Socrates' Last Error Essay

3144 words - 13 pages

Socrates' Last Error

In the dialogue, Crito, Socrates justified his decision to accept his death penalty. His decision was praised as principled and just. However, such a view was one of the greatest myths in the history of philosophy. Contrary to the accepted ideas, I wish to show that Socrates’ argument was erroneous, the crucial error being his failure to distinguish between substantial and procedural justice. In fact, the whole of the Crito refers to some deeper problems of the philosophy of law and morality.

The dialogue "Crito" recounts Socrates' last days, immediately before his execution. As the text reveals, his friend Crito proposes to Socrates that he escape from prison. In a dialogue with Crito, Socrates considers the proposal, trying to establish whether an act like that would be just and morally justified. Eventually, he came to argue that by rejecting his sentence and by trying to escape from prison he would commit unjust and morally unjustified acts. Therefore, he decided to accept his death penalty and execution. Because of his decision, he became one of the cult figures in the history of philosophy, a man of intact moral integrity who had made his final decision according to the very same principles that guided his entire life. He was praised as a grand rationalist who had acted rationally and justly—a view which, I believe, represents one of the greatest myths in the history of philosophy.

Contrary to this widely accepted myth, I will try to demonstrate that Socrates' argument was erroneous, which made his decision less rational. In fact, had he decided to escape, his behavior would not have represented an unjust act. Although his argumentation and dialogue with Crito seem more like a moral sermon, his ideas are based on some deeper philosophical problems. In fact, Socrates' argument, developed in "Crito," belongs to the domain of the philosophy of law and morality. The argument can be summarized in the following way:

1. Lawbreaking is unjust, while observance of laws is just, because
2. Laws are just.
3. The laws of Athens are just, even if the legitimacy of laws in general can be questioned.
4. Judicial decisions made on the basis of those laws are just.
5. When finally pronounced, judicial decisions must be carried out.
6. Disrespect of judicial decisions produces the destruction of laws.

Conclusion: Escape from prison is an unjust and therefore morally unacceptable act.

The conclusion that Socrates drew from the premises is sound only if the premises themselves are true, and that is why their soundness must be examined first.

ad 1. The first premise cannot be questioned, because its truth seems incontestable. However, this is true only insofar as the first premise is related to the second one. It is assumed that the second premise ("Laws are just") is correct. Indeed, respect of unjust laws must be morally doubtful, which means that the claim for their observance must be based on some other,...

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