In the Crito, Socrates makes an argument against the notion of breaking the laws even if they are judged by the public to be unjust. This is because by disobeying the law, one is in effect attempting to destroy... the laws, and indeed the whole city (Plato 53). Socrates continues along with this argument, first establishing that one should never do wrong in return, not mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him (52), then arguing through a personification of the law itself that to disobey the edicts of one's land and countrymen is to mistreat the law, and thereby mistreat all people. Though this argument certainly has merit, it contradicts with many of the conclusions that we have come to in the 20th century concerning the nature of justice and civil disobedience. Examples such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and specifically Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and their campaigns against the unjust laws which governments forced upon their citizens come to mind as shining examples of the virtue and good work that can only come about through what King calls creative protest. Who are we to agree with? On the one hand there are Socrates's rational arguments, but on the other there are the practical modern examples in which civil disobedience scored major victories for justice all around the world. This essay will examine this difference specifically by contrasting Socrates's argument against breaking the law with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s defence of civil disobedience as it is made out in his letter from the Birmingham Jail. This essay will not seek to decide one way or the other, but instead to dissolve the seeming contradiction of these two views by showing in what ways they are disanalogous.
[...] Earlier in the dialogue when Crito is trying to argue that by giving into the law Socrates is bringing about a tide of misfortunes on his family and friend, Socrates establishes through his reasoning that when considerations of justice are at stake, “those questions . about money, reputation, [and] the upbringing of children . in truth belong to those people who easily put men to death and would bring them to life again if they could, without thinking” (51). By Socrates's own reasoning then we must rule out the arguments which stem from the misfortunes which might befall him if he escaped, such as the undermining of his own words, his ruined reputation, and the harm his escape might bring to his friends. [...]
[...] This is the heart and soul of Socrates's argument and it is this main point that we should bear in mind when we contrast it against King's argument on behalf of civil disobedience. King's letter from Birmingham Jail is an attempt to explain to of genuine good will” who nonetheless remain doubtful that civil disobedience is a wise course of action why he is partaking in it and advocating it. The letter starts by showing how unjust a place Birmingham, Alabama, was at the time: “Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. [...]
[...] Martin Luther King Jr.'s argument in his letter from Birmingham Jail about the reasons for participating in civil disobedience and Socrates's argument about obeying the law in the Crito are not contradictory, and even in some ways complementary. Both base their thinking on a commitment to justice, but the context in which they consider the idea of law breaking is radically different. Where Socrates condemns breaking the law for the bettering of one's personal situation with the intention of getting away with it, King advocates breaking the law and accepting the consequences of such an action to make a point about the unjustness of such a law. [...]
[...] Instead, the point to be taken from this passage is that it is only those laws which violate the tenets of justice in such a blatant and vile way that deserve to be protested against and brought down. In King's case, these are the laws which uphold segregation practices. They are awful and of a large enough magnitude to warrant creative disruption so that they might be abolished. The reason this principle makes King's case disanalogous from Socrates's is that the motive for their breaking of the law is radically different. [...]
[...] In the Apology, Socrates is set to be executed by the state for being found guilty of “corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things” (Plato 28). The Crito takes place just the day before this execution is scheduled to take place, in which the character Crito has broken into jail to bust Socrates out of jail and save him from his execution. Socrates, however, believes it is unjust for him to disobey the law even if the law was used against him unjustly. [...]
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