Crito begins shortly not too far after Apology left off. The dialogue bgins with Crito, a friend of Socrates, sneaking into the prison where Socrates is being held and confides in him that he, along with others, are willing to help Socrates escape.
We would expect a person to jump at such an opportunity, but that’s not the case. Crito is confounded by Socrates’ untenable disposition, and seeks to sway him. To do so he employs numerous arguments, the most significant of which is that Socrates is essentially abetting the behavior of those who found him guilty by not fighting their act of injustice. This question facilitates most of the remaining dialogue.
It is a profound question:
Does man have a right to violate the laws of the land if he finds them unjust or was wrongly accused?
Many would say yes, it does. For example, if we were busted doing a line of cocaine off the behind of a prostitute, we’re going to get in some trouble. Many would argue that they shouldn’t get in any trouble, because these are ‘stupid laws’ and that they didn’t hurt anyone.
The way Socrates views this, however, is that laws exist as an entity; when you break one you’re breaking them all. Therefore, for Socrates, or for anyone to break the law, is a severe transgression that goes beyond the single act they committed.
Do you imagine that a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?”
Man lives under an unwritten social contract between government. In exchange for protection and rights, we must adhere to the laws laid before us.
A person’s obligation to his government trumps all others, because they have spent their entire life living under the protection of government. They’ve always had the opportunity to leave and failed to do so.
One must not even do wrong when one is wronged, which most people regard as the natural course.”
Additionally, Socrates makes the point that he was wronged by the men who accused him, not the laws. Therefore he must adhere to the laws, not the men, which sentenced him to death. Socrates argues that if injustice is inherently evil, then injustice as a response to injustice is just as evil.
Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to any one, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.”
It’s interesting to note that Socrates views on justice directly inhibit the idea of civil disobedience, that is, a refusal to comply with the law as a form of peaceful protest. How then, a society goes about changing its laws is irreconcilable.
Socrates puts it quite bluntly, leaving little room for misinterpretation:
If you cannot persuade your country you must do whatever it orders, and patiently submit to any punishment that it imposes.”
Perhaps Socrates intended this. It could be that his respect for the law, or at least, Athenian law, was so great that it shouldn’t be altered.
This article I stumbled upon highlights this issue, and notes that Martin Luther King Jr. references Socrates in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This author says that:
Socrates is civilly disobedient in the sense that he does not conform to the masses. In my view Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the same. His motif for civil disobedience is the fact that there exist an unjust set of laws that are not in conjunction with ‘natural laws’, which the masses seem to be following due compulsion and lack of question. Thus Socrates and Dr. King are civilly disobedient in principle that they also refuse to conform to the popular laws and instead favor what Socrates says is ‘Truth’, and what Dr. King says are ‘Godgiven Rights’, which according to me are one and the same thing.”
(Source: Life Examinations)
Socrates can confirm this notion himself:
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.”
The Wisdom of Socrates
I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have an unlimited power for doing good, which would be a splendid thing, if it were so. Actually they have neither. They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.”
Crito is brief, and by far the shortest of these dialogues. That said, it is still packed with valuable insights of Socrates’ views on government, morality and justice.
Stay tuned for Part III: Phaedo.
I recently purchased a copy of Six Great Dialogues by Plato (Amazon). I plan on doing an article for each dialogue as I read through them.
But because this is a public domain work, it’s widely available for free. Here are some different versions: