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Crito

Plato

50a - 51c

46b - 50a

51c - 53a

Summary

In order to clarify his position to Crito, Socrates depicts the Laws of Athens confronting and questioning him about his desire to escape. The Laws point out to Socrates that if he does indeed decide to disobey them and escape, he will effectively be destroying the Laws, and the whole State as well. If private individuals can disobey and nullify laws when they please, the Laws will no longer have any effect or any importance, and so the State will fall into chaos. The State is only held together by the Laws, and the Laws are only binding if they hold no matter what the circumstances. If Socrates should suggest that the State has committed an injustice against him by making a faulty judgment at his trial, he imagines the Laws would reply that he had agreed to abide by whatever judgments the State should make. After all, the Laws are not to be accepted piecemeal, but either entirely or not at all.

The Laws then point out the role they have played in shaping Socrates, and how important their relationship is. It was through the Laws that his parents were married and were able to give birth to Socrates. The Laws then provided for his upbringing and education, ensuring that he received adequate training in music and gymnastics. From this, the Laws suggest that their relationship with Socrates is similar to that of a father with his son, or of a master with his slave. In these relationships, the son or slave has no right to retaliate if he is punished for wrongdoing, and certainly should not destroy his father or master simply in order to protect himself. The Laws go even further to suggest that one's ties to one's country are even stronger than one's ties to one's family, and so it is even more important to respect the judgments of the Laws. Just as one should be willing to suffer and die for one's country in battle rather than flee to save oneself, one should also be willing to suffer and die according to the Laws rather than to destroy them by trying to save oneself. If Socrates is to avoid being executed, he must persuade the Laws that they punish him unjustly rather than simply fleeing, which would disrespect and destroy the Laws.

Commentary

The portrayal of the Laws of Athens as a voice that enters into dialogue with Socrates is not only a stylistic choice, but one that deeply informs the arguments that Socrates makes. Justice, for the ancient Greeks, consisted in obligations to other people: an unjust action is one that is detrimental to others. Thus, for Socrates (or perhaps Plato) to argue that it would be unjust for him to leave his cell, he must be clear against whom an injustice would be committed. He cannot simply be acting unjustly, but must rather be injuring someone in particular.

Certainly, if ##The Apology## is any indication, Plato and other followers of Socrates have little sympathy for Meletus, and the others who brought Socrates to trial and then sentenced him to death. Plato would not want to suggest that Socrates somehow has an obligation to his accusers to stay, and that he would be behaving unjustly toward them if he escaped. The question then, is whom would he be behaving unjustly toward in escaping? The only possible answer is the State itself and the Laws of the state. But since one can only act unjustly toward another person, it is necessary for Socrates to personify the Laws of Athens in order to justify his position.

Also worth noting is that Socrates personifies the Laws in the role of parents. They were responsible for his birth, and for raising and educating him. His real parents are effectively reduced to being agents of the Laws. By doing this, Socrates greatly clarifies his obligation to the Laws. While the Laws may seem like abstract, ancient, and distant entities to which one is bound only for fear of punishment, Socrates portrays them as living beings that have nurtured and raised him, who will suffer if he disregards them. With this new twist, it becomes far more problematic to justify breaking the Laws.

On the other hand, it is clear (from The Apology) that Socrates' trial was far from fair, and that he is not truly guilty of the crimes he has been condemned for. As a result, we have every reason to believe that Socrates himself has been wronged. Some scholars have suggested that in allowing himself to die, Socrates is complacently accepting an unjust application of the Laws, and in so doing is allowing the Laws to fall into disrepute. Socrates' method of elenchus, or cross-examination, which is central to his philosophy, consists in showing his interlocutors that they are mistaken in their claims. Surely this method should apply to his parents, or to the Laws as well. If they are mistaken in punishing him, he should not have to abide by their punishment, but should rather expose their injustice, doing both himself and them a favor.

One might reply in Plato's defense that the Laws do not claim that they should be obeyed no matter what, but rather that they must be persuaded of their mistake rather than simply disobeyed. Thus, if Socrates can persuade the Laws that he is wrongfully imprisoned, he should be free to leave without acting unjustly. The clear difficulty here is one of distinguishing between the Laws themselves and the human accusers who have sentenced Socrates. In The Apology, Socrates failed to convince his accusers that he was innocent, and they used the Laws to sentence him to death. Is there any way for Socrates to persuade the Laws that he should be allowed to go free without also having to persuade his accusers? And if he must persuade his accusers in order to change the Laws, that would suggest that the two are the same: if we believe that his accusers have acted unjustly in sentencing him, then the Laws might also be guilty of injustice. Clearly, Plato's choice to personify the Laws of Athens is not without problems.

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