Moral Hero

Moral Hero

      Socrates refused the help of his friends to escape from jail because he respected the laws of his city. He was accused by his enemies that he “is a doer of evil, and corrupter of the youth, and he does not believe in the gods of the state, and has other new divinities of his own”. (See: Apology)He was sentenced to death by drinking a glass of poison.

       In the last days before the sentence, his friends visited him in jail and tried to convince him to escape. Most of them were rich and powerful enough to bribe the guards. They suggested to take Socrates to a far place where the hand of the Athenian law could not reach him. Socrates, however, refused. He had always respected the laws of his city and now that he was behind the bars had still no intention of breaking them. “The principles which I have hitherto honored and revered I still honor”, said Socrates to his interlocutor in the jail, his friend, Crito, who tried to convince him to escape and go to Thessaly and live with his friends. Socrates’ moral obligation was not to break the laws of his country no matter if he was accused rightly or wrongly. The whole conversation between him and Crito, where Socrates stated the reasons for not escaping, is depicted by Plato in his dialogue Crito.

        Thus, Socrates is a “moral hero”. He rather gives up his life instead of breaking the laws which he respected and followed all his life. Students are asked: Why be a “moral hero”? One student says, being a moral hero is buls..t! He would choose life. According to another, a “belief” can make someone a moral hero. If you strongly believe in something, like Socrates strongly believed that the laws should not be broken, then giving up your life instead of going against your belief is the right choice.

        No matter we agree or disagree with his choice, Socrates did what he did and he is famous for it. Now, imagine if he chose life instead. Imagine if he said: “I did nothing wrong, I am innocent, all of my friends think I am innocent and they support me. Actually, I know I am innocent. I am wrongly accused and sentenced to death, so I have the right to escape. When the laws are wrong, we have the right to brake them.” And imagine Socrates escaped and went to live in Thessaly for the rest of his life, far away from the evil Athenians who accused him wrongly.

        If he did that, he would break his own believes and thus loose the credit he has today. He would mostly be known as the intellectual midwife who by questioning his interlocutors helped their souls give births to ideas. (See: Theaetetus) And also as the one who feeling that is wrongly accused decided to run for his life. However, by refusing to escape, Socrates is a true example of advocating believes and living according to them. He set an example of a moral hero, that is, not breaking his own believes even for the cost of his life.

2 thoughts on “Moral Hero

  1. Interesting examination of Socrates as an example of a “moral hero.” And yet, in my experience, the value that is most commonly associated with Socrates as a moral hero is that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” suggesting that he chose to die as a kind of protest, standing up for his right to question people in powerful positions of society. When I first read the Apology and for many years after, I admired Socrates for this intellectual courage. Yet, as you point out, what really killed him was following through on his belief that he must always abide by the laws of the state. To me, this makes it a problem to call him a moral hero…sure he is following through on a moral belief that one must abide all the laws of the state, but doesn’t this make him a “legal hero” (trusting the State’s decision over his own) instead of a moral one? Why did he not examine that belief further and trust the judgment of himself and his friends that he had done nothing wrong?

    I believe it was because, as you say, “If he did that [fled to Thessaly to live out the rest of his life], he would…lose the credit he has today.” I read his decision to die less idealistically these days…I imagine that he realized it would be a “good way to go”, to make himself a martyr, and even help ensure his ideals of philosophical examination would gain more followers through the ages. What do you think about that? Does that undermine Socrates’ heroic story too much? Is there something in Socrates’ life story worth saving?


    1. Being a “legal hero” does not necessarily exclude someone from being also a moral hero. Socrates obviously lost the “legal battle”, but he is a moral winner. So no matter if we call him a legal hero, he will at the same time also be a moral hero.

      Now, whether Socrates made “himself a martyr” on purpose so that he “would gain more followers through the ages”, is hard to tell. In the Crito, where he states the reasons for not escaping, there is no mention of it. And I believe we cannot find any documented claim in other places where he admits that. It is just a mere speculation. We do not know if he was thinking something else than what is documented. We can only assume.


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