Socrates was one of those rare individuals who “practiced what he preached. ” His allegiance to being just and good wasn’t merely lip-service, and it was proven in his behavior. It’s easy to say you believe certain things, but another thing entirely to prove this belief with your actions. Socrates was perhaps the finest example of this type of integrity, because, while he was a brilliant orator and words and thoughts were his best skill, he was equally concerned with living by the code he championed.
Socrates was disliked by some powerful men, and this was directly due to his philosophical manner and his behavior. When the Oracle at Delphi relayed a message from Apollo that Socrates was the wisest man alive, Socrates had enough integrity to question this. He decided he needed to know if this was true, and that the only way to challenge the oracle was to find another man as wise as himself, and then present this man to the Oracle. He chose powerful men who were thought to be wise by many people, and confronted them.
. Since Socrates believed that wisdom was found in the stance of knowing you do not know, and these men did not embrace that idea, his assessment was that these men were not wise at all, and he managed to insult several of them. These were the men who were ultimately in the courtroom at his trial. Socrates would not have needed their animosity, however, to get himself convicted. He seemed to accomplish this on his own, again, by his philosophical style of integrity which challenged authority, ideas, beliefs and opinions if they contradicted the act of doing good.
Socrates was eventually brought to trial on charges that he was corrupting the minds of young people, and believing in gods other than the gods accepted by Athenians. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by the people. A few days before Socrates is to be executed, Crito visits him in his cell, with the intent to convince him to escape. He finds Socrates sleeping peacefully, and is surprised by this, since Crito himself is highly agitated by the impending execution, and yet Socrates is peaceful enough to sleep. He doesn’t wake him, and when Socrates does awaken, Crito inquires of him.
They have a discussion on the nature of morality and justice, wherein Socrates asks enough questions to reveal the logic to be found in honoring the laws. He supports the decision of the court, because to do differently, would be a contradiction of all he has stood for. Socrates also knew that if he could not persuade the court and the jury to reject the laws of Athens, it would be fruitless to try to persuade his friend, Crito, and to do so would place Crito in an awkward position, and might even endanger him. This was, again, a position of great integrity.
In the Apology, which reported the events of his trial, there was a conflicting law of God that required him to practice civil disobedience—his mission was to philosophize, do good, and speak his truth. Since his freedom to do that was challenged, he had to adhere to his duty, or the divine purpose he felt God had given him, even if this meant challenging the law. In the Crito, there was no such conflict, as he was not prevented from doing what he was alive to do–and so he felt he must yield to the authority of the law.
To attempt escape from his own execution would be an act of selfishness, and not based on the philosophy he had lived by and taught others. To escape, then, would be to dishonor himself and the ideas he espoused to so many. This is another example of his integrity. Crito’s initial argument in favor of escape by Socrates, included the point that the verdict and sentence were both unjust, and it would therefore be just for Socrates to flee, and indeed courageous, because Socrates would then be adhering to his own philosophy of justice; Crito said that to do otherwise would lower Socrates to the level of his enemies..
Crito also argued that allowing himself to be executed, was unjust to his children, as he would be leaving them. The support that Crito believed Socrates had in other cities, would make exile an appealing action, and to worry about Crito’s reputation and wealth being endangered by escaping, was less honorable than escaping for reasons of justice. He also suggested that Socrates would be damaging the reputation of all his friends by not denying a sentence that was unjust, even though the masses , or “the many” did not know Socrates or his friends personally.
This suggested that the opinions of others were important to Crito, as he felt those opinions, en masse, could be powerful and damaging, if they were bad opinions. In response to these arguments, Socrates said that public opinion was not part of the concern, since the ignorance of the Many does not allow them to have true choice. This renders their opinions meaningless to those who make truth and good their goal. Socrates pointed out that the only concern was whether or not escaping was a just action, and that one should never take an action that is unjust. Ultimately, he said, men as old as himself should welcome death.
He continued his analysis by understanding the perspective of the law and the people it tried to protect and represent. He understood that the law was as worthy of respect as parents, and even more so. He understood that he had chosen to live in Athens, knowing what the laws were, and even raised a family there, when he could have gone elsewhere at any time if his philosophy was at such great odds with those of Athens. He also knew that he would be a pariah wherever he went, and his escape or exile would bring harsher repercussions to his loved ones than his execution.
Perhaps most importantly, Socrates believed that men needed to be part of a community, and in order to do that, they had to have laws, and that ignoring the laws caused damage to all concerned and removed any power the law might have to govern these communities. Therefore, any hint of conflict between the messages of Socrates in the Apology, and his message in the Crito, are due to a misunderstanding of Socrates’ central message: that he would only break the law if it interfered with his divine purpose in life.
Below the surface of this contradiction lies the greater truth that Socrates was a man of great integrity. My assessment, then, is that Socrates was integrity, exemplified. Instead of allowing ego to dictate his behavior, he chose to question the things that would have been allowed to stand by most men. When the Oracle at Delphi announced Socrates as the wisest man alive, his first reaction was to question it and seek proof of this. He forgot himself in the equation.
This lack of ego was also apparent in his trial, when he was so enamored by the argument of the law, that he forgot it was detrimental to him, personally, for the law to have a good case against him. It was shown in his discussion with Crito, in which he tried to convince his friend of the honor to be found in abiding by the laws. He also had a chance to suggest exile as his sentence, but did not, because he preferred the honor of death over the shame of exile.
One of the charges in his trial was that he invented deities, yet the daimon that Socrates referred to was merely his conscience. A man who makes decisions based on his conscience, is a man of integrity. He took responsibility for himself and his choices and was willing to accept the consequences of his freedom of speech. Socrates was the personification of integrity, because he chose honor and courage and truth over personal gain, and he was willing to die for his beliefs.