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Socrates, the laws and the power of the state

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

“Their teacher is a prisoner of himself, and the only act of ‘freedom’ he recognizes is embracing death. Will they succeed in convincing him to escape from himself?”
Kostis Papagiorgis, Socrates – the lawgiver that kills himself

In ancient Athens, in order to execute any condemned prisoner, the sacred ship of the city, Paralos, had to be docked at bay. So, after Socrates’ conviction, a whole month interceded until his execution, since Paralos was stalled by bad weather in the island of Delos, attending Apollo’s festival. When the ship was seen approaching, Crito[1], a friend of Socrates, visited him one last time. He tried to convince him to escape, now that he had one day left. Crito said he could pay off the guards and send him in Thessaly, from where he could then go anywhere he wanted or stay there with Crito’s friends who would greet and take care of him until his final days.

With very clear argumentation Socrates explains to his friend why he is forced to deny this offer, and gives reason for willingly accepting his sentence delivered by the Athenians to drink the hemlock[2] that will end his life.

Ana Maria Edulescu - Socrates Look
Ana Maria Edulescu – Socrates Look (photo)

Socrates extols the laws of the city, since it is them that made her “the most grand and famous city for her wisdom and power”[2]29d. It’s the laws that allowed him to be raised and educated, and to have lived such a happy life that “so far I would not accept that anyone I’ve met has lived a better life than me”[3]5. He loved his city so much that he would leave her “for a shorter time than lame men, blind men and other amputees”[1]53a, neither going away as a traveler to other cities nor to attend games. The only time he had to leave the city-state, was to fight for her and defend her (he joined combat in three war campaigns). For his parents to get married, they had to get affirmation from the city, so he feels he even owes his birth to the city. How could he now, that these same laws happen to turn against him, deny them and escape?

His trial and conviction took place as the laws commanded; the court had a lawful assembly and held in session as the lawmaker prescribed. There was no transgression, nor any misappropriation of the lawful procedure. The charge came from men who thought Socrates disrespected the gods of the city, that he denied them and introduced new ones, and that he corrupted the youth. Then, 500 citizens decided his guilt lawfully and freely. Besides, Socrates never felt forced to accept these laws –he freely decided to live lawfully- but he could at any moment leave the city if he believed that the laws were unjust, taking with him his family and any possessions he had. If he escapes “in such a vulgar way, rendering injustice and evilness”[1]54c, Hades’ laws would receive him accordingly, because he would have tried, as much as he could, to break down the laws of Athens. And it’s not the laws that are responsible for his conviction, but the men who made the decision (he himself knew of course that he was innocent, therefore the laws, in essence, are on his side).

His birth, then, his raising and his education are due to the city which, through her laws, gave him the chance to be the best he could. If he now decides to break them, he will cancel an unwritten social contract, proving himself to be a traitor and inconsistent to his responsibilities towards the Athenians. He will smear his honor and reputation. To escape would mean to do “what the most detestable servant did”[1]52d, trying to “escape against the agreements and the promises”[1]52d he gave that he would live according to the law. Besides, in case he reached another city, how could he then live amongst those men, when they would know that he says one thing and does another? Who would listen to him and respect him when they would know that his word doesn’t count for anything and therefore his teachings don’t matter? He would end up, in order to be liked, to flatter everyone and not bother anyone, something he is not willing to do. He would have to stop his annoying questions that so far have uncloaked those who pretended to be wise without knowing anything, not even knowing the extent of their ignorance. “It is impossible for me to live quietly”[2]37e, he had said in the Apology.

Jacques-Louis David - The death of Socrates (1787)
Jacques-Louis David – The death of Socrates (1787) (photo)

Socrates is so dedicated to the laws, that he thinks breaking them would aid in their, and the polity’s, demise and the destruction of the city. “Or do you think”, he says, “that it is possible for that city to still exist and not be overrun, in which the decisions of the courts do not stand, but are made invalid and subverted by civilians?”[1]50b. Whether, he says, the city sends us to war to get hurt or killed, or she throws us in prison if we fail to convince her otherwise, we must obey, and we will not act justly if we avoid conscription, if we retreat or desert from a war or if we avoid punishment from the court. “It is impious to act in violence against our mother and father, but isn’t it a lot more impious to act like that against country?”[1]51c.

We can’t fail to notice here a tendency to idolize in the words of Socrates. Is it possible for the laws to be so highly valued, that he is willing to sacrifice his life (and moreover “the best possible life”) simply because the laws command him to? And is it possible for him to mean literally what he said about the integrity of the city’s polity depending upon his very actions? If this stance looks extreme or even idealistic it is because, in our times, the laws are not our laws but the laws of others. But in ancient Athens, the laws were decided by her citizens by vote, not behind closed doors. Today there is an alienation from the laws (as Cornelius Castoriades means it), that’s why there is no respect for them, since they are forced on people, when they should be convincing them.

Socrates could easily avoid death, either by escaping (utilizing his friend’s help) or accepting exile as an alternative punishment (during his trial). It is this absolute nature of this attitude that makes it difficult for us to understand it. And this is why all that he says can be misconstrued as a dogma for complete surrender to the state, of uncritical self-subjugation to a court decision and of complete control of the citizens through legislature. How else could we explain the acceptance of a conviction that Socrates knows is unjust, when the price is death and escape so easy? Is he likely to try and convince us that we should blindly obey whatever the state dictates? That we should give ourselves completely to it? Give even our lives, if asked?

He, of course, is not so naïve to suggest such an absolute version of the relationship between state and individual. He does not preach the uncritical acceptance of the state’s will, and doesn’t blackmail us by suggesting that we owe our growth and education (even our being) to the state. And that’s because before his surrender to the laws’ power, Socrates has already freely accepted them. He has already stated that he considers Athens’ laws valid and just; he has recognized them as being better than any other city’s. He has not experienced our modern alienation from our laws or from our state. They don’t force on him and don’t repress him. He has agreed to them and this, he says, is apparent by him living and flourishing in this city. If he didn’t agree to them, he would be obliged to try and change them and if he couldn’t convince Athens to do so, he was always free to go to Sparta or Crete, which he also thought to be lawful cities[3]. The laws that allowed him to become who he was, the ones that he utilized for years in his personal and public affairs, now ask him for a price. The price is not death, the price is for him to not contribute, to the extent that he could, to their breakdown. And if his way of paying off this price means death, then he agrees to die.

So it is his conscience (or his daimonion) that stops him from escaping prison and avoiding death, not his deliverance to the power of the state. He puts the (just) laws above everything, and rejects the right to break them in the case they happen to decide against him; let alone after he called on them all his life to his benefit. Because the power and validity of the laws can only be sustained if they are invariable, and they are mocked, or even broken down, if their decisions are only occasionally respected; meaning when someone avoids punishment by will or convenience, having power, money or influence. We are reminded of this, almost twenty centuries later, by another “man for all seasons”, Thomas More, when, faced with imprisonment and execution for defending the (divine in his case) law, a confidant asks him if he would provide the advantage of the law even to the Devil (parallelizing the cleric that is after him on the king’s order to help him break the law in the king’s favor). “Yes”, he replies, “what would you do, break the law to beat the devil?” – “Yes”, the confidant says emphatically, “I would break down all the laws of Britain to do that!” – “And when the devil turns after you, what will you do, with all the laws of the land broken down; how will you defend yourself against the devil?…Yes, I will give the benefit of the law even to the devil; for my own sake”[4].

Σωκράτης, αντίγραφο από έργο, μάλλον, του Λύσιππου (1ος αιώνας) - Λούβρο
Socrates, a copy of a Lysippos work (1rst century – Louvre) (source: Wikimedia commons)

Nor is Socrates so naïve as to believe that the polity of Athens was without imperfections. He is not a deluded idealist seeing in Athens a perfect society with perfect (in their conception or practice) laws. How could he be while waiting unjust death? In the last quarter of 5th century BC, persecuting intellectuals was intensified, especially for religious reasons. Some, in order to avoid the worst, fled Athens while others, like Anaxagoras, Diagoras and Protagoras, were exiled. In the Apology Socrates refers to an episode from his past, when the Athenians wanted to try some generals (for not rescuing castaway soldiers) all in the same trial, while the law demanded separate procedures, using an ironic remark: “and all this happened when there was democracy in the city”[2]32c. Which means that, not only is there no (functioning) democracy now, but also that, even when there was, the people’s wrath could lead to crimes, specifically by not following laws to the letter, which is what Socrates defended.

Therefore, the laws of his time are not perfect nor do they apply as they should all the time. So why then is he ready to lose everything, for something he believes to be fraudulent? It might look as if Socrates contradicts himself, but his argumentation remains logical. This is because when he talks of a contract between himself and the laws, he means the laws collectively; as the means that keep society bound and make it a just place to live in, not every law singularly. Even if some of them don’t function as they should, they overall make Athens the most lawful city. If he breaks one law, it will be as if he attacks the validity of the entire system of laws, and put all of them at risk – since Socrates can break this law, why wouldn’t someone else break another?

Laws then, protect us only through their total and systemic functioning, through their absolute validity, but also through their constant nature. Aristotle took it a step further (even though his take reads more realistic to us), when in Politics he wrote that even when we can change a law with another, better one, perhaps we should avoid the change if in this way we would be risking the trust of the people in it. The constantly changing law reduces its gravitas and the citizen’s respect (“The ease in changing existing laws into new ones is possible to diminish the power of law”1269a24-26). Why should one obey a law, since in a short time it will perhaps change anyway? And why, if someone with wealth, power or connections can avoid the arm of the law even if he has indeed committed an injustice, should the rest follow the rules of society and not attempt to exploit every opportunity they have to sidestep them? Why shouldn’t they, since so many others do so anyway?

So Socrates presents us with an ideal version of dealing with our responsibilities to the state, Aristotle deals with the problem more realistically, Thomas More doesn’t hide his utilitarian disposition and Castoriades illustrates the complete destruction of people’s trust in the lawmaking procedure. What about us? We watch the annual presentation of a new taxation or educational law and wonder whether the reason of the new version is the law’s betterment or to increase the difficulty of tax evasion, which is considered a given. One wonders, how better is our relationship with the law, compared to last year? One need not wonder long. We could use some of Socrates’ irony, but our current disposition leaves us only with cynicism.


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


[1] Crito was a rich Athenian, in Socrates’ close circle. Perhaps he wrote philosophical texts that are now lost. He makes an appearance in Euthydemus and in Phaedo and is mentioned in the Apology. Even though here he suggests escape, in court he took a vow that there was no “flight risk” for Socrates. He’s the last one Socrates addressed before he died. Xenophon includes him in his Symposium and in Memorabilia.

[2] The poison is produced by the plant conium maculatum. One of the strongest natural poisons along with nicotine, in ancient Athens it was also used as an anaphrodisiac by priests for its narcotic effects. In the form of poison it generates necrosis of the sensory nerves, a loss of muscular strength, an obtuseness of the peripheral senses and intense spasms leading to death.

[3] «The only tolerable form of government was the power of law, which was considered to be an agreement all the members of the city had signed, irrespectively of one’s social position, and therefore binding…the choice one had was to either obey the laws or change them with calm persuasion or to exile himself” (Guthrie). We can also see here that the congruency of Socrates with the laws balances his civil disobedience in the Apology.

[4] The dialogue comes from Robert Bolt’s play on the last days of Thomas More “A man for all seasons”. (this transcription is from memory)

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