The Crito records the conversation that took place in the prison where Socrates was confined awaiting his execution. It is in the form of a dialog between Socrates and Crito, an elderly Athenian who for many years has been a devoted friend of Socrates and a firm believer in his ethical teachings. The conversation takes place at an early hour on what proved to be the next-to-the-last day that Socrates remained alive. Like both the Euthyphro and the Apology, this dialog reveals something of the character of Socrates by describing the manner in which he faced difficult circumstances without being overcome by them. In the Crito, particular attention is given to the reasons advanced by Socrates for refusing to escape from prison as a means of saving his own life. The circumstances were such that he might easily have done so, and his friends were urging him to do it.
The dialog begins with Socrates asking Crito why he has arrived at so early an hour. The dawn is just beginning to break, and Socrates has been sleeping soundly throughout the night. Crito explains that he has been waiting in the prison for some little time but has remained silent because he did not want to disturb Socrates' sleep. He adds that he is astonished to find that Socrates has been able to sleep so well and to remain calm and peaceful when the time for his execution is so close at hand. Socrates has been in prison for about a month, owing to the fact that no execution of a criminal would be allowed in the city until a certain ship has returned from the island of Delos. Crito reports that the ship is soon to arrive, for he has been told that it has left Sunium and is expected to be in Athens the next day. For this reason, Crito tells Socrates that tomorrow will be his last day alive. Socrates states that if such is the will of God, he is willing to die. However, he is convinced, because of a dream that he experienced that morning, that there will be a delay of one more day.
At this point, Crito pleads with Socrates to take his advice and escape from prison. He gives as his reason that if Socrates refuses to escape and is then put to death, Crito will not only have lost a true friend who can never be replaced, but he will also be censured by many persons who will accuse him of failure to do what he could in order to save the life of a friend. It will be supposed by those who are not familiar with the facts that Crito could have purchased the freedom of his friend by paying a certain amount of money but that he refused to do so. Hence, if Socrates cares about the reputation of his friend in the future, he will act in accordance with the request that that friend is now making of him. Socrates must admit that the opinion of the majority is something that cannot be ignored, for they are capable of inflicting great harm on anyone who has incurred their disapproval.
Socrates is not concerned about the opinion of the majority, for it is capable of neither the greatest evil nor the greatest good. It cannot make a man wise and it cannot make one foolish. Whatever it does is largely a matter of chance. Crito asks if Socrates does not fear that escaping from prison would cause his friends to get in trouble with the authorities of the land and that this might cause them to lose a portion of their property or possibly suffer something that might be even worse than that. Socrates admits that he does have that fear, but it is by no means the only one that he has. Crito then tells him to have no such fear, for there are persons who at no great cost are willing to save him and bring him out of prison. As for the informers, they are far from being exorbitant in their demands, and a little money will satisfy them. Crito explains that he has considerable means himself, all of which he would gladly use for any purpose that would aid in saving the life of Socrates. Furthermore, if Socrates should feel hesitant about allowing Crito to spend so much in his behalf, there are many more of his friends who are ready and willing to supply whatever amount of money is needed for this purpose.
If these offers of assistance are not sufficient to persuade Socrates to attempt an escape from prison, Crito presents some additional reasons in support of what he has been urging him to do. He tells him that by remaining in prison and refusing to escape, he is playing into the hands of his enemies and giving aid to the ones who are disregarding the demands of justice. Then, too, he is betraying the members of his own family, especially the children, who are entitled to the nurture, guidance, and education that he could provide by staying alive and doing what is within his power for their welfare. If, Crito says, instead of fulfilling your obligations to them, you go away and leave them to take their chances amid all the unfortunate circumstances that may arise, you cannot be held blameless if they should fall into evil ways. This is not the kind of action that is appropriate for one who professes, as you do, to be following the course of virtue. By refusing to escape, you will be taking the easier but not the better and manlier part, and, therefore, people will be ashamed not only of you but also of your friends, who they will maintain were lacking in the necessary courage to save you from an untimely death.
In reply to what Crito has been saying, Socrates admits that his zeal is invaluable if it is used in support of what is right, but if used in support of what is wrong it leads to an even greater evil. Throughout his entire life, Socrates has made it a point not to be swayed by emotional appeals but to follow a course that is directed by reason. Therefore, he will not forsake the principles that he has honored for a long time but will remain true to whatever reason tells him is demanded by them. The arguments advanced by Crito have not convinced him that he should escape from prison, and he proceeds to set forth the reasons for rejecting them.
Crito has mentioned that, in the opinion of many persons, both Socrates and his friends will be severely criticized if he fails to make any attempt to escape from prison. Socrates, in reply, calls attention to the danger that is involved in following public opinion. He asks if it is not true that the opinion of some persons should be regarded and the opinion of others be disregarded. After Crito has admitted that this is true, the question is raised concerning whose opinion should be regarded seriously enough to be followed. To answer this question, Socrates suggests an analogous situation. In the case of one who is being trained in gymnastics, whose opinion should be sought in regard to praise or blame for what he is doing? Is it the opinion of the many or of the one who is his instructor or trainer? When a person is seriously ill, is it proper to ask the opinion of the many or the one who is a qualified physician? Obviously, it is the opinion of the one person who possesses the necessary relevant information that should be followed. If this is true in regard to physical exercise and matters pertaining to health, is it not even more important to consult the opinion of those who have an adequate understanding about what is just and unjust, fair and foul, or good and evil? If, acting on the advice of men who have no understanding, we injure the body, is it not true that we will incur an even greater evil by following the advice of those who have no proper understanding of the meaning of justice and that which pertains to that part of human nature that is superior to the body?
Crito is forced to admit that Socrates has presented a strong argument with reference to the inadvisability of following public opinion, or even the voice of the majority, when it comes to matters of crucial importance. Nevertheless, Crito still insists that the opinion of the many is not something to be neglected entirely, for the simple reason that the many possess the power to put people to death, and to save one's own life is more important than anything else he can do. Socrates does not agree that one should save his own life at any cost. He holds that it is not life but a good life that is to be valued above everything else. He believes, too, that a good life is equivalent to one that is just and honorable. The other considerations that Crito has mentioned, such as money, the loss of a good reputation, and the duty of educating one's children, are only the doctrines of the multitude. They are not to be accepted just because they express the opinions of the majority but are to be followed only in those instances where they are supported by good reasons. From this it follows that the question confronting Crito and Socrates is whether it is right and honorable for one who has been put in prison by the constituted authorities to escape or to allow others to aid him in so doing by the use of money or any other unlawful means.
Both Socrates and Crito have admitted on previous occasions that one should never intentionally do what is wrong, and now they must decide if they are to abide by that principle or depart from it. If they do abide by it, they must admit that it would be wrong for Socrates to heed the advice of Crito by trying to escape from prison. An escape would be a violation of the law of the land and would imply that Socrates is an enemy of that which makes for an orderly society. He cannot do this without going back on the principles for which he has stood throughout his entire life. Still, Crito is not convinced, for he maintains that Socrates has been the victim of unjust laws, and for this reason it is proper and right for him to disobey them. Socrates then reminds him that to act in that manner would be a case of returning evil for evil, which would contradict what he has already admitted should never be done. To return evil for evil may be in harmony with the morality of the many, but as he has indicated before, public opinion when not supported by good reasons is never a safe guide to follow. Crito is of the opinion that it would not be wrong for Socrates to escape because he has been imprisoned unjustly. Socrates does not agree with him and, accordingly, sets forth his reasons for holding that one is obliged to submit to the punishment imposed on him, even though the punishment may be an unjust one. His argument is based on the fact that he is a citizen of the state, having been born, nourished, and educated within its borders. In fact, he is a child of the state and has an obligation toward it similar to that of a child to its parents. By living in the state for these many years and accepting the benefits it has provided, he has indicated a willingness to accept its laws and regulations and to abide by the decisions of its courts, regardless of what those decisions might be.
Socrates asks Crito to consider for a moment what the officials of the government might say to him under the existing circumstances. They might say something like the following: "There is clear proof Socrates that we and the city were not displeasing to you. Of all Athenians you have been the most constant resident in the city, which, as you never leave, you may be supposed to love . . . and you acquiesced in our government of you; and this is the state in which you begat your children, which is a proof of your satisfaction. Moreover, you might, if you had liked, have fixed the penalty at banishment in the course of the trial — the state which refuses to let you go now would have let you go then. But you pretended that you preferred death to exile, and that you were not grieved at death. And now you have forgotten these fine sentiments, and pay no respect to us the laws, of whom you are the destroyer; and are doing only what a miserable slave would do, running away and turning your back upon the compacts and agreements which you made as a citizen. . . . Are we not right in saying that you agreed to be governed according to us in deed, and not in word only?"
Crito admits there is no adequate reply to an argument of this type on the part of the state, and he continues to listen as Socrates develops still further the charges that could be brought against him in the event that he should escape. They could say that he has broken the covenants and agreements he made with them, not in haste or on the spur of the moment, but in times of leisure, without any deception or compulsion on their part. He has had seventy years to think it over, and during this time he was free to leave the city and go to any of those places that he praised for their good government, but instead of doing this, he chose to remain in our city and to abide by its laws.
If, under the circumstances that have just been pointed out, Socrates should escape from prison, it would be of no benefit either to him or to his friends. Those who were known to have aided him in making his escape would be driven into exile or lose their property and be deprived of citizenship. If he should go to one of the neighboring cities, such as Thebes or Megara, he would be regarded as an enemy and all of their patriotic citizens would look upon him as a subverter of the laws. In addition, they would argue that anyone who is a subverter of the laws would also be a corrupter of the young and foolish portion of humanity. If Socrates should go away from well-governed states to Crito's friends in Thessaly, his reception there would be no better, for the people would ridicule him for preaching lofty sentiments about justice and virtue and then betraying all that he has taught in order to gain a little longer life. By refusing to escape, Socrates can depart from this life in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil, and a victim, not of the laws but of men. On the other hand, if he goes forth returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements he has made, the citizens of the state, including his own friends, will despise him and look upon him as an enemy who has done his best to destroy them. All of this, Socrates tells Crito, is the voice that he seems to hear murmuring in his ears and that prevents him from hearing anything else. He then tells Crito to speak if he has anything to say in reply to what has been said. Since Crito has nothing more to say, Socrates asks that he be allowed to follow the intimations of the will of God.
In common with the Euthyphro and the Apology, the Crito has to do with the character of Socrates. He has been portrayed as a religious man who has spent the greater portion of his life in obedience to what he regarded as a divine command. The mysterious voice to which he always paid attention was to him the voice of God. Acting in harmony with this voice, he was accustomed to do what he believed was right, and he would not depart from this course in order to save his own life. This was made clear in both the Euthyphro and the Apology, but one question remained and forms the chief topic of conversation in the Crito. The question was whether or not one is morally obligated to obey laws that are believed to be unjust. In the case of Socrates, there was ample evidence to indicate he had been condemned unjustly and that the law that demanded his execution was not a good one. Under these circumstances, would it be wrong for Socrates to escape from prison in violation of the law that had placed him there? Crito, along with other friends of Socrates, believes he would be amply justified in breaking this law, and a number of arguments are presented in support of that belief. Socrates is convinced they are wrong in holding that opinion, and he proceeds at some length to set forth his reasons for rejecting the view that they have presented.
The issue raised in this dialog is an important one, for it has given rise to controversies that have persisted over the centuries, and in certain areas it is still an issue at the present time. Ought one to accept the penalty imposed on him by legal means that are unjust? Evidently, Plato's purpose in writing this dialog involved something more than a historical account of the conversation that took place in Socrates' prison shortly before his death. He wanted to deal with the moral issue involved in those situations where individuals are confronted with penalties imposed on them by unjust laws. One point that has frequently been overlooked is the distinction between what is moral and what is legal. It is this point that the dialog is intended to clarify. It is simply not true that all laws should be obeyed under any and all conditions. This is indicated when Socrates admits that on two occasions he violated the laws of the city, and he makes no apology for doing so in either instance. He has stated on different occasions that he will obey God rather than man, which means that he will not violate the demands of his own conscience in order to do what the state has ordered him to do. Why then should he refuse to escape prison just because the law requires him to remain there? Although one may violate the laws of the land in order to satisfy the demands of his conscience, he has the moral obligation to accept the penalty for the violation of those laws that is imposed by the state. To do otherwise would mean a repudiation of the system of law and order that makes living in a civilized society possible.
The conversation between Crito and Socrates takes place in the early hours of the morning. Socrates has been sleeping soundly in spite of the fact that he knows the time for his execution is close at hand. The calm and quiet manner with which Socrates accepts his fate astonishes his visitor, but it is only one more illustration of the extent to which Socrates has achieved control of his feelings and emotions. He has always insisted that the good life is one in which the individual's activities are governed by reason and not by the feelings of the moment. His teaching in this respect is imparted as much by his example as by anything he says. The date for Socrates' execution has been delayed for about a month, pending the return of the ship from the island of Delos. The brief reference to his dream is an example of the popular belief that events may be foretold in that manner. In this instance, it proved to be correct. Crito explained that his coming at so early an hour was due to his belief that the time was short and if any action was to be taken it must be done at once. Socrates informs him that it will require one more day for the ship to reach Athens, and they will have plenty of time to discuss whatever it is that Crito has in mind. Crito has come for the purpose of pleading with Socrates to escape from prison. He has a number of reasons for believing this is what Socrates should do, and he hopes that by setting forth these reasons he can convince Socrates that it is not only morally right but the part of wisdom for him to act as Crito is urging him to do.
One reason that Crito advances is based chiefly on what he anticipates people will say in the event that Socrates remains in prison and is put to death. They will say that his friend Crito might have saved him if he had been willing to furnish the money to purchase his freedom. Such accusations could only add to the grief that Crito would already have experienced in the loss of a friend who could never be replaced. Crito has stated that he would gladly give all the money he has if by so doing he could secure Socrates' freedom, and if that should prove to be not enough, he knows of several friends who would likewise contribute whatever was necessary to accomplish this purpose. But there are other reasons, too, why Crito believes that Socrates should escape. The court that had condemned him was not a competent court. Their understanding was not sufficient to enable them to determine if Socrates was really a corrupter of the youth. Their judgment was not a correct one, and, therefore, Socrates is under no obligation to see that it is carried out. Again, Crito maintains that it is proper and right to return evil for evil. Because Socrates has been treated in an evil manner, it will be only a matter of justice for him to treat the state in a like manner. To support his position still further, Crito points out that by refusing to escape from prison, Socrates will be inflicting a great hardship on the members of his own family. He has no right to bring children into the world and then fail to provide them with the nurture and education to which they are entitled. Finally, Crito mentions that in case Socrates should leave Athens and go into exile, there are good prospects for his being well received. Crito has friends in Thessaly, and Socrates could live among them in peace, with no fears that the inhabitants of that place would ever cause him any trouble. If Socrates is hesitant about making his escape because he fears that such an action on his part would get his friends into trouble, Crito reminds him that he need have no such fear, for with a small amount of money that his friends would be happy to contribute, they could buy off the informers who would report to the authorities concerning his escape.
In reply to what Crito has been saying, Socrates expresses his appreciation for the friendship and goodwill that have been displayed and for the zeal that has been manifested in their presentation. Still, Socrates is not convinced that he should escape from prison or that it would be morally right for him to attempt any such action. He has listened carefully to Crito's arguments and will state his reasons for objecting to each of them. Crito is wrong in allowing the opinion of the many to influence his judgment. Socrates tells him that it is not the opinion of the majority that is most important but rather the opinion of the ones who have an adequate understanding of the issue that is involved. It is true that in a democracy, it is the will of the majority that is supposed to prevail, but neither Socrates nor Plato believe in democracy so long as it is interpreted to mean that the opinion of ignorant persons is to be given equal weight with the opinion of those who are well informed. They do, however, believe in the democratic principle that in the administration of the laws all persons should be treated alike. No discrimination based on wealth or social position should be permitted. With regard to the rightness of an escape from prison, the situation is analogous to that of one who is being trained in gymnastics or one who is physically ill. It is not the opinion of the majority that should be consulted but rather the opinion of the trainer in one case and that of the qualified physician in the other. Crito should be reminded that it is only the opinion of those who have a clear understanding of what is right and wrong that should influence his decision.
Socrates does not deny that he has been treated unjustly by the court, and neither does he think that the judges who condemned him were competent to determine the correctness of his religious views or to decide whether he had really been a corrupter of the youth. He does not agree with Crito that these facts are sufficient to make it right for him to escape prison by violating the law that has been prescribed. The issue that is raised in this connection has been a controversial one, and it is by no means clear that the intellectual Greeks of Socrates' day would have agreed with him. We do know that after the death of Socrates, Plato did leave Athens because he did not think it would be safe for him to remain there. At a later date, Plato's pupil Aristotle left Athens to escape death at the hands of the anti-Macedonians, saying that he wanted to spare the city from another crime against philosophy. It has been suggested by some Greek scholars that Plato might have escaped from prison if he had been in Socrates' position. We cannot be certain about what he would have done under these circumstances, but there is one important difference between Plato and Socrates at the time when the conversation with Crito took place: Socrates was seventy years old, while Plato was only a young man in his early thirties. Socrates had spent his entire life in Athens. During all of those years, he had been the recipient of the many benefits that the city bestowed and had often acknowledged his indebtedness to its system of government and social order. If he had chosen to do so, he could have left the city at any time, but his very presence and participation in the life of the city was evidence of his approval of the way in which its activities had been maintained. Plato was at this time too young to have been under the same or equal obligation to the state inasmuch as he had not received as much from it. His situation was quite different from that of an old man who had lived during those years when the Periclean Age was at its greatest height of achievement. Socrates could not go back on his obligations to the city, and unless commanded to do that which in his judgment was morally wrong, he was duty-bound to obey its laws.
Crito had urged Socrates to return evil for evil, which was a principle accepted by the many, presumably on the assumption that only in this way could the demands of justice be met. No one questioned the idea that criminals should be punished or that the severity of the punishment should be determined to some extent by the nature of the crime. There was, however, a difference of opinion concerning the purpose of the punishment. According to one view, its purpose was to serve as a corrective measure that would be of benefit to the criminal by helping him to overcome his evil tendencies. A quite different view was held by those who believed that the proper function of punishment was to enable society to get even with the criminal by inflicting upon him an evil that was equivalent to the one he had caused others to suffer. Socrates accepted the former of these two views but rejected the latter. He did not believe that two wrongs make a right or that you can cure one evil by committing another one. Therefore, an escape from prison in violation of the law would be an evil act on his part and in no way would counteract the evil performed by the court. Although Socrates lived and died several centuries before the Christian era, his position in this respect was similar to what later came to be known as the Christian view, which forbids one to overcome evil with evil but states rather that evil should be overcome with good.
Crito has said that the opinion of the many should be feared because they have the power to put people to death. Socrates is not disturbed by this fact, for he believes that death is not necessarily an evil thing. It is the committing of an evil act that should be feared rather than having to die. The many may think that it is within their power to do the greatest evil to one who has lost their good favor, but such is not the case. They cannot make a person wise or foolish, nor can they cause him to do good or evil. It is true that they may injure one's body and may even be the cause of one's physical death but they have no power over his soul, which is what really matters. What Socrates believed in this respect was identical with what the Christians of later centuries taught when they said "Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do." Socrates emphasized the point that the soul is made better by doing what is right and is made worse by doing what is wrong. It was his conviction that the element in each individual in which wickedness and righteousness have their seat is far more precious than the physical body.
Crito and Socrates have been able to discuss the question about making an escape from prison because they have agreed on certain points. They both believe that to commit a wrong is under all conditions a bad thing for the person who commits it. From this it follows that a person must never repay ill-treatment by ill-treatment; no treatment received from another ever justifies doing something wrong in return. If they did not believe alike on these points, any discussion of the question would be useless. Socrates has made an effective reply to the arguments advanced by Crito, stating at some length his reasons for believing that it would be wrong for him to escape. Still, Crito insists that he has not changed his mind, and Socrates decides to try a different approach to the question.
He will relate what he imagines the many, or people in general, will say if he does escape from prison and go to some foreign land to spend the remainder of his life. This might seem at first to be a strange thing for Socrates to do in view of all that he has said concerning the shallowness of the opinions of the many. But, in this case, he will attempt to relate not simply what they might say but rather what they would have a right to say in the event that he escaped. The opinion of the many is not necessarily wrong, but neither is it necessarily right. It can be right if it is based on actual facts and what can logically be inferred from them. This is what Socrates intends to present as he makes his final speech in defense of the position he has taken.
Let us consider, he says, what the State or the Laws would have to say in the event they should discover Socrates making his escape from prison. This personification of the State, or what is sometimes referred to as the Laws, is an artistic device that brings home to the imagination in a powerful way the message that Socrates has been trying to convey. It does not contain any additional argument to what has been said before, but it is designed to produce a mood of feeling that is appropriate for an elevation of the ethical demands of conscience. Its purpose is to arouse an unconditional reverence for the dignity of the moral law that demands and justifies the course that Socrates is taking. The basis for the remarks that follow is the "social contract" that exists between the individual citizen and the society to which that citizen belongs. It is this contract, or implied agreement, in which the citizen promises to obey the laws of the state and to abide by the decisions of its courts that makes possible a well-ordered society in which people can live at peace with one another.
If Socrates should follow the advice of Crito and escape from prison, the Laws might complain that he is breaking the contract that he made with them. Since the contract was made voluntarily, he cannot offer the excuse that it was made under duress or obtained by false representation. Neither was it made in haste without sufficient time for consideration. Socrates has had seventy years for reflection, and in all this time he has not left the city in search of a different place to live. His choice of living under the laws of this city has been free and deliberate. His entire life bears witness to the fact that he has accepted the institutions of the society into which he was born, and it is an essential part of the system under which that society operates that its citizens shall respect and obey the decisions of its duly constituted courts. Socrates is not at liberty to reject the decisions of the court because he believes they have gone beyond their jurisdiction or that they have made a wrong decision in his case. For him to run away in order to escape the execution of the court's sentence would not only be a dishonorable act, it would indicate an insincerity on his part since he is not willing to abide by the lofty ideals that have characterized his teachings.
If Socrates should escape, his family and friends will run the risk of banishment and loss of property. If he goes to neighboring cities, he will be looked upon by all honest citizens as an enemy. Even if he should escape that disgrace, he will be regarded as a parasite, or one who is seeking favors from the rich and the powerful. He will be ashamed to continue his professions of devotion to goodness with conduct of this kind staring him in the face. On the other hand, if he refuses to escape from prison and abides by the execution of the sentence pronounced upon him, he will have a good defense when he stands before the tribunal of the judgment of the dead. Before them, he will appear as an innocent victim of the injustice, not of law, but of those who have abused the law in order to bring about his destruction.
It is this appeal that Socrates finds ringing in his ears. It makes him deaf to the pleadings of Crito, who now finds that he has nothing more to say. Therefore, Socrates feels content to follow the path along which God has been leading him.