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Plato's Crito - Selections - Comments

Tr. F.J. Church, revised by Robert D. Cumming (1948?) [and tr. Benjamin Jowett]

In classical times the Crito was also known by the title "On what is to be done" and was classified as an "ethical" dialog (Diog. L. iii, 58).

In this dialog Plato has Socrates say that the state (or the laws of the state) are like a father to the citizen that the citizen must both reverence and obey (50d-51c). Thus the question is whether that metaphor is apt or not, not only in the individual case of Socrates (whose friend Crito urges to escape from prison rather than allow himself to be put to death), but in all cases.

The background to my comments is Socrates' identification of life in accord with the excellence that is proper to man -- both as mankind and as an individual -- as the good for man (the answer to "no small matter, but how to live" or "ethics").

There is as well the general reference point of logic of language, or, how the distinction between sense and nonsense is made in language in the context of philosophical problems.

Outline of this page ...


Setting and Background

Socrates' friend Crito has been "sleepless and sorrowful" and come before daylight to visit Socrates in the prison of Athens, but he finds that Socrates is calmly sleeping, and so he waits for him to awake. Socrates tells Crito that "it would be absurd at my age if I were disturbed at having to die" [cf. Xenophon, Apology]. Crito says this is not the case with all old men; some are "disturbed by their fate". (43a-c)

The Athenian prison where Socrates died

The Athenian prison where Socrates died, 23 KB

Source: "The place where Socrates was imprisoned and where, with his disciples grouped around him, the philosopher drank the fatal hemlock brew, in 399 B.C." © Gendreau. (Encyclopedia American 1954, Vol. 13, opp. p. 377)

The ship from Delos. Public Opinion. Exile.

Crito says that he has come bearing "sad news". Socrates: "What is it? Has the ship come from Delos at the arrival of which I am to die?" Crito says that it "will be here today ... and so, Socrates, tomorrow your life will have to end". (43c-d)

[According to Plato (Phaedo 59a-c) and Xenophon (Memorabilia iv, 8, 2), Socrates' execution was delayed for a month by the sacred ship's voyage to Delos and return to Athens, a time during which no prisoner could not be put to death.]

Crito begs Socrates to listen to him "and save yourself", because the "public will never believe that we [your friends] were anxious to save you, but that you yourself refused to escape". Socrates says not to mind public opinion: "Reasonable men, of whose opinion it is worth our while to think, will believe that we acted as we really did." But Crito objects that public opinion needs to be cared about too. (44b-c)

CRITO: This very thing that has happened to you proves that the multitude can do a man not the least, but almost the greatest harm, if he is falsely accused to them.

SOCRATES: I wish that the multitude were able to do a man the greatest harm, Crito, for then they would be able to do him the greatest good, too.... But, as it is, they ... cannot make a man either wise or foolish: they act wholly at random [Jowett translation: "whatever they do is the result of chance"]. (44d)

Crito tells Socrates that "There are men who, for no very large sum, are ready to bring you out of prison into safety", and that although Crito thinks that his own fortune is adequate, "there are strangers [foreigners to Athens] in Athens whom you know", who are also ready to use their fortunes, one of them is Simmias of Thebes, another Cebes [of Thebes (Plato, Phaedo 63a)], "and many others are ready, too".

Further, Crito urges, "And do not let what you said in court -- that if you went into exile you would not know what to do with yourself [cf. Apology 37c] -- stand in your way; for there are many places for you to go ..." Crito has friends in Thessaly [where, Plato says, "there is found the greatest disorder and license" (53d)] who will welcome and protect Socrates. (44e-45c)

[On the one hand, Socrates would of course know what to do with himself in exile or in any other place, the same as he has done in Athens and would do in the afterlife, "questioning all to see who is wise and who only thinks he is but is not" (Apology 43b), distinguishing between what ones knows and what one only thinks one knows but does not (ibid. 29a), urging all to reflect on the good for man as "an unexamined life is not worth living" (ibid. 37e-38a). But on the other hand, if to go into exile he must act contrary to the excellence (moral virtue) that is proper to man -- then how shall he urge others to the very excellence that he himself has acted against (Crito 53c-d, 45d)?]

CRITO: I think you will be doing what is unjust if you abandon your life when you might preserve it. (45c)

What is unjust is not-good, because -- either in Plato's thought, or as he uses the words 'just' and 'good' -- just = good, and vice versa. (Cf. 48b)

CRITO: And what is more, to me you seem to be abandoning your children, too. You will leave them to take their chance in life, as far as you are concerned, when you might bring them up and educate them. Most likely their fate will be the usual fate of children who are left orphans [Jowett translation: "and if they do not meet with the usual fate of orphans, there will be small thanks to you"]. But you ought not to bring children into the world unless you mean to take the trouble of bringing them up and educating them.

CRITO: It seems to me that you are choosing the easy way, and not the way of a good and brave man, as you ought, when you have been talking all your life long of the value that you set upon human excellence. [Jowett translation: "But you appear to me to be choosing the easier part, not the better [cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 8, 11] and manlier, which would have been more becoming in one who professes to care for virtue in all his actions, like yourself."] (45c-d)

As with the words 'just' and 'good', so too with the words 'brave' and 'just' and 'good'. The Greek word translated as 'excellence' is areté, but Socrates extends the concept 'excellence' to focus on the good life for man or rational moral virtue ("ethics").

Plato asks in the Protagoras (329c-d) whether virtue is one or many: is the brave man at the same time also the pious, just, temperate (self-controlled), and wise man, and reciprocally? Is the good man the man whose life is one of a single virtue (known by various names) or of a multitude of virtues?)

Crito tells Socrates to reflect, "or rather the time for reflection is past; we must make up our minds. Everything must be done tonight. If we delay any longer, we are lost."


Does death refute the wisdom of Socrates' life?

When Socrates says that he has been preparing all his life for his trial (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 8, 4) he also means that he has been practicing all his life the excellence appropriate both to life and to death, the death which he now faces.

SOCRATES: We must reflect ... whether we are to do as you say or not; for I am still what I have always been -- a man who will accept no argument but that which on reflection I find to be truest. I cannot cast aside my former arguments because this misfortune has come to me. They seem to me to be as true as ever they were, and I respect and honor the same ones I used to. And if we have no better argument to substitute for them, I certainly shall not agree to your proposal ...

[Jowett translation: "For I am and always have been one of those natures who must be guided by reason, whatever the reason may be which upon reflection appears to me to be the best; and now that this chance [the sentence of death] has befallen me, I cannot repudiate my own words: the principles which I have hitherto honored and revered I still honor and revere, and unless we can at once find other and better principles, I am certain not to agree with you ..."]

SOCRATES: Shall we go back to what you say about opinions, and ask if we used to be right in thinking that we ought to pay attention to some opinions, and not to others? Were we right in saying so before I was condemned to die, and has it now become apparent that we were talking at random and arguing for the sake of arguing, and that it was really nothing but playful nonsense [idle eristic, not really concerned with "no small matter, but how to life" our life]? (46b-c)

I am anxious, Crito, to examine our former argument with your help [It is well to discuss with a companion, as the Iliad says (Protagoras 348c-d)], and to see whether my present circumstance will appear to me to have affected its truth in any way or not; and whether we are to set it aside, or yield assent to it. (46d)

The method of Socratic dialog

This is the beginning of Socratic dialectic, for they have chosen a thesis and now they are to cross-question it, to see whether it stands the test, in which case they will "yield assent to it", or is refuted, in which case they will "set it aside".

SOCRATES: Reflect, then, do you not think it reasonable to say that we should not respect all opinions of men but only some, nor the opinions of all men but only of some men? What do you think? Is this not true? (47a)

Dialectic is step-by-step agreement (The companion is asked to accept or refute each thesis as it is offered to him), and that is what Socrates now seeks from Crito. [It is the form of discourse Albert Schweitzer used in his sermons:  N'est-ce pas?  Eh bien ...  Is this not true? Well, then ... (Although in Schweitzer's discourse the questions are rhetorical, they are not so in Plato's dialogs).]

SOCRATES: Is this not true?

CRITO: It is.

SOCRATES: And we should respect the good opinions, and not the worthless ones?

CRITO: Yes.

SOCRATES: But the good opinions are those of the wise, and the worthless ones those of the foolish? (47a)

And, therefore, in questions of justice and injustice ... of good and evil, which we are now examining, ought we to follow the opinion of the many [who do not understand, or of the one] who understands these matters ...?

For if we do not follow [the one who understands], we shall corrupt and maim that part of us which, we used to say [before I was condemned to death], is improved by justice and disabled by injustice [Tredennick translation: "improved by right conduct and destroyed by wrong"]. (47c-d)

Crito agrees to these propositions. [The "that part of us" is the soul (psyche), in Socrates' sense of 'soul' as 'the ethical aspect of man'. What else the soul may be he does not presume to know, for he says "whatever it is" (47e-48a).]

Life in a crippled soul as life in a crippled body

SOCRATES: Now, if, by listening to the opinions of those who do not understand, we disable that part of us which is improved by health and corrupted by disease, is our life worth living when it is corrupt? [That part of us] is the body, is it not?

CRITO: Yes.

SOCRATES: Is life worth living with a body corrupted and crippled?

CRITO: No, certainly not.

SOCRATES: Then is life worth living when that part of us which is maimed by injustice and benefited by justice is corrupt? Or do we consider that part of us, whatever it is, which has to do with justice and injustice to be of less consequence than our body?

CRITO: No, certainly not. (47d-48a)

What most matters is to live rightly (the life that is good = honorable = just)

SOCRATES: But, my good friend, to me it appears that the conclusion which we have just reached is the same as our conclusion of former times. Now consider whether we still hold to the belief that we should set the highest value, not on living, but on living well [Jowett translation: "not life, but a good life"]? (48b)

CRITO: Yes, we do.

SOCRATES: And living well and honorably and justly mean the same thing [Jowett translation: "a good life is equivalent to a just and honourable one"]: do we hold to that or not?

CRITO: We do. (48b)

Would Socrates' escaping be living rightly (justly, goodly, honorably)?

Socrates says that, "starting from these premises, we have to consider [Jowett translation: "From these premisses I proceed to argue the question"] whether it is just or not for me to try to escape from prison, without the consent of the Athenians". (The question they will have later to answer [49e-50a] is whether Socrates' agreement with the state of Athens, that is, with the Athenians, is a "just agreement" or not, for if it is a just agreement, then it would be an injustice for Socrates to break it.) He says that the objections made by the multitude to not escaping which Crito has stated, namely "considerations of expense, and of reputation, and of bringing up [of] children ... are only the opinion of the many [cf. 47c-d] ..." (48b-d)

SOCRATES: But reason, which is our guide [48c], shows us that we can have nothing to consider but the question which I asked just now -- namely, shall we be acting justly if we give money and thanks to the men who are to aid me in escaping, and if we ourselves take our respective parts in my escape? Or shall we in truth be acting unjustly [living bad and dishonorably (48b)] if we do all this? (48c-d)

Crito agrees that this is the question they must answer. And Crito also agrees to Socrates' proposition that "if we find that we should be acting unjustly, then we must not take any account either of death, or of any other evil that may be the consequence of remaining here, where we are, but only of acting unjustly".

SOCRATES: Let us examine this question together ... And if you can contradict anything that I say, do so, and I shall be persuaded. But if you cannot, do not go on repeating to me any longer, my dear friend, that I should escape without the consent of the Athenians.

To contradict = to refute in Socratic dialectic, because contradiction in propositions ("premises" leading to a conclusion) is the standard Socrates sets for refutation (falsification, and so their absence would seem to indicate verification, so far as those discussing can see). The premise Socrates asks Crito to be cross-questioned about is the thesis they are testing in dialectic.

SOCRATES: But now tell me if you agree with the premise from which I start, and try to answer my questions as you think best.

CRITO: I will try. (48d-49a)

And so they agree to the proposition that "it is never either good or honorable [or just (48b)] to act unjustly", that "acting unjustly [is] evil and shameful in every case".

SOCRATES: Do we say that one must never willingly do wrong, or does it depend upon circumstances? Is it true, as we have often agreed before [in "all these years" of "serious discussions"], that there is no sense in which wrongdoing is good or honorable? ... Surely the truth is just what we have always said ... that to do wrong is in every sense bad and dishonorable for the person who does it. Is that our view ...?

CRITO: Yes, it is.

SOCRATES: Then in no circumstances must one do wrong.

CRITO: No. (49a-b, tr. Tredennick)

[Socrates now asks, "Do we believe that?" If so, it is belief in a tautology, a rule which is both a grammatical-rule (language definition) and a guide-rule (moral precept) in ethics, a queer customer indeed.]

SOCRATES: Do we believe that?

CRITO: We do.

Ought we ever to act unjustly or do evil to anyone?

SOCRATES: Then we ought never to act unjustly?

CRITO: Certainly not.

SOCRATES: If we ought never to act unjustly at all, ought we to reply injustice with injustice ...? [Cf. Plato, Republic 332a-d]

CRITO: Clearly not.

SOCRATES: ... ought we to do evil to anyone?

CRITO: Certainly I think not, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And is it just to repay evil with evil ...? For there is no difference, is there, between doing evil to a man and acting unjustly?

CRITO: True.

SOCRATES: Then we ought not to repay injustice with injustice or to do harm to any man [cf. Republic 335e], no matter what we may have suffered from him. (49b-d)

What is Plato doing here? What is he defining when he equates doing harm with being unjust? Is he defining words or defining "abstract objects", because if 'justice' and 'evil' and the other words Plato talks about are names of "abstract objects", is it logically possible to define such things, for what does a real definition of an "abstract object" even look like? (Does philosophy define words or "define abstract objects"?)

Socrates [i.e. Plato, not the historical Socrates] says that only few men hold this opinion "and so those who hold it and those who do not, have no common ground of argument; they can of necessity only look with contempt on each other's belief" (49d).

[Can there be no common ground in ethics?]

[Wittgenstein also says they have no common ground (OC § 611): "When two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and heretic". But I do not believe that either philosopher is correct. For the proposition 'The just man harms those who harm him, returning injustice for injustice' is subject to refutation in dialectic, and it is hard to see -- if it is indeed possible, for we are talking about tautologies -- how that proposition can be defended against Plato's cross-questioning (Republic 335b-c), not if the proposition 'The good makes things better not worse' is agreed to, and that proposition is after all itself a tautology: it belongs to the "grammar" of the word 'good'.]

And so Socrates asks Crito again if he agrees to Socrates' proposition that 'it is never right to act unjustly by harming someone who harms us'. And Crito does agree. (49e)


What are "just agreements" and must they be abided by?

So Socrates now moves on to the next step in the argument he is constructing, asking Crito if he agrees to the proposition that, rather than "shuffle out of them", a man ought to carry out his just agreements. Because if Socrates escapes without the Athenians' consent, will Socrates be abiding by his just agreements or not? (49e-50a)

CRITO: I cannot answer your question, Socrates. I do not understand it. (50a)

When is an agreement just (or good or honorable or right-doing), and when is it unjust (or evil or dishonorable or wrong-doing)? To answer this question in Socrates' case, Plato suggests a comparison between the laws of the state and an Athenian's parents. What would the law say to Socrates?

"We brought you into the world, we raised you, we educated you, and we gave you and every other citizen a share of all the good things we could." (51c-d)

["Did we not do well in telling your father to educate you in music and athletics?" (50d) Note: the Greeks divided learning into two branches: "Music" and "Gymnastic", the first concerned with the gifts of all the Muses of the intellect, the second with the training of the body.]

"Yet we proclaim that if any man of the Athenians is dissatisfied with us he may take his goods and go away wherever he pleases ... But we say that every man of you who remains here, seeing how we administer justice, and how we govern the state in other matters, has agreed, by the very fact of remaining here to do whatsoever we tell him." (51d-e)

Would it not be an injustice if Socrates, who has always been happy with life in Athens, were now to disobey its laws?

And so the laws ask Socrates to consider whether they are right "in saying that by attempting to escape you are attempting an injustice" (51c), a crime against the laws. The laws say to Socrates that he more than other Athenians has been satisfied with Athens:

"You never went away from Athens to the festivals, nor elsewhere except on military service [in expeditions to Amphipolis, Delium, and Potidaea (Diog. L. ii, 22-23)]; you never made other journeys like other men; you had no desire to see other states or other laws; you were contented with us and our state; so strongly did you prefer us, and agree to be governed by us.

"Besides, if you had wished, you might at your trial have offered to go into exile. At that time you could have done with the state's consent what you are trying to do now without it. But then you gloried in being willing to die. You said that you preferred death to exile. And now you do not honor those words: you do not respect us, the laws, for you are trying to destroy us [by breaking the] agreements which you made to live as a citizen." (52b-52c)

And so the laws ask Socrates this question, "Are we right, or are we wrong, in saying that you have agreed not in mere words, but in your actions, to live under our government?" And Crito agrees with Socrates that they must admit to be true all that the laws have so far been imagined to say to Socrates. (52d)

"You had seventy years in which you might have gone away if you had been dissatisfied with us, or if the agreement had seemed to you unjust. And now will you not abide by your agreement. (52e-53a)

"You yourself might go to one of the neighboring states, to Thebes or to Megara, for instance -- for both of them are well governed -- but, Socrates, you will come as an enemy to these governments, and all who care about their city will look askance at you as a subverter of the law. You will confirm the judges in their opinion, and make it seem that their verdict was a just one. For a man who is a subverter of law may well be supposed to be a corrupter of the young and thoughtless. (53b-c)

To exhort to philosophy and moral virtue in exile?

"Then will you avoid well-governed states and civilized men? Will life be worth having, if you do? Will you associate with such [lawless] men, and converse without shame -- about what, Socrates? About things you talk of here? Will you tell them that excellence and justice and institutions and law are the most valuable things that men can have? And do you not think that would be a disgraceful thing for Socrates? (53c-d)

"But will no one say how you, an old man, with probably only a few more years to live, clung so greedily to life that you dared to break the highest laws? (53d-e)

"And where will be all [your] old arguments about justice and excellence then?" (53e-54a)

As to the education of Socrates' children, will he take them with him into lawless Thessaly, or will he leave them in Athens where they will be brought up and educated well whether Socrates is alive or not with them? The laws reply, "Will your friends take care of [your children] if you make a journey to Thessaly, and not if you make a journey to Hades? You ought not to think that, at least if those who call themselves your friends are worth anything at all." (54a-b)

And now the laws sum up (The conclusion of their argument)

"No, Socrates, be persuaded by us who have reared you. Think neither of children nor of life, nor of any other thing before justice [or what is just, good, honorable, or in other words the specifically moral virtue (excellence, fineness or areté) proper to man (54b), that all these are equivalent in meaning to 'justice'], so that when you come to the other world you may be able to make your defense before the rulers who sit in judgment there [Cf. the story Plato tells in Gorgias 522e-524b of the soul coming to judgment after death].

"It is clear that neither you nor any of your friends will be happier, or juster, or more pious in this life, if you do this thing, nor will you be happier after you are dead. Now you will go away a victim of the injustice, not of the laws, but of men. But if you repay evil with evil and injustice with injustice [54c] in this shameful way, you break your agreements ... with us ... and we shall be angry with you while you live, and when you die our brothers, the laws in Hades, will not receive you kindly ..." (54b-c)

The laws ask, "Do you think that a state can exist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law are of no force, and are disregarded and undermined by private individuals?" (50b)


Conclusion of the dialog, Socrates' and Crito's agreement

SOCRATES: The sound of these arguments rings so loudly in my ears, that I cannot hear any other arguments. And I feel sure that if you try to change my mind you will speak in vain. Nevertheless, if you think that you will succeed, speak.

CRITO: I have nothing more to say, Socrates. (54d-e)

In Socrates' particular case, two considerations appear conclusive: He did not ask for exile at his trial (52b-52c), and he might have left Athens for exile at any time in his seventy years but he chose not to (52e-53a). That is, he may be said to have made an agreement with the Athenians that it would now be unjust for him to break.

The question of what Socrates might do in exile, of how he will persuade others to the examined life of "Know thyself" after he himself has willingly acted in disaccord with the excellence (moral virtue) that is proper to man (because faithlessness to agreements is dishonorable/disgraceful) (53c-d), is not part of the logical argument, and although it is a very persuasive consideration, according to Socrates it is impossible for a man who knows what the good is to willingly do anything other than the good (Xenophon, Memorabilia iii, 9, 5).


Comments and Questions for the laws

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. (Anatole France)

Is that what "equality before the law" amounts to? Are the laws like spiderwebs? Was classical Athens so different from our world?

Plato speaks of the laws of the afterlife judgment (54c), but he does not say what the relationship of man's laws to those laws is, nor why they should be regarded as brothers rather than enemies. (Antigone: "Thy writ, O King, hath not such potence as will overweigh the laws of God ...", and in Plato the laws of God rule the afterlife.)

Plato treats 'Athens' as if it were the name of -- an individual? a group of legislators? a god? "Who" is the laws of Athens who asks these questions of Socrates? (If Athens is a direct democracy, then the laws are made by the Athenians themselves. But Plato makes no mention of this. And, as he often says, the truth (e.g. about what is good) is not determined by taking a vote. That is not what we mean by 'truth', for truth is not only public but also objective.)

Is Plato in this dialog discussing the specific case of Socrates and the laws of Athens? Maybe it can (should?) be said that at his trial by not suggesting exile (52c), Socrates had tacitly made an agreement with the Athenians?

This appears to me to be contrast between our own world and the world of ancient Athens described by Plato, that in our world only one who has wealth (in property or talent) can leave one country for another with any hope of being accepted in the other except as a refugee.

Do the laws not, in effect, treat citizens more as slaves than as free men? Or in other words, in the eyes of the state, are all men slaves of the law? Willing slaves in the case of the Athenians (according to Thucydides' funeral speech of Pericles)?

Is this 'justice' for the state and for man?

"The state is ruled by law, the individual by equity." Justice is this, then, that the state's authorities rule according to the laws, and the individual governs himself according to equity ("individual conscience")? Is that what we mean by the word 'justice' (in all its ambiguity)?

The individual who is ruled by law will be immoral in his judgments if equity does not coincide with law in the particular case, and the state that is ruled by equity will be arbitrary in its rule (The rule of man versus the rule of law). Because the individual is ruled by equity, there is the possibility of civil disobedience (with its legal consequences for the practicer).

In Socrates' case, does Plato say that equity and law coincide for Socrates: the equity requires him to obey the law, despite the jury's injustice (i.e. inequity, unfairness) done to Socrates?

[Legislators, who are recognized by Plato as 'statesmen', make the laws according to equity rather than according to the interest of any particular party.]


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