King, Socrates, and Civil Disobedience
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?