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What To Do With the Laws

January 17, 2011
‎If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward
-Martin Luther King Jr.

Today marks a day commemorating the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. in the push toward complete integration and the end of racial injustice. Looking into the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” he wrote, his drive to change the unjust laws and applications is clear. Now this seems to go against what Socrates idealized in the “Apology” and “Crito”. Socrates said the laws were to be followed by the citizen no matter the circumstance, while Martin Luther King Jr. told that unjust laws were unfit to be followed, but should be reformed through nonviolent action.

Martin Luther King Jr. gave various examples of what he believed an unjust law consisted of. He said a law is unjust when “it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege”, “a majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself”, and “a law is just on its face ad unjust in its application”. He gave these as a few examples, and does not limit unjust laws to these descriptions, but the idea of an unjust law is still present. Human laws are evidently made by humans, and just as humans make errors the laws may contain errors, intentional or unintentional, that make them unjust. It simply takes someone who is willing to point that out and stand up for what they believe.

Now if Socrates was to take this viewpoint, would his end have been different? If he believed that unjust laws should be reformed, then he would not be doing wrong when trying to reform the laws rather than follow the unjust ones as he did. Though the city of Athens reformed after the death of Socrates, it cannot be clear whether or not this was Socrates intention. Now through nonviolent action, Socrates could have escaped his death penalty without having to compromise his beliefs that no man should do any wrong. If the truth is justice, and he believed the truth should prevail above all, he should also believe that restoring justice would be the right course of action, as long as through this no one is harmed, hence the nonviolent action.

Now, this is simply taking Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas and applying them to Socrates situation. They each had problems with the majority that needed to be fixed, but they went about it in separate ways. Which way is better could be debated, and maybe the outcomes could change, but here stands two people, hundreds of years apart, both looking for justice and trying to do something to change it.


  1. Ronald Inglehart permalink
    January 17, 2011 6:27 PM

    Melissa Boelstler,

    You’ve raised a very interesting point by comparing MLK and Socrates. I would agree that both were faced with laws which they considered unjust, but I would argue that Socrates could not have escaped his fate without compromising his beliefs. I would take this position because if Socrates were to escape, it would have undermined his position and therefore strengthened the unjust arguments of his enemies. Since this would have weakened the arguments that he had made in the minds of those who had heard them, his flight would have been, in effect, an argument against that which he considered right. Since he believed that one should never knowingly do wrong, he found himself unable to justify flight and therefore unable to take that action. In a very real way, Socrates’ decision was to martyr himself for what he believed in.

    What’s interesting is that this seemingly draws further parallels between Socrates and MLK. Both were censured by those who held power in their time, and in the end both were killed for what they believed in. The differences are there, of course – for one thing, Socrates held that what mattered was that one achieve private morality while MLK held that societal morality was the goal most worth striving for. Other differences do of course exist, but the similarities seem striking.

    So, thanks to Melissa Boelstler for bringing up this comparison!

    • chrisshu permalink
      January 19, 2011 2:41 AM

      The first point I disagree with you on, Melissa, is “Now this seems to go against what Socrates idealized in the “Apology” and “Crito”. Socrates said the laws were to be followed by the citizen no matter the circumstance.” However, in the Apology, he states, “…but I thought I should run any risk on the side of law and justice rather than join you, for fear of prison or death, when you were engaged in an unjust course” (Plato Apology 32c). This quote is take in context of Socrates voting against the other committee members who decide to kill the generals. This act itself can be seen as a form of disobedience, that people should follow justice rather than laws if laws are unjust. Secondly, Martin Luther King Jr. himself quotes Socrates as one of the earlier sources for the idea of civil disobedience.
      Ronald, I think that Socrates, just like Martin Luther King Jr. stressed the importance of “societal morality” as well and not just “private morality” He states, “… but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and COLLECTIVELY” (Plato Apology 30b). Although there are slight differences, due to the mores o the different times of both orators, their differences are trifle in amount compared to their similarities.
      Another point you mention Melissa, is how Socrates could have escaped jail without “having to compromise his belief”. However, Socrates did not find imprisonment for his crimes as an unjust law but rather the crimes he was charged with as being immoral. Yet, one point that I feel both you and Ronald overlook is, to Socrates, death was not an unfavorable consequence. He even asked why people feared death if they didn’t know about it and for all we could know death is better than living. Thus, I think your debate over Socrates’ escaping cannot apply even in the context of civilly disobeying his government.

  2. timothyhall permalink
    January 17, 2011 7:43 PM

    Though I do agree with some points you’ve made, I consider Socrates’ and Dr. King’s ideas in their respective works “Crito” and “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” to be much more similar.

    Though their strategies were very different, Socrates and Dr. King both aspired for truth and justice through nonviolent means: the nature and discourse of Socrates’ “Apology” in comparison to the protests, marches, and rallies organized by Dr. King and the SCLC. Was not the “Apology”, taken as a whole, a cry for social justice in the form of nonviolent protest akin to the work of Dr. King and other leaders of the civil rights movement? Were not the multiple protests composed by the latter group comparable in essence to the demonstration of social injustice before an assembly of the majority as was Socrates’ trial?

    Dr. King did advocate civil disobedience which is very much unlike Socrates, however, I don’t believe if confronted with the situation of the latter, a chance for escape, he would’ve accepted it. While in jail, he authored one of the most effective and powerful essays of the entire movement, in which he speaks of cooperation and of not striking back when struck. If he had chosen to escape, his followers’ view of his leadership would have been weakened, and being an intelligent and aware man, I’m sure he knew that him personifying cooperation and civility when in face of a personal injustice was of dire importance to his movement.

  3. Stacy Radin permalink
    January 17, 2011 7:47 PM


    I think your comparison between Socrates and Dr. King is very interesting but I have to point out some aspects of your argument that I do not agree with. You stated that “Socrates said the laws were to be followed by the citizen no matter the circumstance.” Although in Crito Socrates refuses to flee from his death sentence, I don’t think this necessarily means he believes all of Athens’ laws should be followed by the citizens. In Apology, Socrates states “..death is something I couldn’t care less about, but that my whole concern is not to do anything unjust or impious. That government, powerful as it was, did not frighten me into any wrongdoing” (35d). Socrates does not believe that majority, in this case the government, should hold the power. He believes that each person is different and each individual should have a personal pursuit for truth and justice. Athenians believe in democracy and a public perception of the human good, and Socrates strongly disagrees. Socrates himself doesn’t follow the laws of Athens. Socrates believes the unexamined life is not worth living and people need to question their taken for granted beliefs, whether this be in relation to the laws or not.

    Finally, I also have to agree with Ronald’s comment. If Socrates had fled from his death sentence, he would completely undermine his whole argument. The death of Socrates is a reflection of Athens’ failure to be just and fair. Socrates played the role as martyr, whether he intended to or not.

  4. Josh Platko permalink
    January 18, 2011 10:55 PM

    Personally, I like the route MLK took for fighting in what he believed. It was a much more professional and organized plan, in comparasion to Socrates. Socrates went into trial and spit out a bunch of mumbo jumbo. Marting Luther King Jr. was careful, yet very good witht he words he chose. Secretly I think he made a much bigger impact than Socrates. Were still talking about Socrates hundreds of years later, but MLK will be talked about thousands of years later.

  5. jdadamo permalink
    January 19, 2011 1:58 PM

    The comparison you posited between MLK and Socrates is clearly present. Both saw injustices in Athenian and US culture, but had very different ways of going about expressing those injustices. Whereas Socrates decided to face his death with a bang in the Apology and explain why blind worship of the state gods is wrong and why putting someone to death simply for having a different belief system is not the way to go, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for civil disobedience to right what he believed was the wrong, a system of injustice and racism in America. As far as Socrates’ decision not to escape, I agree with Stacy in that escaping would’ve undermined his entire argument because he would’ve been seen as guilty. On the police detective shows, suspects who run look much guiltier than those who stay put. Socrates became a martyr when he refused to leave, and the citizens of Athens realized their system was fundamentally flawed. Both Socrates and MLK will be talked about for thousands of years because of how they altered discourse in their respective cultures.

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