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Socrates and Thoreau on Law, Protest, and Politics

More than two thousand years separate such philosophers as Socrates and Thoreau. One of them lived in Ancient Greece long before the Industrial and market revolutions, and another was a citizen of the 19th-century United States as it gradually became an industrial powerhouse of the globalizing world. It seems reasonable to assume that the problems these two reflected on would be as different as the societies they came from but, surprisingly enough, that is not the case. Despite the differences in the social contexts they lived and operated in, Both Socrates and Thoreau were preoccupied with the relationship between the individual and the judicial, social, and political order imposed by the state. This preoccupation specifically manifests in their reflections on law, protest, and politics, both in Socratic dialogues and in Civil Disobedience. Both agree that justice is more important than the law in a judicial sense, which makes protest in the name of justice morally right and also casts a negative light on the majority-dominated political order.

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Considering that some Socratic dialogues revolve around the philosopher’s trial and death, it is hardly surprising that the theme of law features prominently in them. Generally speaking, the Greek philosopher demonstrates unreserved respect to law and views it as one of the greatest values that a virtuous person should cherish. In “Apology,” Socrates outright states that he would “run any risk on the side of law and justice” (Plato, 2000, p. 32). He also refers to his upstanding conduct with regards to legal matters, invoking the case in the past when the Athenians judged a group of naval commanders for a perceived failure in their service. According to Socrates, the charges against them proved to be false, but, at the time of the hearing, he was one of the few people to oppose the unjust conviction. Yet, regardless of being in the minority, Socrates felt it was his duty to oppose those “doing something contrary to the laws,” regardless of his chance to succeed (Plato, 2000, p. 32). Hence, there is no doubt that law occupies an important place in Socratic dialogues, and the philosopher values it highly.

Based on that, one could think that Socrates is a strict legalist respecting the mere letter of the law, but this is not the case. In the same paragraph, the Greek philosopher states that he would “not yield to any man contrary to what is right” (Plato, 2000, p. 32). If the matter was simply the technicalities if the law, this statement would be a tautology, but Socrates makes a distinction between right and legal. It indicates that the philosopher respects the law not because it is law but because – and insofar as – it coincides with his idea of justice. In “Euthyphro”, Socrates carefully and methodically shows that justice is good not because it is loved by the gods but simply by virtue of being justice (Plato, 2000). If, from Socrates’ perspective, even the gods’ preferences are less important than the true form of justice, there is little doubt that human laws are also secondary in their importance. The law he respects so much is not a set of legal rules established by humans, for these can be erroneous, but the higher ideal of perfect justice.

Similarly, Thoreau (2001) touches upon the topic of law in his Civil Disobedience and develops much the same line of thought that Socrates, albeit in a straighter and more obvious way. He outright states that it is “not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law” simply because it is the law (Thoreau, 1993, p. 2). His main reason for opposing such pious legalism is fairly close to that of the Greek philosopher: justice is more important than legality, and these two are not necessarily the same. The author’s abolitionist convictions and and the war with Mexico prompted by the desire to add more slave states to the Union ensured that Thoreau had a suitable example to stress the difference. It allowed him to state bluntly that “unjust laws exist” and, thus, cannot command unquestioning and unconditional respect and deference on the people’s part (Thoreau, 1993, p. 7). Thus, Thoreau essentially follows the same trail of thought outlined by Socrates but does it in a more unequivocal way, outlining the difference between law and justice in clearer terms.

If the law is not morally obligatory to follow, it brings forth a legitimate question of what should be the guiding principle governing all relations in human society. Thoreau’s answer is virtually identical to that of Socrates. He considers one’s moral principles to be a better foundation for human interactions than the rigid and potentially corrupt letter of the law. Thus, he suggests that society should foster respect for one’s sense of doing what is right (Thoreau, 1993). The reasoning for this approach is fairly straightforward as well: conscience precedes any societal conventions, laws included, and people should be expected to exercise it. From Thoreau’s (1993) perspective, it would be most strange to expect a person to “resign his conscience to the legislator” (p. 2). As far as the American philosopher is concerned, the only moral obligation one can reasonably expect a person to follow is utilizing one’s moral capacity to separate right from wrong and do the former. Thus, much like Socrates, Thoreau maintains that the ability to discern right from wrong is a cornerstone of human nature and is ultimately more important than the law.

Socrates’ unflinching position regarding doing what is right leads him to advocate the necessity of disagreeing with anything unjust, which is essentially an endorsement of protest. As mentioned above, the philosopher is unwilling to compromise when it comes to justice, regardless of the circumstances of the case. In his own words, he would “not yield to any man contrary to what is right” (Plato, 2000, p. 32). In “Crito,” he also openly acknowledges that his stand on what is right and moral can put him at odds with the majority (Plato, 2000). However, the simple fact of facing the opposition, even when it happens to be the majority of his entire political community, does not excuse surrendering one’s belief in justice. In “Apology,” he outright states that, if not executed, he will always be vocal because not speaking about virtue “means disobeying the god” (Plato, 2000, p. 38). This is a clear endorsement of vocal and unapologetic protest – when someone feels the need to preach and do the right thing, there is not only a moral right but a moral obligation to do so.

As in the previous case, Thoreau (1993) justifies the necessity of opposition to unjust laws and immoral government. Being a citizen of a modern bureaucratic state, he mostly discusses the protest against the oppressive state machinery when it tries to force people to commit actions contrary to their conscience. He admits that, if the injustice perpetrated by the state was self-sustaining and did not require any participation on the citizens’ part, one could advocate letting it be (Thoreau, 1993). However, when the corrupt government forces a person to become an agent of its injustice to harm another person, the moral duty is to resist it and break the law. The author summarizes this message in a brief yet impactful call to action: “let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine” (Thoreau, 1993, p. 8). Hence, the American philosopher certainly agrees with his Greek counterpart that the protest against injustice, whether as perpetrated by the government or anyone else, is both necessary and moral.

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The themes of law and protest naturally lead the dissuasion to those who enact said laws and cause protest in the first place – the people invested with political power. While a citizen of the democratic Athens, Socrates is openly skeptical of democracy in general and the principle of majority rule in particular. In “Crito,” he berates his companion for caring too much about what the majority might think because, as far as Socrates is concerned, being more numerous does not mean being in the right (Plato, 2000). If anything, he posits that the majority is more likely to be mistaken than correct. He explains it through the analogy in “Apology” by comparing the exercise of political power to other crafts. As he puts it, the majority of people do not know how to take proper care of horses, and only a small minority of horse-breeders have mastered this skill (Plato, 2000). Since statecraft is also a human trade, it would be absurd to think that the multitudes would be adept in it simply by being numerous. Thus, the idea of majority rule in politics does not appeal to Socrates.

Once again, Thoreau (1993) discusses the same problem in similar terms and arrives at a virtually identical conclusion. He points out that the only defining characteristic of the majority is being more numerous and, hence, more capable of forcing others into submission. He openly states that the only reason the majority seizes power and maintains it is “because they are physically the strongest” (Thoreau, 1993, p. 2). This numerical superiority, however, has nothing to do with doing the right thing. In the author’s own words, the majority is not “most likely to be in the right” simply by virtue of being the majority (Thoreau, 1993, p. 2). As such, the majority’s claim to power is based on might rather than justice – and, based on that, the American philosopher pays no more deference to it than Socrates some two thousand years before him.

If both law and democracy are imperfect and the protest against the corrupt authority is justified, it still begs the question of what sort of political order would seem right to Socrates and Thoreau. They agree on the premise of justice as a foundation for a proper polity. but approach it a bit differently. Socrates maintains that the only people worthy of listening to about state matters are those “who understand justice and injustice… and the truth itself” (Plato, 2000, p. 48). Thus, he indirectly advocates the society governed by a group of sages who understand justice and guide their less-virtuous compatriots according to this understanding. Thoreau (1993), on the other hand, posits that the best government is the one that governs least, and, ideally, not at all. According to him, it becomes feasible when an association of conscientious people forms “a corporation with a conscience,” making the government redundant since everyone acts justly already (Thoreau, 1993, p. 2). Thus, while Socrates argues for a government by the wisest over those less attuned to justice, Thoreau proposes moral improvement of each and every member of the community.

As one can see, despite the historical and social differences between the ages they lived on, Socrates and Thoreau agree with remarkable consistency on the matters of law, protest, and political power alike. Socrates respects the law, but only insofar as it corresponds to his idea of justice that he venerates more than anything else. In a similar vein, Thoreau states that laws have no unconditional claim to the people’s respect, and conscience should always come first. Speaking of protest, Socrates essentially endorses it by stating that he should never back down from speaking and doing what is right. His American counterpart follows the same line of thinking and openly encourages people to oppose the state machinery if it forces them to participate in unjust actions. Finally, both philosophers agree that the majority’s claim to power is based on force rather than being morally in the right, which makes it shaky at best. At the same time, Socrates advocates government based on the understanding of justice, while Thoreau posits that the universal moral improvement of the population will make the government redundant.


Plato (2000). The Trial and Death of Socrates (J. M. Cooper, Ed.). Hackett Publishing Company.

Thoreau, H. D. Civil disobedience and other essays. Dover Publications, 1993.

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