Plato’s Dialogue Crito: Should Socrates Have Escaped His Execution?

Plato’s Crito discusses whether Socrates should have fled before his execution. Was Socrates' decision to stay and die just?

Feb 14, 2024By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
plato crito socrates execution


The Crito is one of Plato’s best-known dialogues. This work is set just before Socrates’ infamous execution. The discussion it contains is, at certain points, personal; and yet is thoroughly concerned with understanding the relationship between the individual and the state. In particular, it explores the reasons why Socrates wanted to stay within the state and be executed rather than escape and live as an exile.


The Relationship Between Plato and Socrates

socrates louvre marble statue
Socrates, Lysippos, 1st Century AD (copy). Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Crito is one of many dialogues which Plato wrote with Socrates as the main protagonist. It is especially important to account for the relationship between Socrates and Plato when looking at dialogues that are bound up in the actual events of Socrates’ life, such as the Crito. There is no clear consensus on said relationship, but it might be helpful to give a picture of the conventional story in any case.


The standard story is that Plato was a student of Socrates and was deeply influenced by his philosophy and teachings. Plato’s dialogues, which are the primary source of our knowledge about Socrates, depict him as a wise and enigmatic figure who was deeply committed to the pursuit of truth and virtue, because that is how Plato saw him.


Plato was a young man when he first encountered Socrates, and he quickly became one of his most devoted disciples. He was present at many of the philosopher’s famous dialogues or heard about them from a reliable source, and he recorded his ideas and teachings in his own writings. Plato saw Socrates as a model of the ideal philosophical life and was inspired by his commitment to questioning assumptions and pursuing knowledge. After Socrates’ death, Plato continued to develop his ideas and teachings, building on the foundation laid by his mentor and friend.


Socrates and the Athenian State

odeon athens engraving
The Odeon Athens, Joseph Pennell, 1913. Source: The National Gallery of Art

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The Crito is set after Socrates’ trial, in which he is condemned to death. Socrates was charged with impiety (not believing in the gods of the state) and corrupting the youth of Athens. These charges were brought against him by some of his fellow citizens who were angered by his questioning of traditional beliefs and practices. Socrates was brought to trial and found guilty by a jury of 500 Athenians.


The punishment for his crimes was death by drinking hemlock, a poison made from a plant of the same name. The sentence was not enacted at once due to a convention by which no one could be executed until the Athenian state galley returned from a religious voyage it undertook once a year.


Crito, one of Socrates’ closest friends, visits Socrates while the latter is in prison to inform him that the return of the galley is imminent and to attempt to persuade him to flee. The dialogue begins with a touching exchange of greetings, in which it becomes clear that Crito has been in attendance for several hours but waited to avoid waking Socrates.


Socrates presents from the outset an apparent resignation to die, calling attention to his age in order to justify this disposition (indeed, to suggest that it is only appropriate). This suggests that the disagreement which is to unfold has some history, and that Socrates knows why Crito has come to see him.


Crito’s Plea to Socrates 

plato by luca giordano
Plato, Giordano Luca, 1660. Source: WikiArt


Crito begins, perhaps partly in response to this resignation, with an appeal not to Socrates’ own self-interest but to that of Crito and his friends. He notes that if Socrates were not to accept their offer of aid, then it would seem as though they were more afraid of the consequences of helping Socrates than they wanted to see him released. As the consequences would likely be financial, this gives the impression of Crito and his friends as greedy and as valuing money over friendship.


Socrates’ response is self-consciously ironic, given that his punishment has been passed down by a democratic government: “My good Crito, why should we care so much for what the majority think?” When Crito makes the very point that Socrates’ own predicament is a result of majority opinion, Socrates suggests that the majority only ever make their decisions ‘haphazardly,’ suggesting that there is little point in even trying to assuage them.


jack louis david death of socrates
The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, 1787. Source: The Met Museum


Crito reiterates how willing he is to take any consequence that might come his way as a result of helping Socrates, before raising a second objection to Socrates’ decision to remain in prison. Namely, that by doing so Socrates would be doing a disservice to his dependents, and in particular, to his sons, whose future would become far less certain and whose education needs to be completed. Crito suggests that Socrates is lacking in courage and has chosen the easiest path.


Socrates responds by insisting that they must examine the case for staying and for fleeing based on reflective discussion, as he has spent his life doing. First of all, he pursues the idea of the majority verdict, using the analogy of an athlete’s relationship with their trainer to illustrate how the opinion of one might trump the opinion of everyone else in certain matters. The power of the majority over life and death does not, in Socrates’ view, change things, for it is the good life, not merely life, that is at issue.


This, as with many parts of this dialogue, seems a little argumentatively shaky. Is the idea that a bad life (one which involves fleeing ignominiously) is worse than death? Does that conclusion follow from the assertion that a good life is what matters, not life as such?


Would it Have Been Just For Socrates to Escape?

centro médico plato statue
Statue of Plato in the Centro Médico Nacional Siglo XXI. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In any case, Socrates now turns to the question of whether or not it is really just for him to attempt to escape. He wonders with Crito whether goodness, as they have previously discussed it, is to be rethought given the severity of the circumstances.


Socrates moves on to the question of wrongdoing and has Crito agree that wrongdoing is never justified, not even in response to some further wrong having been done. Socrates emphasizes how few people actually manage to hold this view.


The point of establishing this is the suggestion that Socrates follows it with. Namely, that by refusing to accede to the demands of the Athenian state, he is nullifying the power of that state and undermining its capacity to function (“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? Or do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of its courts have no force but are nullified and set at naught by private individuals?”).


Socrates’ debt to the city is established in light of what he owes it in terms of his upbringing, sustenance, and protection throughout his life.


What we establish here is a certain kind of argument in favor of obedience to the state, which, though stated somewhat differently, is rather similar to the ‘social contract’ arguments which became exceptionally popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and still have real currency today among political theorists.


The Authority of the State 

athenian acropolis photograph
Athenian Acropolis photograph, 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Arguments such as the one proposed by Socrates attempt to justify the authority of the state in terms of the contract that they strike with their citizens. These theories posit a principle of agreement as the central justification of the state and given that such an agreement cannot be established before one is born, and so begins to enjoy the benefits of state authority, there must be the suggestion of a kind of hypothetical agreement.


The specific nature of these arguments is not of interest to us here. It is rather the pattern of reasoning that attempts to draw a near-absolute obligation to obey the authority of the state due to the benefits conferred by it that is striking:


“You would not have dwelt here most consistently of all the Athenians if the city had not been exceedingly pleasing to you. You have never left the city, even to see a festival, nor for any other reason except military service; you have never gone to stay in any other city, as people do; you have had no desire to know another city or other laws; we and our city satisfied you. So decisively did you choose us and agree to be a citizen under us.”


There is a more subtle argument being made here. When giving voice to the Athenian state, Socrates has them observe that, rather than giving “savage commands,” it provides “two alternatives, either to persuade us or to do what we say. He does neither.” The point here, presumably, is that in a participatory system, he who has failed to persuade his peers—the 500 who tried Socrates—is bound up in the obligation to do what those peers decide. Here we can say that truth and right in such a system is malleable insofar as it is partly a matter of the persuasive power of those who constitute it with their participation.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.