The Poisoned Chalice



Yet there is some light even in darkened eyes:
To those who have fallen hither
There is a certain power remaining
To the celestial sphere recalling them,
When, from mortal waves emerging,
Rejoicing, they enter on the sacred path
Leading to the regal, parental abode.
Happy he who, the voracious bark of hyle escaping
And from earthly bonds released,
With joyful and enlightened mind
To Deity directs his hasty flight.






Selected extracts, abridged from the Crito of Plato [translated by Thomas Taylor] A discourse between Socrates and his faithful friend, on the eve of his fateful demise at the hand of his detractors.

“But why, my dear Crito,”answered Socrates, “should we care about the opinion of the many? Good men, and they are the only people who are worth considering, will think of these things truly as they happened.”

Crito urges the great importance of the view of the many, as shown by the fate of Socrates himself, but is told that the many can do neither great good nor great evil, since they cannot make a man wise or foolish.

“I beseech you therefore, Socrates, to be persuaded by me, and to do as I say.”

“Dear Crito,’ answers Socrates, ‘your zeal is invaluable, if a right one; but if wrong, the greater the zeal, the greater the evil; and therefore we ought to consider whether these things shall be done or not.”

He goes on to say that he has always been guided by reason, and cannot now discard the reasons he has given before, since he still honours and reveres the principles he formerly honoured; and unless better principles can be found, he is certain not to agree with Crito, however frightening the power of the multitude may appear to be. The fairest way of considering the question will be to continue the discussion about the opinions of men, some of which are to be regarded and others disregarded.

Crito agrees that the opinions of the wise are to be valued, but not those of the unwise. Socrates then asks whether in questions as to what is just and unjust, fair and foul, good and evil, the opinion of the many ought to be feared and followed or that of the one wise man who is worthy of all reverence and honour, in deserting whom we should harm that principle within us which is superior to the body and which is improved by justice and injured by injustice. For if an incurably corrupted body makes life unbearable, by so much the more will life become valueless if that higher principle, far more to be honoured than body, becomes depraved.

Even though someone say ‘The many can kill us’ the argument holds.

Crito agrees and admits that their own long-held conviction still remains true,that it is not simply life, but a good life, which is of the greatest value, the good life being a just and honourable life. On these two statements the argument is to be based.

“Let us consider the matter together,’ says Socrates, ‘and do you either refute me if you can, and I will be convinced; or else cease, my dear friend, from repeating to me that I ought to escape… [the judgements against me]

Hope in the prison of despaiar by evelyn de morgan

1. The first question asked is whether wrong-doing is always evil and dishonourable, is injustice always an evil and dishonour to him who acts unjustly? The answer is ‘Yes’; for even when injured we must not injure in return, though this is not the opinion of the many.
2. The next question is, ought a man to do what he admits to be right, or ought he to betray the right? Crito says that a man ought to do what he thinks right.

“But if this is true, what is the application?’ says Socrates. ‘In leaving do I injure any? or rather, do I not wrong those whom I ought least to wrong: do I not desert principles which were acknowledged by us to be just? What do you say?”

“I cannot answer your question, Socrates, for I do not understand it,” answers Crito.

Socrates then relates an imaginary conversation between himself and the Athenian laws. ‘What are you about, Socrates?’ they would say. ‘Are you going by an act of yours to overturn us the laws, and the whole state, as far as you are able? No state, they say, can subsist in which the decisions of the law are set aside and overthrown by individuals.

“And suppose”, says Socrates, “that I say Yes, but the state has injured me and given me an unjust sentence.”

Socrates, as assenting to the laws like his forefathers, must be like them the child and servant of the laws and not on an equal footing with them*, and therefore has not the right to destroy the laws because they are going to destroy him, any more than a child has the right to strike or revile his father.

The law says “Has a philosopher like you, failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier than any ancestor?’Her punishments are to be endured in silence. If she leads us to battle, it is right that we should follow, and none should leave the post, whether military or civil, to which the laws have appointed him. If he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country.”

Crito assents to what the laws have said.

Next, Socrates is reminded that if, after receiving all the benefit from the law and protection his city and country provided for him, he decided that he had, on coming of age, disliked them, he could have left Athens without interference from the laws; but the very fact of his staying in the city, once he had understood the way in which justice and order are maintained and administered, implies a contract that he will obey the law. Socrates, if disobedient, does a threefold wrong, firstly in disobeying his parent, secondly because he has been educated under the laws, and thirdly because he has implicitly agreed to obey the laws, yet being given the choice of obeying the laws or confuting them, he does neither.

“And now answer this very question,’ say the laws, ‘Are we right in saying you agreed to be governed according to us in deed and not only in word?”
“How shall we answer that, Crito?’ says Socrates. ‘Must we not agree?”
“We must agree, Socrates,” answers Crito.

The laws, bring forward another argument, asking what good an escape will do to himself or his friends. Will he tell them, as he has told the Athenians, that virtue, justice, institutions, and laws should have the first attention among men? If he goes to Crito’s friends in Thessaly, where there is great disorder and license, can he be sure that no one will remind him that in his old age he has broken the most sacred laws from an unworthy desire for a few more years of life? If Socrates flatters and entertains the people of Thessaly in order to hear only good of himself,though they still may speak evil behind his back, how will he spend his life? simply in eating and drinking and flattery. And what will become of his fine discourses about virtue?

“Listen, then, Socrates, to us who have brought you up,” say the laws, in a last appeal. ‘Think not of your life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of just first, that you may be justified before the princes of Hades. For neither will you nor anything that belongs to you be happier or holier in this life or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids. Now you depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim not of the laws, but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in Hades, will not revive you with good will; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us. Listen, then, to us and not to Crito.”


Socrates responds:

“This is the voice, Crito, which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic; that voice, I say, is humming in my ears, and prevents me from hearing any other. And I know that anything more which you will say will be in vain…. let me follow the intimations of the will of God.”






O Lord, Thou art single and the oversoul, the indwelling spirit and the Ancient One; Thou are identical with truth and self-effulgent, infinite and the first; Thou art eternal, imperishable and of the nature of bliss everlasting and untainted; Thou art perfect, without a second, free from appellations and immortal.

O Lord, Thou art the truthful vows, and the means of attaining unto Thee is the way of truth; Thou are the true existing entity in the three stages of the world; Thou art the origin of the entire creation; Thou dost pervade it and art its true essence; Thou art the Progenitor of truthful speech and of true behaviour, and Thou art all truth; Therefore I take refuge in Thee.

Srimad Bhagavatam. (From the Sanskrit.)

~ by meanderingsofthemuse on March 18, 2013.

4 Responses to “The Poisoned Chalice”

  1. I once dreamed someone held a chalice up to me and said this is the cup that held the drink that poisoned Ophelia. It was unsettling. I’m not sure I would take Socrate’s path of virtue.

  2. thank you Ophelia for your considered response. Socrates chose to die by the Law he’d upheld in life, and thus he acted firstly, according to his own nature and secondly, upon the necessity of a Truth greater than his own desire for it….. yet even though but few may consider themselves capable of such conviction, I do believe that given the same context, many would rise to its demands. 🙂

  3. yes, the path of virtue seems daunting indeed, and agreed, the human spirit can and does prevail, even though we all question the things that we find unsettling – your dream for example, such trials even in the dreaming landscape still tend to prepare us for all eventualities; the probability of such is rarely, if ever, a factor, for the Mind reacts to belief first and foremost; we are honed and primed by the substance of our dreams..

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