Socrates: Then we ought neither to requite wrong with wrong nor to do evil to anyone, no matter what he may have done to us. And be careful, Crito, that you do not, in agreeing to this, agree to something you do not believe; for I know that there are few who believe or ever will believe this. Now those who believe this, and those who do not, have no common ground of discussion, but they must necessarily, in view of their opinions, despise one another. Do you therefore consider very carefully whether you agree and share in this opinion, and let us take as the starting point of our discussion the assumption that it is never right to do wrong or to requite wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return.Plato’s Crito, trans. Harold North Fowler
The above is an excerpt from Plato’s dialogue Crito (49 c–d). Socrates’s friend Crito has visited him in prison as he awaits his execution by hemlock, to which punishment he was sentenced by a jury of fellow Athenians. The passage marks a revolution in the history of moral philosophy or ethics, for Socrates here rejects a fundamental tenet of traditional Greek morality—what is often called, by its Latin name, the lex talionis, “the law of retaliation in kind.” The idea is that when a person is wronged by another, he or she has a right to exact retribution like in kind to the original injustice. The word retaliation itself well conveys the traditional moral principle: re– means “back” or “in return”; tali– derives from Latin talis, which means “of such a kind.” Retaliation is thus, literally, the returning of harm of the same kind as one has suffered. Such thinking is consonant with precepts of the Old Testament found in Exodus 21:22–25 and Leviticus 24:19–21—precepts commonly known as “an eye for an eye.” The passage in Leviticus reads:
When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured. He who kills a beast shall make it good; and he who kills a man shall be put to death.
The roots of such moral reasoning reach back even further to the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (18th century B.C.), which reads at one point, “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out” (196).
In the passage from the Crito, Socrates anticipates, by some 430 years, the revision of the ancient precept made by Jesus Christ, who famously taught in his Sermon on the Mount,
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.(Matthew 5:38–42)
Socrates’s position was thus extraordinarily “unorthodox” by the standards of his day.
When Socrates utters the remarks quoted above, Crito is in the midst of pleading with Socrates to accept his plan to break Socrates out of prison so he may escape the death sentence passed upon him by Athens. Crito—although he may not be fully aware of it—has adopted the retaliatory mode of thinking Socrates rejects. At least this is how Socrates sees it. For by urging Socrates to escape from prison without the city’s permission, Crito has asked Socrates to break a just agreement he has made with Athens because of the injustice he now suffers from the city. To illustrate the point, Socrates assumes the persona of the Laws of Athens and says,
Tell me, Socrates, what have you in mind to do? Are you not intending by this thing you are trying to do, to destroy us, the laws, and the entire state, so far as in you lies? Or do you think that state can exist and not be overturned, in which the decisions reached by the courts have no force but are made invalid and annulled by private persons? (50 a–b)
Socrates then asks Crito, “What shall we say, Crito, in reply to this question and others of the same kind? . . . shall we say to them, ‘The state wronged me and did not judge the case rightly?’” (50 b–c) Crito responds, “That is what we shall say, by Zeus, Socrates.” To which Socrates responds, again in the persona of the Laws of Athens, “Socrates, is this the agreement you made with us, or did you agree to abide by the verdicts pronounced by the state?”
The Laws now give an extended account of the many benefits Socrates has received from them during his entire life. These benefits include the laws that sanctioned the marriage of Socrates’s parents and which thus superintended Socrates’s birth; as well as the laws that prescribed Socrates’s education. Having recounted all such benefits, the Laws conclude,
and do you think that it will be proper for you to act so toward your country and the laws, so that if we undertake to destroy you, thinking it is right, you will undertake in return to destroy us laws and your country, so far as you are able, and will say that in doing this you are doing right, you who really care for virtue? Or is your wisdom such that you do not see that your country is more precious and more to be revered and is holier and in higher esteem among the gods and among men of understanding than your mother and your father and all your ancestors, and that you ought to show to her more reverence and obedience and humility when she is angry than to your father, and ought either to convince her by persuasion or to do whatever she commands, and to suffer, if she commands you to suffer, in silence, and if she orders you to be scourged or imprisoned or if she leads you to war to be wounded or slain, her will is to be done, and this is right, and you must not give way or draw back or leave your post, but in war and in court and everywhere, you must do whatever the state, your country, commands, or must show her by persuasion what is really right, but that it is impious to use violence against either your father or your mother, and much more impious to use it against your country? (51 a–c)
We may balk at the extreme claims here made by the Laws of Athens for their absolute authority. But their identification of violence against one’s country and grievous impiety should be ever borne in mind by all true patriots and lovers of wisdom.