Socrates in Prison and We in Self-Isolation

Many of us are in self-isolation these days and our freedom of movement (and socialising) is restricted. In most cases, it is because our respective governments decided this way. Although we understand the motivation, the reasoning and the purpose of these imposed measures, still – it is a limitation of some of our basic freedoms and often without any fault of our own to “deserve” it. So, is it fair? Do we have an obligation to accept and follow these regulations? As Socrates would say – let’s consider this (or something in this manner – he liked to talk to people about such things). Clearly, I will not give you instruction on how you should act. However, I will tell you my opinion and I will tell it with the help of Socrates.

One of Plato’s dialogues – Crito – is a discussion between Socrates and one of his close friends Crito. This is not just an intellectually stimulating talk, it is also a humanly emotional and morally significant one. The dialogue takes place very early in the morning when Crito comes to visit Socrates who is locked down in a prison cell. The reason – Socrates was accused by a fellow citizen, the case went to trial and the Athenian court of law found him guilty. The verdict – death sentence (Socrates had an option to choose exile instead but he didn’t). However, this is not the main point of the Crito dialogue. Socrates has accepted the court’s decision. Now, his friends, some of them are well-connected and wealthy, are trying to save his life and organise his escape from prison. We are made aware that this is realistically possible, so, again – pragmatic considerations are not the focus of the dialogue. What is the focus then? It is the answer to the question I raised about our current self-isolation condition imposed on us by the state regulation. More specifically and much more fundamentally – do we have an obligation to obey the law and why? Here, I give my account of the main arguments Socrates offers before concluding that we must obey the law. Also, I link some of these to our social distancing and self-isolation situation and invite us to see how they apply. Just to warn you though – neither Socrates nor I consider the risk of being caught and fined (or worse) as an argument for why we should obey the law. So, for the purposes of this article, let’s just all assume there is no risk of facing any direct penalty or another type of harsh treatment for disobeying the law. Final remark before we continue – I do not quote directly from the text of the dialogue because there are so many different translations available. However, I make references to the sections of the text where relevant. You will see things like (47a), (48d) and so on. Whichever copy of the dialogue you read, they will all have this traditional referencing system used in Plato’s dialogues and recorded on the margins of the pages. This should allow you to find the sections I refer to without difficulty. So, what advice does wise Socrates give us in this matter, offering himself as a tragic but brave example?

Here is my summary of some of the main points Socrates makes (based on how I interpreted the dialogue):

  1. Initially, Socrates establishes a kind of yardstick for measuring the potential action (escape from prison) in terms of whether to do it or not; this measure for him is justness – if it can be reasonably established that to escape from prison in his situation is a just, fair action, then he will do it; the background of this is that Socrates considers it much more important to live a virtuous life rather than simply to live, and, in addition, he always strives to be consistent in his thoughts, values and actions (48b-d).
  2. After having established the “yardstick” for assessing the two options – to obey the law or not – Socrates goes on to build his argument in an imaginary discussion with the Laws that represent the State. In it, he assumes that he wants to escape the prison and so disobey the law, while the Laws explain how this would not measure well against his just-action criteria and so why he must obey them by not escaping. This is the bulk of the entire dialogue and it is here that Socrates shows his various arguments in favour of him having an obligation to obey the law.
  3. In what follows, Socrates elaborates on the following, in my view, most important arguments that support his obligation to obey the law – or why this is the just action to do even in his dire circumstances while awaiting execution: a) individual disobeying the law brings the existence of the state into question and poses an existential threat to it as a collective organisation (a state can only function properly if its laws can be implemented and enforced; 50b); b) if you have accepted the various benefits and freedoms made available to you by the state, you owe an obligation to the state to observe its rules based on which it, among other things, offers these benefits (50d); c) analogy with the obligation of gratitude and duty toward one’s parents (51a-b); d) you incur obligations out of any justly occurring contractual agreements – and if you chose to stay in the state after reaching adulthood, although it offers you the freedom to leave retaining all your property should you not like how it is managed after it gave you the opportunity to learn about it and to participate in it via elections and active engagement, you have then tacitly entered into a voluntary and just contractual agreement with the state where your side of obligation is to obey its laws and regulations (51d-52a). 
  4. Based on these considerations, Socrates illustrates that through his life, his choices, his actions or inactions, he has entered into a voluntary, informed and just contractual agreement with the state. This means that violating its rule (escaping prison despite the state court’s decision to sentence Socrates to death) would mean violating his side of contractual obligations, which is an unjust action. And so, even if Socrates does not agree with the court’s decision, even if he thinks it is unfair toward him individually, he concludes that escape from prison is an unjust action and so inconsistent with his values of a virtuous life measured by the standards of fairness. This dramatic and admirable conclusion is supported by something that I found particularly moving in the reflections of Socrates in prison – he manages to stay true to his values to the very end and still not to hide in illusions: he acknowledges that he has received an unjust treatment by this court sentence, however, he considers that it is not the Laws that have done him wrong but the people who ruled unfairly. Yet, by taking his revenge at these people through escape from prison he would not be doing wrong to them, but rather to the Laws (54c).

I think it is safe to say there are not many people who would be able to keep such cool and stay so calmly rational and consistent with their values in such dire circumstances. Socrates was indeed an extraordinary personality. However, in my view, at least some of his arguments are readily applicable to our current situation as well (I will drop the analogy with parents argument as I do not think it is relevant for our discussion here). Our governments demand that we isolate ourselves, stay at home and keep a social distance. This is hard and often may seem unfair in individual circumstances. Yet, perhaps we have it much easier than Socrates. Of course, we are not actually in prison awaiting execution of a death sentence (at least I hope so!). But, despite the uneasiness and uncomfortable feeling of this whole situation, for the most part, many people agree that these measures are necessary and that they bring a benefit to our societies at large. And, as we know, it is easier to obey a law or regulation that we anyway agree with. Nevertheless, in my opinion, if we look especially at the arguments listed above under 3a) and 3d) (and to some extent 3b) – thinking here of the national healthcare systems, for example), then we can easily see how they apply to our situation and us if we still would like to call ourselves responsible and mature adults, even if this “title” brings with it not only rights but sometimes also uncomfortable obligations. Perhaps especially then it is worth remembering Socrates and his thoughts in a prison cell.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

stay well and keep exploring!                        

3 thoughts on “Socrates in Prison and We in Self-Isolation

  1. the storyteller called PB

    Am still busy thinking about Sokrates situation, or more precisely, what to do with the people who have treated him and the law badly? Have only been reading your article, not any other. Can you tell me?


    1. Thanks for your comment and question. The straightforward answer might be – we cannot do anything to/with those people because all of them are long gone. The more subtle answer is, I think, that what was done by the followers of Socrates. They developed philosophical schools and philosophy as such making Socrates not only one of the best known ancient thinkers but also making sure that the approach of critical questioning and rational thinking takes very deep roots in our collective thinking (in Europe and then exported to where Europeans established themselves worldwide). I think Socrates would be surprised where his approach has led humanity. And, of course, he would remain critical of whether we truly embrace the “love of wisdom” (philosophy) nowadays. Perhaps we have just scratched the easy-to-penetrate surface.


  2. Pingback: Musings on the Ends Justifying the Means – humanfactor

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