The Role of Inconsistency in the Death of Socrates

By Said Saillant

Abstract: The death of Socrates has always been a controversial topic in philosophy, particularly the incongruity of his views on civil disobedience. In the Apology, Socrates claims that if acquitted on the condition he refrains from philosophizing, he will nevertheless continue to do so. In the Crito, Socrates argues that disobeying “the judgments the city came to” is wrong. The essay will address the inconsistency by focusing on the purpose of each argument, i.e. on the aim each argument serves. In Crito he argues against civil disobedience in order to convince Crito that escaping the death penalty is morally wrong. Yet, in the Apology, he argues for civil disobedience. In the latter, the objective is unclear. I contend that the argument’s aim is to prevent civil disobedience on his part; it serves the purpose of facilitating his death, thereby, preventing civil disobedience in the case of acquittal on the condition he stops philosophizing.


It is my purpose to expound on the consistency of Socrates’ views in the Apology and Crito regarding civil disobedience and on his motives for presenting them. First, I will present the views and their arguments and distill their supporting principles. Then, I will compare the principles by applying them to one of the views and, thereon, look for inconsistencies. During the investigation, I will interpret a statement key to establishing the authenticity or spuriousness of a possible inconsistency by considering its causes, namely the desire(s) or psychological need(s) that prompted Socrates’ statement. And, finally, I will argue for an interpretation and discuss its implications.


Socrates expressed in the Apology that, even if acquitted on the condition that he would stop philosophizing, he would not comply. However, this seems at odds with Socrates’ argument in the Crito against civil disobedience, i.e. against escaping the death penalty by leaving Athens.

In the Apology, Socrates argues for civil disobedience with the following: 1) when a civilian is ordered to take a position by a superior, that person must assume the position “without a thought for death or anything else,” [28d] but disgrace; 2) the gods’ authority is superior to the authority of elected officials (28e); and 3) the greater the authority, the greater the disgrace that results from disobeying (28d-29a). It follows from all three premises, that when faced with conflicting orders from a god and from a man, the path to follow is the god’s mandate, because when thinking only of disgrace [premise 1], the correct action to follow is the divine order, for the god’s authority is greater [premise 2] and disobeying such an authority would bring further disgrace [premise 3]. This belief is evident in Socrates when he says “[i]t would have been a dreadful way to behave [. . .] , if [. . .] I had [. . .] remained at my post where those you had elected to command had ordered me, and then, when the god ordered me, as I thought and believed, to live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others, I had abandoned my post for fear of death or anything else” [28e]. Socrates clearly considers the god’s order superior to, and of greater authority -that is, more disgraceful to disobey- than the official’s because he thought it “dreadful” to follow the latter, whereby, he would violate the god’s injunction.

In the Crito, Socrates, using reductio ad absurdum1, argues against civil disobedience using four premises: 1) “one must never do wrong” [49b], 2) one should fulfill a just agreement (49e), 3) cheating a just agreement harms the other party (50b) and 4) the agreement between Socrates and the state -“to respect the judgments that the city came to”[50c], in particular, his death sentence- is just (48c-51e); whereas, the reductio assumption is fleeing the city to avoid the death penalty is the right course of action, namely civil disobedience is justified. It follows from premise 2, 3 and 4 that by leaving the city, Socrates cheats a just agreement [premise 2 and 4] and, thereby, wrongs the city [premise 3]. It follows from this conjunction and premise 1, that if Socrates flees the city he would do a wrong, which contradicts premise 1; therefore, either premise 1 is false or the assumption is false. Since premise 1 had previously been established to be true; the assumption is necessarily false. Therefore, Socrates should not flee the city; in other words, civil disobedience is not the right course of action.


I will now extract the underlying principles from all of the premises used in the arguments above. Here are the premises again: 1) one should never do wrong, 2) one should fulfill a just agreement, 3) to cheat a just agreement is a wrong, 4) the agreement between Socrates and the state is just, 5) one should follow a superior’s order without thinking of death, or anything else, but disgrace, 6) a god’s authority is superior to the authority of a man and 7) the greater the authority of the superior, the greater the disgrace when deserting the assigned post. Premise 4 is the example of a just agreement pertinent to the argument, i.e. an instance of premise 2’s observance, not a principle. Premise 2, namely that one should not cheat a just agreement, is a part of the normative claim in premise 1, viz. one should never do wrong, given this, I will not distinguish it from premise 1. Premise 3 is an instance of wrongdoing; it is not a principle but an example of one’s violation. For simplicity’s sake, premise 6 and 7 will be compounded into the principle: the disgrace of disobeying a greater authority, e.g. a god, is greater than the disgrace of disobeying a lesser authority, e.g. a man. The remaining premises are the principles active in the arguments. Henceforth, premise 1 is principle 1, premise 5 principle 2, and premise 6/7 principle 3.


Now, I shall apply all principles to his view in the Apology2. If Socrates is acquitted on the condition that he cease to philosophize, but nevertheless continues to do so, he will follow the order of the god as indicated by principle 2 and 3. However, principle 1 seems to be neglected because he will wrong the city through civil disobedience. This Socrates recognizes when, in the Apology, he says “I do know [. . .] that it is wicked and shameful to do wrong, to disobey one’s superior, be he god or man” [29b]. This statement may be interpreted in two ways: either he considers ‘one’s superior’ the commander with greater authority of the two, by which I mean that when they issue conflicting orders, the only superior that need be followed is the one with the higher authority, for a superior authority nullifies that of the lesser authority; or ‘one’s superior’ is a god (or any man with greater authority than oneself), that is, if two conflicting orders are given only one of the two superiors can be obeyed, and this at the expense of the other. A “shameful and wicked” act is indeed being committed by disobeying the lower authority, but with lesser disgrace attendant upon the agent. Naturally, in the second interpretation, Socrates would serve only the divine commandment because, when sure disgrace would result otherwise [principle 2], one should obey the order from the greater authority because lesser disgrace will result from disobeying the lesser authority [principle 3]; one would in effect select the lesser of the two evils. Both interpretations suggest that a course of action along the lines of the divine order be taken, the action Socrates supports. The former, on the one hand, observes principle 1 because the city’s authority is nullified (and, as such, is not Socrates’ superior); therefore, no civil disobedience has taken place and no harm is done. On the other hand, the latter violates principle 1 because the lesser authority is harmed.


Nonetheless, I believe the interpretation Socrates had in mind was the latter-for three reasons. One, the former would need to postulate a fourth principle, namely that a greater authority invalidates the authority of the lesser superior (something Socrates never says), thereby, preempting principle 2 so as to contradict it, which ordains that only the amount of disgrace — not level of authority — can be used to decide which superior is to be obeyed (something Socrates does say). To those who think that considering the level of authority in determining disgracefulness is an objection, I say that, while the level of authority is needed to determine the orders’ “shameworthiness” (the amount of shame or disgrace one may endure for the achievement of a goal), the deciding factor is the resulting shame or disgrace, i.e., when considering the consequences of following one superior as opposed to the other, the level of authority determines the shameworthiness; but in deciding which superior to follow, disgrace is the one parameter. The decisive role of shameworthiness is completely undermined by this now questionable postulate.

Two, in what way would the higher superior invalidate the authority of the lesser, given that in relation to Socrates both authorities are superiors and, as such, according to Socrates, have the right to command him (29b); it seems exceedingly unlikely that this right vanishes in cases where the commanded, the inferior, thinks and believes two superiors with different levels of authority give conflicting orders, even more so when communication between the superiors has not occurred and may never occur. I believe Socrates is only making a normative claim, namely that one should obey a superior, “be he god or man” [29b], because it is wrong to do otherwise; a normative claim akin to principle 1 since it advises against doing harm. Furthermore, the principles he uses throughout Crito and the Apology support this claim. For instance, in Crito, he argues that disrespecting a judgment the city came to-namely the death penalty-by escaping the city is wrong because he would cheat a just agreement with the city and its laws and, thereby, harm them. This same agreement is still effective if the judgment the city arrived at were acquittal on the condition that he stops philosophizing instead of the death penalty; both the conditional release and the death penalty would be judgments the city came to. Therefore, if he continues to philosophize when commanded to do otherwise he would nevertheless cheat the just agreement he has with the city and its laws, and so harm them.

And, three, Socrates, as you may remember, said, “[T]he god ordered me [. . .] to live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others;” [28e] he was ordered, among other things, to examine himself, to turn onto himself the Elenchus, the Socratic Method. Through the Elenchus, Socrates rigorously analyzes the beliefs of others and his own in order to weed out inconsistencies. He believes that through the Elenchus one’s soul is improved because it reveals our ignorance “[a]nd surely,” says Socrates, “it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know” [29b]. This belief is seen again when he says “[i]f you put me to death [. . .] you won’t harm me more than you harm yourselves” [30c-d]; he believes he benefits others through examining them. Therefore, I believe that the desire or psychological need to rid himself and others of inconsistencies suggests that any apparent inconsistency in (or between) the dialogues serves a purpose3. I propose that the purpose for advancing the paradoxical view in the Apology is to prevent what he treasures most, his soul, from being damaged.


Recall the nature of Socrates’ claim in the Apology, viz. that he would continue his philosophical investigations even if acquitted on the condition that he do otherwise, is a counterfactual; Socrates has, in fact, not committed civil disobedience. He treasures the soul the most. He says that his service to the god is the greatest blessing for the city because it persuades people not to care for their bodies or wealth “in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of [their] soul[s]” (30a-b). In order to protect his soul from damage, he says “you cannot avoid executing me, for if I should be acquitted, your sons would practice the teachings of Socrates and all be thoroughly corrupted” [Apol. 29c]; he argues for the death penalty, calling it necessary, unavoidable. It was indeed necessary because it follows from the principles that a conditional release conflicting with the god’s order would inevitably result in civil disobedience, which would harm the city (which entails the violation of principle 1) and, therefore, damage Socrates’ soul . Given that his soul was in peril, Socrates explicitly sets out to avoid things he knows to be bad, e.g. doing wrong and disobeying his superiors [violating principle 1], rather than things of which he does not know whether they may not be good, e.g. the death penalty (Apol. 29b-c). Moreover, in other parts of the Apology he angers his judges by saying he should get free meals in the Prytaneum (a privilege reserved for Olympic champions), and later sets what he thinks his penalty should be to a measly thirty minae and this amount only because his friend Plato (a person known for his abundant wealth) had offered to help him with the fine (Apol. 36e-37a, 38b). This further supports my claim that Socrates needed the death penalty in order to avoid wronging his city, and, given that he practiced the Elenchus on himself (as ordered by the god), he knew that in order to avoid doing wrong to either of his superiors death was the only way his soul would escape any blemish. This claim is also consistent with his epistemology, i.e. death is not to be feared because nothing is known of it (Apol. 29b-c), and his metaphysics, i.e. the soul is immortal and the body is not (Men. 81b-82a). Moreover, Socrates concludes that the death penalty may indeed be a good thing because his divine sign4 has not opposed him (Apol. 40a-d). Therefore, by articulating his purpose to continue philosophizing regardless of any injunction, he further insured adherence to principle 1. That is to say, Socrates devises the argument for civil disobedience in the Apology to convince the jurors of his determination to obey the divine order at the expense of any court order opposing it, thereby, further securing his death sentence. His death would result in -and from- obeying both the god and the court, since the divine order and the verdict would no longer conflict. Consequently, there are no inconsistencies between his actual view in the Apology, i.e. that disobeying a superior is “wicked and shameful” [29c] and his view in the Crito.

Let us think of it this way: suppose an officer orders a subordinate to pick up a package at the post office. At arrival, there is no parking in sight. In order to carry out the order, the subordinate decides to use a handicap space. When returning to the car a ticket awaits on the windshield. Had he foreseen the ticket by not parking illegally, he would have disobeyed the order but by disobeying a city ordinance, that is, parking illegally, you get a fine. It follow from Socrates’ principles that you ought to violate the law because more disgrace would result from neglecting the officer’s order than from violating a city ordinance. Socrates’ “ticket” is to stop philosophizing. I contend that, in the Apology, Socrates’ purpose in presenting the view that civil disobedience is justified is to bring about a conviction that would prevent the “ticket” (his being directed to not philosophize any more) from being issued, in other words, that would result in the observance of both orders; the conviction is the death penalty. The subordinate would avoid disobeying either superior by running instead of driving to the post office. One may object that assuming such foresight is unwarranted. However, given that Socrates believed a god ordered him to live the life of a philosopher and examine himself and others accordingly, the assumption that in the course of abolishing false and inconsistent beliefs he foretold a possible inconsistency is very much justified. Socrates later took measures to avoid the “ticket” because he knew that it would lead to the degradation of his soul. Ultimately, Socrates devised the argument for civil disobedience in order to prevent his violation of the principles by which he lived his life.


Code, Alan. “Ideas from Aristotle’s Logic.” In The Philosophy of Aristotle. Oxford University Press, Forthcoming

Pappas, Nickolas. Review of Socrates’ Divine Sign: Religion, Practice and Value in Socratic Philosophy, by Pierre Destrée and Nicholas D. Smith, eds., Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: 11 October 2005

Plato. “Apology”, “Crito” and “Meno.” In Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle, by S. Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd and C.D.C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.

Said Saillant (’11) is a Philosophy and Psychology major at Rutgers University.

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