The Crito of Plato

The Crito is an interesting addition to the Platonic canon. Stylistically and linguistically, it doesn’t seem to fit with the other dialogs. Most scholars explain these by assuming that it is either a very early or very late work. In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Hugh Tredennick explains that either of these poses difficulties. The majority theory that the Crito is one of Plato’s first dialogs is appealing because of the extreme simplicity of Socrates’ line of questioning–more a series of rhetorical questions than the knife-like elenchus we see in the other dialogs. However, there is still the problem of the inconsistent language and lack of Socratic Irony, as compared to the other earlier, more “Socratic” dialogs. There is also a line which seems to reference a later work by Polycrates the Sophist.

The less popular theory, that the Crito was written either by an elderly Plato or another Platonist, perhaps his nephew Speusippus. The simplicity of the Crito works against this theory, as does its failure to reference any of the sophisticated metaphysics which were such a feature of later Platonic works. These objections can be partly dealt with, however, if we assume that the Crito was deliberately kept simple because it was intended for a lay audience. This would explain the choice of Crito himself (respectable and affluent, but no intellectual giant) as a relatable interlocutor. The text itself also seems to imply that it was intended to overcome the criticism of Athenians who essentially asked, “If Socrates was so great, why did he let himself be killed?”,

Crito: …But, O! my beloved Socrates, let me entreat you once more to take my advice and escape. For if you die I shall not only lose a friend who can never be replaced, but there is another evil: people who do not know you and me will believe that I might have saved you if I had been willing to give money, but that I did not care. Now, can there be a worse disgrace than this- that I should be thought to value money more than the life of a friend? For the many will not be persuaded that I wanted you to escape, and that you refused.


Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy.  From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy. From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Despite its failure to joint neatly into the rest of the corpus, the Crito is unmistakably a Platonic work, even if it is not a work by Plato. The primary question is whether Socrates should allow himself to be rescued by Crito and his other friends. Crito argues that public opinion would be on Socrates’ side and that he has an obligation, under the general norms of their culture, so preserve himself so he can care for his family. Socrates reduces the argument to one of justice. In the eyes of Justice, any obligation he owes do to public opinion or norms is insignificant compared to that he owes to the laws–what we today might call “rule of law”. Socrates has been fairly condemned through due process of law. His conviction may have been unjust, but that does not free him to commit his own injustice against the law and reason.

To me this offers the most digestible justification for why Socrates allowed himself to die: he was a martyr for Reason. Having reasoned his way through an ethical dilemma and convinced himself of the just path, he could do nothing else without ceasing to be a philosopher; a philosopher who does not trust reason is no philosopher at all.

I like this justification much better than Xenophon‘s, that Socrates was ready to die and wanted to do so before his powers failed. It also seems more noble than the argument in the Phaedo that philosophers are destined to a better afterlife, or at least a more pleasant reincarnation, than normal people and should welcome death, particularly since they are forbidden to suicide. That point, however, will have to wait until I write about the Phaedo in a future post.

Lady Justice.  J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]

Lady Justice. J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *