In trying to free his friend Socrates, Crito first presented an argumentum ad populum; an appeal to the majority. He told Socrates that people would think ill of him (i.e., Crito) if he, with all of his influence, allowed his friend Socrates to die. (Note that Crito's appeal implied that public opinion may have shifted after Socrates was convicted and condemned to death.) Crito told Socrates that, “the opinion of the many must be regarded.”
Socrates, as always, begins to formulate his reply by asking the philosophical question: why? Instead of immediately accepting the majority view, he referred to a concept that he discussed in the Apology: difficult endeavors require expertise. We shouldn’t listen to the majority in complicated situations; we should listen to the experts.
EXAMPLEIf you want to know about economics, ask an economist. If you want to know about climate change, consult a climate scientist.
In this case, the question involved a matter of ethics. To gain the knowledge needed to answer it rightly, an expert in ethics must be consulted (e.g., a philosopher). Socrates stated,
“In questions of just and unjust, fair and foul, good and evil, which are the subjects of our present consultation, ought we to follow the opinion of the many and to fear them; or the opinion of the one man who has understanding?”
After failing to convince Socrates to follow the will of the majority, Crito tried a different (and familiar) approach. He made an appeal based on the intrinsic value of human life: “Nor can I think that you are at all justified, Socrates, in betraying your own life when you might be saved; in acting thus you are playing into the hands of your enemies, who are hurrying on your destruction.” He went on to tell Socrates that escaping would enable him to accomplish much good. He would be able to continue to teach philosophy and instill ethics in his pupils.
Socrates once again responded in a way that might seem strange to contemporary readers. He asked Crito the following questions:
“…will life be worth having, if that higher part of man be destroyed, which is improved by justice and depraved by injustice? Do we suppose that principle, whatever it may be in man, which has to do with justice and injustice, to be inferior to the body?”
Socrates took a position that was commonly-held in ancient Greece: not all life has value. Only the good life has value. As a result, it is absurd to put the value of a life above what is right.
If Socrates was correct in believing that only the good life is worth saving, and escaping from prison was in opposition to the principles of the good life he'd tried to live, then escaping from prison would make his life one that was not worth living. This returns us to the original topic: it must first be determined whether escape is the right thing to do before proceeding.
The last argument Socrates made in the Crito is the most important: He imagines a dialogue between himself and Athens, personified as the Laws, which ask him the following:
“‘And was that our agreement with you?... What complaint have you to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the state? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you…. Or against those of us who after birth regulate the nurture and education of children, in which you also were trained? Were not the laws, which have the charge of education, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?’ Right, I should reply. ‘Well then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you?.... Then the laws will say: ‘Consider, Socrates, if we are speaking truly that in your present attempt you are going to do us an injury. For, having brought you into the world, and nurtured and educated you, and given you and every other citizen a share in every good which we had to give, we further proclaim to any Athenian by the liberty which we allow him, that if he does not like us when he has become of age and has seen the ways of the city, and made our acquaintance, he may go where he pleases and take his goods with him. None of us laws will forbid him or interfere with him. Anyone who does not like us and the city, and who wants to emigrate to a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, retaining his property. But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the state, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him.”
Here we have a first approximation of an extremely important concept in political philosophy and justice studies, the Social Contract.
Based on the Social Contract, Socrates did not believe he should escape. Why?
Consider that, of every entity on earth, your government is the only one that can legitimately (i.e., without doing anything wrong) take away your rights. It can (and does) claim some of your wealth, and can, in certain circumstances, limit your freedom and take your life. Few people believe that the government does wrong when it penalizes criminals and collects taxes, but where does the government's authority come from? A thousand years ago, someone may have claimed that a god gave a king his authority. Today, the answer is almost always the Social Contract, which is viewed as the sole basis for legitimate government authority. In this respect, Socrates' conclusions regarding his relationship to the laws of Athens were over 2,000 years ahead of their time.
What is the Social Contract? It is an agreement in which one side provides what the other receives. In most cases, the government gives the citizen internal and external protection (by means of police and armed forces), education (through public schools and universities), and infrastructure (roads, public utilities, hospitals, regulations to ensure breathable air and drinkable water, courts, and more). If you consider everything the government provides, you might conclude that the Social Contract is a very good deal for citizens. The government asks one thing in return: follow the laws.
As Socrates indicated, in a democracy, the agreement is even better than the description provided in the last paragraph. Citizens can leave the government's jurisdiction any time they want to do so, taking all of their property with them. If a law is unjust in the view of one or more citizens, (i.e., if a citizen — or citizens — does not like the current terms of the social contract, they can attempt to change it through a political process).
However, consider the situation in which Socrates found himself. The state had upheld its obligations. It had provided him with protection, education, and infrastructure. In addition, Socrates did not leave the jurisdiction, and did not seek to change the laws (including the laws he was found to have broken). The state upheld its end of the contract, and Socrates made no effort to get out of, or change, it. As a result, the Social Contract was still binding. It would not only be illegal for him to escape, but also immoral. Because the contract was still in effect, Socrates must abide by its terms.
Socrates' argument as to why he should not try to escape can be reconstructed as follows:
|A contract is binding when the terms are agreed upon and the other party involved has met them.||Premise|
|By neither leaving nor seeking to change the laws, Socrates gives consent to the terms of the Social Contract with Athens.||Premise|
|Athens upheld its terms of the Social Contract.||Premise|
|Therefore, Socrates is still bound to his obligations in the Social Contract with Athens.||Conclusion|