The idea of civil disobedience and its credibility has been considered by philosophers, politicians, and activists since the formation of governmental systems. The idea stems from the notion that laws should be obeyed until they are superseded by a more powerful force such as moral notions, survival, saving a life, or any other that can be used to justify breaking the law in a moral fashion. There may be hundreds of scenarios where laws may not be followed, from going against laws that are based on ideas of racism, to resisting an occupying enemy force. Acts of civil disobedience have caused a number of historical events and led to great changes in the development of the modern world.
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At times, laws enacted by the governing body are inherently unjust, and people tend to react to them through civil disobedience. Martin Luther King was one of the more modern proponents of civil disobedience during his campaign for civil rights. After being arrested for not following a court injunction, he wrote a letter that evoked Socrates as one of the people who supported such actions. However, In Plato’s dialogue Crito, Socrates seems to hold an opposite point of view. This paper will examine the portrayal of Socrates in Plato’s works and whether he would be supportive of King’s actions.
Martin Luther King’s Position
In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King gave a passionate explanation not only for his actions of disobedience but also of the reasons behind his movement as a whole. He describes both the need to follow unjust laws and how they affect people in his life and the country as a whole. One of his main arguments is in that people have a responsibility not only to do good onto others but also to avoid being complacent of evil. His movement would hold little power if they followed every injunction because government leaders would be able to prevent every protest or activist action with no issue. Even when performed by the letter of the law, political protests are inherently aimed against authority figures. To follow such an injunction would be an act of submission to said authority, which would, in turn, be compliance with evil. King mentions such historical events and people as the Boston Tea Party, the rise of Christianity, and Socrates as examples of civil disobedience. He states that America, Christianity, and modern education would not exist if people did not disobey unjust laws (King 2). While the examples in the case of America and Christianity are clear, the inclusion of Socrates is slightly questionable.
Position of Socrates as seen in Plato’s Crito and Apology
The immediate issue that arises when talking about Socrates and his position on civil disobedience is the events of his trial and execution. One of the most famous portrayals of these events is presented in Plato’s dialogue “Crito.” It takes place after Socrates’ trial and describes how his rich friend Crito tries to convince him to escape. While Crito presents some substantial arguments including those based on the teachings of Socrates, his efforts are in vain. Socrates absolutely refuses to escape and justifies it by stating that he has no argument good enough to oppose the arguments of the lawmakers. They include the idea that Socrates owes the society to obey all of the laws regardless of personal or moral beliefs due to the same laws allowing his family to create and support him, as well as the argument that if people begin to disobey the law, the whole system will falter. Socrates chooses death over disobedience to the shock and sorrow of his peers and followers (Plato 447). How can a man whose death is directly tied to the obedience of the law be a symbol of civil disobedience?
The answer comes in the form of another Plato’s dialogue titled “Apology.” While “Crito” shows Socrates following the law even when the law is unjust, “Apology” presents a completely different version of his personality. This dialogue takes place during the trial and recounts the speech that Socrates gave during his defense before the jury and the court. He was accused of not recognizing the gods chosen by the state, inventing new gods, and in turn corrupting the young people of Athens through his teachings. In response, Socrates presents his arguments by speaking informally and explaining that his actions as not only right but necessary for the government to stay powerful and just.
He compares himself to a gadfly that stings a horse about to fall asleep. While he understands that his teachings irritated a certain portion of the authority, they also opened their eyes to more complex issues present in the society and philosophical dilemmas that deserve consideration. Socrates teachings were an act of disobedience after he was ordered to stop. This dialogue shows that he was willing to break the law because he saw his teachings as virtuous and wanted his followers, and the government to commit virtuous deeds. It is likely that this version of Socrates is the one that King refers to in his letter, as their fates were very similar at the moment of writing (Plato 423). “Apology” shows Socrates as a person of high principle, who aims to improve the world through his thought, while “Crito” presents a person who is completely unable to break the law despite no negative outcome resulting from it.
The disparity in character between the two portrayals of Socrates has troubled philosophers and political scientists for centuries. Many interpretations of how this inconsistency can be resolved were proposed from various points of view. Some have even accused Plato of changing the story of Socrates to better align with his political leanings. It is likely that the true explanation will never be revealed. Nevertheless, King’s choice to cite Socrates as one of the classic examples of civil disobedience is valid due to his speech in “Apology.” However, would Socrates be open to the idea of civil disobedience that King presents in his letter? I believe that he would. Both King and Socrates used their oratory power to enlighten people on important issues. They both wanted to improve their society through critical thought and opposition to unjust actions, and neither would be complacent of actions they perceived as evil (Plato 426). Socrates lived in a world with a different world view than King, and some of his actions would not be appropriate in the XX century. However, strictly on a philosophical level, Socrates would support King’s actions and his idea of civil disobedience.
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The version of Socrates in “Crito” might have more difficulty agreeing that his disobedience is virtuous, but it could be argued that he would not accuse him of committing a crime either. In the dialogue, his friend Crito commits a number of crimes from bribery to breaking into jail. Instead of judging him for it, Socrates sees these actions as virtuous because they are done with bravery and with a goal of helping a friend. Despite his refusal to escape, Socrates does not wish imprisonment or any punishment done to the people that came to help him (Plato 450). It is possible that he could see the same virtues of bravery and selflessness in the actions of King and choose to support him.
Unfortunately, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates may not be fully accurate because it is presented as a fictionalized account, which leaves a number of questions unanswered. It is possible that some important parts of his character were not included in the texts and were lost to time. Plato also may have presented a more idealized version of Socrates because of his deep respect and admiration for him. While an argument toward Socrates supporting King’s civil disobedience can be made, it can never be completely confirmed to be accurate.
Civil disobedience is a highly popular topic of debates. With the current political climate in the world, actions of civil disobedience have become more common and are beginning to be much less controversial in the eyes of the public. Unjust or irresponsible laws often become reasons for protests, and political leaders are forced to deal with the consequences of their decisions much more often. The power of civil disobedience is, unfortunately, diminishing, however, as authority figures are becoming more brazen in their responses to civil unrest. Hopefully, the teachings of King and Socrates on this matter will continue to be relevant in the future.
King, Martin Luther. Letter from Birmingham Jail. Overbrook Press, 1968.
Plato. Great Dialogues of Plato. Mentor, 1956.