-What is it?-
The Crito is a Platonic Dialogue concerning the individual’s relationship to their state, and it is the penultimate Dialogue centering around Socrates before he is put to death.
In the Dialogue, Socrates has been imprisoned in the jail beneath the Court of Athens and is awaiting his execution, which will take place in a few days. One of his friends, both a student and a father to one of Socrates’ pupils, Crito, comes to visit Socrates with apparently good news—he’s going to help the old man escape.
Socrates doesn’t exactly jump at the offer—instead, he comes off as more bemused, and asks his friend why he should try and run.
Crito responds by saying that Socrates has been sentenced to death unjustly, an act many Athenians do not at all agree with; because of this, Crito also fears the public backlash he might receive if Socrates is killed. The man is wealthy and has many connections, and he says he feels both friends and strangers alike in Athens will blame him and him alone for the death of Socrates, and hold him in contempt for the remainder of his life he is unable to help the old man escape.
This begins the Dialogue, where Socrates, to Crito’s surprise, argues against his own escape and instead makes a case for the Laws of Athens that put him in the cell to begin with. To make this point, Socrates personifies the Laws of Athens, in order to separate them from the men who issue them, and presents the argument that for him to go against the will of the Laws would be a supreme injustice that would transcend even the current injustice being done to him by his wrongful death sentence.
The argument Socrates makes is manifold. Below are key points:
- First of all, Crito shouldn’t worry about what the opinion of the many is of him. The mass public and their opinions can do no harm to the man who is dedicated to justice, no more than they can do him good.
- Because of this, the man dedicated to justice must also acknowledge that this commitment means he cannot engage in evil or injurious acts when he himself has been injured. To do wrong to another person, even if they have done wrong to you, is still doing wrong. Evil action in the name of good does not make the whole act good; instead, the man of justice must, as difficult and painful as it can be, act justly in all circumstances.
- This means that, even if one is imprisoned on dubious charges, if they consider themselves dedicated to justice, they will receive their punishment in silence—for it is not the Laws that do them harm, but the men who so abuse them. A State cannot function if its citizens don’t take the Laws seriously, and if the man of justice is truly what he claims to be, he will not simply abandon the Laws when they first injure him. To do so would be an unjust action in totality.
- And why would the man of justice want to do harm to the Laws in the first place? Without the State and its Laws, his parents would never have gotten married; he never would have received the education that serves as the foundation of his present knowledge; and by remaining within the State, he has agreed to follow its Laws.
- This is especially true for one such as Socrates, who has lived in the Athenian State for over seventy years. He has fathered his children in Athens, he has rarely ever left the State, and he has served it in many capacities. So, clearly, he has never encountered anything that so put him off he was compelled to leave Athens altogether. Which would mean that if he left now, now that he is threatened with injury, he is merely running at the first time the Laws did not work in his favor or benefit him. He would be shown then to have followed the Laws, not because he believes in them, but because they have never done him harm; this is a subtle difference, but a notable one.
- If he were to leave, other city-states would no doubt take him in—but at what cost to his own person? Socrates himself, as a defined man of justice, would have to live with the knowledge that he violated his core principles in order to spare himself a few more years of life. And the city-states would know this. They’d no doubt accept him, but public trust wouldn’t be on his side, because he would garner the reputation of a man who pretends to believe in one thing, but when difficulty arises, abandons it for another.
- So, Socrates concludes that he has no choice, and he doesn’t need one. Again, it’s not the Laws who are at fault for his injury—it is the men who have so misused them. And as it stands now, Socrates will be put to death as an innocent man; if he escaped, he would live the rest of his life as a man guilty of betraying his State and his principles.
The Dialogue ends with Socrates saying he has made up his mind, though he appreciates the sentiment behind Crito’s impulse to help free him. He will remain in his cell of his own volition and see what the day of execution brings.
-Why is it important?-
To those in the modern day, many of us having grown up in a liberal democracy, where disobedience to the state and its laws is often encouraged, Socrates’ point of view is one that could seem at the very least alien and outdated, and at the most brainwashed and suicidal.
Really, what Socrates is advocating for isn’t necessarily a blind devotion to the laws of one’s own state, but the Laws of the State—the ideal forms of both, which can really only manifest in the current structure of whatever laws and whatever state one happens to find themselves in at their given present.
One of the biggest take-aways from the Crito is the idea of devoting oneself to principles that lay beyond and above both the self and the world that self finds itself within. Socrates believes that there is a potential for a just and genuine system of laws—all it would take is the right people to bring them about.
-Where to find it-
The Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html