This short dialog is included in The Last Days of Socrates which I originally read in college (and yes, I still have my old copy). It takes place while Socrates is in prison awaiting execution, and his friend Crito offers to help him escape and leave Athens. The two discuss whether it is right to do something that is wrong if something wrong is done to you, ultimately concluding that it is not justified, that the ideal of the social contract is more important than an individual’s self-interest. Essentially, Socrates would not break the law by escaping prison even though he was wrongly convicted, because upholding the ideal to which he agreed to live mattered more than his life.
Reading this in a time of social unrest as a result of individuals being frustrated with an unjust legal system raised a lot of questions for me, particularly: At what point does the social contract become invalid? If the laws themselves are just, but the people enforcing and applying those laws are unjust, is it right to respond unlawfully to foment social change which is clearly in the best interest of society? These are not easy questions to grapple with and I do not feel equipped to address them, but I felt I would put them out there for individuals to contemplate on their own.
There are a couple passages worth sharing and considering.
SOCRATES: I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have an unlimited power for doing good; which would be a splendid thing, if it were so. Actually they have neither. They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.
(Last Days of Socrates: p. 81)
There are some interesting things to think about here. First, it seems that Socrates is asserting that a person’s ability to do good is equal to that person’s ability to do wrong, and vice versa. This is important, especially in our current world of social media where people tend to view others as either good or bad, depending upon how that persons actions or ideologies correlate with the person making the judgment call. In our drive to squeeze everything down to a Tweet or a meme, we’ve lost the ability to recognize the complexity and range of scope that every individual possesses.
The other thing that struck me about the previous quote is Socrates’ claim that ordinary people “simply act at random.” At first glance, this seems rather insulting, but upon further reflection, one begins to see the truth in the statement. The problem with many people in the world is that they react to situations without taking the time to adequately think through the ramifications of their actions. A wise person would pause, consider the situation, and come to a logical conclusion. Conversely, a stupid person would pause, consider the situation, and come to an illogical conclusion. Too many people do neither. They react without consideration, essentially acting at random, as Socrates would claim.
Later in the dialog, Socrates debates whether it is best to listen to public opinion or to defer to a single authority.
SOCRATES: In that case, my dear fellow, what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth. So in the first place your proposition is not correct when you say that we should consider popular opinion in questions of what is right and honorable and good, or the opposite.
(ibid: p. 86)
Socrates builds on this to establish that the law is the one authority that represents truth and that the public opinion that he should break the law by fleeing prison is the wrong course of action. But this again leads back to my quandary, which is, at what point does public opinion outweigh the law and previously agreed-upon social contract? It is a really difficult question, and one worthy of analysis via Socratic Method. But that is beyond the scope of this post, so I will leave you with the questions to ponder.
This dialog is very short (a mere 16 pages), but evokes a lot of questions relevant to our society today. I encourage you to give it a read. I suspect you can find a digital copy online for free.
Thanks for stopping by and for reading and thinking.