Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Willing Prisoner

The trial of Socrates took place early in May. It would have been followed almost immediately by his execution but for a happy ordering of events, to which we owe what may well be called the most significant and beautiful of his utterances. On the day before that of his condemnation, the priest of Apollo had put the sacred garland on the stern of the ship which was to sail to Delos, carrying the embassy which Athens sent year by year to take part in the festival of the Delian Apollo. In the interval between the departure and the return of this vessel, commonly a period of thirty days, no condemned person could be put to death. The time was spent by the philosopher in converse with his friends, who seem to have been permitted to have free access to his cell. Two of these conversations have been recorded by Plato. It is impossible to say how far we have the actual words of Socrates. It is probable that the arguments have received considerable accessions from the mind of the reporter, but that the narrative is a fairly exact representation of the truth.



The Dialogue to which the name of Crito has been given, took place in the prison before the return of the Sacred Ship. Crito was one of the wealthiest men in Athens. He had been accustomed to contribute liberally to the master's support; he was among the friends who volunteered to find the money for the fine which Socrates proposed as the alternative punishment to death; and he had now been using his money to smooth the way for the prisoner's escape. The conversation was something to this effect.

Socrates.  "Why so early, Crito? It is not morning yet?"

Crito.  "No, it isn't."

Socrates.  "What is the time then?"

Crito.  "Just before dawn."

Socrates.  "I am surprised that the jailor let you in."

Crito.  "He knows me well, because I have been here so often to see you, and he has had something from me too."

Socrates.  "Have you been here a long time?"

Crito.  "Fairly long."

Socrates.  "Why did you not wake me then?"

Crito.  "Well, Socrates, to tell the truth, I should not have cared to be awake in such a plight as this. I was astonished to see how quietly you were sleeping, and it was on purpose that I forbore to wake you, for I want your time to go as pleasantly as it may. Often before have I admired the easy way in which you took things, but never so much as I do at present, so easily, so gently do you take your trouble."

Socrates.  "Surely, Crito, it would be absurd for a man at my age to make any trouble about dying."

Crito.  "Well, Socrates, others just as old as you, for all their age, are greatly troubled when they find themselves in such a plight as yours."

Socrates.  "May be. But what made you come so early?"

Crito.  "I have brought some news, not bad news for you, Socrates, I can easily understand, but to me and to your other friends as bad as could be."

Socrates.  "What do you mean? Has the ship come from Delos?"

Crito.  "It has not actually come, but it will come to-day. So I understand from some people who have come from Sunium and left it there. Their news means that it will come to-day, and that to-morrow will be the last day of your life."

Socrates.  "Let us hope it is all for the best. God must order it as He thinks fit: still I do not think that the ship will come to-day."

Crito.  "What makes you think so?"

Socrates.  "I will tell you; you say I must die the day after it returns."

Crito.  "So I am told by the authorities."

Socrates.  "Then I think that it won't come the day that is now dawning, but on the day after. My reason is a certain dream that I have had to-night, and just a little while ago. It seems very likely that you did quite right not to wake me."

Crito.  "What was the dream?"

Socrates.  "I saw in my sleep a fair woman dressed in white apparel, coming up to me. She called me by my name and said, 'O Socrates, on the third day hence thou shalt win unto deep-foamed Phthias' strand.' "

Crito.  "What an absurd dream, Socrates!"

Socrates.  "But quite plain, I think."

Crito.  "Very plain indeed. But, my dear Socrates, do listen to me and consent to save your life."

Crito then proceeds to urge various arguments upon the philosopher. People will think very badly of him and his friends if they don't save their master's life, seeing that this could be done at no very great expenditure of money, by bribing jailors and such people. Of course they would be running a certain risk in doing so; but this they were prepared for; it was only their duty to encounter it, and, after all it would be no great matter to buy the silence of the informers, as they had bought the connivance of the prison officials. Besides, there were foreigners, Simmias for instance, who was a Theban, quite ready to undertake this part of the business, and these would not be exposed to any of the danger that an Athenian citizen would incur. As for Socrates himself, he would be doing wrong if he neglected the opportunity of saving his life. He was doing just what his enemies wished. Then he must consider his children. Was he right in leaving them desolate? A father owed a duty to those who owed their life to him. And he must decide at once. He must escape that very night. If he did not, it would be too late.

Socrates is ready with his answer to these arguments, and the sum of it was this: Is it right or is it wrong for me to make my escape if I can? By a bold image he personifies the laws of his country, and imagines them as addressing him. "What are you thinking of doing, Socrates?" they are supposed to say to him. "What complaint have you against us, that you go about to destroy us, for the man who ventures on the strength of his own private opinion to upset a solemn decision of the courts, is destroying the laws by which the state subsists? You owe to us your existence, your father, your mother; have you any fault to find with the marriage laws which brought them together?" He could but answer, "No." "Have you any," they continued, "with the laws about the rearing and education of children, to which you owe your teaching in liberal arts, and your bodily training?" These, too, he could but acknowledge to be good. "Then again, a child must not return evil for evil to father or mother, if he is struck he must not strike back, but must put up with what he has to endure. Now your country is infinitely more worthy of reverence than your parents. How much more, then, you must yield to her if she is angry with you, failing to persuade her, you must yield to her, do what she bids you, and suffer what she puts upon you; if she bids you go to battle, you must obey, and suffer wounds and even death, sooner than leave your place in the ranks. And the court of justice must be as the battle-field to you. You must submit to what your country puts upon you." This it must be allowed, is a very cogent argument; and we cannot doubt, so thoroughly is it in accord with his usual teaching, that Socrates was perfectly sincere in using it. But it is no less clear that the determination to remain and submit to his, sentence was, we may even say, as much a matter of inclination as of duty. The safe and comfortable home which Crito offered him in Thessaly, did not attract him. If he did not live in Athens he would not live anywhere. This is brought out very clearly in what the Laws are represented as saying by way of enforcing their argument.

"And you, Socrates, would be more to blame, if you were to do what we are thinking of than any other Athenian would be. For we have abundant proofs that we and this city of ours have always been very much to your mind. Surely you would not have tarried in Athens so much more than anyone else, if you had not taken more pleasure than anyone else in it. You never left the city for any festival or games except it was once to the festival of the Isthmus; you never went anywhither, except it might be on military service; for no other kind of cause were you ever absent, such as takes most men abroad; you never had a desire to see any other city than this, or make acquaintance with any other laws. We and our city were always sufficient for you. Remember, too, that at your trial you might, if you had so wished, have proposed the penalty of banishment. What you now think of doing against the will of your country, you might then have done with her consent. But you made fine professions then that you did not refuse to die, if so it must be, and that you preferred death to banishment. Of these professions you are not now ashamed, you take no account of us, but you want to do what the most worthless slave might do, you want to run away."

All this no doubt expresses the very inmost heart of Socrates. It was not only the dishonour of a life purchased at the cost of all his professions and principles that he refused to submit to, it was also the intolerable ennui of an existence that was to be passed anywhere but in the intellectual atmosphere of Athens. Mr. Grote thinks, as has been said, that no other city would have endured him so long; we may perhaps, add the converse, and say that he could have endured no other.