- Socrates says he would break a law if it were at odds with what he understands to be his directive from the god. (29 c-d) From Socrates’ defense speech:[I]f you said to me in this regard: “Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die;” if, as I say, you were to acquit me on those terms, I would say to you: “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….”At times it seems Plato wrote the Crito to walk back from this claim and show Socrates as a law-abiding citizen. (All quotes from the translation by G.M.A. Grube)
How to reconcile the conclusion of the Crito and the claim in the Apology? Can they be reconciled? I think they can, at least to a certain extent, since Socrates’/Plato’s inability to use a particular word in the Crito provides a clue on how to look at the two. During the discussion on the opinion of many men versus an expert, Socrates establishes that the opinion of an expert (doctor or trainer) would be most beneficial over the opinion of many men for an athlete. When Socrates asks what part of the athlete would be harmed by ignoring an expert and listening to the ignorant many, Crito responds “Obviously the harm is to his body, which it ruins.” This is the perfect set-up (of course) for Socrates’ next point. He expands the discussion beyond athletics, focusing on the matter at hand—whether to escape or not—which involves “actions just and unjust, shameful and beautiful, good and bad”. If, Socrates notes, we do not follow the advice of an expert (if one exists) in these matters “we shall harm and corrupt that part of ourselves that is improved by just actions and destroyed by unjust actions.” OK, that a long description for one word, but maybe he’s just making a point by spelling it out. Socrates still cannot name “that part of ourselves” when he and Crito agree life is not “worth living for us with that part of us corrupted that unjust action harms and just action benefits”. They further agree that “that part of us, whatever it is, that is concerned with justice and injustice,” is more valuable than the body. (47c-48a)
Why doesn’t Socrates or Plato use the word “soul” here? They describe it several times without actually using the word. They can’t say it because “the best possible state of your soul” was part of Socrates’ defense in the Apology (see 29e and 30b for a couple of uses of the phrase). Socrates would ignore any ruling keeping him from practicing philosophy because doing so would be contrary to the oracle and the care for his soul. Following the law, the conclusion of the Crito, becomes a general rule of thumb rather than an absolute directive. To be fair, Socrates seems to think following the law and caring for the soul would lead to the same action or conclusion most of the time. His dance around the word “soul”, though, makes it clear he believes there can be a higher law than that promulgated by the city.
If this is a correct reading, then the next question revolves around the real reason Socrates stayed in Athens. The reasoning he went through with Crito could form part of his motive to stay. Or his arguments in the dialogue could be intended mostly for Crito so he could respond to the opinion that he valued his own money over his friend. In either case, Socrates did stay and did die. Given the emphasis on following the law in the Apology and his separation regarding the justness of the laws (as compared to the justness of his verdict) in the Crito, Socrates seems to think obedience to the laws are important, maybe not as important as the care of the soul, though. But there seems to be something else going on, on his own part and/or through Plato. Ah, well, I'll take a look at some of the other problem areas in another post and see if anything could help explain the reason for staying...