The Birth of the Social Contract - Plato's "Crito"

Plato's Crito is a most influential piece of work of political philosophy, as Plato introduces the idea of the "social contract." Through the mouth of Socrates, as well as the personified Laws of Athens, he claims that a relationship is had between the state and the citizen that chooses to live there. A relationship which resembles that of a parent and child, and one in which it would be wrong to betray for selfish gain. Either seek to change the laws or choose to leave and live somewhere else. But to stay is to enter into a relationship with the state. 

Crito's Arguments Why Socrates Should Escape 

The setting of the dialogue is in Socrates' jail cell, as his execution is set to happen within the next few days. His friend, named Crito, arrives to try to convince Socrates that he should escape his execution. He is worried that if he does nothing that it will appear to the many that he didn't care about his friend. Crito knew the jail guard and apparently could have gotten Socrates out of there and on a ship with a simple bribe. Socrates says not worry about the opinion of the many, for it really means nothing. Socrates says that he is not staying because it might mean reprisal against his friends. Crito then assures him that if they go to Thessaly that he will have plenty to do and no one will bother him. In fact, why allow the people who are unjustly after Socrates to have their satisfaction? Crito even reminds Socrates that he is leaving behind his children when he should still be educating them. Isn't Socrates a man of virtue? Crito asks him why he is choosing what seems to be the unvirtuous path. 

Socrates responds that he is going to continue to be guided by virtue and be faithful to his constant teachings. He will not be scared by fear of punishment, even if it were worse than it was. Rather, he reminds Crito of previous discussion where they had concluded that its not everyone's opinion that one should take into consideration, but only the opinion of some people, the good and the wise. One should only consider the advice of the learned in the field of the question proposed, as a gymnast should not worry about the opinion of the non-gymnast, but of his coach. Wouldn't it be a shame if someone disregarded the advice of a doctor to the detriment of their body? How much more, Socrates says, to the detriment of one's soul and the nature of justice itself? 

"In questions of just and unjust, fair and unfair, good and bad, which are the subjects of our present discussion, should we follow the opinion of the many and fear them, or instead follow the opinion of the one man who has understanding? Should we not fear and respect him more than all the rest of the world? If we defy him, will we not destroy and injure that principle in us which may be assumed to be improved by justice and worsened by injustice. Is there such a principle?"

People listen to the opinion of the many because they fear punishment and death, but the many's judgment is so capricious that they do not do it with understanding. Rather, Socrates claims that a good and moral life is worth more than simply preserving the life of the body out of fear. Socrates finally admits that if Crito can show him that it would be an act of justice and right to escape, then he will, but Crito's previous excuses are simply out of fear of the many. Socrates then reminds Crito of another previous discussion where they both admitted that to retaliate against another is not an act of justice. Socrates is going to claim that in abandoning the will of the Athens and his trial that he is doing an act of injustice towards the state. 

The Laws of Athens Express Themselves

Socrates then gives a voice to the laws of Athens, themselves, as though they were a person. The laws begin by asking if a state can survive and function if the laws are thrown aside. Isn't Socrates attempting to do just that and attack the state? Of course, someone might reply that Socrates' sentence was unjust and therefore needs to be disobeyed. But the Laws retort, was that our agreement, that you could try to destroy us when you felt like it? The Laws then talk about how they provided the ability of Socrates to be born and raised by his parents, for him to be educated and trained in gymnastics and music. 

"'Well then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you?'" 

The relationship cannot be equal then! The Laws claim that they are a father, or even a master, to him and thus Socrates may not retaliate against them, even if an injustice is done just like one would not attack one's father. How could a man of virtue be justified in doing this? A good son or slave would be required to follow the orders of his father, just as a just citizen is expected to follow the orders of the state. If something is unjust, it is the duty of the citizen to convince the Laws of a new nature of justice and to show where they are wrong, thus changing them, but not to disobey. 

"Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and is higher and far more holy than mother, father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? Also to be soothed, and gently and reverently pleaded to when angry, even more than a father, and either to be persuaded, or if not persuaded, to be obeyed? When we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or lashes, the punishment is to be endured in silence. If she leads us to wounds or death in battle, there we follow, as is the right thing to do. Neither may anyone surrender, retreat or leave his position. Whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him. Otherwise he must change their view of what is just: and, if he may, he must do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country.” 

Finally, the Laws give one other clear option for the man who disagrees with them. Every man who does not like the Laws may choose to leave the state and bring his own goods with him. He is not forced to stay. And so if a man chooses to stay, knowing the nature of the laws, he then enters in a "social contract" with those laws and with that state. "But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the state, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him." The Laws call Socrates out, saying that he has loved Athens all his life, not choosing even to travel very far away from them, choosing at his trial a preference for death over banishment. He could have left long ago, but had chosen to stay his whole life in Athens. Could it really be said that Socrates had not entered in this contract with the state? "The lame, the blind, the maimed were not more stationary than you were." 

Be True to Us, Socrates

In reality, what type of life would Socrates have in another country? The Laws point out the irony of a man preaching virtue and justice who himself committed a grave injustice to preserve himself. Even so, the men in Thessaly have not appetite for those discussions. They will prefer embellishment and eating and drinking. The Laws ask Socrates if he will really give up on virtue for a few extra years of life and a meal? Finally the Laws give on impassioned explanation. 

"For if you do as Crito proposes, neither you nor any that belong to you will be happier or holier or more just in this life, or happier in another. Now you depart in innocence, a victim of harm but not a doer of harm. You are a victim, not of the laws, but of men. But suppose that you leave, returning harm for harm, and injury for injury, breaking the contracts and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least of all to wrong (namely, yourself, your friends, your country, and us). Then we will be angry with you while you live, and our brothers, the laws in the underworld, will receive you as an enemy. For they will know that you have done your best to destroy us. So, listen to us and not to Crito.”

Thus, Socrates makes it clear to Crito that he must stay and accept his execution in order to preserve the justice of the state, even though he himself has experienced injustice of a sort.