September 16, 2003


The story:

Socrates, the Athenian philosopher (469-399 B.C.) is in prison, waiting for his execution, after being found guilty of

-         Studying things in the sky and below the earth,

-         corrupting the youth,

-         impiety (not believing in the gods of the City and inventing new gods)

His friend, Crito, visits him in the prison (bribing the guard) with the bad news that the execution will take place soon. He offers his help to Socrates to escape from prison. The main text of the dialogue is Socrates’ analysis of Crito’s arguments why he should escape from prison.


Crito is one of the "jailhouse dialogues," coming in dramatic sequence after the Apology and before the Phaedo.



Assumption of Socrates’ Innocence

Discussing Crito, we will assume that Socrates' conviction and sentence were unjust. Certainly, Socrates might or might not be guilty of the charges he was accused of and this question is philosophically legitimate. This question, however, is not within the scope of this dialogue (it would be relevant for discussing e.g. the Apology).

Both participants take it as a fact that Socrates IS innocent. His arguments about escaping from prison should be analyzed in light of the assumption that he is innocent.

(If Socrates were in fact guilty, or believed himself guilty, the question of escaping from prison would be much less interesting: he broke the law already, so escaping from prison would only add to the list of his crimes. On the other hand, if he is innocent, then escaping from prison would be his first occasion of breaking the law or the agreement with the Laws/City).



Structure of the dialogue:

I.                    Introduction (setting the stage for the “drama”)

II.                 Crito’s Offer

III.               The opinion of the Many and the Experts

IV.              The Central Moral Principle (One Should Never Do Wrong) and its Consequences

V.                 The Speech of the Laws



I. Introduction (setting the stage for the “drama”):

            In the first part of the dialogue we meet the characters (Socrates, Crito) and we learn about Socrates’ situation: according to the news brought by Crito and Socrates’ dream, the day of execution is approaching, it will take place within 2 or 3 days.


The characters:

-         Socrates (he is supposed to be familiar to the reader as the “hero” of Plato’s dialogues, and most importantly of the Apology). We learn that he is calm, even cheerful, being his usual self.


-         Crito

What do we know about Crito?

§         an old friend of Socrates

§         furthermore, a loyal and generous friend who is ready to take the risk to help Socrates

§         lacks philosophical education (while Socrates often refers to previously agreed principles, Crito does not seem to know about them)

§         His morals might be questionable

·        he already bribed the guard to get into the prison and ready to do it again to help S. to escape

·        he has friends in Thessaly which is later characterized by Socrates as a place of “the greatest license and disorder.”



II. Crito's Offer

  1. Crito would lose his friend
  2. Socrates friends will appear in a bad light in the eyes of the many
  3. Practical matters can easily be settled
    1. Expense is taken care of
    2. Safe haven can be found in Thessaly
  4. Socrates has an obligation to his children (to raise them)
  5. By remaining in prison Socrates would collaborate in his own death (“state assisted suicide”?)
  6. Such a voluntary acceptance of his own death is wrong and shameful (in contrast with being right and honorable)
  7. Socrates was wronged by the city and so he has no obligation to accept his penalty


Socrates quickly dismisses 1, 3, and 4 as irrelevant (though, at the end of the dialogue, he revisits #4.)



III. The opinion of the Many and the Experts

One of Crito’s argument that he and Socrates’ friends in general would appear in a bad light if they did not help Socrates. When Socrates suggests that he should not be concerned with the majority’s opinion, Crito points out that it is very powerful (it can kill as it is manifested by Socrates’ fate itself).


Socrates offers two reasons against Crito’s point:

-         The opinion of the many is not powerful as it cannot do the greatest harm (making one foolish) because it cannot do the greatest good (making one wise)

ð      while this point might reveal Socrates’ value system (giving absolute preference to being wise) we should regard this remark as an instance of “Socratic irony.” This point is a quick shortcut to force Crito to focus on more important issues.


-         There are obvious situations when everybody would prefer an expert’s opinion to the many’s (example of physical training)

While this argument might be appealing it is not without difficulties:

ð      While Socrates’ reason seems to question the majority’s opinion without any qualification, there are areas where we must assume that he is ready to accept it

§         politics (the Apology suggests his commitment to the Athenian democracy)

§         the legal system (Socrates does not question, but in fact accepts, the decision of the jury of 500 laymen).

ð      If there are situations in which the majority’s opinion should be respected his example about physical training is less than satisfactory. To fortify his argument he points out that since the soul (“the part of us that is concerned with justice and injustice”) is more valuable than the body experts are even more preferable in issues that pertain to the soul.

ð      This argument seems to be fallacious (a non-sequitur, i.e. the conclusion does not follow from the premises, as it is not clear how the value of things should contribute to decide whether or not to accept the majority’s opinion).


Granting Socrates’ argument in favor of experts, who can be an expert in his situation (whether to escape from prison or not?)

-         Philosophers in general?

-         Socrates himself?

-         Nobody? (which would imply that this is a matter in which everybody, or at list Socrates himself, should deliberate the issue for himself, and accept what his deliberation suggests – without regard to the opinion of the many)

The dialogue offers no definite answer to this question, but the fact that he proceeds with deliberating the issue for himself suggests that the answer is one of the latter two.



IV. The Central Moral Principle (One Should Never Do Wrong) and its Consequences

After undermining Crito’s appeal to the opinion of the many, Socrates starts the central argument of the dialogue.

Socrates emphasizes that what follows might not be acceptable to the many – this claim explains in retrospective the importance of arguing against the relevance/importance of the majority’s opinion. We might also add that he owes Crito a proper reason why he does not accept his offer.



The central moral principle Socrates suggests is that one must never do wrong.

This claim is neither a premise nor a final conclusion.


The Argument for the Central Moral Principle:

(a1)      What is worth to live is not life but a good life.

[No support is offered for this premise, the interlocutors regard it as obvious.]

(a2)      If our body is corrupted, then our life is not a good life. – [implicit]

(aC1)   With a corrupted body our life is not worth living.

(a3)      The part of a person which is concerned with justice and injustice (the soul) is more valuable than the body.

(aC2)   Therefore, if that part which is concerned with justice and injustice (the soul) is corrupted, then life is not worth living.

(a4)      This part of us (the soul) is corrupted/deteriorated by injustice and improved by justice.

(aC3)   If we commit injustice we corrupt our soul and our life will not be worth living.

(aC4)   We should never commit injustice.


In this dialogue Socrates avoids using the term “soul” (psuchē), though he uses it in other dialogues, even in the early ones (e.g. Apology). This fact shows that the term signifies a new concept, unknown to those lacking an education in philosophy, and also that Crito has no such philosophical education. Indeed, we can observe here almost the birth of a new philosophical concept that is so familiar to us.


Notice, that Socrates’ argument against committing injustice does not directly refer to the harm we cause to others. Rather, it emphasizes that every act of injustice harms the wrongdoer himself as such actions corrupt his soul. Again, it is not the consequences of our wrong actions that can harm us, but the very actions themselves. Metaphorically, by doing wrongs our soul is “eaten away,” step by step.


The Consequences of the Central Principle:

(1)               One must never do wrong.

(2)               Therefore, one must never return a wrong for a wrong.

(3)               As injuring one is the same as doing wrong to him, one must never injure another.

(4)               Therefore, even if one is oneself injured, one should not injure the other in return.


(5)               Furthermore, one should fulfill just agreements with others.

(this last point does not seem to be derived from the Central Principle and Socrates gives no reason why Crito – or we – should accept it, but it seems to be sound and agreeable.)


Þ The central questions:

-         Is escaping from prison is an act of wrongdoing?

-         Is anyone harmed by Socrates’ escape?


In Socrates’ words: “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?



The reader’s (and Crito’s) question: What people and what just agreement does Socrates refer to?


We might anticipate here the Speech of the Laws as the answer to Socrates’ questions. But this answer is partial as the Speech of the Laws never mentions any person harmed by the escape from prison.


Roslyn Weiss suggests that the people here are the Athenian citizens and the just agreement refers to Socrates’ acceptance of the punishment made at his trial.

Consequently, Socrates here presents a full argument that does not depend on the Speech of the Laws.]



V. The Speech of the Laws


The laws first tell that by escaping from prison Socrates would destroy the laws and the city since the city is destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but nullified by private individuals.


Objection (suggested by Socrates and heartily agreed heartily by Crito): it was the city who wronged Socrates and it was not right.


Answering this objection the Laws offer three further arguments (interestingly, the Laws do not mention that Socrates should not harm the city, according to his own principle, even if he was wronged by the city first).


Stephen Nathanson’s account of the Laws’ arguments:

As Nathanson himself emphasizes this interpretation is not without difficulties, since its portrayal of Socrates as an utterly law-abiding citizen, a “superpatriot,” is not in harmony with the Socrates of other dialogues (e.g. the Apology). This is indeed the starting point of Weiss ‘s unusual interpretation of the Crito.


Nathanson separates three – formally similar but materially – distinctive arguments:

(a) The Parent Argument

(1)   The state is Socrates’ parent.

(2)   Everyone ought to obey his or her parents.

(3)   If Socrates escapes, he will disobey his parent.

(4)   Therefore, Socrates ought not to escape.


(b) The Benefactor Argument

(1)   The state is Socrates’ benefactor.

(2)   Everyone ought to obey his or her benefactors.

(3)   If Socrates escapes, he will disobey his benefactor.

(4)   Therefore, Socrates ought not to escape.


(c) The Agreement Argument

(1)   Socrates made an agreement to obey the state.

(2)   Everyone ought to keep his or her agreements.

(3)   If Socrates escapes, he will violate an agreement.

(4)   Therefore, Socrates ought not to escape.



For the Parent Argument:

            (Of course, it is a metaphor)

-         We are born into our country,

-         It determines (at least partially) our identity

-         Family can be regarded as a model for society

-         Linguistically, the word ‘patriotism’ itself comes from the Latin word pater (father). (To this point: not only patriotism but also paternalism comes from the same word)


Against the Parent Argument:

-         There are counterexamples when children do not owe respect/obligation to their biological parents (abandoned, abused children)

-         Even if our parents are good to us, our obligation is not unlimited (parents cannot expect us to violate moral or social laws)

-         More generally, what we have to do depends not only who issues the command but what command is issued.

-         Particularly, even if Socrates has an obligation to obey the state, it is plausible to believe that he also has a right to protect his own life.


For the Benefactor Argument

-         We feel indebted to people who are generous to us

-         It is arguable that political obligations arise from this kind of relationship


Against the Benefactor Argument

-         Should we indebted if we did not know the price of these beneficent actions?

-         Does it create an unlimited obligation?

-         A further problem not discussed by Nathanson: In what sense can the state be our benefactor? Obviously, the state does not produce, it just distributes what was produced by its citizens. Whom should we be obliged to then?


The Agreement argument:

-         tacit (in contrast with explicit)

-         it assumes that we choose – in some sense – our state.

-         The Laws also suggest that regarding them we have the option of “persuade or obey.”


At this point we can imagine what such an agreement would prescribe for the parties (Socrates, or more generally any citizen and the city).

-         For the city it would require to provide for its citizens:
Safety, order, justice and government, protection of property, education, etc. More generally, the city should further its citizens prosperity.

-         For Socrates (and the citizens in general)
Obeying to the laws and respecting the laws, performing one’s civic duties (voting, membership in jury and in councils, military duty, etc.), persuading the city if some of its laws are wrong, accepting punishment for wrongdoings.

ð      The question now is: Does this agreement prescribe for the citizens that they must accept punishment even if they are innocent?


Against the Agreement Argument

Three important questions:

-         Does remaining in a place constitute a tacit agreement to obey its laws?

-         If remaining in a place does constitute an agreement to obey the laws, does it obligate one to do whatever the state commands?

-         If remaining in a place does constitute an agreement to obey the laws, does it obligate one to obey under all conditions?


Nathanson answers ‘no’ to all these questions.

First, our remaining in a place might be motivated by practical considerations

ð     does not create obligation

Even if such an agreement is assumed, it is hard to believe that one is obligated to accept an unwarranted punishment.

Moreover, this harsh punishment might be regarded as a breach of agreement on the part of the Laws/State.



Final Remarks

            We might ask at this point what is involved in our agreement/contract with the city. More to the point, while we might agree to accept punishment if we broke the laws and thus our agreement, should we also accept punishment even if we are innocent? (But who would decide about our innocence? Isn’t it already settled by the decision of the Court?)

In my view, it is arguable that our tacit contract contains/implies as one of the citizens’ duties to accept not only warranted punishment, but also unwarranted punishment (i.e. when the citizen is innocent).

As Robert Nozick pointed out we would like to accept the following two principles:

(i)                  No innocent should be punished

(ii)                All the guilty should be punished (as a condition for our safety).

The two principles, however, cannot be reconciled, given the practical limits of human knowledge. Accordingly, it is an impossible standard that no innocent should ever be punished. Instead, we should optimize the ratio of the punished guilty and the punished innocent. If accept Nozick’s claim in general, isn’t it our moral duty to accept it in our own case?





Nathanson, Stephen: Should We Consent to be Governed?, Wadsworth, 2001

Nozick, Robert: Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974

Weiss, Roslyn: Socrates Dissatisfied, Oxford University Press, 1998



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