Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Socrates and the Law: Argument in an Athenian Jail

Created September 24, 2010


The Lesson


Socrates and The Law: Image of Socrates

This lesson focuses on the Crito, in which Socrates argues against the idea that he should escape the penalty of death imposed on him by Athens, laying the groundwork for future debates over the rights of the individual and the rule of law. Students read the dialogue and analyze its arguments in class discussion, extending the dialogue by adding themselves to it. They then consider how Socrates might have responded to extenuating circumstances: for example, if his sentence had been imposed by a tyrant rather than in a trial, or if it had been influenced by prejudice. To conclude, students consider whether this Socratic argument still holds true today, finding examples in contemporary American society to demonstrate their point of view.

Learning Objectives

  • To learn about Socrates and his significance within Western civilization
  • To analyze the arguments on the rule of law that Socrates presents in the Crito
  • To explore the claims of law on personal conscience
  • To consider the relationship between individual rights and the rule of law in contemporary society

Preparation Instructions

Begin by introducing students to Socrates and Plato, using resources available through EDSITEment at the Episteme Links website. At the website's homepage, click "Philosophers," then select "Plato" for a link to the Clark College "Last Days of Socrates" Project, which includes background and a text of the Crito, as well as additional lesson plan ideas. For more extensive background, click Socrates from Ethics of Civilization by Sanderson Beck, which includes a comparison of Plato's portrayal of Socrates with the account offered by Xenophon, another of his students. Socrates also makes a comic appearance in Clouds, by Aristophanes; for a text, visit the Perseus Project website on EDSITEment, click on “Classics” from the left sidebar, then select “Texts.” Scroll down to find the English translation of Aristophanes’ Clouds. Look at the section beginning with line 133, where a pupil describes some absurd Socratic arguments, and the section beginning with line 221, where Socrates appears suspended among the clouds, which he explains as the proper way to attain lofty ideas. Such jokes demonstrate that Socrates was well known in ancient Athens, but also show that he and the enterprise of philosophy were not always accorded the respect we might assume they deserve.

Before students read Crito, summarize the story, explaining why Socrates was put on trial and condemned to death, why he was not executed immediately, who Crito is and what he wants to do. Spend some time talking about Socrates and Crito as characters. In what sense are they both "good" men? What motivates Crito in his attempt to help Socrates escape from prison? Why would we say that he has "good" intentions? What motivates Socrates in his decision to accept his punishment? What concept of the "good" does he seem to hold? How does this concept compare to Crito's sense of what is good and right? Discuss with students their own sympathies for these two characters and the moral principles they represent. To what extent does Crito equate the good with whatever is good for him and his friends? To what extent does Socrates uphold a standard of goodness beyond the practical demands of human life?

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Class Discussion on "Crito"

In class discussion, lead students through the dialogue in Crito, having them summarize the arguments point by point. Use the chalkboard to diagram the structure and flow of the argument, showing premises, evidence, refutations, etc. For assistance in the analysis of arguments, click "Topics" on the Episteme Links homepage, then scroll down and select “Reasoning and Critical Thinking” to find a link to The Argument Clinic, which includes a page on arguments and their evaluation, and to the Argument Identification Tutorial. As you proceed through the dialogue, remind students that the purpose of the exercise is to practice close reading of argumentation and that their own arguments and opinions should not enter into the discussion at this stage.

Once the diagram is finished, have students analyze the argument between Socrates and Crito. What are the weak points? What arguments or refutations would the students make? Have students put themselves into the dialogue as other characters who come to visit Socrates holding different points of view, either by rewriting a passage of the dialogue or by performing a part of the dialogue in class.

Point out to students that, in some sense, three characters contribute to the argument in Crito: Socrates, Crito, and the personification of the Law, whom Socrates introduces as an imaginary character. Have the students consider the effect of this personification of The Law upon the argument.

  • To what degree has Socrates created a complement to Crito through his personification of The Law? Do these friends argue for strict obedience in the same personal terms that Crito used in his argument for escape? Have students compare the two arguments in this light. Then discuss whether Socrates is justified in portraying The Law in personal terms. Does this make the claims of the law upon an individual easier to grasp, or does it misrepresent those claims to some degree? Is our relationship to The Law like our relationships with family and friends? Should it be? In what sense is The Law that Socrates invokes the same as what we refer to as "conscience"?
  • Discuss briefly what we mean by "the rule of law." What distinguishes law from other bases for governance? What are some alternatives to the rule of law—absolute monarchy, consensus, etc.—and what are the pros and cons of each? Discuss also how we invoke the law in our own arguments about right and wrong. What do we imply by phrases such as "the law says" or "show respect for the law"? Are these references to a code of statutes or to something similar to the personification that Socrates creates?
  • Note that Socrates bases his decision to accept execution on the premise that "one ought to fulfill all one's agreements, provided they are right" (Crito 49e). What might be examples of wrong agreements? forced agreements? Do we really have freedom to enter into such agreements with regard to the law? What evidence does Socrates offer that shows he entered into an agreement with The Law by his own free choice? Is there similar evidence of an obligation to obey the law in students' own lives?
  • Have students consider how Socrates might have viewed his situation if extenuating circumstances had been involved—for example, if his sentence had been imposed by a tyrant rather than in a trial, or if the trial jury had been influenced by prejudice against him. To what extent does the argument that Socrates presents rest on the assumption that the law is just? How would he test the justice of a law? Consider this question in relation to the Socratic concept of a "good" man. Should a good man obey a bad law? What is the basis for his goodness if he disobeys?
  • Have students examine this facet of the argument by imagining other characters in the Athenian jail. For example, might the argument have turned out differently if Socrates had had Martin Luther King, Jr., as a cellmate? (To explore this idea in detail, students might read King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail.")
Activity 2. Is the Socratic Argument Still Relevant Today?

Conclude the lesson by having students consider whether this Socratic argument still holds today, finding examples in contemporary American society to demonstrate their point of view. Can this argument be applied to all laws—for example, recycling laws, traffic laws—or does it apply only to major questions of right and wrong? Can this argument be used to justify a change in the laws, or in the enforcement of laws, in order to bring them into alignment with The Law as Socrates envisioned it?

Extending The Lesson

Complete the trilogy in which Plato presented the death of Socrates by having students read the Apology, in which Socrates defends himself against charges of immorality and explains the moral purpose behind his questioning of common ethical assumptions, and the Phaedo, which describes his final hours and includes his (or Plato's) argument for the immortality of the human soul based on its capacity for knowledge of eternal truth. Texts of both dialogues, with supporting commentary, are available through EDSITEment at the Episteme Links website; click "Philosophers" on the website's homepage, then select "Plato" for a link to the Clark College "Last Days of Socrates" Project.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Foreign Language > Ancient > Ancient Greek
  • History and Social Studies
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Ancient World
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Drama
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Essay
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Philosophy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources