Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Discussion Questions

On Civil Disobedience

One of the issues explored in The Crito is what we today refer to as civil disobedience. It is probably called "civil" because it entails the deliberate disobeying of civil laws (i.e., not other kinds of laws, such as natural laws, physical laws, moral laws, etc.), and sometimes the violation of those laws is done in a civil or non-violent manner, though this is by no means always true.

You'll recall that Socrates has been put in prison and will soon be put to death, all by formal decree of a legal body acting in a legal manner.

You'll recall that his friend Crito comes to him with a plan and plenty of money to help him escape from prison and take up his life again in some town other than Athens.

And you'll recall that Crito has articulated some pretty good reasons for why Socrates ought to leave prison, including his responsibilities to his children and friends (and what about to his wife, Xanthippe?), his responsibilities to continue his work, and including also the argument that Socrates would be taking "the easy way out" if he chose to stay in prison (is it the easy way out?).

Socrates responds briefly to each of these reasons, but concludes that his most pressing responsibility is to do what is right, so the question really comes down not to what is advantageous or what would please his friends or family, but to what is right. The question, Socrates says, is "What is the morally right thing to do?"

In the end he argues that it would be wrong for him to leave jail because he would be breaking a contract he has implicitly made with the laws of the city. That is, if he leaves jail and breaks that contract with the laws (and hence with his city), then he will be doing an injury to the city. He will be an "A" who is doing an injury to a "B," and this is something that Socrates says he has tried assiduously to avoid all his life.

Just to briefly review what a contract is and how it works, in the simplest terms. You go to buy a $5,000 car. If you have $5K in cash, then you just hand the dealer the cash and the dealer gives you the car. No contract involved, just a simple exchange. But if you do not have $5K and you want to pay for the car over an extended period of time, then you enter into a contract. The contract will have three main elements. 1) You receive the whole car all at once, keys, bald tires and everything. 2) You promise to pay $150 every month, whether you feel like it or not. The contract does not say you can pay $150 only in the months that you feel like it, but instead requires that you pay every month, whether you feel like it or not. 3) You indicate your acceptance of that contract by formally signing on the dotted line.

In Socrates' contract the same three elements were there. 1) He, as a citizen of Athens, received all the benefits of the city when he needed them: education, paved streets, protection from criminal and outside threats, and all the other benefits that come from living in a civil society governed by laws. 2) He, as a citizen, is required to obey the laws of the city. The contract does not require that he obey only the laws that he happens to feel like obeying, but instead requires that he obey all the laws. 3) He has implicitly indicated his acceptance of that contract not by formally signing anything, but simply by continuing to stay in the city and accept its benefits during all his long life. He could have left, but didn't. He chose to accept the basic requirement of any civil society, namely, to obey its laws.

Socrates therefore concludes that, just as you would be harming the auto dealership if you didn't make the payments you promised to make, so Socrates would be causing some injury to the laws and to Athens if he does not obey its formal legal dictates. One such legal dictate has put him in prison and will put him to death, Socrates argues, and he has a moral obligation to live up to his promises and his contract with the laws.

Please post your responses to the following questions in the classroom forum, and then also respond to each others' answers.


1. Would you agree that Socrates does have an implicit contract with his city?

2. What would you conclude is Socrates' general teaching about the practice of civil disobedience, according to what he says in The Crito? Explain.

Some scholars have argued that what Socrates teaches about civil disobedience in The Crito is different than what he teaches about civil disobedience in The Apology.

3. See if you can see anything in The Apology that would seem to contradict what Socrates teaches about civil disobedience in The Crito. What do you see?

4. Do you think that this apparent contradiction between the two dialogues is a real one, or only a seeming one? Please explain.