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53a - 54e

51c - 53a

Study Questions


The Laws of Athens conclude with an ominous warning as to what would happen if Socrates were to break them and escape. First, his friends would run the risk of banishment or worse for having helped him. Second, he would be unlikely to find welcome in any other town he visited. After all, what city with well-formed laws would welcome a man who had broken the laws of the city that had been his home for seventy years? If anything, he would be confirming Athens' verdict against him (that he corrupts the young), since a man who wantonly destroys the laws is certain to have a bad influence on the young. And if he were allowed into these cities, he could not resume his old way of life, wandering about and questioning citizens in order to improve them. How could he then maintain his teachings that goodness, justice, institutions, and laws are of the highest value to civilized people? His only option would be to live the life of a vagabond or runaway in some lawless part of Greece, where at best, he might have some laughs at the ridiculous lengths to which he had to go to escape Athens and civilization. All this would also show an unseemly greediness, clinging to life at such an old age.

The Laws then address the question of who should care for Socrates' sons, one of the strongest reasons Crito provided for Socrates to stay alive. Would Socrates be doing his sons any great favor by running away with them to some lawless land? And if he leaves them behind in Athens, what difference does it make if he is exiled in another land or dead? Surely, if his friends are at all good, they will ensure that his sons are well brought up, regardless of whether he is alive and exiled or dead.

Further, Socrates imagines the Laws as addressing themselves to the question of his fate after this life. He has lived a just and pious life, so he should fare well when he comes before the judges of the underworld. However, if he were to escape now, not only would he live in a lawless land, despised by his fellow-citizens, but he would also suffer in the underworld for having acted unjustly. As it is, he has been wronged by the people of Athens, not by the Laws, and will die a victim who has lived well and been killed unjustly. But if he returns this injustice, and hurts the Laws because of the wrongs done him by the people, he will be acting unjustly and the laws of Hades will punish him accordingly.

Socrates claims to hear the voice of the Laws of Athens clearly, and that they have persuaded him to stay. Crito accepts Socrates' words and makes no further effort to persuade him to leave.


If we were not satisfied with the Laws' appeal to justice, their prediction of Socrates' possible life in exile seems quite convincing. Socrates is very explicit in ##The Apology## about the importance of his way of life. In his famous statement that "the unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates suggests that life only has meaning and importance through the philosophical process of questioning oneself and others. If he were to flee Athens and live in a lawless land, all the reasons he currently has for wanting to be alive would disappear. He would be unable to engage in any kind of philosophical discourse, he would be banned from any just and reasonable city, and his sons would either have to be raised in this state of lawlessness or he would have to be separated from them permanently. Also, consistency is a very important virtue to Socrates: he has willingly been sentenced to death rather than be inconsistent in his behavior or way of life. To flee now would be to succumb to inconsistency and make a mockery of his life up to now.

Socrates' discussion of the underworld is a bit puzzling. As we discussed earlier, as he approaches death, he seems to gain greater confidence as to the nature of the afterlife, so it should not surprise us that he now speaks of the judges of the underworld (when in The Apology he denied that anyone could know what happens after death). What seems odd is again this distinction between the people who have accused and sentenced him and the Laws by which they have sentenced him. Plato would like to say that the Laws themselves are just, but that the people have acted unjustly. The reason Socrates must stay in prison is that he must show deference to the Laws, not to the people. Plato seems to want to put the blame for Socrates' imprisonment and execution on the people, saying that Socrates will die a victim who has been wronged unjustly. But if the people are the ones who punish him, why is it the Laws that suffer if Socrates escapes? If the Laws are destroyed if Socrates escapes, that would suggest that it is through the Laws that he is imprisoned. But if he is imprisoned wrongly, and if this is in accordance with the Laws, then it would seem that the Laws are unjust and thus deserve to be broken.

Plato is trying to mark a distinction between the Laws themselves and the legislators, one of his reasons for trying to embody the Laws in a voice distinct from any particular person or people. But if we unpack Plato's argument, it seems that there must be a contradiction somewhere. To review: Socrates is imprisoned either justly or unjustly. If he is imprisoned justly, that means he has done wrong and deserves to be punished, a claim that Plato would never want to make. Therefore, he is imprisoned unjustly. If he is imprisoned unjustly, he is being wronged either by the Laws or by the people. Again, it is clear that Plato wants to argue that he is being wronged by the people. Now if the people are wronging Socrates unjustly, that means that they are wronging him in a way that is not in accordance with the Laws. Thus, Socrates should not be breaking the Laws in trying to break free from prison.

The only possible answer is a rather tyrannical one, that the Laws are good and are created for good purposes, but must be obeyed no matter what, and it is up to the people to carry that out. The laws against corrupting the young and preaching false deities are just, and if one is found guilty, one ought to be punished. The problem is that the people have not carried out the application of these laws in a just manner by condemning Socrates. Nonetheless, trial by jury is a part of the Laws; the Laws are inflexible, and if Socrates is found guilty by jury then he is guilty according to the Laws. This picture of the Laws, however, does not seem as just or as reasonable as one might like.

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