“Nor must one, when wronged, inflict wrong in return, as the majority believe, since one must never do wrong.”  So asserts Socrates to Crito from within the Athenian prison in Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates (2000).  Crito has come to the prison with bribes and a plan to whisk Socrates away from Athens before his execution can take place.  The religious mission to Delos that has forestalled the execution is nearing the port of Piraeus, and Crito has come to plead with Socrates to allow his associates to spirit him away from Athens before it is too late.

How does the Master, Socrates, find himself awaiting death in prison and arguing that his faithful friend’s plan to save his life would be unjust, even in the face of an unjust conviction?  Trouble first began after Socrates’ friend, Chaerephon, visited the Oracle of Delphi and was told that none was wiser than Socrates.  Not believing this to be true because he didn’t think himself wise in the least, Socrates set about to question men of high stature and great import around Athens to discover if the oracle’s pronouncement was true.  He came to understand that these men thought that they knew things but didn’t really understand them at all.  And because he thought he knew nothing, and came to understand this, that really meant that Socrates knew something and was therefore wiser than these men.  Needless to say, many were distressed, albeit embarrassed, by Socrates conclusions.  They eventually attempt to permanently silence him through wrongful accusations in the hope of an undeserved conviction to the death.

Socrates soon finds himself before a jury of 501 “men of Athens”, as he addressed them, under accusation of leading Athenian youth astray and not believing in the gods of the state.  Socrates does not mince words about the unjust nature of this state of affairs:

“He says that I am guilty of corrupting youth, but I say that Meletus is guilty of dealing frivolously with serious matters, of irresponsibly bringing people into court, and of professing to be seriously concerned with things about none of which he has ever cared, and I shall try to prove that this is so.”

Unfortunately, wise application of the Socratic Method in his defense does not impress the “gentlemen of the jury” (Plato, 2000), and Socrates is wrongly convicted and sentenced to death as soon as the state galley can return from its Apollonian pilgrimage.

This brings us back to the Athenian prison where Crito is trying to convince Socrates to go along with the escape plan that is in place, and Socrates refuses because of the age-old maxim that “two wrongs don’t make a right”.  I agree with Socrates’ principled stance, and will use the Four-Way Method of Ethical Decision Making (Kyte, 2012) to support the argument that accepting his wrongful conviction was the courageously just decision.

The first step in the Four-Way Method of Ethical Decision Making is to define the truth or understand the facts of the situation.  I have already provided some background information leading up to the point of this decision.  Socrates was an Athenian citizen and bound by the laws of that city-state.  He was convicted of wrong doing and sentenced to death within the context of a legitimately sanctioned and procedurally correct trial according to those laws.  Now that he has been sentenced to death, Socrates must decide between accepting the generosity of friends that will save his life, yet force him to break some laws, or accept the punishment that the law has unjustly handed to him.

Now in the second step, I must look at the consequences that could be experienced as a result of the various solutions from which Socrates has to choose.  If he chooses to attempt an escape, both he and his associates could face a great deal of hardship.  Socrates would have to live in exile away from family and friends.  He would be distrusted by whatever community he moved to because he would be known as a lawbreaker on a number of levels.  Crito and his friends would be in danger of exile as well, in the very least outcasts of Athenian society, and likely to be fined in some way for their part in Socrates’ escape.  If Socrates chooses to accept his fate he will die knowing that he was a just man, one who did not ask his comrades to soil their reputations in a vain attempt to salvage his.  While the later solution would result in the ultimate harm to one, death, it would be a dignified one, and a solution that would end the spiral of injustice.

This leads me into the third step of the method where we look at the fairness of all possible solutions.  By graciously accepting his fate, Socrates not only maintains his dignity, but provides his friends with a level of integrity that will enable them to continue to promote Socrates as a just man after he is gone.  Socrates sees the absolute necessity of upholding the verdict, even if it was an unjust one.  Running from the verdict would model anarchy to the rest of the community, and what sort of lawlessness could spiral from that?

Finally, I need to take into consideration the character of those parties involved.  Socrates can meet death with courage and virtue.  His wisdom and influence can continue on through the students he leaves behind.  However if he runs from death it will reflect poorly on himself and those who help him escape.  His name, and that of his students, would be stained throughout civilized Greece.  While I don’t see relationship building coming about from accepting his fate, I see relationships being destroyed between Socrates, his comrades, their families, and the city-state of Athens should he go into exile.  Socrates could escape into cowardice, or death could bring with it the aura of the martyrdom to a man who stands behind his principles to the very end.

“One must not give way or retreat or leave one’s post, but both in war and in courts and everywhere else, one must obey the commands of one’s city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice.”  (Plato, 2000).  Socrates failed in his just persuasion of the court, but succeeded in his just persuasion of a friend.  He chooses to stand by his ethics in the face of death,  and this courageous move places Socrates’ in the annals of history as a man of integrity to be modeled by future generations of thinkers.  His reputation as a wise philosopher has stood the test of time and is testament to the wisdom of his final decision to embrace death.

References

Kyte, Richard (2012, draft). An ethical life: A practical guide to ethical decision making.

Retrieved from http://blackboard.viterbo.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?     tab_id=_2_1&url=%2fwebapps%2fblackboard%2fexecute%2flauncher%3ftype%3dCourse%26id%3d_19205_1%26url%3d

Plato.  (2000). The trial and death of socrates, euthyphro, apology, death scene from phaedo.

(3rd ed.).  (G. M. A. Grube, Trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett.

Socrates. (2012, May 30). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates

Son of citation machine. (2010). Retrieved from citationmachine.net

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