24 pages 48 minutes read



Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | BCE

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Summary: Crito

Crito, written by the philosopher Plato, is a dialogue between the famous philosopher Socrates and his friend Crito. This dialogue, which Plato is believed to have published shortly after 399 BCE, is set after the city of Athens has sentenced Socrates to death. Crito takes place after the events of Plato’s Apology, which details Socrates’s defense speech at his trial. Within the corpus of Plato’s many Socratic dialogues, scholars generally group Crito with Euthyphro, Apology, and Phaedo, all of which are set at the end of Socrates’s life. As Socrates left no writings of his own, Crito and other Socratic dialogues by Plato, who was Socrates’s student, are important records of both Socrates’s and Plato’s philosophies.

The edition that this guide references is Plato: Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Second Edition, translated by G. M. A. Grube and revised by John M. Cooper (Hackett, 2002). Please note that this guide uses a citation system, specific to Plato’s dialogues, called Stephanus numbers. These consist of numbers and letters that refer to pages of Plato’s dialogues across all standard editions and translations—they frequently appear in the left and right margins, running alongside the text.

As the dialogue opens, Socrates, who has been sentenced to death, awaits execution in prison. The city of Athens has sent a ship to Delos for an unrelated religious mission, and they have postponed Socrates’s execution until the ship returns. Socrates’s longtime friend Crito comes to the prison to bring news that the ship from Delos will arrive tomorrow, making tonight Socrates’s last chance to escape. Socrates says that he had a prophetic dream and thinks he has an additional day. Crito desperately wants Socrates to escape, saying that others will think poorly of him if he does not help his friend flee from prison. Socrates replies that the opinion of the majority is unimportant. He asks Crito, “Why should we care so much for what the majority think?” (44d). Crito points out that it was the majority who sentenced Socrates to death in the first place.

Crito and other friends of Socrates are willing to spend money and risk themselves to help Socrates avoid execution. Crito thinks that by letting himself die, Socrates is acting as a coward rather than as a virtuous man. He says, “You seem to me to choose the easiest path, whereas one should choose the path a good and courageous man would choose” (45d), implying that a courageous man would choose to save his own life. Likewise, all of Socrates’s friends would be cowards to neglect their friend and let him die. Socrates says, “Not only now but at all times I am the kind of man who listens to nothing within me but the argument that on reflection seems best to me” (46b). He means that they must examine whether Crito’s plan of escape is morally correct. They begin by evaluating whether “one should greatly value some people’s opinions, but not others” (46d).

To answer the question, Socrates proposes a hypothetical situation. If someone is engaged in fitness, they should pay attention only to the opinion of a doctor or other fitness expert. Would they not harm themselves if they listened to the majority opinion over that of the expert? Crito agrees, and they decide that an expert opinion is the worthiest. Socrates develops the argument by suggesting that just as someone might harm themselves if they listen to the wrong opinion regarding fitness, they might also harm themselves if they listen to the wrong opinion concerning justice. Crito and Socrates agree that if the part of them that justice serves were harmed or corrupted, life would not be worth living. They note, however, that although the majority opinion is often wrong, it is powerful. It has the power to put people to death. In response, Socrates introduces a new thesis for evaluation: “The most important thing is not life, but the good life” (48b). Socrates suggests that money, reputation, and even the welfare of his children are unimportant compared to being a good person.

Socrates adds that suffering wrong from someone else is no excuse for doing wrong. He says, “Neither to do wrong nor to return a wrong is correct, nor is doing harm in return for harm done” (49d). Socrates tells Crito that, even though his death sentence was unjust, escaping would be equivalent to wronging the city. Crito is unsure, so Socrates makes his point by personifying the laws of the city of Athens. The laws ask Socrates, “Do you not by this action you are attempting intend to destroy us, the laws, and indeed the whole city, as far as you are concerned?” (50a-b). They mean to ask whether Socrates wants to disregard (and thereby harm) the city and her laws by escaping. According to the laws, they have done much on Socrates’s behalf, including supporting his family and educating him, and in this way Socrates is like their child or their servant.

If Socrates is like a child to the city’s laws then, by harming them, he acts contrary to morality and religion. The laws say, “It is impious to bring violence to bear against your mother or father; it is much more so to use it against your country” (51c). After all, the laws say, Socrates agreed to live under their protection for his entire life. If Socrates believes the laws to be wrong, he should convince the city to change them rather than simply ignore them. In addition, the laws note that Socrates did not take the opportunity during his trial to propose an alternative to execution—not even exile. Crito agrees that Socrates essentially pledged to follow Athenian law by choosing to remain in the city and enjoy the advantages of citizenship.

Socrates adds that, if he leaves, he will put his friends in danger of exile, disenfranchisement (losing their voting rights), and losing their property. Socrates himself would be an enemy of the state, and he likely would be unhappy living anywhere else. Also, Socrates’s children would be better off in Athens receiving a proper education with the support of his friends, even if Socrates himself is dead. The laws tell Socrates to value goodness above all else, saying, “Do not value either your children or your life or anything else more than goodness” (54b). The laws tell him that, if he escapes, he will be harming “yourself, your friends, your country, and us” (54c). Crito has no response to this line of argument, and so Socrates rests his case, deciding that he should not escape.