Plato's Socrates: The Crito:
Customs (Nomoi) As Parents and Adversaries

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

Introductory Note: When reading Plato, one must keep in mind:

1. Setting (place and circumstances).
2. Characters (attitude and presuppositions).
3. Speeches (words, statements, arguments).
4. Form of the whole dialogue (way it fits together).

1. The dialogue takes place in prison between Socrates and Crito (about Socrates' age). Crito is an old friend who does not entirely grasp the situation. He is concerned about reputation (public opinion) and property. He also believes that physical life is an absolute value. Socrates, on the other hand, values above all the health of the soul (justice). Socrates the consummate idealist and Crito the dull pragmatist: yet both are devoted friends.

2. Note Pythagoras' reference to the body as a tomb or prison.

3. We read that Crito has bribed the guard in order to see Socrates early in the day. Plato is playing off the spiritual imprisonment of Crito against the physical imprisonment of Socrates. By bribing the guard, Crito is escaping into, breaking into the freedom and daylight of Socrates' world. Crito is imprisoned by his estimate of public opinion, his attachment to wealth and property, and finally by his fear of death. Recall Socrates' stand on death in the Apology. Socrates, whose body is imprisoned, has a soul or spirit that is "liberated." Socrates is more free by remaining, according to justice, in prison, than Crito is by remaining outside of prison by doing small acts of injustice such as payoffs, etc. If Socrates escapes, he will be breaking out of justice into injustice. The question Plato places before us: Who is the real prisoner -- one who is enslaved to public opinion and material concerns or one who is indifferent to anything but reason and the voice of justice. The irony is: Just as Crito is attempting to free or save the body of Socrates, Socrates is vigorously attempting to "save" the soul of his friend Crito. Socrates does not fear death or physical harm; he fears doing injustice or spiritual harm.

4. When Crito arrives, Socrates is still sleeping. There is in this first part of the Crito some "play" on the notions of sleeping and waking. Recall that in the Apology, Socrates' mission is to awaken the sleeping city, to alert it to the things that are really important, such as justice -- moral and social order. Thus, Crito, who is apparently awake, is really morally asleep. Socrates, on the other hand, while dozing peacefully, is dreaming of "an afterlife." The "sleepwalking" Crito (unconscious to justice) lets Socrates sleep (peacefully). While Crito, "seemingly awake," plans Socrates' physical escape (to Thessaly, where Crito has friends who will take care of Socrates), Socrates, "actually asleep," dreams a vision of a white-robed goddess calling him home to the land of the blessed, Phthia (the ancient name for a part of Thessaly), the residence of the dead Greek hero Achilles. Note that Crito would have Socrates take his body (without his soul) to Thessaly. Socrates in three days will take his soul to the spiritual Thessaly. Socrates' soul will be completely freed with death.

Question: Plato assumes that human beings are composed of both material body and spiritual soul, and that the health of the soul is more important than the health of the body. What happens to Socrates' position if the existence of a "soul" is denied?
5. Crito and Socrates are in disagreement about the meaning of "greatest evil" and "greatest good." According to Socrates, the greatest evil is to make another bad or unjust (corruption); the greatest good would be to make another good or just (improvement or education). But in fact no man can make another bad or good; one makes oneself bad or good (with the help of others certainly). In doing a just or unjust act, one makes himself better or worse; one transforms his soul. But one can bring external harm or healing to another's body. We can save the body of another, but we cannot save his soul. Note: By soul, Plato means something different from the Christian conception. Also note Socrates' reluctance to use the word soul in his discourse with Crito. Through dialectical question and answer, one person can assist another with regard to self- examination and self-transformation. Socrates called himself a barren midwife, who could not himself give birth, but who was able to assist others in conceiving and bringing forth truth. This is why in the Apology Socrates insists he never "taught" or "corrupted" anyone. For if to teach means to fill another's mind with true ideas and to corrupt means to fill another's mind with false ideas, then Socrates, who did not simply hand over ideas, could not be called a teacher. But in the truest sense, teaching is not the passing of information or ideas and learning is not the mere reception of information and ideas. Learning is self-transformation before an idea (Kierkegaard's notion of subjectivity). Teaching is saying the right words at the right time to the right person (timely speech) in order to stimulate and guide the learner's life-project of self-improvement and reordering (remaking) of his soul in relation to and in the light of an ever increasing focus upon and vision of what is best (the good, the ethical ideal, justice).
Question: Do you agree that one person can help or harm another only externally? Explain.
Question: Do you agree with Socrates' view of teaching and learning?

6. Crito would have Socrates betake his body to Thessaly, where Socrates would be physically safe and where Crito has friends. But there is disorder in Thessaly; Socrates could not continue his teaching there. On the other hand, Socrates has spiritual friends in the land of the blessed; he could perhaps converse with Achilles and the other Greek heroes. This is somewhat humorous, for conversation without a body and without an instituted language is impossible.

7. In referring to the trial, Crito chides, "you might have saved yourself." Suitable political and financial arrangements could have been made to preclude even being brought to trial; and Socrates could have defended himself better by flattering the judges, etc. "Save" has two meanings here. Socrates had to choose between two types of saving (saving his body and saving his soul). Socrates saved himself in the higher sense precisely by not saving himself in the lower sense.

8. "Zeal" too is ambiguous. When directed by reason, zeal can be trusted; when undirected, zeal can be dangerous. The arrangement of Crito's soul (his priorities): Crito's life is ruled by zeal (love of honor and fear of disgrace) and love of wealth and bodily life. His reason is a weak sister in the government of his soul. For Socrates, reason is in the driver's seat, guiding and reining zeal and desires in the light of principles. Socrates will attempt to assist Crito in strengthening the reasonable part of his soul and installing restraint and harmony. This is a difficult task, because Crito is good-willed but a little too settled by habits to change his ways. But Crito's spiritual freedom depends on his ability to put the best and wisest part of himself -- his reason -- in charge of his ambition and feeling.

9. The question is: Should Socrates go along with Crito's plan and flee from prison in order to avoid death (drinking the hemlock)? Thus, Socrates begins the dialectic (deliberation) --"shall or shall not do as you say..." This is serious business, not "talk for the sake of talk" (mental exercise). It is a question of how one should live ... and die. Socrates is going to die; Crito is not. Theoretically, Crito should be disinterested and clear-headed (not swayed by circumstances); he is not. Socrates has every reason to be affected by circumstances; apparently, he is not. Why? Because in Crito, feelings of shame, etc. rule reason; whereas in Socrates, reason rules (controls, restrains) feeling. Socrates is not without feeling; he has tremendous zeal and passion. For one thing, he has great feeling for his friend Crito (he sees Crito's condition as critical); but his feelings are under control. He does not get carried away by passion or desires as an incompetent rider gets carried away by a powerful and uncontrolled horse.

Question: Many Greek philosophers emphasized the importance of self-control and maintained that the truly "free" person is one who is able to guide and control his ambition (zeal) and desires. Do you agree or disagree with this view? Does freedom mean "self-restraint" or "lack of self-restraint"? Or does freedom mean simply "lack of external restraint" or not being hindered from doing whatever we want? Discuss your answers.
10. Praise and blame: As the student of gymnastics attends to the advice of the expert -- the physician or trainer -- in matters of spiritual health, one should attend only to praise or blame of those who are experts in justice (physicians of the soul). The many, as we read in the Apology, are not experts, though they think they are. The understanding of health (of the body) is parallel to the understanding of justice (of the soul). Socrates is trying to wean Crito away from overconcern with the body and overconcern with wealth and reputation. Just as the many are not physicians of the body, even fewer, if any, are physicians of the soul. The advice of the crowd is irrelevant.
Question: Do you agree that, when it comes to the most important things in life -- such as how to live well -- the majority are usually wrong? What effect would this view have with respect to democracy, where the majority rule and are required to choose intelligently their political leaders?

11. According to Socrates, the multitude "would be as ready to restore people to life, if they were able, as they are to put them to death -- and with as little reason" -- because they do not understand the meaning of life, what constitutes a good life or life as it should be, what it means to be a human being. The can end physical life without understanding the real meaning of life and without understanding that their unjust acts bring about internal spiritual disintegration.

12. To trace some of the argument: Doing wrong is always evil (because it disrupts the order of one's soul). We must do no wrong (injustice). We must not return evil for evil (revenge). Few hold this view because they do not understand that revenge brings external and physical harm to the victim, but internal and spiritual harm to the perpetrator. The presupposition is that moral injury or harm is worse than physical injury or harm. The question becomes: Do I wrong moral principles if I escape because I have been wronged by men. There is at work here the view that one person cannot directly damage another's soul, but one can damage a moral milieu, principles of order in society (nomoi, laws, customs institutions) upon which every citizen depends.

Question: Discuss Socrates' view that revenge is self-destructive. Do you agree? Why or why not?

13. The theme arises here: What is the proper attitude of the individual person (citizen) toward nomoi (laws, customs, institutions, traditions, way of life, ethos, etc.)? The word "ethics" derives from the Greek word ethos or cultural heritage (milieu). What is the relation between citizen and city? To be a human being is to be a citizen. A city is its citizens, its institutions, customs, laws, etc. Recall Heraclitus, who insisted that citizens should defend their nomoi even more than they defend their city walls. Why? Nomoi are not perfect. Despite the claims of city fathers, nomoi are not firmly rooted in natural principles (though they should be). Laws reflect both natural human requirements and arbitrary human prejudices. They are a mixed bag. Does Socrates advocate their overthrow? Why or why not?

14. The laws speak to Socrates. We have an imaginary conversation (dialectic) between nomoi and Socrates. The conversants are not equal in standing. The laws lecture and upbraid Socrates (though in a sense, he is more reasonable than they). But he listens with respect, as a child would respect his parent, even when his parent is wrong.

Question: Socrates is saying that every individual is raised by both parents and social institutions (nomoi), such as language. If this is so, should nomoi be accorded the same respect and obedience as parents? Why or why not?
Question: Are twentieth-century American "nomoi" good parents? Explain your answer.
15. Let us speculate here. In a sense, the "soul," the ordering principle of the city, is its laws, both written and unwritten, its tradition, its "spirit," its culture. One cannot directly harm the soul of another, but by committing injustice one can harm the fabric of society which in turn can indirectly harm fellow citizens. For the caretakers of custom are the souls of men who revere custom; customs are sustained by souls that cherish them -- keep them alive. Every unjust act is both self-destructive and destructive of respect for nomoi. Nomoi bind citizens together. Every unjust act is a loosening of this tie, this social order. Respect for nomoi is like respect for one's parents, the source of one's existence. Nomoi are the nurturing conditions, the soil, the social atmosphere, that make existence in the city (including birth, education, marriage, etc.) possible. More apropos to Socrates' mission, without conventions and institutions and social structures (including language), life and dialogue would not be possible. Without Athenian conventions and institutions, Socrates could not engage in the philosophical activity (dialectic) which enabled him to improve himself as he assisted in the improvement of others. Moreover, the nomoi enabled him to attempt to establish, strengthen, and reconstitute these customs on a firmer more reasonable basis. The very "laws" that were used by men to convict Socrates unjustly were the sine qua non, the necessary conditions that made Socrates' very life and career possible. One should not be a "thankless child." If one subverts institutions and conventions, one destroys one's own enabling context, as well as the matrix and context of the lives and activities of others. Customs change, but life without customs (laws, institutions, language, etc.) is impossible. To be a human being is to be a citizen; one cannot untie oneself from that very social context that makes any action possible. The Greeks were particularly aware of this fact. Human souls are more important than human bodies, and human souls are more important than human institutions; but human souls need human bodies and human institutions to improve themselves by just actions (speeches and deeds) in the human city. Human institutions are structures that occupy a midpoint between bodies and souls. They are more spiritual than bodies and more material than souls. They are incarnated ideas, as spoken words are concepts with flesh and blood. Thus, we can understand the importance of dialogue or meaningful conversation for the Greeks. Socrates and Crito are friends and fellow citizens, who despite their different value systems, have a common ground -- their friendship and their speech together. Unfortunately, Crito does not realize how even mildly illegal acts (like bribing the guard) can chip away at the social order that makes friendship and conversation possible. Every citizen is both beneficiary and guardian with respect to institutions. Every act either contributes to or detracts from the moral and social environment. Socrates' post is to remind citizens of this responsibility. But what is a post but a position in relationship with and a role within a city? Without social order, there are no posts. When a citizen examines his unexamined life, he seeks to find his place in the city, before God (piety) and among men (justice). But place makes sense only with respect to adjoining place (context). Socrates' place is philosophical. The order of the city requires his activity; the improvement of his soul requires his activity for the sake of the city. Without philosophical conversation, Socrates' life has no meaning; his life is his place within the city. Exile or escape would bring an end to Socrates' life in the only sense it matters. He would be making his soul worse, betraying nurturing custom, and ceasing to converse in his accustomed manner. Even death, where there is a possibility of dialogue with the heroes, seems preferable.
Question: Discuss this view of the relationship of human beings with nomoi (customs, laws, and institutions). Do you agree? Why or why not? What ought to be the relationship of twentieth-century Americans with their nomoi? Explain your answer.

16. One should note that in the imaginary speech of the Laws to Socrates in the Crito, all of the objections made by Crito are answered, reevaluated, and reinterpreted. They are interpreted not from the standpoint of physical advantage and reputation, but from the standpoint of moral advantage and integrity.

17. Concluding Note: Injustice means spiritual disorder -- a condition wherein reason, zeal, and desire are not functioning as they should and are not in their proper places (not prioritized properly). Every wrong act results from and intensifies disordered spiritual priorities. Conversely, every just act, based on relative moral integrity, has the effect of improving that integrity. According to Plato, in the healthy soul, one's values are arranged thus:

1. reason -- love of wisdom -- pursuing a vision of what is best (the good).
2. zeal -- love of honor -- becomes courage when ruled by reason, rashness or impulsiveness when not ruled by reason.
3. desires -- love of wealth, food, drink, sex, etc. -- are best fulfilled when limited and guided by reason -- each in its proper place; when not ordered by reason, one or other may tyrannize the personality by demanding limitless satisfaction.

18. According to Plato, it is appropriate for mind to be in charge, for mind perceives limits, boundaries, order, structure, arrangement. The "love of wisdom" is the unlimited search for a comprehensive vision of perfect order and arrangement (form). Every idea (or ideal) is a view of a possible or worthwhile arrangement or structure or principle of ordering things and persons. The idea of the good is the idea of order itself. When one understands what makes a thing or person or society or the universe orderly (harmonious) -- such as in the study of geometry -- one gets a clue into order itself that helps in ordering one's own life and the lives of others. Only that part of us that grasps structure is able to structure our lives (including our desires).

Questions for Discussion:

1. Compare and contrast the "imprisonment" of Crito and the imprisonment of Socrates. Compare and contrast Crito's intention to save Socrates and Socrates' intention to save Crito.

2. What do Socrates and Crito have in common (besides their age)? How does this common ground help Socrates to help Crito?

3. What are the nomoi? How does Socrates view his relation to the nomoi? Why does Socrates think it unjust to flee from prison?

4. Explain in your own words the meaning of Paragraph 15.

5. What are the nomoi in our society? What is our relationship to those nomoi? What should be our relationship?

6. What lessons can be drawn from Socrates' views of justice? Friendship? Custom?

7. Should Socrates have let Crito "spring" him from prison? Why or why not?

8. Examine dialectically the view, "No man is an island."

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© Copyright 1997 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.