In his dialogue, Crito, Plato has Socrates gently admonish his friend, Crito, for his concern over what the uneducated public might think, or might spread by rumour and gossip, and encourages him instead to focus his attention on those ‘reasonable people’ who know the facts and in doing what is right:
“Why, my dear Crito, should we pay so much attention to what ‘most people’ think? The really reasonable people, who have much more claim to be considered, will believe that the facts are exactly as they are.”
(Trans. Hugh Tedennick, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, 14th printing, 1989)*
Had this been written today, Socrates might tell his friend not to be concerned with the chatter on social media; look to informed people rather than simply those posting on Facebook and Twitter.
Crito, however, replies with a caution:
“…one has to think of popular opinion as well. Your present position is quite enough to show that the capacity of ordinary people for causing trouble is not confined to petty annoyances, but has hardly any limits if you get a bad name with them.”
Socrates then says he wishes people had the same capacity for doing good as they do for doing harm, but adds that, although they may put him to death, the masses do not change who you are: “They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.”
He later comments that, “…one should not regard all the opinions that people hold, but only some and not others…” Crito then agrees with his statement on opinions that, “one should regard the good ones and not the bad… the opinions of the wise being good, and the opinions of the foolish, bad…”
“In that case, my dear fellow,” Socrates continues, “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us, but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority who represents the actual truth.”
Socrates wants to hear from a moral expert; without finding one, he has to make up his own mind on what is right and wrong.
Crito, one of Plato’s shorter ethical works, is ostensibly about the death of Socrates, but it’s really about how to live an ethical life even under dire circumstances: wrongdoing damages the soul and must be avoided.
Socrates awaits his fate in his prison cell and is visited by his friend, Crito, who encourages Socrates to flee into exile. Socrates says no, and accepts his coming death calmly. However, the dialogue has much to say to us today outside of its historical context.
Crito is personally concerned – somewhat selfishly – that his death will reflect badly on his and on Socrates’ friends’ reputations, as if they failed him. He is worried about the “opinion of the many.” Socrates tells him that what matters is not what the public thinks – what matters is how you behave.
And, Socrates adds, he has principles he has lived by all his life: he cannot put them aside simply to save his own life. He has lived, guided by reason, and will die by it as well.
I am and always have been one of those natures who must be guided by reason, whatever the reason may be which upon reflection appears to me to be the best; and now that this fortune has come upon me, I cannot put away the reasons which I have before given: the principles which I have hitherto honored and revered I still honor, and unless we can find other and better principles on the instant, I am certain not to agree with you; no, not even if the power of the multitude could inflict many more imprisonments, confiscations, deaths, frightening us like children with hobgoblin terrors.
Benjamin Jowett trans.
Crito also argues that if Socrates dies, his death would be aiding his enemies. In being in unjustly wronged, Socrates thus would thus be acting unjustly himself. His final argument is that Socrates was like a father to his friends and students; by dying he would be abandoning them without their father figure.
Socrates returns to his comment about living properly:
…that to live well means the same thing as to live honorably or rightly…
Socrates responds in his dialectic manner, raising issues about what is right and wrong behaviour. He asks:
Ought a man to do what he admits to be right, or ought he to betray the right?
Socrates goes on to question Crito about right and wrong, about what is good and ethical behaviour and what isn’t. He asks, for example, if, “…one must never willingly do wrong, or does it depend upon circumstances?” And, he adds, “whatever the popular view and whether the alternative is pleasanter than the present one… the fact remains that to do wrong is in every sense bad and dishonourable for the person who does it.”
That’s something our angry bloggers and cyberbullies have yet to understand: doing wrong dishonours them equally as much as those they demean and belittle by their harsh and untrue words. Socrates has little affection for the few who “must always feel contempt when they observe one another’s decisions” and finds no common ground for communication with them.
Socrates so strongly believes in not doing something dishonourable or unjust that he is willing to drink the poison and die rather than break his code of ethics. He sticks by his belief that the honorable man does good and, “…one must not even do wrong when one is wronged…”
What matters most, he says, is not what others think of you: it is doing what you know is right, what is honourable, ethical and moral. Do that, and you have lived a good life. And as a member of a council that has done more good for this community than any council in the past 25 years, I can hold my head up and say we behaved honorably this term and done what is right.
PS. Crito is also about obedience to social standards and laws and that opens up an entirely different sort of discussion about whether a person should obey even bad or unjust laws (something Thoreau might have had issues with). I’ll save that for another post (here’s an intriguing read to get you started). But I’ll leave you with a thought: if Socrates is right, then everyone has to obey the same laws equally and fully, even those pesky bylaws that require a report to be provided to someone for final comment before it gets placed on the council agenda.
* I got a used copy of this book from Abebooks recently and have been reading from the dialogues all week with great interest. Crito is only one of many works in it that deserve some comment. Next I think I’ll tackle Gorgias or maybe even reach for The Republic.