Socrates and Civil Disobedience.
In the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King Jr. says that ‘academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience’. So, when and how did Socrates practice civil disobedience?
Let me start by saying why I found this odd. Socrates asserts multiple times in “Crito” that he is a man who follows the Law. His entire motif behind not escaping from the prison when he could is that he is obliged to not disrespect the law. Coming from such a person, why would he practice civil disobedience the basis of which is to knowingly go against a law? Then – Socrates and Civil Disobedience: How did that happen?
I look at it this way: Is the desire for change synonymous with civil disobedience? I think it is not. You can logically want change and not be civilly disobedient [as was the case with ‘the white moderates’ from the letter], as well as be civilly disobedient and not want change. Socrates is an example of the second case. In “The Apology” Socrates questions the social order because he believes it is not right. Socrates says ‘When you wished to try the generals, who did not rescue their men after the battle, in a body which was against the law, as you all came to think afterwards, my tribe held the presidency. On that occasion I alone of all the presidents opposed your illegal action, and gave my vote against you.’ (The Apology, 32 a) Socrates is civilly disobedient in the sense that he does not conform to the masses. In my view Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the same. His motif for civil disobedience is the fact that there exist an unjust set of laws that are not in conjunction with ‘natural laws’, which the masses seem to be following due compulsion and lack of question. Thus Socrates and Dr. King are civilly disobedient in principle that they also refuse to conform to the popular laws and instead favor what Socrates says is ‘Truth’, and what Dr. King says are ‘Godgiven Rights’, which according to me are one and the same thing.
In conclusion, Socrates is civilly disobedient. To quote Socrates yet again, “That government with all its power did not terrify me into doing anything wrong.” (The Apology, 32 e)