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Socrates and Civil Disobedience.

January 20, 2011

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)


Ankit Chowdhary.

  1. Josh Platko permalink
    January 20, 2011 7:35 PM

    This same thought went through my mind, when MLK mentioned Socrates and civil disobedience in the same line. It seems apperent in Crito that Socrates follows the law to the best of his ability. However, the reason he ended up in tank was because he broke laws. So maybe this “two-sides” to Socrates shows up, in his act of protest. He breaks those unjust laws in the beginning, because he knew they were not morally right. He then decides to not escape jail for two reasons. One it will destroy his reasons for breaking the laws in the first place. Secondly, because he was throwin in jail for breaking the law, so that is a reasonable law.

  2. January 20, 2011 10:34 PM

    I found this to be a very intriguing thread as it provided me with a new way of how I think about the differences between wanting to change a law and actually practicing civil disobedience. I agree with the assertion that the desire for reform does not necessarily correspond to civil disobedience. Nevertheless, I disagree on a few points. I believe Socrates wanted Athens to change: to be more just and based not on majority opinion but on truth. Remember his defense was not about the charges presented against him, but was rather a critique of Athens. His critique had the purpose of allowing Athens to reflect upon itself, and then for Athens to change for the better based on those reflections. I actually would place Socrates with the white moderates from the letter as I believe he wanted change, but was not civilly disobedient.

    My conception of civil disobedience is when an individual or group willfully violates what he or she perceives as an unjust statute. With this conception, I believe the conclusion that Socrates practiced civil disobedience is incorrect because I do not agree with the assumptions needed to reach the conclusion; such as the assumption that Socrates actually violated the laws he was charged with, and the assumption that his violation was done willfully. Thus, I concur with the first opinion presented in comment #1 that Socrates follows the law to the best of his ability, but disagree by saying that it is very inconclusive that he violates the laws. Socrates was “charged” with breaking the two laws of corrupting the youth, and not believing in the Gods. The former charge I believe Socrates would agree is a just law based on his notion that corrupting the youth causes harm, and causing harm in unjust. The latter charge I believe can be discredited by Meletus inconsistency as Socrates paraphrases Meletus by saying that “Socrates is guilty not of believing in gods but believing in gods (27a).” My conclusion is that Socrates is in jail not because he broke the laws, but rather because the majority acted on the perception that he broke the laws. Furthermore, my other conclusion is that if such evidence can presented that Socrates did violate the laws, he did not willfully do so. Such evidence comes in his defense in the Apology, and the dialogue in Crito. Socrates professes he would not commit an unjust action, and one such action that Socrates acknowledges as unjust is the corruption of the youth.

    In conclusion, I believe Socrates wanted change, but he did not practice civil disobedience. Socrates wanted Athens to change itself through self-reflection. And lastly, he was convicted not because he broke the laws but simply by a majority’s perception.

  3. Justin Kucera permalink
    January 23, 2011 6:34 PM

    I don’t know if you can call Socrates as being a civil disobediant. One of the main requirements for civil disobediance is knowingly breaking a law that you think is unjust. Socrates does not break the law. He obeys all the laws even though he thought he was wrongly convicted. That was his staple: obeying the laws. MLK, on the other hand, did not follow the laws which he thought were unjust. Although they both are martyrs, they both did not practice civil disobediance.

  4. Christopher Lin permalink
    January 23, 2011 9:37 PM

    Actually, I think that Socrates did acknowledge that he broke the law and would continue to break the law and he argued that if he were to be acquitted on the terms of not practicing philosophy, he would not cease to to do so and exhort the Athenians in his usual fashion (29d – e).

    Furthermore, it is arguable that Socrates obeyed the laws as a critique of the undue emphasis on procedural justice and deliberative democracy in Athens.

    The more pertinent question, I believe, is how we can reconcile Socrates seeming endorsement of civil disobedience in the Apology and his supposed obedience in Crito? This question is complicated by the fact that Socrates, did not at any point personally endorse obedience to the laws – after all, in Crito, the laws were personified and he did not articulate his personal position.

    I’m of the opinion that aside from the fact the Socrates could well be adopting satire in the Apology and hence should not be taken literally, Socrates ‘obedience’ is markedly distinct from Dr King’s endorsement of ‘civil disobedience’.

    Consider this: King justified civil disobedience on the basis that the prescribed laws were unjust. It is arguable then that this is distinct from Socrates’ ‘obedience’ because, in the case of conflicting dictums, Socrates chose to obey a hierarchically higher authority — ‘the god’ (29d). So, in all cases, Socrates chose to obey – who he deemed was the highest authority. So, this way, I think it addresses the discrepancy between Socrates’ words and deeds in Apology and Crito.

  5. kasnetz permalink
    January 24, 2011 1:25 PM

    I agree for the most part. I do believe one the most important aspects of both pieces is the cleavage that exists between the justness of the law and the justness of its application. The law, no matter how clear in its distinctions, is always carried and interpreted subjectively. One large question may be whether the most important factor in Socrates’ and King’s incarceration was the laws in place or the application of those laws. We do know that the penalties both received were disproportionate. Did Meletus and his followers and the prejudice of the law forces of the South cause these unjust actions, or were the laws in place enabling to those ends?

    More broadly, at the highest levels of our American system of government, there exists discrepancies over the meaning of laws and how they ought to be carried out. That is why there is a judicial branch of government. From the supreme court, to lower courts, to law enforcement and on to ordinary citizens, what matters is not just the laws as written, but how they are interpreted and carried out.

  6. January 25, 2011 12:11 AM

    Martin Luther King Jr. felt as if Socrates was practicing civil disobedience for many different reasons. In his, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. said that its ones responsibility to civilly disobey any “unjust” law. That is why MLK Jr. ended up in jail in the first place, for standing up to segregation because he feels it is unjust. In the “Apology” Socrates basically says that one must be steadfast in his/her ambitions and that one must be willing to risk the consequences of society, yet still be steadfast in the pursuit of personal ambitions. Martin Luther King Junior decided to stay strong with his ambitions and decided to commit a selfless act to help make segregation unjust. Socrates practiced civil disobedience by being a martyr for his cause and civilly disobeying a law which he felt was unjust.


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