On Our Obligation to Obey the Law – a short reading from Plato’s Crito

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“Do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and trampled upon by individuals?”

Introduction

In the year 399 B.C., in Athens, Socrates was brought to trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. He was found guilty and condemned to death. The Crito, written by Plato, is a dialogue between Socrates and his good friend Crito. It is set in Socrates’ jail cell the day before he is due to be executed. Crito has come at the break of dawn to persuade Socrates to disobey the law and break out of jail. He has already bribed the guards and made all necessary arrangements to allow Socrates to escape. But Crito ultimately fails to persuade Socrates and he remains in his cell to await his execution.

In this passage, Socrates argues that he has an obligation to obey the law and remain in his cell, even if he was unjustly sentenced to death.

Reading

The following reading is from the Crito by Plato, translation by Benjamin Jowett. The full text can be read online at Project Gutenberg or a more modern translation of the Crito can be bought on Amazon. You can also listen to an audio version of this reading on Youtube.

SOCRATES: Ought a man to do what he admits to be right, or ought he to betray the right?

CRITO: He ought to do what he thinks right.

SOCRATES: But if this is true, what is the application? In leaving the prison against the will of the Athenians, do I wrong any? or rather do I not wrong those whom I ought least to wrong? Do I not desert the principles which were acknowledged by us to be just—what do you say?

CRITO: I cannot tell, Socrates; for I do not know.

SOCRATES: Then consider the matter in this way:—Imagine that I am about to play truant (you may call the proceeding by any name which you like), and the laws and the government come and interrogate me: ‘Tell us, Socrates,’ they say; ‘what are you about? are you not going by an act of yours to overturn us—the laws, and the whole state, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and trampled upon by individuals?’ What will be our answer, Crito, to these and the like words? Anyone, and especially a rhetorician, will have a good deal to say on behalf of the law which requires a sentence to be carried out. He will argue that this law should not be set aside; and shall we reply, ‘Yes; but the state has injured us and given an unjust sentence.’ Suppose I say that?

CRITO: Very good, Socrates.

SOCRATES: ‘And was that our agreement with you?’ the law would answer; ‘or were you to abide by the sentence of the state?’ And if I were to express my astonishment at their words, the law would probably add: ‘Answer, Socrates, instead of opening your eyes—you are in the habit of asking and answering questions. Tell us,—What complaint have you to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the state? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?’ None, I should reply. ‘Or against those of us who after birth regulate the nurture and education of children, in which you also were trained? Were not the laws, which have the charge of education, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?’ Right, I should reply. ‘Well then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to your father or your master, if you had one, because you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands? You would not say this. And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? Will you, O professor of true virtue, pretend that you are justified in this? Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and either to be persuaded, or if not persuaded, to be obeyed? And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she lead us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country.’ What answer shall we make to this, Crito? Do the laws speak truly, or do they not?

CRITO: I think that they do.

Discussion

The central question raised in this passage is: Do we have an obligation to obey the law, and if so, why are we obligated? Socrates speaks on behalf of the laws and argues that he must obey, even if this means he will be put to death, and even if he was unjustly sentenced in the first place.

First he argues that by disobeying the law he will harming the city by contributing to the destruction of it’s legal institutions. He goes on to say that he is obligated to obey the law in a similar way that a child is obligated to obey a parent. A son should never attack his parents; he owes them for bringing him into this world, for educating and raising him. Without them, he would not even exist. Similarly, without laws around marriage his parents would never have come together to have a child, without educational laws he wouldn’t have received a proper education. And there are countless other laws from which he has benefited from living under. A citizen should never harm the city’s legal institutions because he owes them for bringing him into the world, for educating and raising him. Without the laws, he would not even exist. Socrates claims that to harm the state would be a greater crime than harming one’s parents.

This passage is an early example of the gratitude theory of political obligation. But it also raises problems about whether we are obligated to obey unjust laws. This is a topic that Plato will (partially) address in the next reading: On Consenting to Laws – another short reading from the Crito.

For a more thorough discussion, Dr. Gregory Sadler has several videos on the Crito. This one gives a general introduction to the dialogue, while this one focuses specifically on this section of the dialogue.

Further Reading

To learn more about the ideas of Socrates and Plato, please see the following links:

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