In the Platonic dialogue Crito, Crito visits his friend, Socrates, while the aged philosopher patiently awaits his execution in an Athenian jail. Crito came to convince Socrates to avoid his impending death by fleeing Athens. Socrates, though, refuses. He justifies his decision by, primarily, putting forth an argument about political obligation. Socrates’ argument of political obligation is premised upon the notion of a social contract or, more precisely, a tacit political contract.
In this essay, I shall argue that Socrates was an earnest democrat and defender of the rule of law. Socrates’ defense of the rule of law is put forth vigorously as an argument for a tacit political contract. However, there are some who believe Socrates’ argument, via the “Laws of Athens,” is not his own (See Verity Harte’s essay, “Conflicting Values in Plato’s Crito”) . Therefore, I shall also argue that it is indeed his own. Lastly, I will conclude with a critique of Socrates’ tacit political contract argument.
I. Socrates’ Tacit Political Contract Argument
After having established the maxim that “it’s never right to do injustice” (Crito 49e), Socrates inquires of Crito if it is just or unjust to do what one has agreed to do, provided that which one has agreed to do is not itself unjust. Crito agrees that, yes, one should perform what one has agreed to do. Expecting this answer, Socrates then asks if by leaving without persuading the Athenian authorities, would Socrates be committing some harm against those with whom he has a just agreement. Upon Crito’s admission of ignorance to the meaning of this question, Socrates introduces the Laws of Athens, through which he sets forth his conception of a political contract. The Laws of Athens (for the sake of brevity, hereafter the “Laws”) say that, should Socrates escape without their consent, they would be “deprived of authority and undermined by the actions of private individuals” (Crito 50b). The Laws assert that, by a just agreement, Socrates has consented to adhere to any judgment(s) that Athens may dispense, whether just or unjust (Crito 50c); The Laws have a natural right to rule over Socrates, for they gave birth to him (Crito 50d); Socrates was reared and educated within the safe and just confines of the Laws (Crito 50d). Socrates concurs with the Laws’ précis and, as a result, accepts the conclusion that to the polis he is mere chattel (Crito 50e). It follows that Socrates should: (1) honor the polis more reverently than he would his own natural parents; (2) persuade or obey the dictates of the Laws; (3) undergo any privation the Laws may submit him to (Crito 51a, b, c). The Laws note that, if he were dissatisfied with their suzerainty, Socrates should have left the polis to live in another city as an alien, or amongst a colony (Crito 51d).
Nevertheless, Socrates elected to live amongst the Laws and rarely, save on military expeditions and to attend the Isthmian games, left Athens (Crito, 52c). Furthermore, at his trial, he may have proposed exile as an alternative to death (Crito 52c), or re-located to Sparta or Crete, both of which he lauded for possessing “good law and order” (Crito 53b). Thus, Socrates implicitly agreed to live as citizen under the Laws (Crito 52d). Hence, by escaping Socrates would commit “a threefold injustice: he disobeys us [the Laws] as his parents; he disobeys us as those who brought him up; and, after having agreed to obey us, he neither obeys nor persuades us if we’re doing something that isn’t right” (Crito 51e). If Socrates were to flee his judgment now, he would most assuredly evince a blatant disregard for the rule of law, thus revealing himself as untrustworthy to the rulers of the city he selects as a refuge (Crito 53b). Moreover, would Socrates desire to raise and educate his children in an inferior and alien city? Is not Athens preferable to any other Greek city? By leaving Athens without permission, Socrates would break his “agreements and commitments” in a most shameful manner and, what may be worse, would harm those least deserving of harm (Crito 54c).
II. Genuineness of Socrates’ Argument
As acknowledged in the introduction, I propose that Socrates’ political contract argument is his own. First, to deny my proposition, I contend, is to arbitrarily dichotomize Socrates’ maxim, “that one should never render injustice for injustice” (hereafter, the “no injustice maxim”) from his tacit political contract argument. Second, if one insists that the Laws do not accurately depict Socrates’ own beliefs, then one must be prepared to admit that Socrates uncharacteristically abandons the elenchus in favor of oratory, and thus harms Crito.
Note: To facilitate communication, I shall herein use the term “separationists” to denote those who believe Socrates’ tacit political contract argument is not his own.
Crito is a friend with whom Socrates previously has held philosophical discourse (Crito 49b). At some time prior to the Crito, Crito accepted Socrates’ no injustice maxim (Crito 49b). The maxim is also a theme in other Socratic dialogues (e.g. see Plato’s Gorgias). It would be quite uncontroversial, then, to assert that most, if not all, Platonic scholars accept Socrates’ no injustice maxim in the Crito as being authentically his own. By accepting the no injustice maxim as one of Socrates’ genuinely held beliefs, the separationists’ contention that the tacit political contract argument is not actually Socrates’ becomes awkward. For, in 49e, Socrates directly relates his no injustice maxim with his tacit political contract argument: “Then I’ll state the next point- or rather, ask a question: should one do the things one has agreed with someone to do….” Indeed, Socrates further makes the relation between the no injustice maxim and the tacit political contract argument explicit in 50a: “If we leave this place without having persuaded the city, are we treating some people badly- and those whom we should least of all treat in that way- or not? Are we standing by agreements that are just or not?” The political argument and the no injustice maxim are logically related. If the separationists dismiss the former as being un-Socratic, then they ought also to reject the latter as being equally un-Socratic; assuredly, though, they are not willing to do this.
Socrates’ method of philosophical examination is known as the elenchus. The elenchus is a dialectical method of cross-examination wherein one refutes an interlocutor’s claim to a certain sort of knowledge (e.g. knowledge about the nature of piety) by showing that such a claim is inconsistent with his other beliefs. This method of inquiry is essential to the “examined life.” At his trial, Socrates says the “unexamined life isn’t worth living for a human being” (Apology 38a). The examined life is “discussing and examining virtue” (Apology 38a). In contrast, oratory is quite different from the elenchus (Gorgias 476a). The purpose of an oration is to win an argument; rather, to persuade one’s interlocutor, or the majority of the audience of an argument, to one’s point of view, taking no thought of what is truly right or wrong. In the Crito, Socrates, starting at 46b, utilizes the elenchus to confound Crito’s arguments on why it would be good for Socrates to escape. If the separationists’ position is correct, then Socrates may rightfully be accused of abandoning the elenchus in favor of an oration. For in order to confound Crito, he presents an argument that he personally does not hold. Socrates effectively decides that Crito is not worthy of examining the issue at hand and, therefore, subjects his dear friend to ignorance, and, in so doing, does harm to Crito. Conversely, if the argument does accurately represent Socrates’ personal beliefs, then the Laws are simply an attempt to help Crito understand the full implications of the no injustice maxim- and, to be sure, there is no tension in this.
III. Critique of Socrates’ Tacit Political Contract Argument
“If we leave this place without having persuaded the city,” asks Socrates, “are we standing by agreements that are just or not” (Crito 50a)? Socrates’ justification for not escaping his execution is premised upon the notion that there exists an agreement- agreed to by “deeds not words”- between the individual and the state. This agreement, or tacit political contract, obligates the individual to the state. As such, the individual must abide by whatever declaration or judgment the state may decree. Socrates says that the state receives the authority to rule the individuals located within the state’s geographical boundaries by the individuals’ participation in, and refusal to leave, the polis. This reasoning, however, is problematic. If its authority over the territory is not justified, it follows that the Athenian state is simply another collection of individuals making claims to the life and property of other individuals. Socrates is merely living with his private property amidst a country- i.e. a collection of individuals within a delimited geographical location- and the state has, as of yet, neglected to give him a good reason why they should have authority over him and his property. For in asserting his tacit political contract argument, Socrates presupposed the precise thing that he is trying to prove, namely, that the state’s political authority over the territory in question is justified. It is a fallacy to assume the veracity of a proposition as a means to establishing it.
A likely objection to my thesis is that, since they permit one an opportunity to persuade them that their rulings are unjust, the Laws are merited in ruling the individuals within the polis. First, the objection assumes that the Laws of Athens are just in their pretensions to legitimacy and, therefore, begs-the-question. Second, the objection is a non-sequitur. It does not follow that permitted discussion of an action(s) translates into a justification of the action(s). A thief, for instance, may allow the owners of a home to persuade him not burglarize their property without thus being justified in doing so.
Socrates’ belief in a tacit political contract is untenable. It is invariably espoused by governing entities and their ideologues to justify their monopoly on the use of violence, and to facilitate obedience to their pronouncements. It is quite unfortunate that, despite his revolutionary mind, Socrates was unable to question that which most needs to be questioned: the notion that the state has a claim to a man’s life, liberty, and property. It is in my estimation that Socrates’ stated reason for not escaping his execution was premised upon a misconception of the state. He failed to recognize that the state is simply a collection of individuals who make claims of sovereignty over a certain geographical location. This collection of individuals must necessarily exert their will upon others- in the form of violence or the threat of violence- in order to achieve compliance to its dictates. Socrates accepted this conception of the state as just and therefore possessed a slavish conception of the relationship between the individual and the state. It is a shame that in not questioning the state such a provocative man died so ignobly.