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