Plato’s Apology and Crito provide complicated concepts regarding Socrates’ obligation to the Athenian polis and the democratic ideal of nomos. In both dialogues, the reader gleans instances in which Socrates professes condemnation of the majority, pitting it against the just and reasonable. Despite his distrust of Athenian democracy, Socrates accepts his fate at the hands of this very institution, thereby exemplifying an ultimate act of faith or piety. This willful leap into death, however, is more a redemption of the just philosopher than that of the pious citizen.
Though he rarely explicitly chastises Athenian democracy, Socrates’ makes telling remarks in the Apology and Crito, which helps to illuminate his stance on the issue. He tells the courtroom, “No man will survive who genuinely opposes you or any other crowd and prevents the occurrence of many unjust and illegal happenings in the city. A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time” (Apology 31e-32a). In a rather tongue-in-cheek instance, Socrates implies that the nature of Athenian democracy precludes the participation of any person who “fights for justice”. Similarly, in Crito, Socrates expresses dissatisfaction with Athenians as a whole as he tells Crito not to care about the majority’s opinion, for the “most reasonable people, to whom one should pay more attention, will believe that things were done as they were done” (44c). He proceeds to explain the majority’s ineptitude, calling it “haphazard” and unable to exact any significant outcome (44d). In other words, the majority is not like “most reasonable people”; it is random, ignorant, and prone to bad decisions.
Justice and reason are paramount to Socrates’ pursuit of philosophy. A self-proclaimed “gift from the gods” (Apology 30e), Socrates believes his divine mission is to shed light on Athenians’ ignorance on these virtues and bring about a newfound wisdom in the polis: one that is more rooted in self-awareness. It is clear, then, why Socrates criticizes Athenian democracy, as it staggers from the path of justice and reason. The nature of the majority precludes any possibility of a meaningful discourse—something Socrates finds one-on-one with his interlocutors. Fully aware that he was unjustly condemned to death, Socrates remains true to himself in the Crito, accepting his death as the final exemplification of the just philosopher.
In Crito, Socrates gives voice to Athenian Laws, laying down the moral obligations he has towards the polis. Responding to Crito’s pleas for his escape, he explains that he must oblige by the laws of the state from which he’s benefited his whole life (Crito 51c-d). Rather than an act of ultimate loyalty or piety to the state, however, Socrates’ obligation is grounded in his own sense of justice. He explains that “wrong for wrong and mistreatment for mistreatment” is the unjust path (54c). Clearly, Socrates would abide by his sense of justice in similar circumstances had he lived in an entirely other polis or country, under other laws and obligations. Willfully going through with his execution, Socrates remains unwavering in his pursuit of the good life.
Socrates’ pursuit of philosophy clashed with Athenian nomos. He lived between the spheres of public and private life, prodding his fellow citizens into meaningful self-criticism. Viewing Socrates and his way of life as an affront to Athenian society, the jurors condemned him to death. To Socrates, this was a telling example of the majority’s shortcomings with regards to justice and reason. Socrates’ sense of virtue far outweighed his obligations to Athens. It is only because the two became conflated, as exemplified in the Crito, that Socrates upholds his obligations to the laws. In this sense, Socrates’ death is a final instance of the just philosopher, rather than the pious citizen.
Cooper, John. Plato: Complete Works. “Crito” and “Apology”.