Plato's Crito describes
Socrates, a seventy-year-old Athenian philosopher who chooses to die for an
ideal. When Socrates is charged with debasement of Athens' religion and told
that he may be acquitted if he agrees to stop practicing philosophy, he is
unyielding, saying that God commands him to find the truth. Philosophy, which
has the goal to improve the soul above all other things, is the very essence of
life, Socrates explains. Socrates asserts that his death sentence is actually
more troubling for his fellow Athenians than for himself. He sees himself as a
public servant of sorts, who helps the city by his practice of philosophy. Most
importantly, Socrates proclaims through his death that respect for the law
supercedes personal motives of self. The following points will attempt to
demonstrate Socrates' deeply held beliefs regarding his contract with the city
Though Crito tries to persuade
him to escape, Socrates argues that this action would be wrong, and indeed
undermine his whole life's work. For Socrates doesn't blame the laws which
sentenced him, but the people. To escape illegally would be an abdication of the
most important virtue of Athenian government: the rule of law. Socrates asserts
through the hypothetical voice of Athens' constitution, ". integrity,
institutions and laws, are the most precious possessions of mankind." In
this way, Socrates prefers to be a martyr for a cause rather than a criminal who
despises the very system that he worked so long to build. If he were to betray
these laws, he would have to betray his own conscience.
Socrates further explains to
Crito that the law has already given him a long and successful life. He attests
to the fact that he actually owes the city much. Socrates believes that he has a
contract with Athens, a covenant of sorts, which would be broken if he were to
dodge his death sentence. After all, it was under the city's laws that his
parents were married and he was born, Socrates explains. These laws even saw to
his education. Socrates believes that he, as a citizen of Athens, has a sacred
duty to sacrifice himself for his city. For others, this sacrifice is often made
on the battlefield, but in Socrates' case, death is the price he must pay to
keep strong the legal system. Again, as the hypothetical voice of the law,
Socrates admits, ".if you cannot persuade your country you must do
whatever it orders, and patiently submit to any punishment that it imposes."
In this way, Socrates is willing to give up his life to Athens, not as a
soldier, but as an example of obedience to the law.
Furthermore, Socrates refuses
to let a personal motive of retaliation dictate his behavior. He explains to
Crito that in a society that governs by laws, not men, revenge is not moral.
Socrates refuses to give in to the 'eye for an eye' method of justice. Instead,
Plato's teacher believes that logical argument and persuasion should be the
defense of the accused. Since Socrates is unable to convince those who ruled
against him, he believes that he has no alternative but to obey their sentence.
Though escape would be easy, it could only lead to more corruption in the system
that found him guilty.
By giving his life, Socrates
reinforces a legal system that survives to this day in the United States, and
indeed most of the Western world. Socrates dies believing that the system,
though not the people who judged him, was just. He knows that obeying its death
sentence will strengthen Athens' fledgling system of law. Many Americans today
even use Socrates' argument: though people make mistakes, the system works.