In Plato’s Crito, Socrates is shown to believe 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 not in keeping with a rationally acceptable view of moral justness and rightness(in other words, a law that is unjust). Obedience to authority, whether to obey unjust laws, autonomy vs. group membership, and social contract theory are all relevant considerations based on a modern and objective reading of Plato’s Crito. I will reference Henry David Thoreau (Civil Disobedience) as a comparison and contrast to Crito, all the while opining on how to deal with obedience to the law versus civil disobedience.
It is relevant to ponder the nature of the alleged offenses committed by “The Athenian Gadfly,” as he was known (and which he proudly considered himself), especially since his sentence was enforced suicide – the ultimate in punishments. I maintain that the charges were bunk, and though Socrates believes he should not choose to escape, which was a real possibility, and face death, I would maintain that he should have fled. When it comes to morally important issues, we should follow our rationality, and seek wisdom, and not simply do what a majority of people, especially non-experts, recommend. An expert is wiser than the majority, and one ought to trust oneself and be logical, he tells Crito (who suggested Socrates ought to pay attention to the majority, think of his children, and attend to his reputation).
A first consideration is the legitimacy of the charges and the general sociopolitical climate at the time. If Socrates had murdered his student Plato for not listening when he was teaching him, then he wouldn’t have a moral leg to stand on. That is, his crime would have been universally condemned and his punishment accepted by almost all rational observers. Indeed, the law ought not to be merely what legislators see fit to write down (especially when one thinks of the perils of oligarchy and democracy, both of which Athens was dealing with). The law should reflect the will of the people, true, but not necessarily the uneducated and inexpert “mob.” Socrates was right when he noted that the right thing to do is not necessarily what the masses think, but what is wise and what is in one’s soul.
So, the nature of the justice that marked the accusations of and the trial of Socrates is critical. “Studying things in the sky and below the earth,” though perhaps this made sense to Athenians, is irrational and asinine as a charge – certainly when the penalty is death. No wise person who was watching over his soul should accept that there is any moral crime in studying things. Second, whether the youth were “corrupted” by Socrates asking questions and pointing out what he (justifiably) believed and reasoned were very significant issues for the polis is a critical question. Indeed, it is historically accurate to note that an alternative explanation for causes of the restive and rebellious youth exists: – the brutal and protracted war which Athens lost to their mortal enemy, Sparta. 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). The nobles at the time didn’t have the tolerance for freedom of speech that would have been more permissible in earlier times. Finally, it is true that Socrates believed he had a relationship with a nonstandard god (for lack of a better term), but such an “offense” meriting death is obviously lacking in moral substance.
I believe that the three charges are trumped up, and consist in 500 non-experts accessing their feelings (and having their feelings impacted by the prosecutor) as well as 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 criminal– specifically, one doing harm to other citizens per se. A so-called democracy without freedom of speech for its citizens, subject to demagogues and sophists, is a State that cannot be trusted to administer justice.
These three “laws” being broken, resulting in an order to commit suicide, is unjust. Socrates felt he was acting rightly by obeying the city’s laws, no matter how unjust they may be. He fetishized the laws of Athens, and felt extremely bound by the perceived social contract. Laws 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 were not worthy of carrying the weight of moral condemnation, but were only nominally illegal. If there was then a law forbidding sleeping in a horizontal position, it may have been created through whatever legitimate procedural means existed in the waning years of the Athenian empire, but it certainly would not carry moral weight or compel a wise and just person to obey. A majority of citizens or a few dozen oligarchs voting for a law does not make it truly morally justifiable. Certainly, when Sparta installed a puppet dictatorship in Athens, disobedience to their laws felt righteous.
As well, obedience to authority is a fair concept 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)? Socrates believed that disobeying Athenian law harmed the city because future legal rulings would be undermined if the guilty didn’t accept their punishment. This is akin to the idea that as we should follow our parents’ laws (i.e., rules), we should follow our city’s laws. Both helped us, sheltered us, and demand repayment. Socrates believed he had made a tacit agreement with the State to obey it and be loyal to its laws, no matter what comes. If one didn’t leave when one had the chance, but then fled when one gets into trouble, it’s a violation of values such as loyalty and honor. This represents a very conservative view, one to be contrasted with, say, Locke’s version of social contract theory, which indicates that corrupt governments may be abolished by the citizens. Socrates stays in part because he doesn’t want to harm Athens, or harm his very soul, but this feels to me like obedience to authority.
The assumption is that the breaking of any law is always wrong. But what of unjust laws? 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. Natural law indicates that individuals have certain rights and liberties which a government – even a democracy – is not justified in curtailing or trampling upon.
What is the nature of the agreement – tacit, usually – a citizen makes with their nation? 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? 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? Is it because the State provided him with protection and an identity (it didn’t provide him an education)? On the one hand, I don’t think that invariably doing what a bunch of oligarchs demand is automatically morally wrong, and on the other, I believe that Athenssinned against its son, Socrates, not the other way around. Further, the punishment did not fit the crime. Mandatory suicide is egregious and inhumane for such foolish and corrupt charges. Just states worthy of respect do not subject citizens to such inhumane punishment for, in Socrates’ case, breaking arbitrary and lame laws with no moral grounding to them.
If all of this is accurate, escaping from the death penalty for these crimes in Socrates’ case is not actually morally wrong. 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. Those deeds and that loyalty (plus siring children) is significant service to the polis. Socrates was a good man, perhaps the finest Greece ever saw. Only a corrupt State would execute him. The same could be said for Jesus.
There are limits to what a society can justifiably require of citizens, and the loyalty that an individual owes to it. Socrates had a very patriarchal and conventional view of obedience to authority (the State). He could never be considered a libertarian or an anarchist by any stretch of the imagination. Socrates, Henry David Thoreau might say, witnessed first-hand the social decay and deformity of his society. Thoreau, in his book Civil Disobedience, would probably believe Athens wronged Socrates, not the other way around. He would also probably think Socrates was a man of honor in that he felt most of his contemporary Americans in the early 19thcentury were complacent. Socrates was doing the city-state a service instead of trying to make a buck by owning slaves, and that would have earned Thoreau’s respect.
Thoreau would also have felt, in a way, that Socrates was showing merit and honor by accepting his sentence. This is because Thoreau willingly went to jail for not paying taxes (he felt paying taxes would be tantamount to complicity with a corrupt United States government in part for engaging in a land-grab in Mexico). However, much stronger in Thoreau would be the belief that a corrupt State has no right to execute a citizen who committed no grave and morally-repugnant offense. Does any citizen have a requirement to accept death for doing virtually nothing truly, morally 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 righteousness are venerable, aspirational and sacred. I imagine Thoreau would have suggested Socrates be willing to spend a month or two in jail for his “crimes” as a way to protest, or to leave Athens, because Thoreau’s attachment to his nation was spotty. He felt he should only be responsible for what he explicitly agreed to, and being an “American” by birth didn’t pass muster. Thoreau would not have accepted death willingly if there were a law against “not keeping the Sabbath holy” or criticizing the government.
Indeed, Thoreau would not follow laws he deemed to be unjust. He answered to a higher power, namely, himself; his conscience. To place faith in a faraway, unpetitionable government – one which was, in the case of Socrates, doing grave harm to him – was something Thoreau would never consent to. Why do we have our consciences if we just need to rely on the judgment of our legislators?, he asked. Ironically, Socrates had a first-rate conscience, it seems, but placed his ultimate faith in the State, one that unjustifiably adjudicated him a traitor worthy of death. Unthinking acceptance of government tyranny and a mindless respect for the law written by mere men would make a “straw man” of Socrates, Thoreau would have believed. Justice is superior to man-made laws, especially if the laws are trumped up and politically expedient and result in death for violation.
Under what conditions would one, in general, be morally right breaking the law? Clearly, a slave is not justifiably beholden to its master, or the laws of a society which condemns him or her to servitude, rape, and humiliation. The Fugitive Slave Act was immoral and 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 slavery doesn’t speak to the normalcy and propriety of the institution, but the moral turpitude on the part of the European settlers, colonial oligarchs, and, yes, Founding Fathers.
There are thousands of cases every year in society, though, that do not rise to the level of black and white (no pun intended) to which slavery does when it comes to obedience to authority. Consider someone such as Bill Cosby, who was accused of drugging and raping 60 women, and 99% likely to actually be guilty as charged. 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 defend himself? Clearly that is an example of someone who is accused of serious crimes simply wanting to evade punishment. Sociopaths are the ultimate example of persons who fail to see the wrongness of their crimes. Many sane defendants see themselves as justified in using the insanity defense to avoid being subjected to justice for a heinous crime. These are examples of individuals trying to avoid capture and punishment for person-to-person moral wrongs that the law codified as illegal.
Thoreau (and many whom he influenced, such as Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. or Indian anti-imperialist Mohandas K. Gandhi) is 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 institutionalized racism and oppression). How is civil disobedience different from a criminal evading arrest such as Bill Cosby? Here are some proposed hallmarks of a morally defensible position in regard to breaking a society’s laws:
One must be willing to accept punishment, not be seeking to evade it. Thoreau, with his fervent abolitionist and anti-war beliefs, was one of the first examples of 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. For Thoreau, doing so brought needed attention to the nature of the unjustness of the accusations and punishments. 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. However, in contrast, Thoreau believed that society was sinning against his 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. Socrates was willing to sacrifice himself, in a way, but it had no wider context; he wasn’t fighting against a corrupt Athens; he was willing to take his medicine, as it were.
Free speech and equal rights under the law are always justifiable, even if it is criminal. Thoreau firmly believed in the principle that citizens have a right to speak their minds (and that government should be much more benign and laissez-faire than it was in his time). 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, 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.” Libertarians, in the spirit of Thoreau, are willing to fight an ongoing struggle against power and find moral justification in civil disobedience.
Violence is usually unjustifiable. This is something that both Socrates and Thoreau evinced in their struggles with the law. Thoreau was less compliant than Socrates, obviously, but he didn’t advocate taking up arms against his perceived oppressor. That Socrates not only didn’t take up arms but didn’t even escape when given a chance is passive in the extreme. This is not only morally praiseworthy; it may be wise as well. Historian and Civil Rights leader Howard Zinn noted the following in his book You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: “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.”
One could craft a metaphor based on Zinn’s idea that society is represented by a train which moving in a certain direction – often one that is debasing of the people who ought to have the political power to stand up against a corrupt aspect of “the system” (say, perhaps, a kangaroo court in Athens in 399 B.C.E.). Zinn believed that if one were on that train, one couldn’t be neutral– the train was moving in the wrong direction. His choice would be to try to slow it to a stop, or at least, disembark. Thoreau would have agreed, in that he felt that if one doesn’t want to fight against injustice, fine; but don’t accidentally give passive support to a corrupt government. Socrates, on the other hand, would be akin to a person dozing off on a train that was fast-approaching a station named Corruption and Depravity So Egregious It Will Ruin My Beloved Athens.
Socrates hears Crito’s reasons why he should escape, and ultimately decides all Crito’s reasons are incorrect. Certainly, the idea that Socrates’ reputation would suffer if he were killed was rejected soundly; he felt the exact opposite about that issue. Socrates, however, was essentially admitting that a majority vote by common men was superior to one’s own reason, and that obedience was superior to disobedience. The infamous Trial of Socrates is one of the first examples in history of how the majority can err when it comes to reason and wisdom, and how even democracies can go awry and commit miscarriages of justice.
Socrates claimed that if one forsakes one’s soul, one’s life is essentially ruined. It is my belief that he would have been wiser had he perceived willingly committing suicide for trumped up charges to be ignominious; to view his cruel and unusual sentence as an abandonment of the reason and justice he long-fought-for. He should have moved to Thessaly or Thebes where he might have continued his efforts toward improving benighted humanity as a “gadfly.” Though Thoreau (and King, and Zinn) were willing to accept punishment as a way to create attention and social sentiment favorable to their righteous cause, I don’t think they would have advised Socrates to give up the struggle just because a mob of uneducated men persuaded by a powerful speaker thought it was best – in a one-off vote (which was almost a tie). Certainly, not if death was the punishment; how could a dead man continue to struggle for justice and equality? Willingly dying would be considered tantamount to sanctioning what the government was doing, which in Socrates’ case, was corrupt and misguided and unjustifiable. It was as though Socrates was, finally, weary from daily struggle against ignorance, overconfidence, and irrationality.
The poem “How Fortunate the Man with None” by Bertolt Brecht hauntingly sums up the tragic story of Socrates. The last line really gets me…
You heard of honest Socrates,
The man who never lied;
They weren’t so grateful as you’d think;
Instead, the rulers fixed to have him tried,
And handed him the poisoned drink.
How honest was the people’s noble son?!
The world, however, did not wait
But soon observed what followed on.
It’s honesty that brought him to that state.
How fortunate the man with none.