As I’m working my way through my Good Will Hunting library-card master’s program,* I had the chance to revisit Crito. This is a great dialogue! It’s only about 15 pages long. Socrates is in prison awaiting execution. His friend Crito shows up and tries to talk him into escaping into exile. Socrates is having none of it.
And the leads to this amazing exchange:
Socrates: [W]hen one has come to an agreement that is just with someone, should one fulfill it or cheat on it?
Crito: one should fulfill it.
Socrates: See what follows from this: if we leave here without the city’s permission, are we harming people whom we should lease to harm to? And are we sticking to a just agreement, or not?
Crito: I cannot answer your question, Socrates. I do not know.
Socrates: Look at it this way. If, as we are planning to run away from here or whatever one should call it, the laws and the state came and confronted us and asked: “Tell me, Socrates, what are you intending to do? Do you not by this action you are attempting intend to destroy us, the laws, and indeed the whole city, as far as you are concerned? Or do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but are nullified and set at not by private individuals?” What shall be answer to this and other such arguments? For many things could be said, especially buy an orator on behalf of this law we are destroying, which orders that the judgments of the courts shall be carried out. Shall we say an answer, “The city wronged me, and its decision was not right.” Shall we say that, or what?
Crito: Yes, by Zeus, Socrates, that is our answer.
Socrates: Then what if the laws said: “Wsas that the agreement between us, Socrates, or was it to respect the judgments that the city came to?” And if we wondered at their words, they would perhaps add: “Socrates, do not wonder at what we say but answer, since you are accustomed to proceed by question and answer. Come now, what accusation do you bring against us and the city, that you should try to destroy us? Did we not, first, bring you to birth, and was it not through us that your father married your mother and begat you? Tell us, do you find anything to criticize and those of us who are concerned with marriage?” And I would say that I do not criticize them. “Or in those of us concerned with the nurture of babies in the education that you too received? Were those assigned to that subject not right to instruct your father to educate you in the arts and in physical culture?” And I would say that they were right. “Very well,” they would continue, “and after you were born and nurtured and educated, could you, in the first place, deny that you are our offspring and servant, both you and your forefathers? If that is so, do you think that we are on an equal footing as regards the right, and that whatever we do to you is right for you to do to us? . . . Do you think you have this right to retaliation against your country and its laws? That if we undertake to destroy you and think it right to do so, you can undertake to destroy us, as far as you can, in return? And will you say that you are right to do so, you who truly care for virtue? Is your wisdom such as not to realize that your country is to be honored more than your mother, your father, and all your ancestors, that it is more to be revered and more sacred, and that it counts for more among the gods and sensible men, that you must worship it, yield to it, and placate its anger more than your fathers? You must either persuade it or obey its orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs you to endure, whether blows or bonds, and if it leads you into war to be wounded or killed, you must obey. To do so is right, and one must not give way or retreat or leave one’s post, but both in war and in courts and everywhere else, one must obey the commands of one city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice. It is impious to bring violence to bear against your mother or your father; it is much more so to use it against your country.” What shall we say in reply, Crito, that the laws speak the truth, or not?
Crito: I think they do.
Socrates: “Reflect now, Socrates,” the laws might say, “that if what we say is true, you are not treating us rightly by planning to do what you are planning. We have given you birth, nurtured you, educated you; we have given you and all other citizens a share of all the good things we could. Even so, by giving every Athenian the opportunity, once arrived of voting age and having observed the affairs of the city and of the laws, we proclaim that if we do not please him, he can take his possessions and go wherever he pleases. Not one of our laws raises any obstacle or forbids him, if he is not satisfied with us or the city, if one of you wants to go and live in a colony or wants to go anywhere else, and keep his property. We say, however, that whoever of you remains, when he sees how we conduct our trials and manage the city in other ways, has in fact come to an agreement with us to obey our instructions. We say that the one who disobeys is wrong in three ways, first because in in us he disobeys his parents, also those who brought him up, and because, in spite of his agreement, he neither obeys us nor, if we do something wrong, does he try to persuade us to do better. Yet we only propose things, we do not issue savage commands to do whatever we order; we give two alternatives, either to persuade us or to do what we say.…
*Typical disclaimer: It’s not really a master’s program. It’s not a program at all. And I can’t use a library card because I mark up books like an animal. So it’s really more an excuse to buy classics from thriftbooks.com and scribble all over them like an angry toddler.