The Standing Invitation


with 3 comments

Shortly before his execution for the crime of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates was visited in his prison cell by his friend Crito, who offered Socrates a chance to escape. To Crito’s surprise, Socrates turned him down, remained in his cell, and was made to drink hemlock soon after.

Socrates said that he saw all this coming. He knew at the outset that his determination to challenge presumed authority wherever he found it would make him powerful enemies; knew that the consequences would be dire, perhaps fatal. But because he knew what would happen – and because, motivated by a higher commitment to intellectual honesty, he went ahead anyway – he was duty bound to accept his punishment, however severe. He’d already made his decision. Now he was following through with it.

What we have here is a social contract: a citizen’s implicit agreement to abide by a society’s rules in order to benefit from the services it offers. Yes, Athenian society was corrupt and killed dissenters, but there were other societies to choose from, and Socrates had chosen Athens. He had made a free-market decision that this society offered the best cost/benefit ratio, and going to his death was, to him, keeping his end of the bargain.

Very noble, and very moving; but was his analysis correct?

The notion of accepting a society’s demands because you were free to choose another has a dangerous flip-side. It showed its face in a recent documentary about radical Islam, where a clear-eyed young man and self-confessed terrorist calmly stated that the government of the UK had committed terrible crimes; and because the British people voted for that government in a free election, they are directly responsible for its actions. They are enemy combatants, valid targets for military action.

This is an appalling doctrine. And yet it is only the social contract turned on its head. If you consent to benefitting from society’s gains, you also consent to culpability for its crimes.

That is my objection to Socrates’ acquiescence. He should not have taken it lying down. Contrast it with an assessment by Christopher Hitchens:

…as you read this you are in effect wearing a military uniform and sitting in a very exposed trench. You exist at the whim of people whose power does not derive from your own consent and who regard you as expendable, disposable. You merely failed to notice the moment at which you were conscripted. … I do not recognise the legitimacy of a government that puts me in that position.

No system of representative government perfectly expresses the view of any one person. Nor should it; that way lies dictatorship. Democratic government is a compromise reached between people with wildly differing views. I heartily endorse the machinery of government that takes as input suggestions for policies, and then modifies and improves them with bargaining and debate – but I reserve the right not to be happy with the result.

When Crito came to Socrates, I would rather Socrates had found the government that sentenced him guilty of gross negligence, and decided that the social contract no longer bound him. I would rather he’d escaped. But then, I do like a happy ending.


The Hitchens bit was from Letters to a Young Contrarian.

The dialogue of Crito can be found in its entirety here.


Written by The S I

October 13, 2011 at 11:59 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Hello there,

    I found your blog while browsing through recent posts on Plato. Interesting subject.

    In Crito, Socrates said that, if he had believed the laws of Athens to be unjust, he had had many opportunities to try to change it, or leave the city. Since he did neither, he implicitly acknowledged the Law to be just and binding. Socrates was not suffering injustice from the Law, but the people who perverted the Law. If he had escaped, he would have broken the Law itself, which would be unjust on his part. Since he believed it better to suffer injustice than to commit it, he chose to die rather than commit injustice. Noble, yes, but also rational.


    October 14, 2011 at 6:49 am

    • Thanks for that, Nemo. Yes, another aspect of Socrates’ argument was that one should not meet injustice with injustice. Now I must admit that if I’m playing a game and find that my opponents are cheating, I leave the game. I do not consider myself to be bound by the rules if my opponents are not. But then, perhaps my passion for Justice as a capitalised abstract is not as strong as Socrates’.

      The S I

      October 14, 2011 at 9:06 am

      • I think the contract, is not between you and your opponent, but between you and the game itself, If you choose to play a game, you implicitly accept its rules, both the rewards and the penalties, regardless who your opponents are and whether they cheat or not. If you leave the game, the rules of the game still apply, i.e., it may result in an automatic forfeit and a win for your opponent.

        If Socrates had escaped, he would have forfeited his (and his children’s) rights as citizens of Athens, and remained a fugitive from the law for the rest of his life. To Socrates, it would be a life without honor and justice and therefore a life not worth living.


        October 15, 2011 at 8:17 am

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