Does Socrates Contradict Himself? An in-depth look at The Apology and The Crito
Plato’s works are a compilation of conversations that Socrates, an instructor of philosophy, has with other individuals. In two of Plato’s dialogues, The Apology and The Crito, an inference can be made that there is a contradiction between the two. In the Apology, Socrates states that he will “Obey God rather than man,” if he was asked to give up philosophy, but in the Crito, when he has been sentenced to death, he states that the laws must be adhered to even though they seem unjust for him. Within this context there will be an in depth look at the two dialogues to see how he does not contradict himself with these statements.
In the Apology, Plato recounts the trial of Socrates where he is condemned to death. He was accused of corrupting the youth and of being an atheist. Here, Socrates puts forth his arguments as to why he has not broken the Athenian law. He contests that he has not corrupted the youth any more than any other Athenian citizen, and that he does believe in God. He even states that he has gone to see the oracle of Delphi. Moreover, Socrates states that if practicing philosophy makes him guilty, then the courts should put him to death or acquit him because he will never stop his pursuit of wisdom. He propounds, “Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy” (Apology 29d). This has been interpreted that if the court would have ordered him to stop practicing philosophy, he would have been defiant.
In Contrast, The Crito by Plato suggest that Socrates believed that the citizens of a state should obey that State’s laws. In this dialogue, Socrates is speaking with his friend Crito. Crito is trying to convince Socrates to escape to a different state where he would be well taken care of, but Socrates does not acquiesce to his friend’s request. Crito argues that if he doesn’t escape the consequences will affect his loved ones and that his death would be unjust. The “many” will see his (Socrates) friends as not having done anything when they could have. Another point that he makes is that having a bad reputation with the “many” is a bad thing and he points out Socrates current circumstances.
Socrates counters this by asserting that not everybody’s opinion is important. The important opinion belongs to the wise man or the expert relevant in that field, because that opinion is what corresponds to reality. What matters is not how things appear, but how they really are. From these arguments spring forth the reasons why he is unwilling to break the laws of the State.
He puts forth this premise of agreement that if a citizen decides to live within a State, then there is this implicit agreement to follow the laws of that State. The alternative is that if the people do not agree with the laws, they can leave. If they do not leave, they must then adhere to the laws. Secondly, Socrates argues that breaking the law would result in the destruction of the law in Athens. If everyone went around breaking the laws, it would be as if one were causing self-injury and he has posited that no one knowingly causes injury to one’s own self. The third argument states that one benefits from the State so that individual has a duty to obey, just as one obeys their parents, one must obey the State since they are responsible for their parents and are in a sense like their parents.
With all of that being said, Socrates is not contradicting himself when he states, in the Apology, that he would “Obey God rather than man,” and in the Crito that it is unjust to break the laws of the state. With this comes the understanding, though, that most of the dialogues about Socrates must be looked at within the context of the situations being depicted and the author of said dialogues. Unfortunately, as far as anyone knows, Socrates never published any of his writings.
All that one can know of Socrates comes from his contemporaries who wrote about him like Plato, Xenophon, and the plays by Aristophanes. For this argument, the focus will be in the works of Plato. Plato was a student of Socrates and is one of the main sources of knowledge when it comes to Socrates. It’s sometimes hard to tell in the dialogues if what’s being said by Socrates is something he would say or think, or if it’s just Plato using Socrates as a mouthpiece to get his point across. For the argument of whether Socrates is contradicting himself or not, the assumption will be that Socrates believed these things.
First is the Apology. Throughout the dialogue, Socrates is making his argument for why he hasn’t broken the law. His accusers state that he is corrupting the youth and refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state and introducing other new divinities. Socrates begins with bringing up old accusers to make the point that there is already prejudice set against him. The Athenians saw him as a threat. He goes through his points and makes his arguments and in the end, he is sentenced to death. Most attribute it to what he said his penalty should be, free meals at the Prytaneum. This of course angered the jurors and they sentenced him to death. He also stated that if the penalty would have been for him to quit his pursuits in philosophy, he would rather die, as he felt he was tasked by the God of the Oracle of Delphi to pursue wisdom and he feels that is what his purpose is. God’s authority superseded that of the State.
Leading into the next dialogue is the conversation between Crito and Socrates. Socrates chooses not to leave when he had the opportunity, because he deems it as unjust. One might think this contradicts his statements of only doing what God wants him to do rather than what the people would want him to do, because God surely doesn’t want one of his disciples to die when he has been tasked with such an important mission as Socrates has.
Socrates believed that he was given this task from the God of the oracle of Delphi to seek wisdom and to prove that those that claim to have wisdom, know nothing at all. God was the ultimate authority, but this doesn’t mean that Socrates believed he should go against what the State has said is Just. For Socrates, he follows this argument with three considerations. First, one must never do wrong. (Crito 49a-b), second, one must never return wrong for wrong. (Crito 49d), and third, one ought to obey the laws of the city. (Crito 51).
Going through these points one can see that he believes that if he did escape, he would be doing a great harm. He illustrates this by personifying the Law itself and what the “laws” would say. According to him, he would have wronged the Laws in three ways and that would be: 1) Disobeying a superior, 2) Breaking a just agreement, and 3) Forcing instead of persuading.
The point of contention is where he states in the courts that he would obey God rather than man if given the option that he would live if he quit philosophy. Later in the Crito he is stating that he would not defy the state. This is where context is important. Socrates was a man who did not believe in bringing injustice upon others and although he felt that his purpose was given to him by God to seek wisdom there is also this hierarchy of authority that he followed. Yes, he would continue to follow his pursuit of philosophy in lieu of the consequences, but that does not mean he would go against what was Just in the eyes of the law because that would than make him a hypocrite.
Socrates understood this and accepted his fate as it was. At the time of his passing, he was 70 years old and had lived his whole life in Athens. If at any point he did not like how things were done, he could have left, but he didn’t. He stayed. So, as was stated before, he entered into this implicit agreement with the State and accepted everything that goes along with that. He is staying true to himself by not giving up philosophy, but also accepting the consequences as they are. He understands that the people who passed their judgment were not Just in their harsh punishment, but he understood the consequences for his actions. He was practicing what he was preaching and this, again, goes back to not how things appear, but how they really are.
In conclusion, Socrates knew he ruffled a few feathers and instead of running away as he could have, he stayed and faced the consequences of his actions, not only to stay true to himself, but to set an example as well. Socrates was a man who thought that he must accept and suffer unjust punishment so that people will see the absurdity of what they are doing. He is not contradicting himself with his statements from the Apology and what is later stated in the Crito. He is doing what he believes to be correct and virtuous and for him that was all that mattered.