“Plato’s report of the trial of Socrates and of his last days in prison vividly dramatizes for us one of the moving moments in the history of the human race. The charges brought against Socrates by the Athenians of his day typify the accusations which, in other countries and at other times, have been leveled against men who have been single-minded in their adherence to ideals that have set them apart from the society in which they lived.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, volume 1, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica: 1959, page 1)
Plato was a Greek philosopher who composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In this post I’ll consider two of those dialogues, the Apology on the trial of Socrates and the Crito on his last days in prison. In previous posts I’ve considered the first five of the ten books in Plato’s The Republic, in which he through Socrates discusses justice and the state..
I’ll base my consideration of the Apology and the Crito on Adler and Wolff’s study of them in The Great Ideas Program, the opening of which I quoted above. Their study is divided into three sections: the first on the relationship between Plato and Socrates and the background to Socrates’ trial and execution, the second on the picture that Socrates gives of himself in his defence, and the third on six specific questions about the Apology and the Crito. However I’ll substitute a sketch of the life of Socrates for their first section and include only the first four of the six questions they asked in their third section.
The Life of Socrates
Socrates was born about 470 B.C., the son of Sophroniscus, possibly a worker in stone, and Phaenarete, a midwife. His family couldn’t have been very poor because they were able to provide him with enough financial resources to serve as a fully-armed hoplite in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. However his later absorption in philosophy and his mission (see the next paragraph) made him neglect his private affairs and fall to a level of relative poverty. He probably loved philosophy more than his family, Xanthippe (whom he apparently married late in life) and their three sons.
The following description of Socrates’ mission is taken from The Columbia Encyclopedia (sixth edition, Columbia University Press, 2000):
“Socrates became convinced that his calling was to search for wisdom about right conduct by which he might guide the intellectual and moral improvement of the Athenians. Neglecting his own affairs, he spent his time discussing virtue, justice, and piety wherever his fellow citizens congregated.… In his self-appointed task as gadfly to the Athenians, Socrates made many enemies.” (page 2645)
In 399 Socrates was brought `to trial for neglecting the gods whom the city worshipped and for corrupting the young. He treated the charge with contempt and was convicted. The prosecutors asked for a penalty of death, and Socrates suggested a small fine. His claim to be a public benefactor incensed the court, and death was voted for by an increased majority. Because no execution could take place in the absence of the sacred ship sent yearly to Delos, Socrates was in prison for a month, receiving his friends daily, An escape was planned by those friends, but Socrates refused to take advantage of their kind offer on the grounds that such a course would be contrary to his principles.
Socrates’ Picture of Himself
Observing that “hardly anyone can read the account [of the trial] without feeling that a grave injustice was done,” Adler and Wolff suggest that “we may do well to examine how we ourselves would react to Socrates … if he were brought to trail in our time.” (The quotations are from Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 4-5.)
Both in his defence and, after his being condemned, his response to the requirement that he suggest a penalty for himself, Socrates was uncompromising, asserting that he would never change but would continue his offensive ways.
“Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend,‒a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens,‒are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”
“If I tell you that to do as you say [go into exile and hold my tongue] would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true, although a thing of which it is hard to persuade you.” (Plato, Apology, in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, pages 206 and 210 respectively)
Adler and Wolff comment:
“We may imagine, without considering the rightness of the doctrines involved, the effect such intransigence would have on a court or investigating committee in a ‘cold war’ situation where a Communist in a Capitalist country not only refused to recant but announced his determination to continue his ‘subversive’ activities; or, of course, the effect of such a position taken by a Capitalist in a Communist country.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 5)
Questions about the Apology and the Crito
Should an unjust law be obeyed?
Adler and Wolff explain that by an “unjust law” they mean a law that commands some unjust action or prohibits some just action. A contemporary example would be a Christian minister’s being required to marry individuals of the same biological sex. Adler and Wolff ask:
“What is a conscientious citizen to do about laws he really believes to be unjust? Should he disobey them? Or are there reasons for obeying even an unjust law?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 7)
What can be done when a law is unjustly applied?
Sometimes a just and good law is unjustly applied. Adler and Wolff cite the example of the Dreyfus case in France in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason and condemned to life imprisonment (eventually he was exonerated, Adler and Wolff ask:
“How, first of all, can [a citizen] be certain that a law has been justly applied? … When someone has been duly tried and been found guilty by a jury, we assume that justice has been done. But juries and judges are men and men are fallible.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 7)
“There is a second problem. Suppose that there is … no doubt that the wrong man has been accused, what are we to do? Does the duty of the citizen demand obedience or disobedience?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 8)
What are a citizen’s duties and responsibilities when a law is unjustly made?
A law may be just in content but imposed as a decree instead of by due legislative process. What should a citizen do?
Was Socrates justified in disobeying an explicit command, because it was unjust?
In the Apology, Socrates disobeyed a command:
“When the oligarchy of the Thirty was in power, they sent for me and four others into the rotunda, and bade us bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamis, as they wanted to put him to death. This was a specimen of the sort of commands which they were always giving with the view of implicating as many as possible in their crimes; and then I showed, not in word only but in deed, that … I cared not a straw for death, and that my great and only care was lest I should do an unrighteous or unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong; and when we came out of the rotunda the other four went to Salamis and fetched Leon, but I went quietly home. For which I might have lost my life, had not the power of the Thirty shortly afterwards come to an end.” (Socrates speaking in Plato, Apology, page 207)
Yet in the Crito, he refused to disobey the laws when Crito offered to help him escape from prison (and death). Adler and Wolff ask:
“Can we reconcile [Socrates’] support of the law in the Crito with his asserted intention, in the Apology, to obey God rather than his judges?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 8)