, and asks it to speak to Crito. 

-Critical Comment: Is Plato’s argument as strong as it appears?  Aren’t there a number of cases in which one is allowed (perhaps even required) to fail to act upon a “just agreement?”  For example think of cases where there is a competing and higher obligation, or where one has been released from the agreement, or, even, if the morally relevant surrounding circumstances change?  In such cases, it would seem, Plato’s principle is not quite right. 

  C. The Law’s Speeches [50a-end]:

In her Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, Roslyn Weiss maintains that:   “Socrates’ hopes fade in the face of Crito’s admission [at 50a] that he does not understand.  Socrates can no longer ignore the gulf that separates Crito from him.  He accepts now, for the first time that Crito will not be persuaded through rational argument.  It is at this point that Socrates makes the greatest sacrifice for his friend: he steps aside, transferring the argument to the Laws.  The Laws will speak to Crito in a way that Crito understands; they will produce a “willing” Crito.  But they will not engage Crito in elenctic exchange, and they will not defend Socratic principles.”[7]   

50b Laws: “Socrates, you would overturn the state.” 

-Right of the state to punish—note that the laws are not defending the judgment against Socrates, but instead the necessity (for the state) that the punishment dictated by its laws be fulfilled.  Without this possibility, could a state exist?  [49 d] “...by this action you are attempting to destroy us, the laws, and indeed the whole city....Or do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but are nullified and set at naught by private individuals?” 

50d-51c The City Is Like A Parent [50c-51c]:

-Note that this discussion of what one owes parents also tells us something about Euthyphro’s activity against his father! 

-51c-d You must either persuade it or obey its orders. 

--Which sense of ‘persuade’ is relevant here? 

--Note he allows a distinction between what the state says and what is right. 

--Refer back to 46b-d (“I am the kind of man who listens only to the argument that on reflection seems best to me”).  If Plato’s Socrates is advancing this view (rather than it being the view of the Laws only), is he claiming that (a) one must obey if one doesn’t persuade, (b) one must do only what critical reflection dictates, or (c) where one does not succeed with one’s “persuasive efforts” (and where what critical reflection and the laws of the state differ), one may [or must] continue trying to persuade?  What happens when there is little or no hope that others would either listen or be “moved” by rational argumentation?  What, exactly, is the relationship between social obligation and critical reflection for Plato? 

52 You Have Several Agreements With the City [51d-53a]:

 (A) An implied agreement with Athens:

-you stayed in this city;  

-you have served in the military;  

-you have not chosen to move to another city;

-you have raised your children here. 

 (B) An explicit agreement with Athens (trial and refusal of banishment as the punishment):

-52d-e You could have fixed your punishment at banishment! 

-52e-53a “You are breaking the undertakings and agreements that you made with us without compulsion or deceit, and under no pressure of time for deliberation.”   

53b There is No Advantage in Escaping [53b-54d]:

-you will forsake your agreements,

-your friends will suffer,

-well-governed states will not welcome you,

-you will confirm the view that you corrupt, 

-what sort of a teacher will you be if you escape,

-54c you are now someone against whom an injustice has been performed, but you would become someone who has performed an unjust act! 

54d The dialogue ends with Socrates’ comments on the Laws’ speeches.  While Socrates and the Laws agree that he should not escape, their arguments are not in perfect accord with his.  In her Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, Roslyn Weiss notes that at 54d of the Crito, Socrates compares the effects of the speech of the Laws to the Corbantic experience of hearing flutes.  Weiss maintains that: “Corbantes were worshipers of Bacchus.  Their wild and enthusiastic rites featured deafening flute and drum music and furious dancing.”[8]  She also notes that “the Corbantic condition, then, is one bordering on mania, involving psychic disturbance and disorder.  The externally imposed disorder of wild and loud music and dancing is designed to vanquish the inner disorder of fear and hysteria.  The therapy provided for disturbed souls by the Corbantic flutes, then, takes the form of an exaggerated version of the very malady it is meant to cure. 

What does it mean for Socrates to compare the effect of the Laws’ speech to the effect of Corbantic flutes?  The comparison suggests, second, that there might be someone in need of that cure. 

If we ask who it is in the Crito who is agitated and restless and in need of calming, the answer is Crito.”[9] 


3. Questions:

Is it really better to be completely just? 

Why can he disobey the law by teaching philosophy but not by escaping? 

Is the act of escaping really an unjust one? 

-“persuade or obey” where “persuasion” fails;

-explicit agreement and possibility of “competing obligations;”

-implicit agreements and parenting: a “mad” parent is “due” devotion?   

-advantage: will soul really be harmed if the above counter-arguments apply?   

Remember the noble lie of the Republic! 

Should a philosopher lead a public or a private life? 

4. A Background Critical Comment:

In their “Socratic Method,” Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith maintain that:

nothing whatever is said about the need for questioning any of the premises or for offering additional arguments for truth.  Their continued agreement is sufficient to warrant the use of the premises in the argument.  Given that the premises rest only on the fact that Socrates and Crito continue to hold them, it is more reasonable to conclude that Socrates has only shown that leaving prison is inconsistent with their long-standing principles and that remaining in prison is consistent with those principles.  Like any other elenctic argument, then, the acceptance or rejection of the initial claim under examination…turns on whether or not it contradicts beliefs that are more basic to both Socrates’ and Crito’s conception of how best to live.  How Socrates and Crito resolve the issue before them tells us something about what is central to their conceptions of how it is best for anyone to live: is it prudent for anyone to commit an injustice in order to preserve one’s own life?[10] 


Notes: (click on note number to return to text for note)

[1] Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, op. cit., pp. 43-49. 

[2] Ibid., pp. 53-54. 

[3] Ronald Polansky, unpublished Lecture Notes for Plato Seminar at Duquense University, 1975. 

[4] Plato, Crito, trans. and ed. Hugh Tredennick, in Plato: The Last Days of Socrates (N.Y.: Penguin, 1959). 

[5] Cf., Gregory Vlastos, “Socrates’ Disavowal of Knowledge,” The Philosophical Quarterly v. 35 (1985), pp. 1-31.  This essay provides a good discussion of the issue of “Socratic ignorance.” 

[6] Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, op. cit., p. 28. 

[7] Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, op. cit., p. 83. 

[8] Roslyn Weiss, Socrates Dissatisfied: An Analysis of Plato’s Crito, op. cit., p. 134. 

[9] Ibid., pp. 135-136. 

[10] Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith, “Socratic Method,” in their Plato’s Socrates (N.Y.: Oxford U.P., 1994), pp. 3-29, pp. 24-25. 

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File revised on 02/20/2014