“My good Crito, why should we care so much for what the majority think? The most reasonable people, to whom one should pay more attention, will believe that things were done as they were done.” – Socrates
After his trial, Socrates’ execution is delayed until the return of an Athenian ship sailing on an annual religious mission to the island of Delos. Crito discovers the ship will soon return to port. He comes to beg Socrates to flee into exile, afraid that people in the community will believe that he did nothing to save his friend and mentor. He plans to bribe the guards and lodge Socrates with friends in another city, but first he must convince Socrates that fleeing would be just, and staying unjust.
Crito’s main argument is not only an impassioned plea for his own honor, but also a genuine belief that a person dedicated to the philosophical life ought not to accept an unjust verdict of those who despise such a life. He also adds an additional appeal to the duty Socrates owes his family, especially his children. Socrates reminds us that one should care more about truth than public opinion. A thematic undercurrent that runs throughout the dialogue is to disregard the opinions of the majority, especially when it conflicts with truth. The truth is more important than public opinion because it is the key to achieving the good life, which is all that matters to Socrates.
Socrates elaborates on many of his views found in The Apology. In that work, Socrates shrugs off the prospect of death as just another adventure not to be feared. For Socrates life has no value in itself, but the good life is everything. The good life gravitates around following the principles of justice. One must try their best to constantly strive towards the good life, what Socrates also calls the beautiful life and the just life. He points out it is never right to retaliate against mistreatment with more mistreatment, presenting a sophisticated version of the general principle that two wrongs do not make a right.
As my introduction points out there is a problem with this line of thinking; it disregards the possibility that if Socrates fled he would not actually be retaliating, but rather would simply be preventing himself from being mistreated by those who wish to mistreat him. Socrates avoids this line of thinking, and perhaps addresses it implicitly with his conception of the social contract.
In the work, Socrates offers a version of a social contract. He states that one’s nation takes precedent over one’s family; likewise, that if one does not like their country and its rules they have the opportunity to leave it, seemingly anticipating the future American conservative’s favorite line, “love it or leave it.” On the other hand, he argues that he owes allegiance to his country due to the benefits he has reaped from its social services; they gave him an education and took care of him. He emphasizes the communal spirit and reciprocal nature of the community.
The concept of the social contract that Socrates develops explains why he chooses to respect the court’s decision. If he is willing to reap the benefits of his society, he should also accept its decisions, even if those decisions are bad. You can’t pick and choose which parts of the system you want to participate in and which parts you don’t. Society and the justice system function because people agree to these rules. If everyone simply escaped prison for exile whenever they disliked the verdict of a case, then justice could not exist and the rule of law would mean nothing. Unfortunately this also means that sometimes innocent people get convicted. Crito offers very little defense to this argument, meekly responding to Socrates throughout the entire dialogue as if he gave up long before he even got started.