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Socrates Should have Escaped

Updated on March 20, 2012

Socrates was Wrong

I will be arguing that Socrates ought to have escaped his execution. I will begin by summarizing the two main arguments that Socrates gives for accepting his death in Crito. From there, I will examine each one in turn and show why I think they fail.

Socrates gives two majors reasons for accepting his execution. Socrates believes that he owes a debt to his place of birth for providing him with an education and with other public services (as parents would provide for their children). Socrates also says that a state in which citizens may subvert the law at will has no power and will be overthrown. Thus, if he were to subvert the law by escaping, he would bring great harm to Athens. The just thing to do would be to repay his debt by not bringing harm to Athens. Second, Socrates believes that he has entered an implicit contract to abide by the laws of the state by choosing to remain in Athens. Therefore, he must accept his execution in order to abide by his contractual obligations.

Socrates is wrong on two counts. Socrates would not be harming Athens by his escape. And, even if his escape would harm Athens, it is at least doubtful that Socrates has a contractual obligation to follow the Athenian law.

I. Socrates would do the best service to Athens by escaping

Socrates is wrong in believing that he would subvert the law of Athens by escaping his execution. Furthermore, even if it were the case that Socrates would subvert the law of Athens by escaping his execution, doing so would not bring nearly as much harm as Socrates believes.

Socrates believes that he would do great harm to Athens by escaping because he would be subverting the laws, and a state in which the law has no power is sure to be overthrown. I deny that Socrates would subvert the law by escaping. It is true that the Athenian courts have condemned him to death and that this power is granted by the law. However, these courts are simply a means for enforcing a principal at the heart of the law of Athens: to bring about just resolutions to disputes within the city-state. Socrates is sentenced to death because he is charged with corrupting the youth and worshipping false Gods. In reality though, Socrates has done no such thing and knows as much. So the courts, while a part of the law of Athens, have failed to bring about a just resolution by sentencing an innocent man to death and have thus failed to uphold one of the principals that is essential to the law of Athens. By escaping, Socrates could correct this mistake at the small cost of ignoring the ruling of an unjust court.

However, even if Socrates would be acting in the spirit of the law by escaping, he would still be interfering with the legal system, which is essential to the state. Socrates is correct when he claims that a state in which all individuals can ignore the decrees of the courts at will is sure to fail. However, what reason does Socrates have to think that such a state would come about if he were to escape? The fact that Socrates would be ignoring the decree of a court does not mean that others will. If only Socrates subverts his punishment, then that is no great danger to the state. Legal systems very often make minor mistakes without suffering any major harm. In the U.S., occasionally prisoners escape and others are wrongly imprisoned, but that hasn’t caused the collapse of the legal system. Humans generally know that perfection is hard to achieve. No rational Athenian would see that Socrates has escaped and decide on that basis that the laws of his home were no longer worth upholding.

Not only would Socrates bring no great harm to Athens (if any) by subverting the decree of the court, he would also be doing Athens a great service. Socrates was a very wise man with a passion for teaching. Had Socrates survived, he might have shared that wisdom with others. Socrates’s habits of questioning and of thinking critically and deeply about the world are essential to the growth and development of humanity. The teachings of Socrates inspired Plato, whose Lyceums in turn produced Aristotle, one of the first to work towards developing science. If Socrates had lived a bit longer, perhaps he could have inspired another legendary (or even modestly successful) figure. While Socrates would have been forced to teach outside of Athens, his wisdom still might have led to some new invention or idea which would have eventually found its way back to Athens

II. Socrates is not Contractually Obligated to Abide by the Law.

Even if it’s true that Socrates would be subverting the law of Athens by escaping, it is at least doubtful that Socrates has a contractual obligation to abide by the law of Athens

Imagine you are kidnapped. You wake up in the home of a strange person. They tell you that you are completely free to go. However, if you do go, they will shoot you in the leg as you leave. But, if you don’t leave, you have to promise to do whatever they say. Assume you make that promise. Then one day the person says that they want you to stand up against a wall so they can test out their new rifle. Would you escape if you could?

I think that Socrates is in an analogous situation. Socrates never chose to be born in Athens. It was thrust upon him. Athens was somewhat fair to him, in that they did not force him to stay and abide by their laws. He had the option of moving to a different city-state. However, that choice comes with a very big catch. During his time in Athens, Socrates has acquired many friends (as have his family, who he cares for). These friends were not provided by Athens, but are a natural product of human interaction which Socrates would have acquired had he been born anywhere else. These kinds of social connections are essential to a happy life. I find the prospect of leaving everything I’ve ever known behind terrifying. I would assume that most people would feel the same. Socrates’s implied contractual agreement was not made on fair terms. Had he moved to another city-state, he would have lost much of what makes life worth living.

To be fair, my argument isn’t concrete. It might be the case that Socrates still has obligations to follow the law even if his hand was somewhat forced. However, I think that this factor, along with the fact that a metaphorical contract between a state and an individual is very different from a contract between two persons, can at least give us reason to doubt that Socrates has such obligations.



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