Plato's 'Crito'

The Immorality of Escaping Prison

Socrates'-cell:Sharon-Mollerus.jpg
Socrates' cell in Athens. Sharon Mollerus/Flickr CC

Plato's dialogue "Crito" is a composition originating in 360 B.C.E. that depicts a conversation between Socrates and his rich friend Crito in a prison cell in Athens in the year 399 B.C.E. The dialogue covers the topic of justice, injustice and the appropriate response to both. By setting forth an argument appealing to rational reflection rather than emotional response, the character of Socrates explains the ramifications and justifications of a prison escape for the two friends.

 

Plot Synopsis

The setting for Plato's dialog "Crito"  is Socrates' prison cell in Athens in 399 B.C.E. A few weeks earlier Socrates had been found guilty of corrupting the youth with irreligion and sentenced to death.  He received the sentence with his usual equanimity, but his friends are desperate to save him. Socrates has been spared so far because Athens does not carry out executions while the annual mission it sends to Delos to commemorate Theseus' legendary victory over the minotaur is still away. However, the mission is expected back in the next day or so. Knowing this, Crito has come to urge Socrates to escape while there is still time.

To Socrates, escape is certainly a viable option. Crito is rich; the guards can be bribed; and if Socrates were to escape and flee to another city, his prosecutors wouldn't mind.  In effect, he would have gone into exile, and that would probably be good enough for them.

Crito lays out several reasons for why he should escape including that their enemies would think his friends were too cheap or timid to arrange for him to escape, that he would be giving his enemies what they want by dying and that he has a responsibility to his children to not leave them fatherless.

 

Socrates responds by saying, first of all, that how one acts should be decided by rational reflection, not by appeals to emotion. This has always been his approach, and he is not going to abandon it just because his circumstances have changed. He dismisses out of hand Crito's anxiety about what other people will think. Moral questions should not be referred to the opinion of the majority; the only opinions that matter are the opinions of those who posses moral wisdom and really understand the nature of virtue and justice. In the same way he pushes aside such considerations as how much escaping would cost, or how likely it is that the plan would succeed. Such questions are all utterly irrelevant.  The only question that matters is: would trying to escape be morally right or morally wrong?

Socrates' Argument For Morality

Socrates, therefore, constructs an argument for the morality of escaping by saying that first, one is never justified in doing what is morally wrong, even in self-defense or in retaliation for an injury or injustice suffered. Further, it is always wrong to break an agreement one has made. In this, Socrates posits that he has made an implicit agreement with Athens and its laws because he has enjoyed seventy years of all the good things they provide including security, social stability, education and culture.

 Before his arrest, he further posits he never found fault with any of the laws or tried to change them, nor has he left the city to go and live somewhere else. Instead, he has chosen to spend his whole life living in Athens and enjoying the protection of its laws.

Escaping would, therefore, be a breach of his agreement to the laws of Athens and it would, in fact, be worse: it would be an act that threatens to destroy the authority of the laws. Therefore, Socrates states that to try to avoid his sentence by escaping from prison would be morally wrong. 

Respect for the Law

The crux of the argument is made memorable by being put into the mouth of the Laws of Athens who Socrates imagines personified and coming to question him about the idea of escaping. Furthermore, subsidiary arguments are embedded in the main arguments outlined above.

For instance, the Laws claim that citizens owe them the same sort of obedience and respect that children owe their parents. They also paint a picture of how things would appear were Socrates, the great moral philosopher who has spent his life talking so earnestly about virtue, to don a ridiculous disguise and run away to another city just to secure a few more years of life.

The argument that those who benefit from the state and its laws have a duty to respect those laws even when doing so seems against their immediate self-interest is cogent, easy to grasp and is probably still accepted by most people today. The idea that the citizens of a state, by living there, make an implicit covenant with the state, has also been tremendously influential and is a central tenet of social contract theory as well as popular immigration policies with respect to freedom of religion.

Running through the whole dialog, though, one hears the same argument that Socrates gave to the jurors at his trial. He is who he is: a philosopher engaged in the pursuit of truth and the cultivation of virtue. He is not going to change, regardless of what other people think of him or threaten to do to him. His whole life exhibits a distinctive integrity, and he is determined that it will stay that way to the very end, even if it means staying in prison until his death