Before we begin our discussion on Socrates' decision and take a position on this issue, we must bear in mind that philosophy doesn't offer any clear-cut answers to perplexing questions or situations. For this reason, we need to closely study various writings and philosophies and strive to interpret them in our way.
The reason Socrates' decision is still embroiled in controversy is because many fail to see consistency between what he preached and how he behaved in the end. Critics maintain that if Socrates always believed in doing the right thing, how could he possibly obey a wrong order? Fair enough. In an attempt to unearth the reasons on which Socrates must have based his decision, some critics frustratingly declared that Socrates was a "law unto himself" -- Colaiaco, 223 and thus his decision need not be questioned.
However this approach is flawed and raises even more misunderstandings and confusion. For this reason, we have decided to defend Socrates' decision in this paper by studying whatever relevant primary material was available to us. By primary material, we refer to ancient texts such as Plato's plays and eastern philosophical writings. This helps in developing original interpretations, which are not influenced by external views and comments.
Overview: Socrates' trial and sentence
Socrates was a great philosopher and thinker who being a devoted citizen of Athens, refused to go into exile when his enemies threatened to sentence him to death. There were many important reasons why Socrates refused to leave the city, including his love for Athens, his belief that death was inevitable and his principle that one must always take the right action even if he has been wronged. Many feel that Socrates was being selfish when he preferred death to exile but the philosopher took this step because he wanted to adhere to his own teachings and principles.
He had always taught people about devotion for one's homeland and had repeatedly claimed that he was not scared of death, thus it was impossible for him to abandon his own principles in the time of real crisis. He aggressively defended himself in the court of Athens because he knew that was the right thing to do. He did not present his arguments to only save his life but to practice his own principle that one must protect and promote the truth when he is given a chance. In the play Apology by Plato, he clearly explains why he thought the state was making an erroneous judgment. Reading the following excerpt from the play, we realize that the main reason Socrates had been put on trial was not his rejection of gods or old beliefs but misinterpretation of his views and principles.
I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know." (A, p. 27
It is very important to keep the background of Socrates' trial and verdict in mind when attempting to comprehend why Socrates preferred death to escape and whether or not his decision was a sound one. However we must remember that to argue in favor of or against his position requires careful study of several plays by Plato, Socrates most prized pupil. This is because Socrates himself did not leave behind any major works, so whatever we know about him is through Plato's plays. The most important ones are Apology and Crito, which discuss the last few years of Socrates' life and thus provide us with huge volumes of information on the reasons behind Socrates' decision.
My position on Socrates' decision personally believe that Socrates did the right thing by preferring death to escape. In other words, though an escape would have saved his life, still he took the best action he could by obeying state's orders.
This is because this decision was more in tandem with his personal philosophies and teachings, and an escape from Athens would have voided whatever he stood for. There are many ways in which we can argue in favor of Socrates' position. I choose to take into account some important plays to highlight the personal beliefs and teachings of this sage, which would help us understand why he did the right thing by obeying state's orders.
Arguments in defense of my position
The most important arguments that we can present in favor of Socrates' position are summarized below. We shall later discuss each of them in detail in the light of Plato's plays to defend our position on the issue.
Socrates believed that one must never do anything wrong or evil.
He thought state had a moral authority to expect that its citizens would obey its laws and orders.
Socrates had a sentimental attachment to Athens and considered himself a gadfly.
Socrates knew that death was inevitable.
Socrates maintained that death was more respectable an option than escape.
Now let us understand how his teachings influenced his decision and why we believe he did the right thing by obeying state's orders and drinking poison. In the play Apology, Socrates explains very carefully why he was on trial and how the state was committing a grave mistake by sentencing him to death. In this play, Plato recreates the whole trial scene where Socrates is defending himself in Athenian Court. He carefully illustrates the reasons why he was called 'corruptor of youth'. This is where he explicitly tells Athenians that they were being poisoned against him because the very people who had put him on trial did not understand the worth or value of his teachings.
We need to understand that the charges against Socrates and his arguments in his own defense are good sources of information on the reasons why he chose death over escape.
Socrates knew that taking any position on an important issue is likely to result in danger. For this reason, when death became an imminent reality, Socrates stuck with his philosophies or else his entire belief system would have suffered. He clearly mentioned in Apology, "Wherever a man has taken a position that he believes to be the best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace." (A, p. 33)
Now here we come to an extremely important point in our discussion. What exactly was the issue in this trial? The issue was learning and practicing philosophy. He knew that by putting him on trial the state wanted Socrates to give up philosophy for what it described as the general good of Athenians.
However Socrates knew this was something that he couldn't possibly do as he clearly declared:
If you said to me in this regard: "Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on the condition that you spend no more time on this investigation, and do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die;" if, as I say, you were to acquit me on these terms, I would say to you: "Gentlemen of the jury, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy..." (A, p. 34)
Once it was clear that he couldn't abandon philosophy, he found himself in a major dilemma. While on the one hand, abandoning philosophy would hurt his life's purpose, on the other, practicing it would mean he was disobeying state's orders. But disobeying state's orders was something against his beliefs as he told Crito in another Plato's play. He was of the view that state should not be disobeyed because it hurts the legal structure. He also believed that disobeying the state means correcting an evil by another evil. He was of the view that a person must always choose what appears morally and ethically correct, even if this leads to his death or destruction. He told Crito that disobeying the state was against his teachings, as he believed that state had every right to expect obedience from its citizens.
If what we say is true, what you are now attempting to do to us is not just. For we gave you birth, nurtured, educated you, giving a share of everything which is beautiful to you and all the other citizens, yet proclaiming permission to any Athenian wishing to do it, when one has become a citizen and seen the business in the state and our laws, if we do not please, one is allowed to take one's things and go away wherever one wishes. And none of our laws stand in the way nor forbid it," (Crito)