While Socrates left behind no work of his own and all that we know of him is via Plato, he is known as one of the most famous early philosophers of all time. Socrates’ life, however, came to a tragic end as he was sentenced to death by the Athenian government for both corrupting Athenian youth as well as impiety towards the gods of Athens. (Rachels and Rachels, 1) While Socrates could have easily escaped his fate, he chose to remain in Athens and accept his fate. Socrates uses 3 different arguments in his Crito to justify staying in Athens and facing his own execution, all of which I think present flaws that are explored within this module’s reading. The flaws in these arguments are surprising, given what an astute philosopher Socrates was – at least in the way that he is portrayed by Plato, since Socrates left no work of his own.
The first argument that Socrates put forth was the argument against the destruction of the state, in which he proposed that the state of Athens could not exist if its laws were not followed by its people. As the text points out, a single act of disobedience would not cause the collapse of the state. What would destroy the state of Athens (or any state, practically) is a habitual and constant disregard for the law, which Socrates may have intended to imply by inserting himself and his possible act of disobedience into a broader context and subsequent meaning (Rachels and Rachels 5). The problem I see with the proposed strengthened argument about habitual rather than rare disobedience is where the line of disobedience would then be drawn, as it seems overly subjective. If all citizens who faced potential disobedience of an Athenian law saw themselves as the rare exception, disobedience would then become habitual making the state collapse as a result. While an argument could be made to justify Socrates’ exception as an extreme case, the same argument could be applied to others, thereby triggering habitual disobedience and causing the state of Athens to collapse as a result.
Socrates’ second argument for facing his legal execution was to compare the state to person’s parents, implying that obedience was thereby required. This I view as his weakest argument for accepting his fate and drinking the hemlock. In some societies, obeying one’s parents is a sign of respect where obedience can be obligatory, but it is hardly universal and I think the analogy fails on several points. As children, it may be appropriate to show respect and deference to our parents, but we are not bound to that ideology as we mature and reach adulthood. Furthermore, we should not obey our parents blindly if they ask us to do something we oppose for personal, moral, legal or even religious reasons. My parents and I see the world very differently now that I am an adult, and I do not need to obey them if doing so would go against my own conscience. For example, I am on the opposite side of my parents politically, so I would have no obligation to vote for a political candidate just because they told me to if doing so would violate my own principles and ideals as an adult.
Socrates’ final argument was the argument from the social contract, which I found to be the strongest, although I can still find flaws in its practical application as well. As a society living among others that we all depend upon for survival and mutual good, we do as individuals agree to certain things to ensure that society’s survival. Although the contract is largely unspoken, we enjoy certain privileges and freedoms when we, as a social species, adhere to it. In the modern world we have a sense of cooperation for the greater good. We pay takes to ensure that we have resources available to help us if and when we need them. Because of that, we are protected and granted freedom to live our lives as we choose within the confines of the law that freedom requires. While it is true that we are, in many ways, “born” into this system and we do not choose it of our own volition, we do enjoy the benefits of being a part of it. Choosing to act against it can have expense consequences both individually and at a societal level. Personally it can cost us our freedom if we choose to break the law and are incarcerated. Socrates went on to say that to break the social contract, one must also give up the benefits that would result from keeping it (Ibid). Under the circumstances that Socrates found himself under, however, I would think that the Athenian state has already broken its side of the contract by sentencing him to death, thereby depriving him of the benefit of being held by the social contract and negating the need for him to uphold his side of it. There is also nothing under the social contract argument that prevents someone like Socrates from moving from one society to another – by running away, the Athenian society would lose nothing, as exile was often an option in lieu of death, but another city-state would gain a valuable asset in Socrates who could then continue his work.
Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels. Problems from Philosophy, third edition. McGraw-Hill, 2012.