Writing an essay on the Crito

Jess asked:

I just want some guidance on writing a philosophy paper on Crito! I have to basically write 3 paragraphs of:

1) Socrates argument

2) the counter argument

3) why i think Socrates’ argument overrules any counter argument.

I don’t know how to extend this to be 1200 words.

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

I would like to help you, Jess, but first I want to say something about this kind of question. I don’t mean questions about Socrates or the Crito, I’m talking about instructors who basically tell you all the steps you need to do to write your ‘paper’. Do this, do this, do this and you’re done. Easy.

Except that philosophy isn’t like that. The whole point about studying philosophy is learning to think for yourself. Maybe your ideas on the Crito don’t fit the instructor’s easy scheme. Why must Socrates win every argument? Is he a god? Didn’t he say that all he knew was how much he didn’t know? Can’t he ever be wrong?

Casting my mind back to this famous dialogue by Plato, I seem to recall that Crito visits Socrates in prison where the great philosopher is awaiting execution after being convicted by an Athenian court on a trumped up charge of impiety and corrupting the young. ‘Hey, Socrates,’ says Crito, ‘My friends and I can help you escape to a place where your philosophical ideas will be appreciated. You can live like a lord. Look what the Athenians did to you, you don’t owe them anything.’

And then Socrates says something to the effect that he couldn’t live with himself if he ‘harmed the laws of Athens’. Or some such nonsense.

If Socrates had said, ‘I want to be a martyr to philosophy. I want Plato to write his greatest dialogue, the Phaedo, about how I bravely drank the hemlock discussing the immortality of the soul with my friends,’ one could understand. Martyrdom is a theme of contemporary politics. Everyone dies, so make your death count for something. Take a few dozen unbelievers with you and let them be dragged to hell.

Now, I can be wrong about this and often am. Maybe you disagree with my casual dismissal of Socrates’ argument. This is about what you think. I’m not going to put words in your mouth or write your paper for you.

As for the length, 1200 words is nothing. If you were talking about this with your friends, how many words would your conversation run to? Several thousand, I’d guess. So my advice is: forget that you are following a ‘how-to-do-it’ guide for writing a paper. Read the Crito at least twice. Then write what you make of it all. Let it all hang out. Risk being ‘wrong’. (You might still be in the right, but unfortunately regardless of how stupid they are, instructors are the ones who give the grades.)

Most importantly, argue with yourself. Don’t assume that the first thought that comes into your mind is valid or even relevant. Write your paper, criticize it, then rewrite it from scratch. I guarantee that the result will be something of which you can be justifiably proud.

One thought on “Writing an essay on the Crito

  1. Plato’s Crito is a very important piece of writing. It was written 2300 years ago but it still has relevance today. Plato is writing about Socrates who has been put on trial and has been convicted of corrupting the youth of Athems. Later, Socrates will later be executed by being made to drink hemlock. But before he dies, Socrates is visited in prison by a wealthy friend named Crito who tells Socrates that he has brought enough money to bribe the guards and get him out. Crito also tells Socrates that he has other wealthy friends that are willing to help Socrates live comfortably in exile.

    Plato in the character of Socrates brings up a number of important issues. Is what is popular also what is right? Socrates also brings up what he calls the Social Contract, meaning our relationship with our fellow citizens. What responsibility do we have to them? Crito says he can get Socrates out of prison but Socrates argues that this would be wrong – probably because Socrates life has been about pursuing truth and he would not want to die differently than he lived which would tarnish his reputation. Socrates is concerned about the afterlife and also his reputation after he is gone.

    It would seem difficult to write 1200 words about this short piece of writing. But it is connected to many other pieces of literature and even entertainment both before and after Socrates. Before Socrates their was the Homeric tradition of the noble warrior overcoming obstacles and fighting for a cause hoping someday to return to his true love (all the while being buffeted by the whims of the Gods). The modern movie Star Wars is very much in the Homeric tradition. George Lucas, the director of Star Wars, was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Plato was very much writing in contrast to the Homeric tradition. Socrates was not a warrior. And so I think it is important to mention how Plato’s writing is a break from that Homeric tradition.

    One of the fundamental questions that people can ask is whether they believe Socrates is guilty and should be put to death or if he is innocent and should be set free. If you ask that question of a group of people, slightly more will believe Socrates should be set free but a good percentage will think that Socrates was guilty of trying to overthrow the good order of the state. I think how someone answers that question will color everything else they believe about this piece of writing.

    The Crito is not long – only about 14 pages when translated into English. But there are tons of videos on YouTube discussing it. There are professors who have studied this for years and there are a lot of subtle points in Plato’s writing. Where do we get out sense of morality? What is our responsibility to other people in society. Was Socrates as he says only interested in ‘private matters’ and not a political figure? If something is popular, does that make it right? These are all questions that are relevant today.

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