Socrates – Crito, or the Duties of a Citizen

Following his sentence of death, Socrates considers the relationship of the citizen to his country , returning evil for evil and comes to the logical conclusion that the laws of the country are binding to the citizen, and that he should accept his sentence, whatever the cost.

His first problem is considering the contradiction he is living through in a democratic society – in its crudest form, whether you are a wise or foolish person “the multitude may put us to death”. But there seems to be a clear argument against listening to the multitude

We ought not to respect all the opinions of men, but some we should, and others not – Nor yet the opinions of all men, but some we should, and of others not.

Does a man who practices gymnastic exercises … pay attention to the praise and censure of everyone, or of that one man only who happens to be a physician, or teacher of exercise … he ought, therefore, to fear the censures and covet the praises of that one, but not the multitude.

So we should listen to the experts, not the punters. But this raises the question that if Socrates, the “wisest of men” is condemned by the multitude, should he not try to escape their sentence?

This is neatly answered by returning to the objective of life – to live well. And when trying to live well, there are somethings more important than simply living; living honourably and justly.

Justice and democracy

Taking as his starting point that “whether the multitude allow it or not, and whether we must suffer a more severe or or a milder punishment than this, still is injustice on every account both evil and disgraceful to him who commits it”, Socrates shows how the just person will not return evil for evil. In this case, it means obedience to a judgement made within the rules of a society he has chosen to live in, even (or especially) when it means doing something we don’t want to do.

he who does not obey is in three respects guilty of injustice – because he does not obey us who gave him being, and because he does not obey us who nurtured him,and because, having made a compact that he would obey us, he neither does so, nor does he persuade us if we do anything wrongly.

Thought Socrates does not say it, this is one of the difficulties with democracy. Rule of the majority is fine if you are in the majority, but if you are in the minority, suddenly the contract is not so appealing. However, in choosing to be part of a society, there are rules you submit yourself to. Socrates believed he had freely chosen the society he lived in, and benefited from it, so if it chose to put him to death, he had an obligation to accept their ruling in the same way he had accepted their favour.

During the recent sub-prime crisis, there were stories about US banks playing the moral card with clients who found themselves in negative equity. There is a rule in the US that a mortgagee can hand in the keys to their house and walk away, but if everyone did this, the banks argued, society would fall apart. They told their clients they had an obligation to pay the debt, no matter that it made no financial sense (neatly ignoring the fact that they themselves had made a financial decision in making the loan in the first place). That feeling of obligation, of fairness to an institution, is incredibly powerful, and most people prefer to make what they believe to be the moral choice to honour their debt, even when an arguably more sensible option was legally open to them.

The importance of the next world

For Socrates, the contract with the city of Athens was more clear cut. While escape might have been possible (even tacitly encouraged), he felt he had duty to remain and face his sentence. Not least in his concerns was the next world. As in the Apology, escape in this world can be an easy thing, but it must be justified in the next world, and that is a much harder bullet to dodge.

But should you escape, having thus disgracefully returned injury for injury, and evil for evil, having violated your own compacts and conventions which you made with us, and having done evil to those to whom you least of all should have done it-namely yourself, your friends, your country and us-both we shall be indignant with you as long as you live, and there our brothers, the laws in Hades, will not receive you favourably knowing that you attempted, so far as you were able, to destroy us.

So, ultimately, Socrates’ beliefs and actions deriving from them are underpinned by a belief in the afterlife. Death is the one thing we can’t escape, so in life, we should attempt to position ourselves as best we can, whether purifying our soul, or acting in a consistent and honourable way, even if this leads to death.It’s an obvious precursor to the Christian belief that this world is not the important one, that the next world is the eternal one and the rewards there far outweigh anything this current world can offer us.

As with the “Apology“, there are things in which people should not compromise, but the important thing is that these things are those people should choose to believe through their reason. This is a personal truth in the sense that it has been reasoned out by the person holding it, and, importantly, that the person holding it should be constantly willing to accept a challenge and use reason to judge their position against any criticism or argument and to change it if something else is more convincing.

The important and the “merely pleasurable”

Just as importantly, they should be willing to live out the implications of to the fullest extent. In his books helping people achieve effectiveness, Stephen Covey emphasised the difference between what was important and what was “merely urgent”. In the same way, Socrates was aware of the divide between what was important, and what might be termed “merely pleasurable”.

It’s just a shame that the pleasurable is so, well, pleasurable.

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