Crito Revisited

In Plato’s Crito, Socrates argues that he ought not (and thus will not) escape from prison because doing this would cause him to harm others, and “one must never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him” (49c-d).  His arguments flabbergast Crito, but they do not impress me.  In this paper, I will first explicate his argument.  Then, I will add my own observations and critical examinations, both about the argument as a whole and about some of the specific premises.

Here is a schematic breakdown of Socrates’s argument:

Premise 1. If Socrates escapes from prison, he will harm others.

A. He will harm his friends because they will be put in danger of “exile, disenfranchisement and loss of property” (53a-b).

B.   He will harm the city of Athens.

……i. To break a just agreement with a person is to mistreat him (49e-50a).

……ii. Socrates has made a just agreement with the city of Athens.

…………a. The city has nurtured and educated him and has protected his parents with civic rituals like marriage (50d).

…………b. The city has given Socrates the opportunity to fight the charges against him in court (52a).

…………c. When Socrates came to adulthood, he made the free choice to remain in the city (50e-51a, 51c-e).  He clearly showed that the laws of the city of Athens were congenial to him; he never left it during seventy years of life, even on vacation, and he also raised his children there (52a-53a).

…………d. In return, Socrates must follow all of his country’s edicts and honor and obey them more than he honors and obeys his own parents (51a-52a).

……iii. Socrates will break his agreement with Athens if he leaves.

…………a. If Socrates leaves, he will be disregarding the city’s legal judgment against him.

…………b. As per condition P1.B.ii.d, he has an obligation to follow the city’s laws.

……iv. If Socrates leaves, he will destroy people’s respect for Athens’s legal judgments; none will follow the laws, and the city will perish (50b).

Premise 2. If Socrates stays in prison and accepts the penalty of death, he will not harm others.

A. He will not harm his children.

…… i. If his children remain in Athens, they will receive the same guidance and support that they would receive if Socrates were dead (54a).

……ii. If his children follow him on his journeys, they will be raised among strangers.  They are better off not being with him.

B.  He will not harm his friends.  Their reputations might damaged, but one should not worry about one’s reputation (47a-b).

C. He will not harm himself.

Premise 3. One must never harm others.

A. A person damages his soul when he harms others.

……i. Soul damage is the worst kind of damage a person can inflict on himself.

……(ii.) A person must always do what is in his own best interest.

(B.) In any moral choice, there must be some option which does not require harm to others.

Conclusion. Socrates should not escape from prison.

*Parentheses denote hidden premises.

Definitions of Terms. One general difficulty with Socrates’s argument is that he never explicates his most important terms, “doing harm” and “committing wrongdoing.”  As per 49b, to do harm, to inflict wrongdoing, and to mistreat someone are equivalent, but Socrates gives us no standards for evaluating an action to test for these things.  It is most certainly harmful to inflict soul-damage on a person, since it is harmful to inflict soul-damage on oneself, but what about bodily damage?  In Crito 47c, Socrates acknowledges that bodily damage is harm, but this contradicts Apology 41c-42a, in which he claims that “a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death” and that his impending death will not harm him.  These equivocations make the meanings of his arguments unclear.  Statements such as “Neither to do wrong nor to return a wrong is ever right, nor is bad treatment in return for bad treatment” seem tautological rather than profound (Crito 44d).  To do wrong is to do what one should not do, and vice versa.

Of course, it is not particularly surprising that we have these difficulties with the argument.  Socrates, after all, spends most of the early dialogues trying to precisely define similar abstract terms, like “justice” and “courage,” and not only failing but confusing his colleagues.  Whenever the philosopher desires specific moral guidance, he turns not to reason but to his “divine sign,” akin to a conscience, which warns him whenever he is about to do wrong (Apology 40a-c).  It is admirable that Socrates is so devoted to this conscience-like divine sign, but it is an emotional, not a rational faculty.

P1.A.  Since Athens has a democratic legal system, Socrates’s friends would presumably be put in danger because their reputations would be damaged.  This contradicts Crito’s argument that Socrates will damage his friends’ reputation if he does not escape (44b-c, 45e-46a).

P1.B.  This is a rather complex argument, and it could exist independently of the whole.  For this paper, we will relate it to soul-damage as per P1.B.i.

P1.B.i. Plato refutes this position himself in Republic I.  When Cephalus says that justice is repaying one’s debts, Socrates gives a counterexample of a sane man who loans weapons to his friend (331c-d).  This is a just agreement between two consenting parties.  The sane man then loses his mind, however, and while he is in his condition, he asks the friend to return the weapons.  The friend wants to avoid wrongdoing and to save both men from harm, so he does not honor his friend’s request.

Therefore, one is not always obligated to meet a just agreement.  There are times when doing so would lead to harm.  In this situation, Socrates could justifiably argue to himself and to potential students that the city of Athens was like the sane man.  While it was healthy, it entered into a just social contract with Socrates.  Under the influence of numerous military defeats and extended moral corruption, Athens then lost its mind.  Socrates, a wise man, sought to treat the ills of the people by teaching them philosophy, but he was too late to stem the tide.  Instead, blowhards like Miletus took control of the government, used oratory to turn the people against Socrates, and then, like the insane man who wanted his weapons returned, called in his debts.  Socrates could then refuse to honor his contract, thus preventing harm to the state (embarrassment) and to himself (death).

P1.B.iv.  This is a compelling argument because a legitimate state must preserve the rule of law, but the facts do not corroborate Socrates’s analysis of this particular situation.  Crito’s protestations that Socrates’s escape would improve his friends’ reputations and would come at a minimal monetary cost indicate that the Athenian legal system is already corrupt beyond repair (44e-46a).  Any state in which inmates are expected to escape from prison must not be serious about sentencing or criminal justice.  Is this the same Athens to which Socrates made his contract, or is that city dead?

Indeed, it never seems like the Athenians want to execute Socrates.  His death would be (and was) an embarrassment for the city.  True, they prefer his demise to a fine of thirty minas, but Socrates has already removed the most amenable options from them.  He will not accept imprisonment because he does not want to live in subjection to any man (37c).  He acknowledges that the jury would probably accept his exile, but he thinks it is unseemly for a man of his age to spend his life as a vagabond, wandering from city to city.  Nor does he desire to live in silence in the city because the god has called him to teach young men and to examine life, and he must do this as long as he is alive (Apology 22e-23b, 37e-38a; Crito 52c).  Socrates’s objections to imprisonment and exile are based on personal preference, not the desire to do right.  It is strange that a person so committed to helping others would have these reservations.

Socrates’s objection to the third potential punishment creates another problem with his argument: the god has commanded him to always seek after the truth; shouldn’t he continue to do so as long as possible?  By this standard, exile would be his best option.  Then he could take his message across the countryside and teach people from other cities about philosophy.  When people ask him why he left Athens, he could respond, like Aristotle did later, that the city had grown too foolish to appreciate his wisdom.  Nor should the philosopher worry about how unseemly it would look for an old man to be a vagabond.  Some Athenians, like Callicles in Gorgias, note that Socrates already cuts a ridiculous figure, creeping about city corners until the dead of night, speaking of philosophy with young boys (485a-e).  Besides, according to P2.B, one shouldn’t worry about one’s reputation, anyway.

P2.A.  This is a response to Crito’s argument that Socrates is abandoning his three sons, two of whom are children, even though he has an obligation to protect them (45d).  In my opinion, Socrates has a weak case.  He is quick to create an implied social contract with the state, so he should create one for his own family.  When he chose to marry and have children, he consented to do whatever he could to protect his wife’s and children’s health and well-being.  He owes his sons more than raw education; he also owes them support, both financially and emotionally.  He needs to be an authority figure in his household and to care for his wife.  Socrates may have great friends, but they are not directly related to his sons and thus will not feel particular compulsion to care for them.  His children will be worse off without a living, breathing father to watch over them.

P2.B.  This is a response to Crito’s argument that if Socrates does not escape, people will think Socrates’s friends are cowards (44b-c, 45e-46a).  The philosopher responds that this would be an important consideration for the common man, but the just man should not worry about them; instead, he should focus entirely on doing right.  The majority can inflict evils upon good men, but it cannot inflict soul-damage (44d).

This premise apparently contradicts P1.A, Socrates’s argument that his escape would damage his friends’ reputations and put them in danger.  Socrates could avoid this contradiction if he amends P2.B.  He could say that maintaining a good public reputation, though not as important as maintaining one’s soul, is still a desirable action which improves one’s happiness.  So, one should seek to improve one’s reputation when doing so does not conflict with improving one’s soul.  Besides, Socrates’s escape is an unjust action, so his friends will incur soul-damage if they are accomplices, and this is even worse than reputation damage.

P2.C. This is a problematic premise.  It seems reasonable to say that capital punishment harms the punished because a violent death is a terrible and painful thing.  Socrates dissents from this view; he argues in Gorgias that physical punishment is not harm if it is administered to correct an unjust person (475e-479d).  However, he does not believe that he is guilty of any of the charges in Apology, and he curses the jurists who sentence him to death (38c).  Thus, the sentence against him must not be just, and it must not correct him.  It is like the scene in Gorgias in which Socrates expresses his fears what he would have to suffer if he faced a jury of child-like men who listened to the best orator rather than the best argument (Gorgias 521d-522d).

In response to this objection, Socrates would say that he does not consider physical damage to be “harm.”  In Apology 41c-42a, the philosopher claims that “a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death.”  Though the jury thinks it is harming him, it is doing no such thing.  His divine sign has given him peace about the coming events, and so he should not fear anything which is to come (40a-c).  It is impossible to corroborate Socrates’s argument or to refute it because no one who is alive has experienced death.  Thus, no one can evaluate whether it is better than life (thus a “benefit”) or worse than it (thus a “harm.”)  Socrates has not experienced death, either, so this statement is an unfounded assumption based on intuition.  It is outside the grounds of philosophical argument.  The nebulous definition of “harm” (doesn’t this qualify as one?) further weakens the argument.

P3. Socrates takes an extremely strict interpretation of this premise.  Whereas most people would agree that one must never do wrong to another person willingly, Socrates says that it is “in every way harmful and shameful” for a person to wrong another, regardless of circumstances and regardless of intent (49a-b).

Common sense seems to invalidate this claim.  On an emotional level, people hurt each other people’s feelings every day without intending it; for instance, if a girl is in love with a boy, and he does not ask her to Prom, she will feel hurt, but this certainly is not the boy’s fault.  On a physical level, people, especially athletes, accidentally hurt each other often.  Socrates might respond that these cases are trivial, but he does not define “harm,” so this is an open question.

Furthermore, there is the problem of self-defense.  A cursory reading of the text implies that Socratic ethics do not allow self-defense because one cannot do harm under any circumstances, even retaliation.  This reading does not entail a contradiction, but it does have undesirable consequences for ethics.  If self-defense is not allowed, then we must abandon the world to aggressors.  Evil men would take over everything because good men could not stop them.

This reading is incorrect.  As Socrates notes in the Gorgias passage above, physical punishment is beneficial if it is inflicted to correct a wrongdoer.  Under this corrected ethical theory, a just man could attack, defeat, even kill an aggressor in order to cease his wrongdoing and bring him to justice.  This interpretation is quite reasonable.  It also evades problems with our own ethical theories such as the justification of collateral damage during war.

Socrates also faces assaults on his argument from “young lions” such as Polus and Callicles of the Gorgias and Thrasymachus of Republic I, all of whom claim that people should not worry about harming others; instead, they should attempt to gain as much for themselves as possible (Gorgias 470a).  These men argue that retaliation is the primary source of social stability; if people could do whatever they wanted, they would commit all sorts of atrocities with impunity.  A prime example is Gyges, the Lydian Shepherd who found a ring of invisibility and used it to terrorize his city and to overthrow the king (Republic II 359c-360d).  To these writers, there is no such thing as soul-damage, so a person’s actions will only harm other people, not himself.

Socrates would have great difficulty responding to this argument because ancient Greeks were egoists.  No matter how much he repeats his platitudes about how dangerous it is to harm the soul, his audience will be reluctant to believe him because the young lions’ theory sounds much more attractive (479e).  Socrates must not only prove that his moral code is correct; he must prove that it is the best one for people to follow.  He does not accomplish this goal in Gorgias, so he tries again in Republic.  There, he argues that an individual and a city are analogous.  A well-ordered city balances all its appetites and directs itself towards achieving the good.  If all the people in a city were simply concerned with taking whatever was best for them, the city would fail.  A person, as a microcosm of a city, must also order his life well and pursue the good.

This is a compelling argument, but it is still too abstract to be totally convincing.  The egoists might claim that they have only felt fulfilled when they were doing what was best for themselves.  (Socrates might then reply that their consciences must be deformed; he at least is able to appeal to Polus’s conscience (477b).)  Though I am sympathetic to Socrates’s point of view, I must admit that he reaches an impasse with these young lions.

P3.A.i. The philosopher’s contention that soul-damage is the worst kind of harm that one can receive is a beautiful sentiment, and people of many religions would agree with it.  By philosophical standards, however, it is an unfounded assertion.  If souls exist, and if they last forever as Socrates claims, then it would be sensible to say soul-damage is the worst because it sticks the longest.  There is no proof for the soul, however.  It is intrinsically immaterial and unobservable.  We don’t understand how it relates to the body.  Socrates often compares a person with a damaged soul to an athlete who is out of shape.  We’ll have to take his word for it.

This premise will strike a chord with people who already believe in souls, but Socrates does not compile any evidence to prove its veracity.  A criminal, who takes whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, already lacks piety and a sense of justice.  It is doubtful that he will be more sympathetic to souls, which he can’t see or feel or understand.

P3.A.ii. Socrates probably does not mention P3.A.ii because egoism was the default ethical system of Ancient Greek culture.  All Plato’s readers would assume this premise.  Deontologists would strike down this premise, arguing that one must do what is right no matter what the circumstances or the effect on self.  Utilitarians would argue that the greatest good for the community, not the greatest good for self, should be the goal of all actions.

P3.B. This is a hidden premise, but it is essential for the soundness of P3.  If Socrates can never harm others, but he has no available choices which protect all people from harm, then he is paralyzed, and his moral theory is a failure.  This is a necessary premise, but some, especially consequentialists, could justifiably call it unrealistic.  Given the vast number of choices people have to make each day, it is likely they’ll have to take the lesser of two evils once in a while.  Consider the now-famous “ticking time bomb” story.  If police are holding a terrorist who knows the location of a bomb which will destroy New York City in an hour, should they torture him to draw out the information?  Whereas torture (meant to gain information, not to correct) harms the terrorist, the explosion of the bomb would harm millions of people.  Yet, Socrates is committed to never doing wrong.  What shall he do?  No matter which route he chooses, someone is going to suffer – the terrorist or the citizens.  Socrates must step outside his ethics and say either that one must never do wrong willingly or that that one must do whatever constitutes the least harm to others.

In conclusion, all three of Socrates’s premises – (1) by escaping, he will harm others; (2) he will not harm others if he stays in Athens, and (3) one must never harm another, are quite problematic.  It seems to me that if he escaped, he would help both his enemies and his friends, and that he should revise his stricture against harming another to say that one must never willingly harm another.  If the philosopher had jousted with a thinker more advanced than Crito, well-meaning fool, he would have lived much longer.

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