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In Plato's Apology Socrates clearly indicates he would continue to philosophize even if the court ordered him not to:

if now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God orders me to fulfil the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods (29a, Jowett tr.).

In his Crito, however, he accepts a death sentence and refuses to escape from an unjust conviction:

Then will they not say: "[...] Whereas you, above all other Athenians, seemed to be so fond of the state [...] Not so, Socrates, if you will take our advice; do not make yourself ridiculous by escaping out of the city[...]" (53a, Jowett tr.).

If Plato's Socrates is willing to disobey a law which says Don't philosophize, why won't he disobey the state when it comes to life and death?

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    @JosephWeissman actually the question is not ambiguous and I can answer this question. Socrates is acting in the two instances out ofdivine obedience. He will continue to spread philosophy because it will be the will of God if he got released, but since Socrates saw that the will of God is to be executed, then he preferred not to disobey the state and run. Socrates obey the state, but the divine call has the priority in his opinion.
    – mil
    Commented Oct 9, 2015 at 19:12
  • I have added Stephanus page references to your quotations from the Jowett translation.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 16:04
  • @mil I endorse everything you say. There seems to be a lot of interest, so it will be interesting to see what answers emerge if and when the question is reopened.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 18:10
  • Socrates was paradigmatic in defining philosophy because he willingly chose 'martyrdom' to wisdom - death decreed by mundane powers, even in facing death for it. philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/88852/… I link willingness to die for others & ideas to the arising of culture, & connection to transcendental themes here philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/91010/… He was also, trolling.. existentialcomics.com/comic/100
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 22:12

3 Answers 3

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This is a known issue for contemporary history of philosophy, part of what is called the Socratic problem, that is, recovering the history and philosophy of Socrates from the available, subjective sources, given he himself did not leave anything behind. Unfortunately, despite being thoroughly researched and opinionated, academics have not reached any consensus as of today. More details follow.


The SEP entry about Socrates lists what you have noticed in the epigraph Contemporary interpretative strategies (bold mine):

[..] despite Socrates’s commitment to Athenian law, expressed in the Crito, he vows in the Apology that he will disobey the lawful jury if it orders him to stop philosophizing. [..] Three centuries of efforts to solve versions of the Socratic problem are summarized in the following supplementary document:

Early Attempts to Solve the Socratic Problem

Contemporary efforts recycle bits and pieces—including the failures—of these older attempts.

Summarizing, consolidated contemporary efforts have not reached an academic consensus, and could be grouped in two main opposed categories of researchers:

  1. Literary contextualism. There are not inconsistencies because the dialogues are pieces of art and therefore each should be taken on its own stance. Their aim is to highlight philosophical problems, and thus need not to be consistent or taken as historically accurate: Plato is seen as an artist of surpassing literary skill, the ambiguities in whose dialogues are intentional representations of actual ambiguities in the subjects philosophy investigates.
  2. Analytic developmentalism. Gregory Vlastos applied analytic philosophy to Plato's dialogues for finding a Socratic doctrine spanning the dialogues: [..] the focus of analysis is usually on a particular philosophical view in or across dialogues, with no special attention given to context or to dialogues considered as wholes. This approach became very popular, although highly contested in turn: The result of applying the premises is a firm list (contested, of course, by others) of ten theses held by Socrates, all of which are incompatible with the corresponding ten theses held by Plato. [..] Many analytic ancient philosophers in the late twentieth century mined the gold Vlastos had uncovered.

So I am afraid that, for now, we are left with uncertainty, and just can choose ourselves the interpretation which resonates more with our own opinion.

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Two cents.

Socrates is portrayed as a laconophile among other laconophiles (ie opposing athenian democracy)

Socrates himself is portrayed as praising the laws of Sparta and Crete. Critias, a companion of Socrates, helped bring about the oligarchic rule of the Thirty Tyrants, who were supported by Sparta.

This is compatible with Socrate's known doctrine of obedience to the laws of the polis. It is highly contradictory for a person supporting the laws and at the same time being disobedient to them.

But, there is a caveat here. Socrates (eg as portrayed by Plato) was arguing for higher laws than those set by the people (eg in a democracy). This is also compatible with the portrayal of Socrates as praising the laws of oligarchic states like Sparta, since those laws are assumed to be given by wise authorities.

This is compatible also with Socrate's claim that the famous orcale of Delphi (a religious authority accross ancient Greece) appointed him the role to question the views people held as true.

So in the trial, Socrates is between two conflicting "laws", that of the polis (which however he is portrayed as believing that they can and should be questioned), and the law of the highest authority, the oracle of Delphi. The accusation in the trial is exactly asebeia, that is, disrespect for the laws of the polis.

As with many of the issues surrounding Socrates's conviction, the nature of his affiliation with the Thirty Tyrants is far from straightforward.

According to the portraits left by some of Socrates's followers, Socrates himself seems to have openly espoused certain anti-democratic views, the most prominent perhaps being the view that it is not majority opinion that yields correct policy but rather genuine knowledge and professional competence, which is possessed by only a few.[13] Plato also portrays him as being severely critical of some of the most prominent and well-respected leaders of the Athenian democracy;[14] and even has his claim that the officials selected by the Athenian system of governance cannot credibly be regarded as benefactors since it is not any group of many that benefits, but only "someone or very few persons".[15] Finally, Socrates was known as often praising the laws of the undemocratic regimes of Sparta and Crete.[16] Plato himself reinforced anti-democratic ideas in The Republic, advocating rule by elite, enlightened "Philosopher-Kings".

Socrates in a sense, says that the laws which condemn him should be questioned and that he obeys a higher law, but at the same time, since these are the laws of the polis at that time, he will obey and receive the sentence. Socrates may criticize the democratic laws but is not an anarchist, he proclaims obedience to the laws of the polis even if they are not perfect. The only solution to the "dilemma" is for Socrates to both criticize those laws but also accept that they do have legal consequences, since they currently hold for the polis.

It is important to note that Socrates, when asked what sentence the court should give him, he said that he should eat at the Prytaneum (an honor held for some citizens at the athenian democracy).

Having been found guilty of corruption and impiety, Socrates and the prosecutor suggested sentences for the punishment of his crimes against the city-state of Athens. Expressing surprise at the few votes required for an acquittal, Socrates joked that he be punished with free meals at the Prytaneum (the city's sacred hearth), an honour usually held for a benefactor of Athens, and the victorious athletes of an Olympiad.

The ultimate critique of the athenian law, for Socrates, was to obey its consequences. According to Plato's Phaedo the last words of Socrates when dying were:

Once dead, man's soul will go to Hades and be in the company of men departed, better than those whom I leave behind.

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    +1. "The ultimate critique of the athenian law, for Socrates, was to obey its consequences" Spot on.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 21:57
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The Euthyphro, the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo are all situated at different points in the story of the trial and death of Socrates. But it does not follow that they are written as chapters in a single narrative. They may have been written as free-standing discussions of distinct topics, and indeed when one considers the various philosophical agendas, this also seems a reasonable approach. So if there is apparent inconsistency between the Apology and the Crito, it may be no more than a reflection of the way that they were written. We’ll probably never know.

You ask: -- “If Plato's Socrates is willing to disobey a law which says Don't philosophize, why won't he disobey the state when it comes to life and death?”

I don’t think this is inconsistent. Socrates points out several times that he does not fear death and even thinks it may be a good thing. So one assumes that he thinks that philosophy is more important than his own life. Perhaps he believes that breaking a law to pursue philosophy is worth it, but breaking it to save his own life is not. That would be a comprehensible choice.

What is less easy to understand why he does not think it worth while to save his own life so that he can pursue his mission for longer. This might be achieved by going into exile. But he is clear that he is not willing to do that. However, being unable to pursue philosophy is not one of the reasons he offers. In the Apology, at (37b – d), he considers the possibility of proposing exile as his penalty (see note at end of this answer) and seems to assume that this would not prevent him from philosophizing.

He dismisses the idea on the ground that there is no reason to propose anything “evil” since he has done nothing wrong. He thinks exile would make his life hard because he would be hounded from city to city as the local citizens got fed up with him. He never considers the point that this would enable him to continue his mission. Of course, it may be that he thinks that his mission is not merely to philosophize, but to do so at Athens, to instruct the Athenians. Exile would prevent that.

In the Crito, the die is cast. There still remains a way out – to escape prison and flee the city, and this is what Crito is urging Socrates to do. His decision not to accept Crito’s offer is no surprise, since he rejected exile in the Apology. But the reason he gives for rejecting it is different. He agrees with Crito that it is wrong to return wrong for wrong. So the fact that the verdict is wrong, is no excuse for breaking the law. His duty to the law is explained as an “agreement” – in effect, a contract – which is established by anyone who stays in the city after he has seen how the laws govern the state and dispense justice. Disobedience is wrong in three ways; the laws parented him from childhood, they have taken care of him and he has chosen to stay in Athens.

The laws themselves explain why escaping illegally would not be worth it, including why it would not be possible to fulfil his mission.

. . all who care for their own cities will look askance at you, and will consider you a destroyer of the laws, and you will confirm the judges in their opinion, so that they will think their verdict was just. For he who is destroyer of the laws might certainly be regarded as a destroyer of young and thoughtless men. . . Or will you go to them and have the face to carry on — what kind of conversation, Socrates? The same kind you carried on here, > saying that virtue and justice and lawful things and the laws are the most precious things to men? And do you not think that the conduct of Socrates would seem most disgraceful?” (53b – d)

I see difference between the dialogues, and a variety of different explanations rather than a single consistent case, but not inconsistency. It might be possible to work out what’s going on. (For example, Plato might be providing the most appropriate of the available explanations for the specific context at stage of the argument.) But I think that would not be necessary to answer the question.

  • Note on sentences after guilty verdicts in the Athenian system

Athenian practice was that when someone is found guilty of a crime, prosecutor and defendant are each required to propose a penalty. The jury had a binary vote for one or the other. Naturally, the prosecution will propose the most severe penalty that he thinks might be imposed and the defence will propose the most lenient penalty that he thinks he might get away with.

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