In Plato’s work, Crito, the judgment that Socrates makes with regard to his own fate is in accordance with his character, the moral principles and virtues he has preached throughout his life, and the role he has established for himself in his relations and responsibilities to others and the state. In this regard, it is only fitting that his actions are in sync with his thoughts, speech and his position so that it reinforces the depth and scope of his belief and value system, bolsters his reputation and credibility, and signals to the public the flaws of the political and judicial system. It also serves to shed light on his true intentions on the grounds that his death will not be in vain if it encourages learning, the pursuit of goodness, the accumulation of virtues, and higher moral understanding. Throughout his life, he was an example of someone who constantly aimed for moral perfection and, to that end, that even in his death he did not abandon his beliefs is the best indicator of the strength of his character and philosophy. In this respect, the basis and content of his beliefs is reinforced by the moral choice he made to adhere to his previous claims and reinforces his integrity because his actions and practices reflect his regard and devotion to the ultimate calling of reason, truth and goodness.
Socrates justifies his decision to accept the verdict of the jury because of his faith in and loyalty to the state, and by extension its institutions and laws. With regard to the personification of the laws to highlight the reasons why Socrates has to obey the law, his arguments are forceful and cannot be brushed aside. He begins by stating that disobeying the law would be equivalent to destroying the state by propagating chaos. The social, political, moral structure and fabric of the state would be undermined and the effectiveness of the laws put into question, if the supremacy of the laws which gives sanctions and defines the state, face the possible threat of being dismissed and if exemptions were to be made. The validity and strength of this claim is predicated on the concept of a state as a pre-existing entity that supersedes other factors such as human relationships and responsibilities to the self as well as others. This in turn makes it problematic to take into account changes and makes exceptions to amend the law code in special cases such as this.
It is necessary to correct and ratify laws which take into account the holes and inconsistencies before it is passed because the punishments that are issued have to fit the nature of the crime. The fact that changes or exceptions to the rule of law is not accounted for in Socrates’ argument makes it weak because it entails that rule of law is absolute. In this case, it seems the verdict is predetermined even if the due process of the law courts is fair. In this way, a state should modify its laws if it does not prove to be coherent, accountable and fair in its clauses or treatment of individuals who are brought to court. The ultimate authority of the law is derived from the belief that the system as defined by the law, court system, and the roles of judges and jury is issuing the verdict are concomitant with justice. It rests on the premise that they fulfil their duties by being honest, upright citizens, and respectful of the law prior to deliberating over the verdict. The process and outcome of the trial have to be fair and complement one another in order to be successful. However, the unfolding of the outcomes in terms delineated through Socrates’ argument and the law courts seems excessive, on the basis of the rationales Socrates uses to justify why he should obey the law and the motivations that might have influenced the jury to call for the death penalty.
Moreover, the analogy that Socrates utilizes to portray and justify his loyalty to the state and why he must submit to the dictates of the law even at the expense of his own life, is characterized as being parallel to one between parent and child. The role of the state is designated as being responsible for the birth and upbringing by nurturing and sustaining the child so that in the course of time, the child develops and grows to be a good and productive citizen. In return for the provision of nurture and sustenance by the state, the child incurs certain obligations to the state and is responsible for acting in accordance with and respecting the interests of the state. The citizen is therefore loyal and dutiful to the state as the laws proclaim the individual has to simultaneously fulfil the roles of the child and slave to the state.
In addition, the incentive of the citizens to fulfil the duties underlined in the social contract is greater as individuals possess the moral freedom to either accept or reject it when claiming citizenship when one is more mature and is able to accept the conditions stipulated in the contract. The responsibilities of the individual are therefore implicitly tacit, binding, and predetermined by the fact that he had the choice to move to another city, but chose to stay. He is therefore subject to the proclamation of the law and willingly obeys the law, on the grounds that his obedience stems from the idea that “it is naturally unjust to disobey an agreement”i (Plato 92). He cannot violate the contract because it was aware of the terms he entered into at the time; he knew there would be negative repercussions he would have to face if he failed to uphold his responsibilities. He had been a citizen of Athens for 70 years, had spent more time than most there and indicated his patriotic feelings by leaving only when called for military service. This is especially relevant in this case because his social contract was further constrained by the fact that it tied his service to the state, meaning he would suffer more stringent repercussions if he decided to escape. This may have been because he was seen as the benchmark against which to measure moral uprightness and cultivate a sense of ethical standard in the community. For this reason, Socrates faces the prospect of “being one of the most guilty of he decides to escape”ii (Plato 92).
The fact that he chose to subordinate his moral freedom for the sake of upholding conventional law indicates a highly developed sense of commitment to the state and the desire to fulfil those obligations by exhibiting righteousness and self-restraint by curbing the role of emotions in the decision-making process. He is authentic to his beliefs throughout because he had two alternatives; either persuade them to change their minds, which he tried to do by advocating the superiority of reason; but since he failed, he is compelled to do as the law commands”iii (Plato 92). Nevertheless, Socrates manages to preserve his reputation because he suffers at the wrong done by fellow men rather than by the law.
However, the tendency toward absolutism that prevails in this dialogue underscores why the dichotomies that are a product of the way we think and reason are essentially flawed and problematic, in that they distort our capacity to understand the world. It is our natural propensity toward dualistic thinking in our construction of categories and language that prevents us from grasping complexities. It also limits us in being able to process information and make sense of reality through our use of the categories established by language. In contrast, Gilligan advocates for a system of ethics based on relinquishing of moral dichotomies which has traditionally dominated our ability to make judgments about the world around us. She favours substituting them with “a feeling for the complexity and the multifaceted character of real people and real situations”iv (Gilligan 639). This approach is more comprehensive in acknowledging the limitations we are subject to in our capacity to understand the world around us. It is easier then to embrace the limitations posed by any decision we arrive at, and explain the unresolved issues that remain as part of the flaw that restrict our ability to rationalize about all things in the universe. As in Socrates’ case, sometimes it is better to admit not knowing.
The Last Days of Socrates. Plato. Translated by Hugh Tredennick. Penguin Classics. 2003. New York, U.S.A.
Problems from Philosophy. Rachels, James. Mc-Graw-Hill. 2005. New York, U.S.A.
In a Different Voice. Gilligan, Carol. Harvard University Press. 1982. Massachusetts, U.S.A.
iThe Last Days of Socrates. Plato. Translated by Hugh Tredennick. Penguin Classics. 2003. New York, U.S.A.
ivIn a Different Voice. Gilligan, Carol. Harvard University Press. 1982. Massachusetts, U.S.A.