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Socrates on the opinion of others

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“Of the opinions that men form, on others we must give importance, and on others not”46d
Plato, Crito

Crito visits Socrates in his cell where he awaits his execution, and in order to convince him to escape and avoid the enforcement of the sentence he uses a kind of psychological blackmail. What will people say, he asks, about letting himself die, and therefore resigning from life and leaving his children to be raised by others? And what will “the many” say of his friends, which did not care to rid him of the sentence while they surely could?

His decision not to escape will be a betrayal to his sons, whom he deserts for others to take care of while he still has the opportunity to raise them himself, and so they will suffer “whatever troubles the orphans in their destitution”. One ought not to beget children, he says, if he’s not willing to stay and raise them and educated them. “But you seem to me to choose the easiest thing”[1]45d.

José Maria de Medeiros - Death of Socrates (1878)
José Maria de Medeiros – Death of Socrates (1878) (photo)

It will be as if he is betraying himself, like he is in a hurry to lay on himself all those that his enemies would gladly lay on him. He would become like them, a coward, and inconsistent regarding his principles. It would mean to invite death, while the reasonable man would try evading death as much as he could. How can he now abstain from the things that a good and courageous man prefers, while he tried to be virtuous throughout his life?

In case he denies escape, “most”, who don’t know him or Crito very well, will think that he, Crito, and the rest of his circle, did not care for their friend, and even though they had the means to save him, neglected him by not bribing and doing whatever else necessary for his escape and let him die. Because most will not believe that he did not want to escape while they were willing to help him do so. “And is there anything worse for someone than for others to think he cares more about his money than for his friends?”[1]44c. Could it be, by any chance, that most will think the matter got out of his friends’ control through their incompetence and faint-heartedness?

Crito, finally, asks him whether he worries that, if he escapes, the sycophants and the accusers would turn on the ones who helped him and that, in this way, they would lose their fortune or have even more troubles lay upon them. He tells Socrates not to worry about such matters, that the money needed for the escape is not a lot and that his friends are willing to risk all these things and even more for him if necessary. Nor should he worry how he’ll live in the place he ends up, as Crito has friends in Thessaly who can offer hospitality and provide every safety and comfort.

Here, we see Crito offering reasons for his friend to escape the death penalty, and trying to rid him of any scruples he might have about leaving. Even if his reference to Socrates’ children sounds overly pressing, even if his worry about what people will say about him if he doesn’t aid his friend sounds petty, we can’t but recognize in Crito a genuine, friendly concern and the effort to do the right thing. So, does Socrates’ decision indeed shame himself and his friends? Socrates disagrees.

“Dear Crito, your eagerness would be laudable, if it had some logical basis; otherwise, the lengthier it is, the more annoying it becomes”[1]46b. Socrates has made up his mind, and all that is left is for him to explain his reasoning, because as he says: “I will be convinced by nothing else other than reasoning, that which after consideration seems best”[1]46b.

Socrates admits he worries about what will happen to whoever helps him escape, but he continues to say that he must accept his fate in order to be consistent with what he had been saying all his life. He always praised and respected the laws of the land. How could he break them now that they happen to turn against him? If he does so, he will be helping in the demise of the laws and the polity and therefore endanger the future of Athens and her citizens. He recalls older conversations with Crito, and all that was agreed upon back then, to illustrate that he now practices those convictions in this difficult moment, without changing his mind due to the danger he is facing. “All these that I said in the past, I cannot refute now, because this happened to me, but I remain diligent and I profess and honor the same as before”[1]46b.

Paul Rubens & Paulus Pontius - Socrates Sophronisci Filius Atheneisis
Paul Rubens & Paulus Pontius – Socrates Sophronisci Filius Atheneisis (photo)

And as they had agreed upon in the past, one must not willingly wrong another in any way, for no reason. Even against those who do wrong, their victims don’t have the right to reciprocate, like many believe. Socrates thought that whoever wrongs someone doesn’t really have the power to harm him, because he would only be harming himself. The injustice of an act harms the wrongdoer more than the receiver of its immediate consequences. “There is no evil for the just, neither when he lives nor when he dies”[2]41d. “Have we forgotten, by any chance, what we had admitted in the past in just a few days, and in the end, Crito, in such an old age talking seriously, we haven’t realized we are no different than children? Or is what we used to say still valid no matter what people think?”[1]49b. So, not only will he not betray himself by remaining in his cell, but he feels a moral obligation to not try and escape and break the law.

Nor does he think he betrays his children. Because if he escapes and takes them with him, he will make them strangers wherever they go, and they will suffer the indignity he will also receive as a coward and a traitor of the laws and his ideals. But even if he leaves them back in Athens and leave, won’t they be raised by others, as in the case that he dies? Again, their father’s dishonor will fall on them. And, either way, whether he escapes or dies, they will be raised and cared for by the same people, enjoying the same comforts. So it is better for his children if he accepts the punishment. Why should he care what people might think, if they think differently?

We must not honor all the opinions of men but some and not others, and not of all men, but some[1]47a. Socrates here makes two observations. On the one hand, he does not accept the opinions of all men, but only some of them. “The opinions of the prudent are correct and of the unwise, wrong”. When an athlete trains, he must pay attention to the praising and the admonitions of a trainer and a doctor, not just anyone. If he listens to the advice of most people, who are not experts, he will get harmed. Bad advice will harm his body. We must “honor and fear”[1]47d the expert. But if it’s bad to harm our bodies, “is it worth living with that which injustice harms, and justice benefits, destroyed? Or do we think that it is less important than our bodies, that, whichever one of our own that is, which is related to justice and injustice?…Might it be more precious than the body?”[1]47e-48a

What is this “one of ours” that is harmed by bad advice relating to justice? Where do they harm us in the same manner that bad medical advice harms the body? Socrates obviously speaks of the soul, the virtue of which he usually paralleled with the health of the body. So, whoever gives us bad advice of this sort is much worse than a bad doctor, because the first one will make us unjust and evil men, while “we must not care more about life than for honest life”[1]48b. His sense of righteousness (one might say his honor) holds for Socrates the highest place in his thought and his life, and that is the real reason he refused to escape his execution. He has to pay his debt to the state (which is the same as the Athenians), do what is best for his sons and remain diligent according to his convictions, not deny them and make it seem like, now in old age, he acts like a child.

Ana Maria Edulescu - Philosopher Socrates 2
Ana Maria Edulescu – Philosopher Socrates 2 (photo)

That is why his death marked the western world and up until today shadows any criticism of his philosophy. His conversion to a martyr played a big part in his posthumous fame, which, if we believe Xenophon, he took very seriously; both his own and of others. In Xenophon’s Apology (30.31), Socrates credits his accuser Anytus of having an ill soul, a slavish occupation and of being a bad advisor, which will lead his son to disgraceful desires and on the road of reprobation. Xenophon says that this was indeed what happened: “Anytus, even dead, has a bad reputation due to the improper behavior of his son and his own lack of judgement”. Socrates is not indifferent to the opinions of others, he simply chooses whose opinion he cares about.

On the other hand (apart from the fact that only the opinions of a few matter), not all opinions of men matter, but only some of them. Socrates does not recognize authority in wisdom. Even to someone like Crito, whom we see he respected as an interlocutor (both in his synonymous dialogue and in others, but also from what we conclude by the references to their previous conversations and “agreements”), he speaks as he did with any other interlocutor in Plato’s works. He does not ascribe to him special value or treat him differently just because he is not one of the ‘most people’, but he uses his examination method to figure out if Crito’s words have any meaning and to find out what the right thing to do is. He did not recognize in anyone wisdom in everything, but acted “as a gadfly”, annoying the Athenians with his examination.


“So, we mustn’t, my friend, care so much for what most people will say, but what the one who knows about justice and injustice will say, the one, and truth itself[1]48a. “Were we correct in other occasions or not that we must pay attention to some opinions and not others? Or before my conviction to death, it has become obvious that we were saying these things only in a manner of speaking, and in reality were only games and empty claims?”[1]46c. One could say that the mass, however ignorant or unworthy it might be, has the power even to kill us (like the Athenians with their slanders). Perhaps then we necessarily have to care for the opinions of most people, since what happened to Socrates shows us that they are capable of not just the smallest evils but of the greater ones as well. “I wish, Crito, that the many were capable of great evils, because that would mean they were capable of the greater goods as well…But they are not capable of neither for the one nor for the other…but act on chance”[1]44b. Socrates did not care for life, but the honest life. So his argumentation stands –the great danger he faces doesn’t change his mind. Truth and justice are not dependent on conditions.


[1] Plato – Crito (or on what is to be done)
[2] Plato – Apology of Socrates

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