Xenophon’s anecdote concerning the exchange of clothes between a big boy and a little boy in Cyropaedia (1.3.16–18) offers a valuable framework for understanding his conception of justice and the problematics of administering it. Interpreters have erred by assuming that Cyrus’ teacher, as well as Socrates in Memorabilia, simply identifies the just with the lawful. Rather than identifying the two, both characters argue that the law is just; but they differ widely in their explanations of what makes the law just. For Cyrus’ teacher, the obligation to observe the law rests on a universal pre-legal ban on violence; for Socrates statutory law is to be obeyed for utilitarian reasons. Socrates’ view thus justifies both the teacher’s insistence that Cyrus obey the law—since the law is of benefit to the community—and also Cyrus’ decision to violate the law to achieve a just and beneficial redistribution. But it offers no justification for a universal ban on violence. In conformity with the Socratic principle, Cyrus avoids violence as far as possible, but only for the prudential reasons expressed by his mother. Once he acquires the power to coerce, Cyrus uses it to enforce the principle of proportional equality and meritorious redistribution he had approved in his judgment of the actions of the big boy.
Crito was written in response to popular slanders concerning Socrates’ failure to escape from prison, and accompanying misgivings within the Socratic circle. Plato responds by asking his audience to disregard the slander of the mob and obey the moral expert instead. But he also responds by creating an image of Socrates and his friends widely at odds with the popular slander; by implying that Socrates’ critics were themselves guilty of some of the behaviour they charged against Socrates; by pointing out that Socrates had no viable alternative to death; and, in partial contradiction to all this, by rejecting the popular morality which saw Socrates’ abandonment and death as signs of failure. In the rhetorical climax of the composition, Plato shows that Socrates chose to die rather than victimize or offend the laws of the city, which he represents as sentient beings. The weaknesses that have been perceived in the arguments of the Athenian Laws are not fatal to the composition, because it aims not at a convincing demonstration, but at providing a portrait of Socrates’ own overwhelming conviction of the rightness of his decision.