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Ethics Study Guide: Socrates in the Apology and Crito, page 2


In Plato’s Apology, Socrates alludes to the fact that he had been commanded to participate in the Thirty’s acts of terror, and had refused. (The Thirty tried to involve as many citizens as posisble in their own wrongdoing, so that such citizens, fearing reprisals if the Thirty were overthrown, would become stronger supporters of the regime.) Many have supposed that Socrates’ status as Critias’ teacher was one of the reasons for the charges against him. After the Thirty were overthrown and democracy restored, an amnesty was declared, so that no one could be condemned for anything they did before that time; so Socrates could not be explicitly charged with responsibility for Critias’ character, but nevertheless his association with Critias (as with Alcibiades) might be in the jurors’ minds as evidence that Socrates was indeed guilty of corrupting the youth. If so, then Socrates’ reference to the Thirty is his attempt to show that, despite his connection to its leaders, he was not in sympathy with the regime.

Many have been puzzled over an apparent contradiction between the Apology and its sequel, the Crito. In the Crito -- one of the earliest styatements of the social-contract theory of obligation -- Socrates appears to argue that one should always obey the law, even when the law is unjust. Yet in the Apology, Socrates says that divine laws take precedence over human ones, and notes that he himself disobeyed the order of the Thirty to arrest Leon of Salamis, and would likewise disobey an order to cease philosophizing, were he given one, on the grounds that both commands are unjust. I don’t think this is a genuine contradiction, however. We know from the Gorgias that Socrates believes one must absolutely always avoid committing injustice, but there is no analogous obligation to avoid suffering injustice. So he could consistently hold that one should obey laws that require one to suffer injustice, but should disobey laws that require one to commit injustice. And this is indeed his position. For in the Apology, the laws he announces he would break are commands to commit injustice (since it was unjust to arrest Leon, and it would be unjustbto disobey the Oracle’s command to philosophize); but he says one should always obey one’s human superior so long as doing so does not involve disobeying a divine superior or doing something wrong, so even in the Apology he is committed to obeying laws that merely require him to suffer injustice. Likewise, in the Crito, Socrates is committed to obeying the command to suffer injustice (i.e., to let himself be executed), but he says clearly that one should never commit injustice, so even in the Crito he is committed to disobeying any law that required him to commit injustice. (The obligation to keep one’s agreements is likewise qualified by the stipulation that the agreements be just.)

Study Questions

1. In the Apology: What is Socrates’ argument for holding that the Oracle of Delphi was right to say that there was no one wiser than Socrates? (20 c-23 b)

2. Why does Socrates interpret the Oracle’s answer as a command to live the philosophical life?

3. How does Socrates argue that Meletus is frivolously pretending to be concerned with something he’s never really thought about? (24 c-25 c)

4. How does Socrates argue that he would not have intentionally corrupted the youth of Athens? (25 c-26 a)

5. How does Socrates argue that Meletus cannot consistently accuse Socrates of atheism? (26 a-28 a)

6. What is Socrates’ first argument for not fearing death? (28 b-29 b)

7. Why does Socrates think that it would be immoral for him to obey an order to stop philosphizing? (29 b-30 b)

8. How does Socrates argue that he has not corrupted the youth? (33 d-34 b)

9. Why does Socrates refuse to beg the court for mercy? (34 b-35 b)

10. Why does Socrates deserve free meals in the Prytaneum for life? (36 b-e)

11. Why does Socrates refuse to suggest a penalty that would be bad for him? (37 a-c)

12. Why does Socrates refuse to suggest exile as a penalty? (37 c-38 a)

13. What is Socrates’ second argument for not fearing death? (39 e-40 c)

14. What is Socrates’ third argument for not fearing death? (40 c-41 c)

15. In the Crito: What is Socrates’ argument for holding that he and Crito should not worry about their reputation among the masses? (44 c-48 d)

16. How does Socrates argue that escaping from prison would contribute to the undermining of the state? (50 a-b) Is he right?

17. What are Socrates’ arguments (he has two -- one based on the idea of an implicit contract, and one based on an analogy between state and parent) that he is not justified in harming the city even in self-defense? (49 e-54 d) Is he right? [Note: his claim that one should never injure anyone is not by itself his argument for not harming the city, because “injure” is here being used in the strict legal sense of “treat unjustly,” not “harm.”]

18. Concerning the Socratic dialogues in general: What aspects, if any, of Socrates’ character do you find admirable? Why? What aspects, if any, of Socrates’ character do you find not admirable? Why? What are Socrates’ values? Think of some adjectives to describe Socrates. How does he compare with Alcibiades, Callicles, Thrasymachus, or Euthyphro?



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