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Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide

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Dialogues of Plato | Socrates's Reply to Crito Summary (46b–50a) | Summary

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Summary

Socrates's response is that Crito's impassioned plea should be considered only in terms of whether or not it is correct. His judgment should not change simply because his life is in danger; what he thought right and wrong before is still applicable. As he maintained in his defense (Apology), living is not the goal of life, but living well.

Crito agrees that only the expert opinion should be followed, since that is the beneficial one. Other opinions could very well be harmful. Consequently, one "ought to welcome the praise and fear the blame of that one man, not of the multitude." In this case, then, Socrates should be concerned only with whether it is right for him "to try to escape without permission of the Athenians." This, then, should be the goal of their inquiry.

First, Crito agrees with Socrates that, "one must never do injustice." That is because injustice is always dishonorable and bad—they've long maintained this view and see no reason to disagree now. Second, and related to the first, it is always wrong to return an injustice with an injustice. That is because "there is no difference between doing ill to men and doing injustice." In this case, escaping prison without first having persuaded the state to let him go is an instance of injustice. It is an injury to the state, by whose laws he has agreed to abide.

Analysis

Socrates's response to Crito's entreaties rests on the principle that to know the good is to do the good, and its corollary, no one does wrong voluntarily. Each person, according to Socrates, always does what they think is good. If they are mistaken about the good, they will likely do what's wrong. A simple example is smoking. Anyone who smokes does so because they think there is some good in it. If they knew that smoking was bad for their health, they would stop immediately. The fact that they do not stop smoking means, in Socrates's view, that they are ignorant of its dangers. Another possibility is that their judgment is clouded by addiction. Similarly, getting caught up in the emotion of Crito's impassioned pleas would cloud Socrates's rationality. He would, then, not be in a position to clearly think his way through to a conclusion about whether it is right to escape.

Socrates's argument about meeting injustice with injustice sets him up to discuss the obligation he has to the Laws of Athens. It also allows him to distinguish between the men who enforce the laws and the laws themselves. The former, if Socrates's speech in the Apology is to be believed, commit injustice. The latter do not.

Socrates's argument about injustice is interesting for an apparent inconsistency with claims made in the Gorgias about punishment. There, Socrates argues that punishment is rehabilitative. Would that not also be the case here, such that Socrates maintains two inconsistent positions? After all, if Socrates has done wrong, punishment should improve him. In his cross-examination of Meletus in the Apology, he concludes one of his arguments with the claim that, if he has done wrong, he has done so unintentionally, and so should be educated. If punishment is a form of education, a way to rehabilitate someone to reunite with society, Socrates should welcome his circumstance. Punishment is no more an injury to a wrongdoer than Socratic method is to one of Socrates's interlocutors. (The reader should consult the servant boy sequence in Plato's Meno for a discussion of the benefits of Socrates's method.)

This critique arguably rests on an erroneous assumption, namely that Socrates has done wrong. Both he and Crito take the position that Socrates has been unjustly accused, convicted, and sentenced. Consequently, he is not in need of rehabilitation.

Crito's point is that because Socrates hasn't done any wrong, but instead an injustice has been done to him, he has been injured. Socrates rejects this idea. As he has already pointed out, it is impossible for a good man to be injured—no external force can corrupt a good man's character. Instead, doing wrong harms that part of us (the soul, for Socrates) that justice improves. Consequently, the injustice he has suffered has not, properly speaking, harmed him. On the other hand, he would harm the Laws of Athens if he broke his agreement with them when it suited him.

In both the Apology and here in the Crito, Socrates's view is that he has been unjustly accused, convicted, and sentenced. Consequently, he has been wronged. In the Apology, Socrates maintains it is his accusers who have wronged him, and he maintains this position in the Crito. If the laws are inherently just, then Meletus and the other accusers have betrayed the law. This would seem to imply that Socrates would not be wrong in trying to escape. However, that is not the position he stakes out. That is because, in returning an injustice with an injustice, he would harm the laws. Doing an injustice, according to Socrates, is clearly worse than suffering it.
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