Civil Disobedience and Its Development by Socrates and Martin Luther King

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Despite the two and a half-century difference between Socrates and Martin Luther King Jr., both have shaped modern societies and carved out a path for contemporary thought, philosophically and socially, influencing human actions and politics in the world today. At first glance, the two thinkers may appear to agree that civil disobedience is necessary for progression and correcting injustice, with King Jr. citing Socrates in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” writing “to a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience”(p841). This is greatly contended, however, as in Crito Socrates proclaims “one must obey the commands of one’s city and country” and “endure in silence whatever whatever it instructs” (51b,c) suggesting submission to the city. By applying this to Kings’ letter, it can be viewed that the disobedience he recommends is in fact unjust.

When addressing Crito, the contradictory nature of this story in comparison to Apology must be acknowledged in order to understand Socrates’ true stance on civil disobedience. The two dialogues give rise to various interpretations of Socrates’ true thoughts on justice. Many interpret Apology to be the text in which Socrates admits to breaking the law, however before the trail even begins he states “let the matter proceed as the god may wish, but I must obey the law and make my defense”(19a), hence can be deduced that Socrates ultimately concludes that you can’t be disobedient and just. The contradictory sense arises due to the foreboding execution of Socrates. Throughout his defence in Apology, Socrates alludes to a distinction between Natural Law and human laws. The reason for this is Plato’s attempt to make the injustice of Socrates’ death congruent with the knowledge that Socrates respected the city and its Law. The difference between Law and law is that the prior has an ethereal quality to it, and is claimed to be more than just the ideas from the men of Athens. Laws are always Just, however, a law can be unjustly used and this differentiates the two most clearly. He infers that he has agreed to the Laws of Athens by living there. Socrates exemplifies that the Laws are to be followed by arguing that Crito has made an “agreement to live as a citizen under [Athens]?” (52d) and personally agrees to be put to death due to its Laws. Furthermore, Socrates likens the state and citizen to a parent-child relationship and argues that harming one’s parents is unjust, thus harming the state and therefore Laws would be too.

When attempting to validate Martin Luther King Jr’s quoting of Socrates, it may be assumed that Socrates’ vantage point in Crito was not his genuine thoughts. Crito was Socrates’ friend at the time and was breaking the law to try and help Socrates escape. Whilst Socrates did not view himself as a teacher, he may have assumed the duty of educating Crito to be a better, more lawful person and was leading by example by accepting his execution. By shifting the focus from Crito to Apology by assuming that this was not Socrates’ authentic thoughts, King’s reference to Socrates is more understandable and would allow room to argue that civil disobedience is just. However, the dismissal of an entire dialogue leads down a precarious road as it questions Socrates and Plato’s intentions and ideas, and by choosing one over the other, invalidates all of the dialogues.

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King argues that civil disobedience is needed as human lawmakers are fallible and thus the law can be unjust. Moreover, he conveys that one is obliged to disobey the laws if they are unjust, as “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (p836). King asserts that he must obey God and the higher divine law over any man-made law, a parallel that can be drawn between himself and Socrates, insinuating that Socrates would condone his rebellion. In Apology, Socrates speaks of disobeying the order of the Thirty Tyrants in court and continuing to practice philosophy even if ordered to stop as it is a “God’s gift” (30 e) to the city. However, neither of these are Laws instead orders, therefore it would be foolish to use these as examples as to where Socrates broke the law. Consequently, we can only take Socrates’ actions that lead him to be prosecuted as the instance when he broke the law. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, King outlines that when the unjust law is broken it “must [be done] so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” (p841). This implies that the breaking of the law must be carefully calculated to be considered civil disobedience. Socrates professes throughout Apology that he never intentionally broke the law and was not aware he was committing any crimes. This is also furthered by historical proof that Socrates lives a comfortable life due to being surrounded by people with money, privilege, and power, giving him no reason to break the law. Thus, this invalidates this example as an argument for Socrates breaking unjust laws, hence there are no instances of Socrates partaking in civil disobedience. Therefore, Socrates’ actions cannot be used to uphold King’s view on civil disobedience.

Despite being unjust using Socratic logic, no one can dispute that when using a modern understanding of moral justice that Martin Luther King Jr.’s actions were indeed the correct and pious ones to take. Overall, his peaceful protesting unequivocally bettered society and his view that particular instances of disobedience in different scenarios can improve the legal system and moreover improve peoples’ lives, thus it would be wrong to dismiss King’s advocacy as unjust. Whilst Socrates believed that to disobey the law was ill-conceived, King explained that it was the only route in the contemporary world where change could be made and thus justice consequentially achieved. If just law is to be perceived as “any law that uplifts human personality” and unjust law as “any law that degrades human personality”, then one can only agree that King’s claim for civil disobedience is just. Furthermore, If applying St. Augustine’s perspective that ‘an unjust law is no law at all’, civil disobedience does not break any law and thus can be viewed as just.

When analysing the distinction between Socrates in Apology and Crito, King’s advocacy walks a fine line between being just or not. Ultimately civil disobedience remains unjust when applying Socratic logic as it openly defies the city, society and foremost the law, both Natural and human. Through his actions in Crito, Socrates concludes that he has made an agreement with Athens to follow its Laws. These Laws exist on their own and, as Plato explains throughout the five dialogues, this makes them always just, thus disobeying them would be unjust. Therefore, King’s argument in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” cannot be ratified through Socrates in Apology, as Socrates blatantly rejects the notion of civil disobedience in Crito.  

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