In Plato’s Crito, Socrates is shown to believe, essentially, that one should obey the laws of one’s city-state (Athens), even if in a particular case the law seems excessive, asinine, and/or immoral(i.e., not in keeping with a rationally acceptable view of moral justness and rightness) (in other words, laws that are unjust). Obedience to authority, whether to obey unjust laws, autonomy vs. group membership, and social contract theory are all relevant questions based on a modern and objective reading of Plato’s Crito. Further, these considerations have relevance to the question, Does Socrates have an obligation – legally and morally– to kill himself(i.e., choose not to escape after receiving a death sentence)? It is my contention that Socrates probably does not have a moral obligation to kill himself, though legally he probably does. After bringing in a few relevant theorists/philosophers, I will sketch a working theory on how to deal with obeying the law versus civil disobedience.
Following Socrates’ trial by 500 random, non-expert, male Athenians, Plato’s book Crito takes place in the cell Socrates occupies while awaiting his impending State-mandated suicide. His friends are present, including one named Crito. Crito attempts to persuade a still-rational and unyieldingly-objective Socrates that there are many good reasons that Socrates should forego suicide and instead flee to Thessaly, living out his remaining (few) years. Socrates is not convinced, and willingly drinks hemlock. The charges? Studying things in the sky and below the earth, corrupting the youth, and believing in false/invented gods.
“The probability that we shall fail in the struggle should not deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.” ~ Abraham Lincoln
It is relevant to ponder the nature of the alleged offense committed by “The Athenian Gadfly,” as he was known (and which he proudly considered himself). I maintain that these charges are of questionable merit. “Studying things in the sky and below the earth,” though perhaps this made sense to Athenians, makes no objective sense. That is, it is irrational and asinine. Certainly when the penalty is death. Whether the youth were “corrupted” by Socrates asking questions and pointing out what he (justifiably) believed/reasoned to be very significant questions for the polis is a fair question. However, it is historically accurate to note that an alternative explanation for the restive and rebellious youth exists: – the brutal and protracted war which Athens lost to their mortal enemy, Sparta). This would be like America being successfully conquered by China or the Nazis. I believe Socrates did not corrupt the youth as much as he shined the light of reason on what Athens had become(i.e., how far they had fallen since the golden age of Pericles). Finally, It is true that Socrates believed he had a relationship with a nonstandard god (for lack of a better term), but whether it is just to suggest that believing in a god that Athens did not approve of should merit death is highly questionable. I believe that the three charges are all bunk, and consist in 500 non-experts accessing their feelings (and having their feelings impacted by the prosecutor) and reflecting the tumult and identity crisis present at the time. In this sense, Socrates would be considered more of a sacrificial lamb or a martyr than a murderer or saboteur. A democracy without freedom of speech for its citizens, subject to demagogues and sophists, is a State that cannot be trusted to administer justice.
“By not resisting the force of the law, by remaining nonviolent and by accepting the legal penalty for their actions, civil disobedience make manifest both the sincerity of their protest and their respect for the rule of law and the fundamental principles of democracy.” ~ Peter Singer
I am essentially saying that these three laws being broken resulting in an order to commit suicide is unjust. They may have been “on the books” (though that is doubtful) but by this time, Athens was in such political turmoil that one can reasonably question how legitimate said laws were. After all, everything Hitler did was legal(Hannah Arendt). However, I don’t want to criticize the laws as legally unsound as much as I want to say they were unjust and immoral. That is, they are not worthy of carrying the weight of moral compunction, but were only nominally illegal. If there was a law forbidding sleeping in a horizontal position, it may have been created through whatever legitimate procedural means existed in these waning years of the Athenian empire, but it certainly would not carry moral weight or compel a wise and just person to obey. Further, King John was forced to accept his nobles drawing up the Magna Carta because he was making unjust laws and acting with arbitrariness and unjustifiable expediency.
“If persons are going to be independent thinkers, they are probably going to pay a cost. One has to begin with the way the world works: the world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It’s a world of concentrated power, and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power.” ~ Noam Chomsky
As well, obedience to authority is a fair question to raise about Socrates’ plight. That is, To what degree does an individual (parishioner, family member, or citizen of a community/city/city-state/nation/society) have to obey laws (versus having a right to disobey them)? Certainly, many theorists from Kant to Thoreau to Martin Luther King, Jr. have weighed in on that question in the subsequent centuries. Group membership does entail certain responsibilities, but the question is whether one is obligated to follow every law without fail. Consider that sodomy laws were (and are!) on the books in many jurisdictions in the United States, and are selectively enforced against homosexuals, African Americans, and so on. I don’t believe that simply because a law is voted on or dictated by one or more individuals that it necessarily carries moral weight– that a member of the group absolutely, unquestioningly, invariably obey it lest they sin against the State. Natural law indicates that individuals have certain rights and liberties.
The above contention raises the question of social contract theory. That is, under what obligation is a person to follow each and every law the State wishes to create? What is the nature of the agreement – tacit, usually – a citizen makes with their nation (I will use nation for simplicity). Inherent in this is the question: If Socrates was wronged by Athens, by virtue of what does he have to comply with a suicide mandate? He believes he does – for example, that to flee would ruin his long-built and sterling reputation – but why?
“Revolutionary or reactionary, the problem with this is that it is ideology divorced from humanity, empty as the transparent carapace of a cicada, the living thing gone from within. Political protest through killing the children in a day-care center, or restaurant workers, or a doctor who has delivered hundreds of babies – no matter how you configure that equation, it will not compute.” ~ Anna Quindlen
Is it because he was raised there? Is it because he lived there for over 70 years? Does tacit acceptance of one’s group membership impel obedience to authority at all times and in all situations? On what did this allegiance Socrates held toward Athens turn? Is it because the State provided him with protection and an identity (it didn’t provide him an education)?
The punishment did not fit the crime. Death is egregious and inhumane for these foolish charges. What if the State demanded he remain in chains for the rest of his life, or be raped by a different citizen every day for three years? I believe Socrates held his reputation as sacrosanct, and this constitutes a kind of egoism. It is as though he believed that the State being disappointed with him was a true shame.
Is escaping from this death penalty for these crimes actually wrong? Did not Athens sin against Socrates – rather than the other way around? Socrates fought in two military campaigns and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to work toward the honor that Athens could rightfully enjoy: the first city-state in history to actually value philosophy. That plus raising children is significant service to the polis. Socrates was a good man, perhaps the finest Greece ever saw.
“This was the reason why I had no alternative but grimly to resist evil and why in the struggle to defend justice I have always been indifferent to the hatred I inspired in men who wielded greater power than mine — an indifference inspired by the knowledge that I had freely followed my conscience.” ~ Anicius Boethius
There are limits to what a society can justifiably require of citizens. Socrates has a very patriarchal and “establishment” view of obedience to authority. He could never be considered a libertarian or an anarchist by any stretch of the imagination. Socrates believes he is upholding his end of the social contract with Athens, but 500 non-experts found three trumped-up charges and sentenced him to suicide. This was because of their ignorance and their inability to find justice for such a unique offense of “being a gadfly” or “causing many important men significant distress in public.” This is a downfall of a democracy, where men (yes, in this case men) are susceptible to persuasion by a demagogue or sophist and are liable to engage in “groupthink” and hysteria and mob rule and put a good man to death. To flee from this kind of social decay and deformity would be self-affirming, not damage to a legitimate and functional and just State. Athens wronged Socrates, not the other way around. Lobbying for wisdom and justice and the like is a great service to Athens, and it is a sign of the depravity of the city-state that they put their best and brightest citizen to death.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
If Socrates was doing the city a service all those years instead of trying to make a buck or owning slaves, was he not engaging in a way that would make Thoreau proud? Does any citizen have a requirement to accept death for doing virtually nothing truly wrong? This highlights the differences between ethics/justice and the law. The law is written by people like Strom Thurmond; values such as wisdom, truth, and rightness are venerable and aspirational and sacred. I imagine Thoreau would have suggested Socrates spend a month or two in jail for his “crimes” as a way to protest and to refuse to leave society, but even Thoreau would not have accepted death willingly if there were a law in 19thcentury Massachusetts against not keeping the Sabbath holy or not speaking ill of the government.
Martin Luther King, Jr.would not follow laws he deemed to be unjust. He answered to a higher power, and his view of social justice was greater than the Jim Crow South with its petty, self-important, racist lawmakers. He led a movement based on the teachings and the examples of individuals such as Thoreau and Gandhi. The selective enforcement of dubious laws, the inequality, the affronts to liberty and justice, the murder, the apartheid conditions all led to a nonviolent movement for equality, peace, and justice. I believe he would have suggested Socrates fight against the injustice he was saddled with by the majority, just as he led African-Americans to brighter days.
“Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance is known as satyagraha, or ‘a firm and unflinching adherence to truth.’ What truth? That people who oppress others are morally wrong to do so, but need to learn (or be taught) that they are wrong.” ~ Lou Marinoff
Philosopher Immanuel Kant felt that one should obey laws first, and try to change them second. Though Kant would have had a kinship with Socrates for obeying the letter of the law, he would have decried the lack of freedom of speech that resulted in Socrates’ death penalty. Further, in the case of Socrates, Kant’s prescription to know thyself and speak one’s mind were irrelevant because that is exactly what Socrates did, but a corrupt State deemed him a danger and killed him. If Frederick II was in charge of Socrates’ society, he would likely not have been killed, which shows the temporality and the subjectivity of a State’s laws. I do believe Kant would not have found fault with Socrates for any of his alleged crimes. Stealing? Yes. Murder? Sure. Having an unauthorized god? No.
Under what conditions should one, in general, feel free to break the law? Throughout history, many persons have been accused of crimes, and slavery would probably be considered one of the most common – and egregious – conditions of society. So, clearly a slave is not beholden to its master, or the laws of society that condemn them to chains. Clearly, the Fugitive Slave Act was both immoral but legal. No one was obligated morally to be a slave by accident of birth; it would be an affront to natural rights. The fact that America was founded on it doesn’t speak to the normalcy and propriety of the institution, but the moral turpitude on the part of the white settlers, colonial lawmakers, and yes, Thomas Jefferson and his ilk.
There are thousands of cases every day, though, that do not rise to the level of “black and white” (pun intended, I suppose) to which slavery does when it comes to obedience to authority. My friend had this to say when I asked him when and why it is okay to break the law:
“My ex-wife pulled ‘the nuclear option’ and claimed I molested our adopted daughter. My attorney told me to just let my [two] daughters go, to try to forget about them because there are many innocent men serving 20 years for just such an accusation. Men are guilty until they prove they are innocent in these cases. I fought and fought. My girls were taken from me for three months and I spent $45,000 on my defense, all the while sleeping in my truck in a Walmart parking lot because I wasn’t allowed in my house.”
Then, however, you have someone like Bill Cosby. Accused of rape and 99.999% likely to actually be guilty. Does he have a moral right to “fight the power” and claim he is being railroaded by the system? What if he uses his riches, reputation, and his race to throw the prosecutors off the scent, as it were? Clearly that is an example of someone who is accused of serious crimes simply wanting to evade capture and punishment. Sociopaths are the ultimate in persons who fail to see the wrongness of their crimes. Many people see themselves as justified using the insanity defense than to be subjected to justice for a heinous crime.
Socrates Was Wrong: A Theory of Law-Breaking:
Martin Luther King and Howard Zinn – two of Boston University’s finest – are emblematic of when and how to fight immoral laws. We can learn something from their example, and the many thousands of fellow dissidents and strugglers against what I think is fairly clearly injustice. They were greatly influenced by Henry David Thoreau. How are they different from a Bill Cosby? Here are the hallmarks of a morally defensible position in regard to breaking a society’s laws:
1. One must be willing to accept punishment, not be seeking to evade it. Martin Luther King and Howard Zinn went to jail repeatedly. Their philosophy was nonviolent passive resistance to unjust laws and the selective enforcement of questionable laws. Though somewhat different in context and detail, both Socrates’ and King/Thoreau’s approach welcomed punishment because it represented moral force and righteousness to accept sentence rather than fleeing, and brought needed attention to the nature of the unjustness of the accusations and charges. That was part and parcel of Thoreau’s approach, though less so in Socrates’. I think Socrates does deserve credit for believing that it was more honorable to die rather than to besmirch his principles and the society to which he was loyal even unto death. Thoreau and King believed that society was sinning against their cause, and that society needed to change or die. In the end, those who commit crimes and are willing to accept punishment are sacrificing themselves in order to bring needed attention to the unjustness of laws written by society’s very fallible lawmakers.
“Look at what we have here in America. A priceless opportunity that has been handed to you and me by those who’ve dared to struggle in the past. Few people in today’s world, very few in history, have even had the possibility of trying to create an egalitarian society ruled by the common good.” ~ Jim Hightower
2. The more people your struggle helps, the more justifiable it probably is. MLK’s efforts in civil rights for African Americans or Howard Zinn’s efforts against the Vietnam War were always and inextricably bound up with the rights of the many to eschew laws meant to represent societal injustice, or the selective enforcement of crimes such as picketing, not one person being accused of a violent crime. Cosby was looking out for “number one” whereas King was seeking to improve the dignity and enforce the equality of a whole race. Though Thoreau was relatively alone in his struggle, he saw the illegal and immoral war against Mexico as a wrong that needed to be righted, which is easily contrasted with a common criminal. Rosa Parks wasn’t simply choosing to sit in the front of the bus because she wanted to; she trained in concert with civil rights strugglers to willfully disobey unjust laws in order that she might improve the situation for millions of African-Americans stuck in the jaws of the Jim Crow South. Nelson Mandela stirred an entire country even from behind bars because he represented a movement, not just his own personal interests.
“What have I learned? That small acts of resistance to authority, if persisted in, may lead to large social movements. That ordinary people are capable of extraordinary acts of courage. That those in power who confidently say “never” to the possibility of change may live to be embarrassed by those words. That the world of social struggle is full of surprises, as the common moral sense of people germinates invisibly, bubbles up, and at certain points in history brings about victories that may be small, but carry large promise.” ~ Howard Zinn
3. Free speech and equal rights under the law are always justifiable, even if it is criminal. From Kant to Thoreau to King to Zinn, the principle is that citizens have a right to speak their minds. Socrates was willing to submit to the authority of the State, even if the State was wrong. If Socrates was subject to one key criticism it would be that he behaved with character and courage every day he went into the agora to persuade, cajole, convince, and shame Athenians – even the rich or the powerful – into seeing values such as truth, justice, and wisdom. Yet, he was willing to be silenced by 500 non-experts who were whipped up by groupthink and social tumult. He would have had more honor had he said “You are wrong, Athens is breaking its covenant with me, my right to speak my mind and to try to improve the polis are being infringed upon. I will not go quietly into that bad night; if you want me dead you will have to kill me.” Certainly, though the law claimed that Rosa Parks was wrong to sit down in the front of a bus, she was fighting for equal treatment under the law, and was speaking her truth. Censorship was in recent decades a hot-button social issue in the United States, and every day the right to assemble and make grievances heard are curtailed. Libertarians view this as a never-ending struggle against power and find moral justification in civil disobedience.
“The terrible thing is that once you stray from absolute nonviolence you open the door for the most shocking abuses. It is like distributing scalpels to an eager group, half of whom are surgeons and half butchers. But that is man’s constant problem – how to release the truth without being devoured by it.” ~ Howard Zinn
4. If one is speaking truth to power, it signals moral justification. The term “speaking truth to power” refers to one issuing a full-throated condemnation and criticism against the powers that be, the status quo, and the authority of the state. It is disobedience to authority. The opposite of this is one trying to hide from the law in question. Clearly, Cosby tried to evade arrest at all cost, and had nothing to say about his truth. He never claimed that “Rape is excusable!” or “The rich should be able to seek their pleasure and privilege at other peoples’ expense!” On the other hand, Socrates bravely (almost foolhardily) spoke to anyone about anything that his conscience told him was right. Thoreau was telling the American government that it was wrong to fight Mexico in this way, and that Massachusetts had no right to use his tax money for immoral activities. Countless examples by King and Zinn can be found to support the fact that they were not ashamed to poke their finger into the chest of the most powerful State in the world and say, “I am right, you are wrong; this represents an abuse of minority rights under the Constitution; your laws are unjust and immoral – and here is why!” This kind of moral courage and willingness to take to the soapbox(as it were) usually signals the rightness of an act.
“For all the rhetoric about ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ it took a civil war to free the slaves and another hundred years to invest their freedom with meaning. Women came to the right to vote only in my mother’s time. New ages don’t arrive overnight, or without blood, sweat, and tears.” ~ Bill Moyers
5. Violence is usually unjustifiable. In the course of one’s struggle against a law, a system of oppression, or an entrenched social norm, one will probably be discouraged. Dogs and batons and tear gas may be brought out to enforce the law. The vast majority of individuals may never see the light of reason, caught as they are in social forces and the power of obedience to authority (as was the case during MLK’s lifetime, though by now opinion has shifted). The classic difference of opinion in this regard was Malcolm X and Martin Luther King in the U.S. Civil Rights struggle. Malcolm believed that peaceful nonviolent resistance to an entire country with a long history of enslavement and other crimes against humanity was foolish and useless; King never justified the use of violence as a means and never believed that “overthrowing” the U.S. government was the goal. Madge Michaels-Cyrus said, “Nonviolence doesn’t always work – but violence never does.” Zinn used this logic to note that war is always morally wrong.
MLK, Jr. believed that the moral weight of the disenfranchised class turned on the fact that they were resisting violence with peace, fighting hate with love, and struggling mightily to turn the tide of public opinion to the side of righteousness. Using towering rhetoric, brilliant metaphors, and passionate pleas for conscience, King was instrumental in the Civil Rights movement’s progress. Zinn famously believed that even Nazism could have been fought not by military means but if necessary by a dedication by two hundred million citizens to nonviolent passive resistance (resistance was the operative word, he felt). King believed – as did Socrates – that the majority with power to make law (white American and male Athenian) were wise and good enough to see that what they were doing with law creation and enforcement was wrong, eventually. Fighting the death penalty (or Jim Crow segregation and oppression) using ignominious or violent means (fleeing or fighting) was never going to change the heart and mind of one’s oppressor/hangman. Ω
Here is another blog about civil disobedience: