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Artwork by Catherine Craig

Imagine a friend you have had since childhood has been tried, convicted, and now will be executed for a crime he did not commit. Now imagine that you have the means for him to escape and can provide a safe passage for him. Seems like an easy decision. Now, however, imagine that you have spent most of your time together discussing how it is better to suffer injustice than commit it, and have watched him persuade countless others of the same opinion. Now imagine that your friend is Socrates.

In Plato’s Crito, Socrates must find a way to persuade his friend Crito that the best course of action is for him to stay in jail. Perhaps more importantly, he must find a way to console his friend prior to his death.  For as Crito says, Socrates’s death will be a great misfortune, as he “will …. lose a friend the like[s] of whom [he’ll] never find again”(44b).  Further, Crito despairs that Socrates’s death will be all of their faults, for his friends, “didn’t save [him] nor did [he] save himself”(46a).

Crito prefaces the conversation by declaring to Socrates that his death is imminent, for the ship that sails to Delos every year, commemorating the mythical victory of Theseus  over the Minotaur, has returned and so the current stay of executions will be lifted.  The myth describes how Minos, the King of Crete, consecrated his rule by asking for and receiving a sign from Poseidon, a beautiful white bull.  The bull, however, was too beautiful to be sacrificed as Minos had promised, and so Minos sacrificed another beast in its stead. To punish him, Posiedon made Minos’s wife also fall in love with the bull, and eventually she gave birth to the Minotaur, a monstrous combination of a man and a bull, who annually snacked on beautiful young men and women. Theseus, credited with unifying Athens, was also credited with killing the monster.  Recollecting this great day, Athens sent an annual tribute to Delos, the birth place of Apollo and the god of music, poetry and beauty.

Part of Socrates’s argument as to why he must stay in jail, centers around what he owes to the city of Athens. Personifying the laws of the city, he engages in a dialogue with them, and the Laws point out that not only does Socrates owe his birth and upbringing  to them, but he has also tacitly agreed to their system of justice and laws, for rather than leaving or persuading them that another system is better, he was content to live under their rules, even defending them in battle.  Without saying anything, Socrates assented to the logos or the reasons of the city.

Just as Minos then has a pact with Poseidon, so Socrates has a pact with Athens.  Also like Minos, however,  Crito is too attached to the particularly beautiful person he loves to allow him to be sacrificed. The beauty that Minos loved in the bull is necessarily tarnished when its affect on his wife are revealed.  The son that Minos’s impiety gives birth to is a monster who eats the other children of his city. Socrates must show Crito that his love of Socrates would give birth to similarly monstrous results. Doing so, however, requires that Crito take the myth seriously.  It requires reminding Crito that words and ideas have as much weight as a man’s body.

Socrates begins by asking Crito whether some words or ideas have more weight or value than other, in other words, as we might say, whether all opinions are relative. Crito is forced to admit that the words of one who knows are of more worth than one who doesn’t. After all, if you happened to get a pen stuck in your eye, you would want to listen to a doctor rather than plumber. In this instance, it would seem that words and ideas can have a serious impact on the body.

But if words or the logos can impact the body (and, after all, it is the logos of the jury that has determined that Socrates must die), then wouldn’t we have to consider the weight of other ephemeral things as well? If words amd ideas can have an impact on the body, then what might be their effect on the soul? Or as Socrates asks, what is the worth of  ideas about the unjust and just? Are “our lives … worth living when [our soul] the part of us that’s maimed by what’s unjust and benefited by what’s just is seriously damaged”(47e)?

Crito’s concerns are ultimately of the same nature. For as he notes, who will be there to take care of education of Socrates’s children’s (45d)? Who will teach them about what is just and unjust? Unspoken but also at the heart of Crito’s position is the question of who will take care of his soul, helping him see what is just and unjust, once his friend is gone.  Socrates may have a pact with the logos, but he surely owes something to the particular people he loves and who love him.

Answering this point of Crito’s claims, the Socrates has the Laws respond, saying, “As for those arguments about justice and the rest of virtue, where … will they be?” And then immediately continue, asking, “Is it that you want to live for your children’s sake”(54a)? In one way, the Laws suggest that Socrates’s true children are his arguments. And if Socrates were to turn against them now and unjustly escape, he would certainly be deserting them.

At the same time, however, Socrates uses this argument to remind Crito of the pacts that he has made in the long course of his friendship with Socrates.  For as the Laws note, Socrates need not fear for his children, for “your friends will take care of them”(54b). Socrates did not conceive and give birth to these ideas about justice on his own. As he says in the Theatetus, he is merely a midwife to the ideas of others. The children that are his ideas, have been conceived among Socrates and all of his friends. And just like,other parents, who have been jointly involved in the birth children, all of his friends, including Crito, have a responsibility to ensure that the arguments, the logos, is taken care of.  Socrates gently reminds Crito, that these ideas are the product of his own soul, and that he has a responsibility to both them and himself to ensure that they flourish in the world.  Only by doing this, will Crito,  as well as Socrates, be able to care of Crito’s soul.

Further, Socrates indicates, his physical children will of course be taken care of. For he has no fear that his friends will not take care of their physical well-being, for surely this is, as Crito has indicated, the most obvious kind of care that they need, Just as important, however, is that these children become friends with their siblings—the ephemeral but no less real off-spring of the logos, and ensuring this is no less Crito’s responsibility—something he tacitly consented to in his ephemeral love of Socrates.  It is only in this way, Phaedo suggests in the dialogue named after him, that we can understand that Socrates saves them and was himself saved.