(in this web):

Powers Title Page
subject index
site map & outline
readings & lessons

technical FAQ
copyright notice

      Lesson 13                          Plato's Crito








Learn to accept that evil doom of thine politely!



Run away? Did Achilles run away? 

The reading for this lesson is Plato's Crito.

(on this page):

Two Socrates's
Achilles' sandals

Values by agreement

Socrates' students

Additional topics



The two Socrates's
(Socrates in pairs)

Image of Socrates in Raphael's "The School of Athens."Always there have seemed to be two different Socrates's, if you will excuse the plural. First, there's the intellectual brawler who attacks sophists and other fuzzy thinkers, the tough dialectical adversary who demands proof for each and every assertion and never seems to be satisfied by arguments that any opponent puts forward.  Second, there's seemingly another character named  Socrates,  less rigorous Image of Diogenes the Cynic from Raphael's School of Athensand distinctly less threatening, who may have a few doubts but is essentially an idealist, a dreamer who imagines marvelous, mystical or perfected things, such as the utopia in The Republic, the voices of "The Laws" in the Crito, or the life after death in the Phaedo.

So, who's the real Socrates? 

No sooner was Plato dead, it seems, than this question arose among the disciples. They were the first to polarize the two different images of Socrates by forming separate "schools" at the Academy, and in this division they opened an apparently permanent rift between the empirical and mystical branches of western philosophy. There were (1) the Skeptics, under the spiritual guidance of the street-fighting analytical Socrates, and (2) the so-called Academics or Neoplatonists, who took the gentle, high road of idealism. Outside the Academy, there arose even more extreme versions of these two opposing philosophical styles. These offshoots were (1) the Cynics, who were nihilists, more or less, and who often dressed themselves raggedly as Socrates look-alikes so that anyone could see their contempt for social convention, and (2) the Stoics, who similarly thought that the external world was a bad sort of place but who further believed in the power of the mind to fortify itself and maintain private happiness in spite of all external misfortunes.

Downer! Here it was the 19th century AD, and Diogenes still had not found an honest man.These ancient schools cultivated separate attitudes or ways of thinking that even today are described as skeptical or cynical or stoical. (The "Neoplatonic" habit of mind nowadays is a little harder to find, outside of the universities, because it is devoted entirely to abstractions.) Yet all of these practicing schools of thought were derivatives of Plato's single artistic creation. If their diverse postures somehow could be reassembled and merged back into one composite image, the process would recreate the complex figure of Plato's Socrates. 

The tradition of distinguishing two general Socrates's has been handed down through the long history of western philosophy to the modern academy where it is as fashionable as ever. Indeed, in Plato studies today, the warrior and the mystic often are separated into two entirely different characters, (1) a "real" Socrates of history and (2) an imaginary Socrates that Plato is supposed to have invented to disguise his own personal beliefs under the cover of Socrates' name. So, they say, Plato sometimes writes about Socrates and sometimes he writes about Plato, but he uses Socrates' name in both cases.

The experts explain this Socrates-monster by cooking up a kind of biographical fiction about Plato's "intellectual development." The fighter Socrates of the Euthyphro [Lesson 11], The Apology [Lesson 12], the sophist debates and the satirical sketches (such as the Euthydemus and the Ion) is supposed to belong to Plato's early period, when impressionable young Plato could not forget his memories of the argumentative, sarcastic Socrates. Then later Plato grew up as a thinker and no longer needed Socrates for a guide, but he kept using the name "Socrates" anyway to designate the figure of the wise man who appears in the "great" and "mature," idealistic dialogues like the Phaedo (to be discussed in Lesson 14) and The Republic. This visionary dreamer isn't really Socrates, the theory claims, but an entirely fictitious character, a mouthpiece for Plato's own wonderfully developed thoughts.

Got that? Good, because if you read almost any modern history of philosophy--God help you--you will find a story about Plato's dialogues that tells first about the philosophy of Socrates, and then moves along to describe the separate philosophy of Plato, as if anybody with a reasoning mind should be able to distinguish between the two. "The philosophy of Plato" is purely imaginary; Plato never wrote a book about his philosophy. He never speaks, either directly or as a character, anywhere in any of his dialogues!

Of course, students in the modern academy are asked to imagine many things. It's not only the philosophy department that promotes the "ideas" of its heroes. The "discourse" in the literature department is just as imaginative. (In English these days, scholars don't "talk" or "write" about literature; they "discourse" on it.) In English studies, students routinely hear pretentious instruction like the following:

Hamlet thinks X about revenge, but Shakespeare thinks Y about it. 

This is pretense because, while Hamlet expresses his thoughts quite well enough, Shakespeare isn't there in the play to think anything at all. When the prof says "Shakespeare thinks Y," what's really being said is "I think Y" or "thought Y is brilliant" or (in the rare case of a Shakespeare-hater) "thought Y is stupid." 

Well, what's my point? The teacher of Plato or Shakespeare pretends to speak for Plato or Shakespeare, even though neither Plato nor Shakespeare is present in the text, just as the teacher of Homer, a kind of augur or inspired interpreter of remains, pretends to speak for poor old dead Homer, whoever he was. [Recall our general discussion of literary criticism as augury from Lesson 9; also recall from  Lesson 11 that the "professor" is a pretender to wisdom, that all sophists are pretenders to wisdom.

The teaching of art is itself an art.

In Plato's case at least, we can say that he had it coming. After all, Plato had pretended to be Socrates, in composing Socrates' words in the dialogues, so it seems only fair that other teachers ever since have pretended to be Plato. "Plato thinks Z," "Plato says Z," "Plato means Z" are the standard form academic pretenses or imitations of the wise man that any student will see performed simply by taking any course in Plato, Greek civilization or the history of philosophy. And no doubt, to demonstrate a passing wisdom in such a course, the student will speak and write a few words about what Plato thinks or says or means, even though Plato doesn't think or say or mean anything.

Simply because this kind of teaching is pretending, however, doesn't mean that all of it is bad or uninteresting. None of the performances are true, but some clearly are better than others. Students tend to judge on the basis of entertainment value alone, a standard that seems quite appropriate, but peers in the teaching profession tend to judge on the basis of plausibility, the old Aristotelian standard [recall Aristotle as a realist critic from Lesson 11]. Does the illusion square with whatever facts we happen to know, or think that we know? Does it seem plausible? 

This is where the current academic notion of Plato's two different Socrates's (the early real one and the later imaginary one) is doomed to be pitched sometime sooner or later into the Hades of academic history. It's not  plausible. It could be true, but it seems unlikely that Plato would have tried to bolster his own arguments by putting them in Socrates' mouth. When Plato composed the dialogues, people still remembered the historical Socrates. Moreover, to write as clumsily and dishonestly as the theory suggests simply was not Plato's style. If I can pretend anything about him it is that he loved Socrates and valued truth.  

Well, how can we see, as Plato presumably saw, that Socrates is not two?  Who is Socrates? 

You may have heard the famous syllogism:

Socrates is a man.
All men are mortal.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The logic is ok. But now we are in a position to offer some further definition:

Mortals' consciousness is divided into two parts.
Therefore, Socrates' consciousness is divided into two parts.

The problem of the two Socrates's is not so very difficult after all. Socrates' is drawn into two different worlds, the external and internal, the public and private, Iliadic and Odyssean, as discussed in Lesson 11:

  • The public Socrates is thick-skinned, contentious and confrontational, a clever prosecutor who is frequently sarcastic, arrogant or irritating in examining others as opponents. This is the self-described "gad-fly" of Athens who easily makes enemies. We have met him in the Euthyphro [Lesson 11] and The Apology [Lesson 12].

  • The private personality, however, comes out of hiding and openly discloses ideals, dreams, visions and hopes when Socrates happens to be among friends or disciples or people he admires, or when he is drinking. (In The Symposium all of the speakers are drunk, and you can tell because they insist that they are not drunk.) In these easier surroundings Socrates reveals more about his inner world of soul, mind or thought. We meet this friendlier character in the Crito [in this lesson] and the Phaedo [in Lesson 14].

Plato the artist observes the full extent to which, even in Socrates' case, character is defined by situation. Homer had drawn much the same picture by presenting Achilles as a savage killing machine on the battlefield but a brooding, self-pitying sentimentalist in his tent. The battling and brooding Achilles's are the prototype in western literature for the male "fight or flight" response. [Recall Lesson 3.] Similarly, Odysseus has contrasting fight and flight personalities when he appears at Ithaca as both the furious fighting archer "Odysseus" and the plotting, anger-suppressing old "beggar." 

Like his Homeric ancestors in literature, Socrates turns out to be a situational player, rather than an inflexible, single-masked type. The fighter and the mystic never meet, and so we never see Socrates in any single dialogue or situation that completely defines him. All that we see is a series of scenes, or varying contexts, each of which has something a little different to reveal. We can't sum up Socrates (or Plato) honestly by picking out a favorite dialogue and claiming that its "great" Socrates is the ultimate one, and that the rest of the Socrates's are merely experimental or less successful characters probably written in Plato's inexperienced youth or doddering old age. The whole story about Socrates comes only from reading all of the scenes.

This sequencing of situations, or narrative orientation, makes Plato an artist, not an argumentative "philosopher" in the modern stripe. His story-telling isn't something easily boiled down into a few "main ideas" or logical arguments, as philosophy textbooks today almost invariably seem to summarize his "thought." Plato doesn't argue for any dogma or doctrine at all; he presents a series of images that play on the stage of our imagination, engaging many interesting ideas along the way certainly but always in context of a specific conversation, in a specific situation, in the life of Socrates.

In the Crito and the Phaedo, with his trial over and done, Socrates is relaxed, almost serenely at peace in his jail cell, talking to friends. In this quiet setting, cheerfully awaiting death, he's a whole new man. In the Crito Socrates awakens to a higher state of consciousness, and in the Phaedo (as we will see in Lesson 14) he prepares to enter the realm of the dead. It's tempting to say that these last images of Socrates' life are the deepest or most cherished ones, and they are certainly brilliant, but Plato simply does not tell us whether Socrates' concluding ideas are revelations of higher truth or mad delusions. 

In Achilles' sandals

but much more polite

Plato defines his hero in terms of literary tradition--and, to Plato, literary tradition means (mostly) Homer. Addressing the jury that will sentence him to death, Socrates in the Apology compares himself to Achilles:

"Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: there you are mistaken. A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying. He ought only to consider whether he is doing right or wrong--acting the part of a good man or of a bad. Whereas, according to your view, the heroes who fell at Troy were not good for much, and the son of Thetis above all, who altogether despised danger in comparison with disgrace; and when his goddess mother said to him, in his eagerness to slay Hektor, that if he avenged his companion Patroklos, and slew Hektor, he would die himself. "Fate," as she said, "waits upon you next after Hektor." Achilles, hearing this, utterly despised danger and death, and feared rather to live in the dishonor of failing to avenge his friend. "Let me die next," he replied, "and be avenged on my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships, a scorn and a burden of the earth." Had Achilles any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man's place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, but of disgrace."

The allusions to Achilles help us to see that Socrates makes the heroic choice, "the choice of Achilles," in selecting death with honor over life without fame. [Recall the choice of Achilles from Lesson 4.] Socrates stands his ground and does not run from battle to avoid being killed. In The Apology, he refuses to flatter the jury or to beg them to spare his life; he won't stoop to such undignified cowardly behavior. In the Crito, he has the opportunity to escape from prison, but he decides to stay and await his execution as the law has decreed. His principles are more important to him than his life.

The Crito makes the comparison between Achilles and Socrates right from the beginning. The dialogue opens when Socrates awakens from a dream in which a supernaturally beautiful woman dressed in white has told him: "On the third day hence must thou come to Phthia, O Socrates." In the Iliad, Phthia is Achilles' homeland, a three-day voyage from Troy. Is the woman in white the goddess Thetis, Achilles' protective mother? Plato is more tactful than to claim that any goddess appeared to Socrates in prison. In Plato, the gods don't come down to earth, as in Homer, but mortals including Socrates himself sometimes still imagine seriously that they do. Socrates understands his dream to mean that he will die on the third day--and he is happy to be going "home" to live among the souls of the departed.

In Socrates' waking world it's really Crito and not Thetis who offers the choice of running away to avoid death, but Socrates can't foresee how any real happiness could come of this alternative. Compared with the woman in white, old Crito is not very tempting. What would Socrates do in exile anyway? Escape to Thessaly to join Crito's friends, to eat and drink and be merry there? That's the easy path that Achilles rejected. "Thessaly" in Crito's day (and in Socrates' waking time) was the place called "Phthia" in Achilles' day (and in Socrates' dream-time).

It is almost as if Socrates can't imagine a future in Thessaly because Achilles couldn't imagine it in Phthia. In this sense, Achilles is a kind of hero spirit in possession of Socrates, but not the same kind of irresistible demon as the spirit of Patroklos in the Iliad. Plato's Achilles is not some passionate ghost who seizes control so that Socrates is unable to make reasoned decisions for himself. The spiritual influence upon Socrates is only literary. Achilles is a figure in a story that intrigues Socrates. Socrates seems to think that the story is true, but only in the historical sense that Achilles really existed once upon a time. With this sense of Achilles' past-ness, Socrates has control over the storybook character. He can take or leave its historical model as a pattern for his own behavior. He always is responsible for his own actions.

Socrates is not the old Achilles reincarnated. (Socrates' body with Achilles' brain would be a monster indeed!) The old Achilles was a social menace--and Homer presented him as mentally deranged, possessed by a hateful anger that brought death to multitudes. But Plato is not, like Homer, a detached and grimly ironic observer of killers. Plato idealizes literature by making the hero over into a new and culturally improved figure:  a representative of socially desirable, self-sacrificing action. Socrates chooses death because dying is the right thing to do. This is heroism as it popularly still is conceived to be today.

Inventing modern heroism out of the figure of Achilles isn't easy. There's only one useful part of the entire Iliad for Plato to salvage from Homer. It's the uncharacteristic moment when Achilles appears to behave unselfishly, when he vows to return to battle even though his decision means that he will die. In this moral moment, Achilles is the person who chooses to sacrifice his life to avoid "disgrace," "scorn" and public "shame." That is, he acts (for once) from public motives. That's what interests Plato's Socrates. 

Note how this moralized kind of heroism is situational, dependent on social context. If virtue is avoiding disgrace or scorn or shame, it is defined in terms of external or public opinion. Obviously, we can't determine the right thing to do by taking public opinion polls and going along with the crowd. In the Socratic dialogues, the opinion "of the many" seldom counts, because the many are not knowledgeable. (Look how the opinion of the many judged Socrates at the trial.) But that doesn't mean that the opinion of others never counts in Plato. On the contrary, Socrates always wants us to find and to follow the educated or expert opinion of those who have knowledge. 

(A favorite example used by Socrates in several of the dialogues comes from horsemanship. If you want to train a horse, you don't take a popular vote to figure out what you should do. And you don't do whatever you want, or whatever the horse wants, either. Instead, you get advice from an expert horse trainer. Only the trainer's opinion counts because only the trainer is knowledgeable.)

Homer's main interest had been the study of revenge. His was an ironic image of men inspired by gods and heroes to spread human misery by murderous retaliations against one another. The Homeric warrior, when awakened to these spirits of violence, is unafraid to enter into the futile chain of killings where his revenge in turn will be avenged upon himself. The warrior may fear death, but he is more afraid of becoming a social outcast for refusing to kill and be killed along with the rest of his comrades. Not to join in the heroic cycle of slayings is to remain a "boy" like the weakling Telemakhos or to be anti-social, like the withdrawn Achilles who sulks in the tent while manly Hektor butchers Argives.

Socrates' old friend Crito is a heroic-age figure in this sense that he acts out of regard for his "fame," general peer pressure or public opinion. If he fails to rescue Socrates from prison, he is afraid that he will be branded as a coward: most people (or "the many") will think that he failed his friend Socrates even in the hour of death.

But Socrates disagrees. He instructs Crito that "what most people think" doesn't matter at all. Most people aren't knowledgeable. What matters, according to Socrates, is what knowledgeable or expert people think: Crito needs to act out of regard for their opinions only.

Socrates is sure about what knowledgeable people will think. They will think that he never would have returned wrong for wrong by agreeing to a jail break. Socrates' "first principle" is the Golden Rule"we should not retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him." This principle can break the cycle of revenge. Unlike Achilles and Odysseus, Plato's polite hero accepts suffering without passing it along to harm others.

Homer had described people returning wrong for wrong so that anger and violence are perpetuated. Where Odysseus and Patroklos come back as angry ghosts to be appeased only through violent revenge, the hero spirit of Socrates returns from the dead in the pages of Plato to stimulate education and the pursuit of wisdom, not (primarily) to retaliate against Aristophanes, the demagogues or the unthinking mob who did him in. The Socratic dialogues offer constructive images aimed at inspiring moral education, personal virtue, and correct thought.

In Homer death is an evil to be avoided as long as possible, and Achilles actually chooses death only because he is driven to it by anger, revenge and shame. To call this mad compulsion "the choice of Achilles" is traditional in literary talk, but it's really a misnomer because it's involuntary. (Afterwards in the underworld, Achilles wishes that he had exercised more self control. Better to be a living slave than to be king of the dead, as Achilles' shade puts it.) It is Socrates who genuinely chooses death. Although he is able to escape, he accepts the death penalty of "The Laws." 

It's in this sense that Socrates is a polite hero, a hero of the polis who recognizes the collective good and submits to it. He accepts his role as sacrificial victim. Unlike Achilles, Socrates never complains about Zeus or fate. This is a political lesson, but it is more than that, too. Finally Socrates is our guide to the end of life, and his lesson is that death is not an evil. Virtuous people have nothing to fear from death; philosophers are prepared to die. More about this in Lesson 14 on the Phaedo.

Ruins of the agora or marketplace of ancient Athens where Socrates held class.

Values by agreement 
taking on the sophists

Imagined Caryatid from the Athenian Acropolis, Porch of the Maidens, as she once might have been painted.Socrates hears voices. He tries to listen to Crito's arguments in favor of escape from prison, but they are drowned out by inner voices of "The Laws" accusing him for listening to thoughts about civil disobedience. In the end he embraces these inter-personal or social values, even though it costs his bodily life. In his acceptance of "The Laws" -- these shared, cooperative or public values -- Socrates distinguishes himself from the sophists for whom all values are relative, personal and self-interested.

Is Socrates right? From a social point of view, he clearly was.

Weathered Caryatids from the Porch of the Maidens today.Socrates' classroom was out in the open air of the great market-place of Athens, the agora.  This market, like all others whether ancient or modern or even post-modern, established values--real, objective, verifiable and impersonal values. If the Sophists had looked around the marketplace, they might have seen that relative values don't work. There must be common or agreed values, if any level of social organization or cooperative enterprise is to be achieved.

Markets quantify values as prices, whether the prices happen to be expressed in terms of dollars, Athenian minae, or oxen. For example, as we know from the Apology, the asking price was five minae to get a sophistry course from Evenus the Parian.  Socrates is amazed that Evenus can charge so much. Five minae is more than the cost of a year of college in the USA today; it would have taken an artesian or semi-skilled Athenian worker substantially more than a year's wages to pay the tuition! Different people have different ideas about the value of a college education, but that doesn't mean that tuitions are relative.

Unless politicians meddle with them, market prices are not fixed. They change continually over time, often radically, as conditions of supply and demand change. And the movements of prices are unpredictable: some people are better or luckier guessers than other people, but nobody can foretell accurately the market price of anything at any future time. Witness the stock market where no investor in history ever has failed to place a mistaken bet. Ergo, different people can have and do have different personal thoughts about what value should be, but that doesn't mean that any of them are right, or that values don't exist, or that values are relative. It simply means that they must come to terms with one another in order to trade.

It may be too much to claim that values are never relative. There are limited circumstances--circumstances of injustice--where relative values may be said to exist. For example, prices can be said to be "relative" in a market that is controlled by an unregulated monopoly, where value is whatever the seller says that it is. If Athens executes all educators other than Evenus, and yet requires that people be educated, then the cost of college will be whatever monopolist Evenus thinks that it should be.

"Old Market Woman," cir. 1st century AD. Likewise, values may be said to be relative in the case of slavery or any similar economic tyranny where value is dictated by the buyer. Here the seller (slave or serf) is forced to accept whatever price is demanded by the buyer (master or bureaucrat). If Evenus is a slave (as many teachers were in classical times), then he can't set his fee at five minae or any other level; he will receive whatever his master thinks that he should be paid.  

These one-sided situations of seller control and buyer control of markets really occur, and they sometimes have been suffered for very long periods of human history, but inherently they are flawed economically because they impede trade or the establishment of agreed-upon values. Their arbitrary imbalances (=injustices) and economic inefficiencies doom them to eventual correction. 

In a free market, any market that is just, prices are not relative. They are established by agreement of seller and buyer. The negotiation between them, or settlement of trade, establishes "fair value," legally defined as the price at which a willing seller will offer and a willing buyer will accept when neither of the parties is forced to trade. This is the reality of the free marketplace: although different people have different opinions about it, value exists only in the agreement of minds.

The shadow philosophers at CorinthSocrates is trying to achieve a meeting of minds in searching for truth through dialogue with others. When Socrates says in various dialogues that there is a higher value than any individual conceives, an "Idea" with a capital "I" that is true for everybody, but that nobody really knows, he is groping toward the concept of socially-defined value. Individuals thinking or acting privately do not establish values. Doing your own thing does not express values, even in a democratic or so-called "free" society, because values are inter-personal. They are components of culture.

In the Crito, shortly before his death, Socrates finally understands that morals are what people agree that they are. How is it that they agree? People don't sign any agreement or express their consent, do they? Socrates sees that all Athenians have, if not an actual meeting of minds, an implied contract among themselves about their rights and obligations to one another.

An implied contract is a contract that arises solely from the actions of the parties, although no written or oral promises have been expressed. Example: I sit down to eat a meal at a restaurant. What's implied? I have agreed to pay for my food. 

"The Laws" in Socrates' head offer a similar example. Being born and educated in Athens, or simply staying in Athens for a substantial period of time as an adult, makes one an Athenian, and being an Athenian implies an agreement to accept Athenian law. Socrates was born in Athens, as a child he learned gymnastics and music in Athens, and he rarely left the city at any time in all of his seventy years, so he received the benefits of being an Athenian (just like getting the meal in the restaurant). Having received these benefits, he is bound by the obligations and duties of an Athenian (just like the duty to pay for the meal).

The Laws with a capital "L," as Socrates' thinks of them, exist separately and apart from what any Athenian (including Socrates himself) happens to say, think or believe. They are personified. Within Socrates' own mind, they are heard as "voices" independent of Socrates' voice. He hears them murmuring "like a flute in the ears of the mystic," and their music drowns out the sound of Crito's arguments that he should flee the city.

(BY THE WAY: Try reading the Crito aloud to hear how Socrates dramatizes his thought, as if examining himself objectively from the outside by taking the role of "The Laws." In your performance, to avoid confusion, you will have to adopt very different sounding identities when you are "The Laws," than when you are "Socrates." It's an interesting technique of dialogue within a dialogue, as Socrates examines Crito but is examined at the same time by The Laws.) 

What if other people routinely break the law? Socrates will not follow the example of law breakers. The implied contract exists even though, in practice, disrespect for law seems to be the norm among the Athenians, as their society collapses into disorder. In the Apology, Socrates recalls both tyrants and democrats flouting the Athenian law for their own personal advantage. In the Crito Socrates' jailers have been bribed, and the disciples have arranged for his illegal escape into exile. 

Some years before Socrates' case, the trial of the philosopher Anaxagoras (the first to teach that the sun is a stone) apparently ended with such an escape. In any event, Anaxagoras cleared out of Athens, and he continued his teaching elsewhere, even though he had been tried and found guilty at Athens. Trials in absentia of defendants who had fled from the city's legal jurisdiction seem to have been commonplace in Socrates' Athens. The city teetered on the brink of anarchy. Yet Socrates did not run away, in spite of all who ran before him and notwithstanding the arguments of his friends. 

Law is a market place for conduct or behavior, not unlike the economic market places for goods and services. It establishes the values of certain kinds of desirable and undesirable behavior. If you win the Olympics, the value of the act is that you get lunch at public expense for the rest of your life. (And, heroically enough, your descendants get it, too! In the golden age, a lot of free lunches were being eaten at Athens!)  But you get whatever punishment the jury decides that you should get, if you make up new gods that are not acknowledged by the Athenians.

The behavioral values determined by laws are no more fixed or God-given than prices in the market-place. Your duty as an Athenian is to obey the law, but you also have the right to persuade your fellow Athenians to change the laws. Amendment through the political process doesn't make the law relative; on the contrary, it permits the law to continue to serve as the contract of the Athenians. As the legislature changes, its meeting of minds also changes, so that laws are variable over time--again without being purely personal or subjective. What you never have the right to do (according to The Laws) is to break the law, even if you personally think that the law is unjust, unfair, wrong or evil.

Tom Jefferson, after an image of the Third President of the United States by Charles Willson Peale (the original for the face of the US five dollar bill)..The Crito is the final social teaching of Socrates, and its message about values by agreement has relevance not only for Plato's Academy, where the primary studies turned to law and government, but also for later philosophy and social theory. Socrates' original idea that the fabric of society is an implied "social contract" later was picked up by Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1689) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), social contract theorists who had strong influence on the American and French Revolutions. Social contract theory still is very much alive and well in modern moral philosophy and political theory, too (see note 5 below on this page).

So, there you have it. Put to death by the Athenian democracy, Socrates in the long run proved to be the first and one of the most important intellectual sources of modern western democracy. Go figure.

Socrates and the students

Socrates, from a 3rd century BC bust by Lysippus.Stories about the Socratic philosophers were gathered together centuries after Socrates' death by Diogenes Laertius (aka Laertes, cir. 250 AD) in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Whether his account is reliable or not, Laertes says that public opinion changed after Socrates' death: Meletus was put to death, Anytus and the other accusers were banished, and a bronze statue by Lysippus honoring Socrates eventually was placed in the hall of processions at Athens. A bust said to be by Lysippus indeed exists (see figure above left).

Whether or not it was corrupting, Socrates' influence was great. Perhaps no teacher ever had a student as dedicated as Plato, who carefully recorded so many of Socrates' teachings and adventures among the Athenians, but Plato was not the only follower to write about these things. Laertes identifies Plato, Xenophon, and Antisthenes as the most distinguished of the Socratic disciples, while he adds Aeschines, Phaedo, Euclides, and Aristippus as important members on the traditional list of ten original Socratics, for all of them except the soldier Xenophon started their own schools. The Socratic inner circle also included Socrates' closest friend Crito who appears in several of Plato's dialogues, the sentimental Apollodorus, and the cobbler Simon in whose humble shop in the agora Socrates seems to have held class. All of these students are said to have written dialogues, conversations or memoirs of Socrates.

Plato's Phaedo says of Socrates, "We felt that he was like a father to us and that when bereft of him we should spend the rest of our lives as orphans." Phaedo 116. After Socrates' death Phaedo wrote several dialogues (which no longer exist), and he developed a school in Elis, a place noted for its sophists in Socrates' time. More of him in the next lesson.

The biggest weeper at Socrates' execution, according to the Phaedo, was Apollodorus. This overly-emotional character narrates Plato's Symposium (also known as The Drinking Party) where he says that it has been "almost three years that I have been associating with Socrates and making it my daily business to know whatever he says or does." This dialogue like the Phaedo is an interesting experiment in which Plato composes a dialogue in which he pretends to be one of his fellow Socratics--in this case one of obviously less intellectual ones. Apollodorus' story of the drinking party indicates that he (at least when drunk) worships Socrates as a god.

Image of Xenophon from Raphael's School of AthensThe pupil other than Plato whose writings still survive in bulk today is Xenophon, who published notes of conversations with Socrates and thoughts about Socrates in his Memoirs of Socrates.  According to Laertes, Xenophon first encountered Socrates in a narrow passage in the city. Socrates barred his way with a stick and asked him where various kinds of food were sold. Xenophon had no trouble answering each of these questions. But then Socrates asked, "Where do people become good and honorable?" Xenophon could not say. "Then follow me," said Socrates, "and learn." From that time on Xenophon was a student of Socrates. 

Crito was the same age as Socrates and perhaps his closest friend. According to Laertes, Crito wrote seventeen Socratic dialogues (none have survived) and was Socrates' patron, taking care of his needs, such as they were. 

Aeschines, a sausage-maker's son also was one of Socrates' closest companions, but of the seven Socratic dialogues that he wrote, only a few fragments remain. 

The star student in Socrates' class, other than Plato, seems to have been Plato's aptly-named rival Antisthenes (445-360 BC). He had studied rhetoric with the sophist Gorgias, but later became devoted to Socrates. He lived in the Peiraeus (the port of Athens) and walked the five miles to Athens every day to listen to Socrates. It was Antithenes who originated the Cynic way of life; he taught austerity to his followers, including Diogenes, the most famous of the Cynics. He wrote a diatribe against Plato, and there was friction between them. Antithenes' writings went into ten volumes on a wide range of subjects, so he was clearly a contender for recognition as Socrates' foremost student. Only fragments of these writings survive.

Aristippus seems to have been the Judas of the group, not that he ever turned over Socrates to the high priests, as far as we know. He is remembered as the first of the Socratics to charge fees. He once sent money to Socrates for his teaching, but Socrates refused to take it due to warnings from his daemon. After Aristippus made some money of his own by teaching, Socrates asked him, "Where did you get so much?" to which he replied, "Where you got so little." Aristippus founded a school in Cyrene which became well known. The Cyrenaics seem to have held the unSocrates-like idea that happiness is the sum total of all particular pleasures.

Euclides also wrote dialogues (now lost) and opened a school in Megara where his followers were called Megarians, Eristics, and the Dialecticians. Little is recorded of him except that he followed the mystic Parmenides (who once had been Socrates' teacher) and declared that everything is good! 

Laertes also includes a life of Simon the cobbler. When Socrates conversed in Simon's workshop, Simon made notes. Just outside the ancient agora, modern excavators claim to have found amid remnants of shoe-making materials a black-glazed cup with the name "Simon" etched on it. Due to this find, the small workshop is now a tourist attraction. Neither Plato nor Xenophon mention Simon, so Simon may not have existed at all, but Laertes says that he was the first writer to compose Socratic dialogues.

Glaucon (Plato's older brother), Simmias, and Cebes, who figure in Plato's dialogues, are also said to have written Socratic dialogues.

Obviously, Socrates and Plato did not invent teaching or school. Such was their influence, however, that teachers who came before Socrates are called by us "pre-Socratics," and those who came after Plato and his student Aristotle are called Platonists and Aristotelians.

Socrates appears to us in this way as "the" defining teacher because his students were literate and because they were competitive with each other in their emulation of him. To prove your credentials as a teacher, you wrote dialogues or memoirs of Socrates. You showed your understanding of Socrates through imitation of his words in your writing. All of these student performances differed from each other, so the Socratic schools were not at all the same, even in the first generation after Socrates.

We will see an example of this pretending in practice in the next lesson when we read perhaps the most famous of all Socrates-imitations, the Phaedo.

Raffaello Sanzio (or Santi), "The School of the Athens" (1510), in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican.

Additional related readings
and journal topics

1. The two Socrates's: an example of the modern theory appears in Richard Kraut's "Introduction to the study of Plato" in The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge U Press 1992).

2. The two Homers; The problem of the two Socrates's has its parallel in Homeric studies, where many scholars say that the same person cannot have composed both the Iliad and the Odyssey. (Some have seen two Homers; others have seen dozens of them, each separate Homer responsible for certain lines in the poems.) So important is this authorship question inside academia that it is called "the Homeric question."

Scholars are fond of breaking down texts into separate parts that they deem to be incompatible. Even the Bible is dissected into a series of revisions with various authors responsible for various verses. For example, see Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (Paulist Press 1984), which describes modern thinking about the "Yahwist," "Elohist," "Priestly" and "Deuteronomist" revisers of the Books of Moses. Apart from imagined difficulties in the Biblical text itself, there is no proof that any such revisions ever happened.

Aside from the Homer and Moses questions, there's also the famous "Shakespeare question," namely: how can one man, and especially some unschooled (meaning neither Oxford- nor Cambridge-trained) upstart COMMONER from a rural backwater like Stratford, have written Shakespeare's plays? Bizarre theories are advanced by snob scholars that this or that great Lord, such as Francis Bacon, or else Queen Elizabeth herself, simply MUST have written Shakespeare or the better parts of Shakespeare.

These kinds of arguments over authorship are incapable of being proved, one way or the other. Surely the better approach to any substantial work or body of literature is to attempt to see it as a whole, as presumably it was intended to be seen. You will gain insight only by accepting the premise that the parts belong together.

3. The source of values: The possibility of escape from jail shows that fates have not ordained Socrates' death, nor must Socrates accept death as the will of Zeus or Aristophanes. Socrates has the freedom to make the choice. Yet the choice is not entirely a matter of his personal judgment, opinion or preference because it is evaluated by other people, and it may have consequences for them. So Socrates wants to get it "right," as both he and they will see it.

What are the sources of choices that you make? Do you make decisions only to please yourself? Do you take public opinion into account?  Do you follow expert opinion? 

Try looking at these questions in light of one specific incident when you were undecided about what to do, or when there was some controversy over what you should do. What were the alternatives? Why was one chosen over the other(s)?

4. Values by agreement: what do you think of Socrates' idea that all of us have agreed to obligations or duties simply by belonging to a group? Isn't this idea the basis for any kind of community or group harmony?

Think of the groups that you belong to: nation, city, religious organization, company, team, family, peer group, whatever. What's reasonable for these groups to expect of you? What's not reasonable? Are their expectations clear?

An obvious multicultural problem is that we belong to more than one group. The problem of divided loyalties can be presented very starkly: for example, when the colony secedes from the mother country, and everybody chooses sides. But even when there's no revolution going, the "choice of Achilles" will need to be made. The working mom hears the baby crying at home and also the boss whining at work. These are conflicting voices of "The Laws" that she will have to prioritize.

Is obedience to law always the best course of action, as Socrates advises? When I was a student, long ago, law breaking was common among students. I don't mean that students were lawless; there were laws to their law-breaking. The violations were conventional, predictable: illegal use of alcohol or narcotic drugs, and/or violation of military draft laws. (The Viet Nam War was on.) Students engaged in standard violations of this kind were not given generally to law breaking; in my judgment, few of them ever would have considered committing crimes of violence against anybody or even property crimes. These weren't anti-social, unconscionable or nasty people. On the contrary, their behavior was defined mainly by popular culture, or peer pressure, sometimes backed up with manifestos of civil disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others. 

How do you square civil disobedience with the principles of obedience to the implied social contract?

5. Contract theory of values

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), is famous for the idea that primitive life in the prehistoric state of nature was "poor, nasty, brutish and short." In Hobbesian theory, the basis for civilized life arose when out of self-interest, to live at peace, individuals banded together to make covenants or contracts to limit violence and oppression. For a modern update on Hobbes' ideas see David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement (Oxford Press 1986).

The most influential modern supporter of social contract theory is John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice (Harvard Press 1971), Rawls imagines a group of hypothetical social contractors who come together to design a set of principles of justice that all of them can agree on. To achieve fairness, all of the contractors must be blindfolded behind a "veil of ignorance" while designing the new society so that none of them knows what place he or she actually will occupy when the society is established. Without this knowledge of their places the contractors should choose fair principles that will provide the maximum benefit for all. Rawls predicts that two basic principles will be paramount in any utopia constructed blindly in this way: (1) each member of the society will have the right to the most extensive liberty that is compatible with the similar liberty of others; and (2) the least advantaged people in the society will be assisted but the most advantaged positions will be open to all under principles of equal opportunity. Complete economic equality will not be attained or desired for obvious reasons--that is, people with harder or more important work to do should not earn the same benefits as people with easier or less important work.

Like other social theorists, Rawls has been criticized from the political left and the right, of course. He defends his position from its critics and he updates his ideas in Political Liberalism (Columbia Press 1993).

It's noteworthy, I think, that Hobbes and Rawls are essentially imaginative writers. Usually, they are classified as philosophers or social critics because most of their language is argumentative and generalized. Yet Hobbes' whole discussion is generated by imagining how primitive people first gathered together in social organizations. (This imagining of humanity in a raw state of nature compares with that in William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies.) And Rawls' concepts flow from imagining an ideal society that might be constructed for the future; his speculative work belongs in the utopian literary tradition of Plato's Republic.

6. Raphael's "School of Athens" is full of philosophers. To identify the individuals in the painting, see image map.

7. Ancient city of Athens: there's a picture gallery on the web at

Image of Epicurus, from Raphael's School of Athens. Epicurus was popularly known for wisdom and ideas about eating.8. The disciples of Socrates. Who were these skeptics, cynics and stoics who followed Socrates? To believe the stories about them from antiquity, most were concerned with the practical questions of how to live and how to achieve personal happiness. They were noted teachers and cult leaders, more like Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and other ancient "wise men" than like the intellectual and academic models of modern philosophy. 

Cynics: One of Socrates' students, Antisthenes (c. 444-371 B.C.), the son of an Athenian citizen and a Thracian slave, founded the school that became famous for cynics. He gave up all property and dressed in a cloak so ragged that Socrates joked, "I can see your vanity, Antisthenes, through the holes of your cloak." After Socrates died, Antisthenes chose to speak at the Cynosarges ("Dogfish") gymnasium lecture center, because it was used by people of the lower classes and foreigners. From it comes the name "Cynic." Antisthenes had the common touch. He accepted no pay, dressed like a workingman, preferred the poor for pupils, and made poverty and hardship part of his course of study. He did not believe in government, private property, marriage, established religion, slavery, luxury or the pursuit of pleasures of the senses. 

Antisthenes' reputation was eclipsed by that of his student Diogenes (c. 412-323 B.C.). You may have seen a representation of Diogenes' image. The picture of an old man in a cloak, holding a lantern and a staff, appears on many versions of the Tarot Card, "The Hermit." Some say that the lantern was meant to help Diogenes in his search for truth; others hold that it was to help him on his lifelong quest to find an honest man.

A bankrupt banker, Diogenes lived the Cynic doctrine totally. The St. Francis of ancient Greece, he chose the robe, wallet and staff of a beggar. He imitated the simple life of animals, sleeping on the ground, eating whatever he could find or beg, and (witnesses attest) performing the duties of nature and the rites of love in the sight of all. A proto-hippie, he advocated free love and a community of wives. He refused to obey any law that made no sense to him, but apparently harmed no one. 

from a classical bust of Alexander in the British Museum. In a famous meeting, Alexander the Great is supposed to have offered Diogenes anything that he wanted. "Then," said Diogenes, looking up from his barrel at the great king, "You are blocking my sunlight; move aside so that I'm not in your shadow." Alexander is supposed to have replied with admiration: "If I were not Alexander, I would choose to be Diogenes." It was always all or nothing for Al.

Stoics: The Stoics revered Socrates for his enduring example of rational self-control and the simplicity of his material life. This school is said to have begun in 300 B.C. when its founder Zeno of Cyprus (c. 336-262 B.C.) began lecturing on the Painted Porch (Stoa Poikile) of a temple in Athens named for the (now lost) paintings of Polygnotus which were there.

Image of Zeno from Raphael's School of AthensThe good life according to the Stoics includes cultivating intelligence, bravery, justice, and self control. We can learn to become indifferent to the changes of fortune, yet we must hold ourselves and others ethically responsible for every action. We likewise have a responsibility to play the part in civic life that we are suited by our nature to play, but must not attach our happiness to place, power, or possessions.

Food was a big issue in Stocism, as it had been for earlier Hellenic cults. Almost as much is known about Zeno's eating and drinking habits as about his ideas. His tastes were simple and ascetic: he ate small loaves and honey, and drank a little wine of good bouquet; he enjoyed green figs and lying in the sun. His life was austere, but he is said to have relaxed when drinking "just as the bitter lupin becomes sweet when soaked in water." Heavy drinking, however, did not appeal to him and he generally turned down invitations to symposia, the traditional Greek drinking parties. 

Another teacher associated with disciplined eating was Epictetus (c. 55-135 AD) who held that we must find happiness within ourselves and cultivate independence from external circumstances. When a feast is set before us, he said, we accept what is given, rather than asking for something more. In this way we learn to endure all the twists and turns of fate. He pointed out that even a slave (as he himself was) can be inwardly and spiritually free. Events are what they are, but what we make of them is up to us. 

Epictetus was interested in thought control, rather like some modern cognitive psychologists. "Everything has two handles, one by which it may be borne, the other by which it may not. If your brother sins against you, lay not hold of it by the handle of his injustice, for by that it may not be borne; but rather by the fact that he is your brother, the comrade of your youth, and by this handle it may be borne."

The stoics were one of the most influential philosophical schools in antiquity, a school which numbered among its adherents the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius

Skeptics: The skeptics were doubters of all theories. Phyrro of Elis (c. 360-270 B.C.) studied in India and returned to teach at his birthplace, Elis, long famed for its teachers. He is regarded as one of the foremost Skeptics (skeptikos = "seekers" or "inquirers"). The Skeptics were the most direct successors to Socrates' stance of questioning every presumed certainty. Some skeptics claimed that no knowledge beyond immediate experience is possible, while others doubted that even immediate experience is a fully reliable guide to truth.

Here's the good stuff!
Homer and Plato pages
Powers of Literature

Try the Subject Index for links by topic.)





Figure left: Socrates (dressed like a monk) preaches in Raphael's School of Athens...





while casual Diogenes ignores everybody.


















"Diogenes" (1882) by John William Waterhouse. Diogenes the cynic lived in a tub; yet evidently he thought of himself as a Socratic.














































































































Figure left: The "Spinario," cir. 4th century BC, once considered to be a masterpiece, is now known to be a monster: the fused body and head from two different statues.






































































































Figure left: the Agora today. The bleached white statues, columns and architectural ruins remaining from the Age of Socrates are nothing but a few bones of the old city...









but in the glory days of the Athenian Empire, all of the stone was painted and seemed to be alive.






































Starting with the fall of Athens, classical art reflects a striking new interest in common subjects, like "The Old Market Woman" and "The Boxer," images left. That's the massive modern agora of Athens behind the Market Woman.











The search for morality is a discussion, never a solo activity.





















The standard democratic image of justice is the marketplace scale.
































When Thomas Jefferson justified the American Revolution in The Declaration of Independence (1776), he explained that an implied contract bound the king as well as the subjects to recognize the rights of all people "to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The revolt itself was to form a more perfect union, a contract which all people could accept.








Image left: the official Socrates memorial bust. Images of Meletus and Anytus are unavailable. Compare the paleolithic covenant with the wild animals (they get death and immortality in art, Lesson 2).


























Image left: Xenophon from Raphael's School of Athens.
















































Speaking of values by agreement, even in Rome there is no wall large enough to represent the major contributors to our thought..See Note 6 below for more info on Raphael's "School of Athens," image left.



























































































Image left, Epicurus, renowned as the philosopher of eating, from Raphael's School of Athens. We began with artists celebrating food animals. At length we have come to philosophers telling us what to eat.



























The story of Diogenes and Alexander is told in Plutarch's Life of Alexander.










Image left, from Raphael's School: old father Zeno weathered many a storm.