Why We Shouldn’t Trust the Opinion of the Majority – a short reading from Plato’s Crito

Lennox Johnson reading 3 Comments

“Then, my friend, we must not regard what the many say of us; but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say.”

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. In fact, he has already bribed the guards and made all necessary arrangements to allow Socrates to escape. But Socrates will only go if he can be convinced, through rational discussion, that breaking the law would be the just thing to do.

In this passage, Crito argues that if Socrates does not escape, the majority of Athenians will believe it was because he was too cheap to spend money bribing the guards and nothing could be more shameful that a man who values money over the life of a friend. Socrates counters by arguing that we should not regard the opinion of the majority, but only the opinions of those who are wise or knowledgeable.

Reading

The following passage is from section 44b – 48a of Plato’s Crito, translation by Benjamin Jowett. You can listen to an audio version of this reading on Youtube.

CRITO: But, oh! my beloved Socrates, let me entreat you once more to take my advice and escape. For if you die I shall not only lose a friend who can never be replaced, but there is another evil: people who do not know you and me will believe that I might have saved you if I had been willing to give money, but that I did not care. Now, can there be a worse disgrace than this—that I should be thought to value money more than the life of a friend? For the many will not be persuaded that I wanted you to escape, and that you refused.

SOCRATES: But why, my dear Crito, should we care about the opinion of the many? Good men, and they are the only persons who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they occurred.

CRITO: But you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, for what is now happening shows that they can do the greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion.

SOCRATES: I only wish it were so, Crito; and that the many could do the greatest evil; for then they would also be able to do the greatest good—and what a fine thing this would be! But in reality they can do neither; for they cannot make a man either wise or foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.

[Crito desperately tries a number of arguments to persuade Socrates to escape. He claims he has already made all the arrangements, that Socrates is neglecting his duty to his children, and that Socrates’ decision not to break out of jail lacks manly courage.]

SOCRATES: Dear Crito, your zeal is invaluable, if a right one; but if wrong, the greater the zeal the greater the danger; and therefore we ought to consider whether I shall or shall not do as you say. For 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 chance has befallen me, I cannot repudiate my own words: the principles which I have hitherto honoured and revered I still honour, and unless we can at once find other and better principles, 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. What will be the fairest way of considering the question? Shall I return to your old argument about the opinions of men?—we were saying that some of them are to be regarded, and others not. Now were we right in maintaining this before I was condemned? And has the argument which was once good now proved to be talk for the sake of talking—mere childish nonsense? That is what I want to consider with your help, Crito:—whether, under my present circumstances, the argument appears to be in any way different or not; and is to be allowed by me or disallowed. That argument, which, as I believe, is maintained by many persons of authority, was to the effect, as I was saying, that the opinions of some men are to be regarded, and of other men not to be regarded. Now you, Crito, are not going to die to-morrow—at least, there is no human probability of this—and therefore you are disinterested and not liable to be deceived by the circumstances in which you are placed. Tell me then, whether I am right in saying that some opinions, and the opinions of some men only, are to be valued, and that other opinions, and the opinions of other men, are not to be valued. I ask you whether I was right in maintaining this?

CRITO: Certainly.

SOCRATES: The good are to be regarded, and not the bad?

CRITO: Yes.

SOCRATES: And the opinions of the wise are good, and the opinions of the unwise are evil?

CRITO: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And what was said about another matter? Is the pupil who devotes himself to the practice of gymnastics supposed to attend to the praise and blame and opinion of every man, or of one man only—his physician or trainer, whoever he may be?

CRITO: Of one man only.

SOCRATES: And he ought to fear the censure and welcome the praise of that one only, and not of the many?

CRITO: Clearly so.

SOCRATES: And he ought to act and train, and eat and drink in the way which seems good to his single master who has understanding, rather than according to the opinion of all other men put together?

CRITO: True.

SOCRATES: And if he disobeys and disregards the opinion and approval of the one, and regards the opinion of the many who have no understanding, will he not suffer evil?

CRITO: Certainly he will.

SOCRATES: And what will the evil be, whither tending and what affecting, in the disobedient person?

CRITO: Clearly, affecting the body; that is what is destroyed by the evil.

SOCRATES: Very good; and is not this true, Crito, of other things which we need not separately enumerate? In questions of just and unjust, fair and foul, good and evil, which are the subjects of our present consultation, ought we to follow the opinion of the many and to fear them; or the opinion of the one man who has understanding? ought we not to fear and reverence him more than all the rest of the world: and if we desert him shall we not destroy and injure that principle in us which may be assumed to be improved by justice and deteriorated by injustice—there is such a principle?

CRITO: Certainly there is, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Take a parallel instance:—if, acting under the advice of those who have no understanding, we destroy that which is improved by health and is deteriorated by disease, would life be worth having? And that which has been destroyed is—the body?

CRITO: Yes.

SOCRATES: Could we live, having an evil and corrupted body?

CRITO: Certainly not.

SOCRATES: And will life be worth having, if that higher part of man be destroyed, which is improved by justice and depraved by injustice? Do we suppose that principle, whatever it may be in man, which has to do with justice and injustice, to be inferior to the body?

CRITO: Certainly not.

SOCRATES: More honourable than the body?

CRITO: Far more.

SOCRATES: Then, my friend, we must not regard what the many say of us; but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say. And therefore you begin in error when you advise that we should regard the opinion of the many about just and unjust, good and evil, honourable and dishonourable.

Discussion

The central question raised in this passage is: Whose opinion should we care about on matters of justice and injustice? Should we pay attention to what the many think? Or should we listen to those who are wise and knowledgeable? Socrates makes an argument along the following lines: If you were sick, you wouldn’t follow medical advice gathered from a random public opinion poll. You would seek advice from someone knowledgeable about medicine and physical health, namely a doctor. If you listen to the opinion of the majority over the opinion of the doctor, your health will suffer.

The same principle applies to matters of justice and injustice, honor and dishonor. The majority of people are ignorant on these matters. If we blindly accept the majority opinion on matters of justice, we are likely to do great damage to our spiritual/mental/moral well-being. If we accept the wise or knowledgeable person’s opinion, we are likely to live a just and honorable life. Therefore we shouldn’t pay attention to the opinion of the majority, but only those who are wise and knowledgeable.

But this leaves us with the question: Who in society has genuine knowledge about justice and honor? Socrates doesn’t explicitly say in this dialogue, but this is explored in other platonic dialogues, most notably in The Republic.

For a more thorough discussion, Dr. Gregory Sadler has several videos on the Crito. This one gives a general overview of the dialogue, while his video on The Many and the Wise 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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Comments 3

    1. Post
      Author

      This is definitely a tricky problem and I don’t think there’s any obvious solution. Who counts as an expert? How can I tell the difference between and expert and a fraud? Who do I trust when experts disagree? One way, would be to listen to experts debate about their subject of expertise and try to decide who has the better argument. Another would be to see if there is a consensus among the experts in a field. Or we could compare the track records of experts and see how well they have done in the past. None of these methods are foolproof, but it’s a good place to start. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a section on this issue if you want to learn more: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-social/#LeaTesExp

  1. Good point, we couldn’t ask the public to vote on who’s wise enough to vote. In Britain we do vote for MPs which is the same sorta gig. Something’s gotta change

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