Crito

The Socratic dialog Crito powerfully demonstrates two interesting points: the Greek innovation of rationalism, and the nesting of social reasoning inside verbal reasoning.

In the Crito, Socrates is in prison awaiting execution three days hence. His dear friend Crito comes with a plan for escape. With money greasing the right palms, Socrates can be spirited out of Athens to safety. Socrates refuses Crito’s offer. Crito begs him to reconsider. Socrates is amenable to the suggestion, but regrets that he can see no rational justification for escape. He then leads Crito through the logical process that leads inevitably to the conclusion that it would be wrong for Socrates to escape. At the end of the dialog, Crito sadly admits the truth of Socrates’ reasoning.

The power of the dialog comes from its life-and-death battle between reason and emotion. Everybody wants Socrates to live: Crito, Socrates’ friends, his family, Socrates himself, and the reader all share the desperate desire to save this great man. Yet Socrates presents an ironclad argument that it would be wrong for him to save himself by escape. In all of literature, no starker contrast between reason and emotion has ever been drawn. The irresistible force of emotion crashes into the immovable object of reason, and reason triumphs. The moral of the story is crushingly obvious: only by subordinating our desires to reason can we hope to achieve greatness. Crito fomented the Western intense dedication to reason.

We often use the terms
reason and rationalism with insufficient recognition of their precise nature. These two terms are so deeply woven into our culture that we never seek to inquire into what exactly they constitute. In the Crito, we can see exactly what is meant by reason: stringing together long chains of sentences that seem to lead naturally from one to the next. It is the words and their meanings, extended through a long sequence, that prove the case. Socrates says:

“Then the laws will say, ‘Consider, Socrates, if we are speaking truly that in your present attempt you are going to do us an injury. For, having brought you into the world, and nurtured and educated you, and given you and every other citizen a share in every good which we had to give, we further proclaim to any Athenian by the liberty that we allow him, that if he does not like us when he has come of age and has seen the ways of the city, he may go where he pleases and take his goods with him. None of us laws will forbid him or interfere with him.... But he who has experienced the manner in which we provide justice and administer the state, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him... But you, Socrates, are breaking the covenants and agreements that you made with us, not in any haste or under any compulsion or deception, but after you have had seventy years to think of them, during which time you were at liberty to leave the city if our covenants appeared to you to be unfair.... And now you run away and forsake your agreements.’”

The other interesting point in the Crito is the manner in which Socrates counters social reasoning with social reasoning nested inside verbal reasoning. Crito argues Socrates’ social obligations: to his children, to his friends, to his students, to society. Such social-reasoning arguments are impossible to refute using verbal reasoning; how can one rationally weigh the importance of his obligation to raise his children? Such an obligation is an imperative, brooking no compromise. Yet Socrates presents a brilliant response: he anthropomorphizes the laws and asks how is to answer to their demands. How can he now betray the laws under which he has lived his entire life? Escaping now would constitute a betrayal of a social relationship that is more intimate and has extended over a longer time than any of his other social relationships. Clearly, this social relationship must take priority over his other social relationships. It is one of the cleverest arguments I have ever read.

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