Socrates’ Self-sacrifce

Sacrificial rituals sound completely ludicrous to almost everybody nowadays, but for some reason Socrates chose to die a victim of one in 399BC. In the dialogue of Crito, Socrates rationalizes to Crito why it is righteous for him to stay in an Athenian jail cell, awaiting execution, instead of easily escaping jail to go to the safe haven of Thessaly to live with his family and friends. Reading Socrates’ uncompromising defense in Apology reminded me of Hank Rearden’s defense in Chapter IV, Part II of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Rearden and Socrates both hold consistent and uncompromising principles, however, their obligations to the state are much different. Socrates holds that state law is righteous, and trumps his individual rights, whereas Rearden holds that his individual rights are righteous, and above the law. The dilemma arises: should an individual recognize the good of others, as manifested through the rule of law, as a justification for the state’s destruction of his life? I will argue in favor of Hank’s position and in opposition of Socrates’ – that the state exists to uphold individual rights – not the “rights” of society.


In Crito, Socrates says to Crito, “What we ought to consider is not 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” (48a). He continues his rant and implies that “the one authority” of the actual truth is the law. The flaw in his argument is that it completely contradicts his philosophy that all humans are ignorant by claiming the law as all-knowing, when in fact, human beings are the ones who legislate. Unfortunately, not all legal activities are ethical activities and not all ethical activities are legal activities. In my Business Law class last semester, this was a given; to Socrates it was not.


Socrates seems to want “official permission” from the state and thinks that without persuading the state to let him free that he would be “destroying” the laws put in place. He says in Crito, “the fact remains that to do wrong is in every sense bad and dishonorable for the person who does it” (49b). I interpret this to mean that breaking the law is in every sense bad, not just for the state, but for the person who breaks it. The problem with his argument is a fact remaining that he didn’t realize: the fact that the law is imperfect and that using it as the sole criterion to identify truth is fallible. One modern example of fallible laws we have in place is the prohibition of hemp production in America, even though the presidents on our $1, $2, and $5 bills (Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, respectively) all said positive things about growing hemp as a crop. An older, even simpler example of the law going wrong is slavery. According to Socrates theory of the law, running away from “your” owner, who whips you, would have been wrong since the law is right in saying that it is morally permissible for one man to own another as property. Clearly Socrates’ sole criterion of needing “official permission” from the law in order for an action to be right is invalid.


While talking with Crito, Socrates talks in third person to himself as if he were the law, “Was there provision for this in the agreement between you and us, Socrates?” (50c). Last time I checked, when we come out the womb we do not assemble a legislature and create laws for where we live- they already exist wherever we are (unless you’re born on a boat in International Waters). Socrates is biased towards agreeing that the law defines the morality of an individual’s actions even if the individual has done nothing wrong (in this case, Socrates holds that he has done no wrong). It is odd that Socrates would willingly submit to the rule of law, which, as passed through legislation built on human compromise is neither fully rational nor just. Nonetheless, he rationalizes his conformation to the law to such an extreme that he ultimately makes a choice to sacrifice his life to achieve this principle.


In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden is on trial for breaking a business law: he was caught selling too high a quantity of Rearden Metal (an alloy Hank innovated) to a partner than is permitted by existing socialist regulations. The premise is that Hank knew it was illegal to sell too high a quantity but he did anyways and found himself not guilty. This is the key difference between Socrates and Hank. If Socrates knew that it was illegal to sell too high a quantity he might try to change the regulations put in place, but he would not outright break the law to pursue his objective. To Socrates, knowingly breaking the law is always an absolute wrong. On the other hand, Rearden thinks breaking the law if one finds it irrational is righteous.


Instead of presuming the state is always right, Rearden states, “I will not help you to preserve an appearance of righteousness where rights are not recognized.” (443) This quote exemplifies the contrast between Socrates’ and Hank’s ideas about who/what grants rights. Hank finds the rights to be objective: he has a right to sell however much of his metal he chooses to whether the state likes it or not- since it is in fact his creation and property. If Socrates were to be in the courtroom I imagine him thinking something like, “Who is this guy to think that he knows he is right and the law is wrong? He seems to think he knows so much, when really he is ignorant.”


One interesting part of Hank’s speech that is at odds with Socrates’ is where Hank says “I am in full agreement with the facts of everything said about me in the newspapers- with the facts, but not with the evaluation.” (444) This is antithetical to Socrates’ view of the courtroom. In Apology Socrates’ discusses how the facts claimed against him are incorrect. He even starts his rant by saying:

“I do not know what effect my accusers have had upon you, gentleman, but for my own part I was almost carried away by them- their arguments were so convincing. On the other hand, scarcely a word of what they said was true.” (17, Apology)

On the very next page, he says “I must obey the law and make my defense.” (19) This goes along with his theory of law in Crito where he discusses how the state has the right to evaluate his fate, putting him to death, even if scarcely a fact about him stated is true. It does not logically follow that Socrates’ would accept evaluations that are based on fabrications, or for that matter why anyone would.


Hank has a different plan in store for the court. He does not hold the law as an absolute truth. Instead, Rearden concludes that the charges against him violate his individual rights and decides not to submit himself to the unjust laws put in place by the men in Washington, who extort his property to improve their public image in order to get reelected.  In the midst of the trial, a judge states, “Mr. Rearden, this is hardly the way to defend yourself.” Rearden responds, “I said that I would not defend myself.” (442) In this state, Rearden has to make a defense to actually be judged guilty of his offense. The only way he can incarcerate himself is by volunteering a defense. By deciding not to make one, he leaves the judges flustered. One judge says, “But the law compels you to volunteer a defense!” Rearden responds, “That is the flaw in your theory gentleman, and I will not help you out of it.” (443) Now although Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction and this courtroom may not be 100% realistic, it is still clear that Hank’s view of the law opposes Socrates’ view to the fullest extent. Socrates feels the need to comply with the laws and the status quo, even though he is sacrificing his own life. Hank thinks the laws need to be changed, and until that happens he will not sacrifice his values by volunteering a “defense”.


Socrates and Hank both stand tall in the courtroom, both hold convictions that make sense to themselves and both find themselves innocent. The difference between the two is their view of who holds rights: the state- or the individual. Socrates is sure that if one were to disobey the law that chaos would erupt in the state. Hank is sure that laws have already erupted chaos in the state. Certain laws should not be broken, however, any law that violates individual rights is a broken law in and of itself. Socrates’ decision to stay in Athens was a decision against the upholding of individual rights. Instead of thinking for himself and ditching Athens for Thessaly, Socrates let the judges do the thinking, ditching his morality to the state.

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