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We begin the Plato’s Crito with Socrates in the prison, his imminent death casting a long shadow on the proceedings. His friend Crito found him asleep, and impressed by his deep slumber, did not want to awaken him to his unfortunate reality. When Socrates comes to, Crito implores him to escape, employing, at times, astute logic for his case. Others will think Socrates’ friends were not willing to pay to rescue him. He also states that if Socrates is worried about either his friends’ welfare or wallets, he need not be. Socrates has sufficient benefactors to ensure his escape.
Crito’s second argument regards the injustice of those who accused and sentenced him. Socrates is, in fact, acting unjustly by fulfilling their decision. If he refuses to escape, he treats himself as his enemies treat him. This is morally wrong. Lastly, Crito pleads for Socrates to think of his children, who will become orphans if he dies.
He says: “You appear to me to betray your own sons, who, when it is in your power to rear and educate them, you will abandon, and, so far as you are concerned, they will meet with such a fate as chance brings them, and as is probably, they will meet with such things as orphans are wont to experience in a state of orphanage”.
As a philosopher, it is Socrates’ aim it to reveal ignorance and inspire knowledge. Would he not do this even for his own progeny?
Socrates, of course, rebuffs these arguments. He criticizes Crito’s concern for public approval, stating that the only opinions that matter are of those with knowledge. In a swift rebuttal, he states: “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 matter at hand is not what people will think of Socrates. The real question is: is it Just to escape? Even if his punishment is unjust, he should still not act unrighteously. Here Socrates combats the idea of an ‘eye for an eye’, making the point that it is never right to do an injustice, even if you suffered an injury first. Therefore, he won’t leave his prison if the departure is proved to be morally wrong.
Crito concedes this point… but it still doesn’t address whether escape is Just. To answer this riddle, Socrates conjures the Laws, which confront and question the philosopher.
These ‘Laws’ take the stance that escape is unjust, for disobeying the rules would, in effect, destroy the Laws and what they stand for. The State is held together by the Laws, and if the latter were to fall into disarray, the former would also collapse. Therefore, Socrates’ illegal departure would be an affront the city-state that reared him. Allegiance to the State is more important than one’s well being or ties to their family…
Finally Socrates concludes that by living in Athens, he has agreed to her Laws. Not only that, he took a citizenship exam, reared his children in the famous city-state and stayed there his whole, long, 70 years of his life. If he didn’t agree with the Laws, he could have left at any time and clearly he didn’t.
To understand this dialogue, one first must distinguish between the lower case and upper case words. The laws versus the Laws. The latter represents something much grander than the collective ideas of men or the wisdom of a lawmaker. The Law is an ideal, a form, an entity – personified and perfect. And it’s Plato’s way out… a method for Socrates to remain good by following what is Just in the concept of the Laws, rather than obeying the evil of his unjust accusers who unethically utilize laws to kill him.
For Plato and for Socrates, the Laws are more like the ‘forms’ – an abstract idea that represents the fundamental essence of a thing. A chair, as we know it, is not just the thing we sit on, that you may be sitting on right now. It is an idea of something that we sit on. Therefore, we can all look at a chair and say, yes, that is chair, having in our minds a form of what a chair is.
In this way the Laws are something greater, purer than laws. The Laws are always Just, but a law can be unjustly used.
This is how, in the end, Plato tried to reconcile unjust actions with the innate Justice of the Laws. This is why Socrates had no choice but to die. If he did not proceed with the injustice, then the Laws, and the Justice and the State that they represent, would have been disrespected and undermined…. and likewise all built upon it.