A Critique of the Crito and an Argument for Philosophical Anarchism by Forrest Cameranesi
In this essay I will present a summary and critique of Plato’s dialogue Crito, focusing especially on Socrates’ arguments in favor of his obligatory obedience to the Athenian state’s death sentence. In response I will argue the position that no one naturally holds any obligation to obey the arbitrary commands of another (or any body of others such as a state), and further that no one can come to hold such obligations even by contract; although people may still be obligated to obey commands issued to them, when what is commanded is obligatory independent of it being commanded by anyone. Thus I will argue that that if, as both Socrates and Crito presume, the command that Socrates be executed is contrary to true justice (that is, contrary to any natural moral obligations, independent of its legality), then Socrates has no obligation to obey it; and in fact those tasked to carry out the order are morally obligated to disobey it, and by their obedience become conspirators to a moral crime. The dialogue begins with Socrates in prison, awakening to Crito’s presence in his cell, Crito having bribed the guards to gain entry. After brief pleasantries and some talk of when the day of Socrates’ execution will fall, Crito admits to Socrates that his purpose there is to free him from prison and take him abroad to Thessaly, which he assures him can be successfully done thanks to the aid of a number of foreign benefactors. But Socrates is hesitant to leave, believing himself obliged to remain and allow his punishment to be completed, even though his sentence, they both concede, is unjust. Still, Socrates is eager to be convinced otherwise, if Crito can do so by means of reason, and so Crito plies Socrates with many arguments in favor of his escape, arguing not only that it is possible and desirable to escape, and that Socrates could live well outside of Athens, but that it is the just thing to do: for the sake of the welfare of his children, who will suffer without his care; for the sake of standing fast against his enemies in the state of
Athens, who are attempting to wrong him by this sentence; and for the sake of his friends’ reputations, which will be besmirched by those who know neither Socrates nor his friends, and will think that Socrates died only because his friends could not or would not buy his freedom. But Socrates dismisses these arguments, especially the last, arguing at length that the opinions of the many are not a relevant consideration in any such decision; a very important argument, to which I will return later in this essay. For now the relevant point is that Socrates' only concern, in the question of whether or not to escape, is whether or not escaping is just; not what people at large may think of their decision or what other consequences may follow from it. On the topic of justice, and counter to Crito’s argument that Socrates is obliged to fight back against wrongs committed against him, Socrates suggests (and Crito accepts) the principle that to return harm for harm is harmful, to return evil for evil is evil, to return injustice for injustice is unjust, etc.; and thus that such vengeance ought not be perpetrated, for it is just as harmful, evil and unjust as the act being avenged, and one must never do such wrongs. Socrates considers it harmful and unjust to the state to disobey its laws, and feels thus obligated to obey them instead, for to do otherwise would be harmful, unjust, and wrong; and here I disagree with Socrates. Though I accept his principle of justice, that one must not return wrongs in kind for to do so is merely to do more wrong, I do not believe that merely resisting attempted harm to oneself necessarily harms the attacker; and even if the attacker does suffer harm from the resistance it is as a result of his own wrongdoing, not any wrongdoing on the part of the defendant. If someone attempts to strike...
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