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King, Socrates, and Civil Disobedience

September 20, 2010
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While reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, a particular quote referring to Socrates caught my attention:

To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

Dr. King was best known for his belief that unjust laws should be combated through civil disobedience, which to him meant actively refusing to follow laws that he felt were unjust.  King argued in his letter that “…one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” and that “An unjust law is no law at all.”  Knowing that King felt this way, I was surprised that he would refer to Socrates, a man who believed quite the opposite, when arguing for his cause.

Like King, Socrates was imprisoned largely for standing up for beliefs that others around him disagreed with.  However, though he had numerous opportunities to do so, Socrates refused to break any laws, even though he knew that his imprisonment and condemnation were unjust.  To him, breaking any of the laws of Athens would cause harm to all laws, and not even the injustice of the laws could justify harming them.  Socrates believed that if individuals could obey or disobey the laws as they pleased, the laws would no longer be effective, and the government would fall into a state of chaos.  He concluded that the only just way for him to leave prison and avoid death would be to convince the legal system of its own injustice.

Though I have great respect for Dr. King’s beliefs, especially in regards to the idea of civil disobedience, I think that he was mistaken in characterizing Socrates’ beliefs and actions as civil disobedience.  To me, it seems that if he had lived in King’s time, Socrates would have actually opposed the idea completely.  What do you think?

8 Comments
  1. Jack Bologna permalink
    September 21, 2010 2:03 AM

    I feel King was completely justified in referring to Socrates. Socrates accepts the law and thus the punishment of death because he has promised the Athenian Court that he would and will continue to challenge the wisdom of others, or, in the eyes of the court, corrupt the youth. Socrates believes he is morally bound to continue what has now been declared by the court to be illegal. So Socrates is merely accepting punishment for promising to not a follow a law that doesn’t fit with his morality or essentially he is promising civil disobedience in a fashion very similar to MLK.

  2. Valerie Juan permalink
    September 21, 2010 12:43 PM

    I also think that MLK was justified in referring to Socrates’ actions as a similar disobedience. Both King and Socrates willingly took the punishment that they received from the laws of their regimes on account of their radical behavior (which was inspired by their personal beliefs about life). For example, Socrates went against the norm and caused chaos in Athens, because his goal in life was to discover truth and real wisdom, as well as unveil those who are falsely wise. Although this doesn’t technically break any laws in Athens, it is worth taking to court– as Meletus does. And clearly, the people of Athens (acting as the governing body of the regime) disapprove of Socrates’ behavior, and thus they condemn him to death. However, rather than run away from jail and accept Crito’s offer of escape, Socrates willingly accepts the consequences of his civil disobedience. Similarly, King commits crimes against the state– in his case, he parades for racial equality without a license. He also accepts the consequences of his behavior by willingly going to jail. Thus, there is a definite similarity between the two, and I believe that MLK was probably even inspired by the actions of Socrates.

  3. Shan Lin permalink
    September 21, 2010 5:16 PM

    I don’t know that Dr. King is completely wrong in referring to Socrates in his letter because they do share a common belief about what is a justice law. Although their actions were different, their beliefs and morals were the same. Dr. King openly refused to follow injustice laws while Socrates committed his life to follow law, whether they were justice or not.

  4. Christine Irish permalink
    September 21, 2010 10:28 PM

    I understand where you all are coming from and I agree that the two had a lot in common, but I think it’s important to think about what MLK means by civil disobedience. He believed that if you identify a law that is unjust, then you should intentionally disobey it and a be wiling to accept the consequences for your actions as an act of protest.

    Socrates, on the other hand, never intentionally disobeyed any laws. Socrates wasn’t a victim of unjust laws at all, he was just falsely accused of crimes by men who were angry with him for other reasons. In fact, he never claimed that the laws he had been accused of breaking were unjust. He only claimed that he had been wrongly accused. Even when he was given ample opportunities to disobey the authorities who were wronging him, he refused, saying that he didn’t want to bring harm to the laws by disobeying them. He made it clear that he was against the breaking of any laws, no matter how just or unjust they were. Socrates can’t have exhibited civil disobedience is because he never disobeyed anything, and never intentionally broke any laws.

  5. Derek Mohr permalink
    September 22, 2010 10:46 PM

    I would argue that Socrates never clearly stated his feelings about the laws of Athens. The main connection between Socrates and Dr. King is that they neither of them were afraid of being punished. The difference is that Socrates believes that he has nothing to be punished for, whether he feels that this is just or unjust is unclear but what is clear is that Dr. King openly disobeyed and was willing to take on any punishment that was thrown his way.

  6. yequan permalink
    September 22, 2010 11:30 PM

    I think that the difference between MLK and Socrates is that MLK intended to break the law he thought unjust, and Socrates did not deliberately break any Athens’ law but he do willingly challenged it via his pervasion. However, to some extent, both MLK and Socrates believed that law might be wrong and unjust even if the law was established by majority opinion.
    MLK was kind of radical and he disobeyed the unjust law directly, and “Socrates never clearly stated his feelings about the laws of Athens.”(previous post by Derek Mohr) In fact, I think Socrates refused to disobey the “general law”, but he fought against injustice by his argument and defense in court. So I say, Socrates did disobey the unjust law, just in another way he preferred.

  7. October 4, 2010 11:41 AM

    Some of you are making a lot of great points, and are doing a great job of drawing out the differences in the ways that King and Socrates dealt with their situations. I agree completely that many modern Civil Disobedience thinkers like MLK and Gandhi may attribute some of their philosophies to earlier thinkers like Socrates, and there would be nothing wrong with King saying that he was inspired by Socrates. What I take issue with is that MLK said that Socrates “practiced civil disobedience.” Though there are many ways to define that term, the bottom line is that it involves some sort of disobedience. Even though, like King, he questioned the laws and popular opinion, he chose not to disobey the rulings and orders of the authorities, even though it meant his death. I have attached a link to a Jstor article that you can access if you have a uniqname and password that I thought was really interesting, which discusses the issue in more detail. Check out the three main points on the second page if you want a quick summary.

  8. October 4, 2010 11:44 AM

    Sorry, it didn’t come up in the last post, but you can just click my name or copy and paste:

    http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/stable/448733?seq=1&Search=yes&term=justice&term=obedience&term=socrates&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dsocrat

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