Debate – crito, by plato, an
Questionable Laws & People
In the articles of Crito, by Plato, and Letter from Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King, Jr., two writers make a case over whether it is moral or not to disobey laws. The question to be answered in our final paper asks whether we agree with what the Laws say about if Socrates was to escape and why we feel that way. It also asks how we think Martin Luther King would have responded to the judgment of the Laws of Athens. In this paper, I will address these questions as well as do a quick overview of each article.
In Crito, Plato uses Socrates as a tool to argue the point. Socrates is in jail for preaching false gods and corrupting the youth by causing them to doubt or disregard the wisdom of their elders. His friend Crito comes to visit and pleads with him to escape from his imprisonment and death sentence. Socrates asks Crito to give him one good reason that will hold up to scrutiny to persuade him, and then he will choose to escape. Crito brings up how people would think of him because he wouldnt spend his money to get his friend out of jail. Socrates goes on to nullify this argument by saying that opinions of the populace doesnt matter, only the opinion of the authority should be taken into consideration. Socrates also says that he shouldnt mind dying considering he had a long and full life. He goes on to point out that, the point of living is not to live long but to live well. Moreover, that to live well, one has to live honorably. He feels that he has lived a good life and if he were to escape, then he wouldnt be living honorably, thus not making life worth living. Crito gives him a few other reasons including; thinking about his family (who would raise his children?), thinking about his followers (they dont want him to die), and that the guilty verdict was wrong and unfair (few Athenians really wanted him put to death). Socrates then goes on to explain that his friends would raise his children, as he would wish. Also, he would be a mockery to his followers if he were to go against his own preaching. Lastly, the guilty verdict may be wrong and unfair, but it was the wrongdoing of man and not the laws, so why should he disobey the laws? He feels a state cannot exist without laws that are followed. Because he dismantled all of Critos arguments, he proved that there is no reason not to follow the laws. The laws raised him. He had chances to leave or even to visit other countries if he was unhappy with the laws in Athens. He even could have tried to change some of the laws. However, now that he is on the other side of the laws, it doesnt mean that it is time to start disobeying them. After all the laws have done for him, why should he turn his back and defy them? After all, it wasnt the laws that have wronged him, but his fellow men. He finishes his arguments with the Laws speaking to him explaining why he should obey them and not do as Crito requests.
In Letter from Birmingham Jail, King is responding to a statement that called his actions, unwise and untimely. They also said that he was an outsider and shouldnt have been involved with a march in Birmingham. This statement was in response to his participation in a non-violent campaign march in a town that still had many problems with segregation. He explains that he was asked there because of organizational ties, and that he was there because of injustice. He also brings up that the demonstrations were in response to a meeting they had previous with city leaders where promises were made and then broken. He goes on to explain the situation and the need for direct action so that it can lead to negotiation. He also brings up an idea that there is a difference in laws and how they are used. This difference is referred to as just and unjust. Laws are unjust depending on if they restrict people unfairly, or if man uses them to restrict other people unfairly. He gives blame to the white moderate who is happy living with a negative peace and not willing to have the disorder to gain a positive peacefulness. He gives examples of injustices in the past, such as Christians being willing to face hungry lions versus submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. He says that society must, protect the robbed and punish the robber. He also brings up the example that what Adolf Hitler did in Germany was legal at the time. Just because it was legal, didnt make it right. He continues in his essay explaining how upset he is over how the churches are dealing with this issue. How they say to follow the desegregation rules because it is the law instead of it being morally right. Finally, he brings up the point that they commended the Birmingham police for keeping order and preventing violence, however the police used violence to accomplish this. He wishes they had commended the protestors for being brave and dealing with their aggression in a nonviolent way. He closes with the hopes that everything will fall into place and this battle will be over.
Getting more in depth with the Laws that Socrates used to support his views is the idea that if he disobeyed the laws, he would be violating them on three separate accounts. These accounts are: 1) because they are his parents, 2) because they are his guardians, and lastly, 3) because after promising obedience, he would be neither obeying them nor persuading them to change their decision if they are at fault. I would agree with these accounts because like Socrates said earlier in the play, the laws that are standing allowed his parents to marry and have him, plus raise him in a quality way, and then still required his father to educate him properly with cultural and physical education. If he had any problems with any of these laws, he could have left in search of a better government. He admits himself that there are two perfect governments. He could have moved himself there. However, instead of moving, he chose to raise a family in Athens. Since he didnt move away from Athens, and he didnt try to change the laws, then he must be saying that the laws are ok. Thus, he must abide by them. Considering the above, the laws raised him. They also were his guardians by keeping him safe. If anything were to befall him, he would have retribution through the laws. And if he had any problems with the laws because he thought them unjust, he could have tried to persuade them differently before he came to the point where he would have to disobey them.
If Martin Luther King, Jr. had to respond to the judgement of the Laws of Athens, I think he would bring up his point that not all laws are just laws. He believes that there are two types of laws, just and unjust. He, like Socrates, feels that there is a moral obligation to obeying just laws. However, he also believes that people have a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws. With this, he quotes St. Augustine with, An unjust law is no law at all. King goes on to explain that a just law is a law that uplifts human personality and it squares with moral law. In addition, an unjust law is a law that degrades human personality and is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. An easier way to view this is that a just law is a law that a group who enacts it will not mind following itself. On the contrary, an unjust law is a law that the group that enacts it would not want required on them. Another problem with just and unjust laws would be a law that is inflicted on a group who could not vote on it. King questions whether a law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured. Kings opinion is that An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law. I feel that there he agrees with Socrates. Socrates sat in jail and then drank hemlock because he taught what he believed was to be right. He lived with the punishment for his beliefs. He did not escape and avoid punishment. King brings up one other point as to the validity of laws. He brings up the example of Hitler and how what Hitler did in Germany was legal at the time. Although it was legal, we all know that it was still immoral. Therefore, to disobey that law, and hide the Jewish people, would be the right thing to do. To conclude his beliefs, King felt that it is wrong to urge an individual to stop their efforts in trying to gain their constitutional rights because the act may lead to violence. A powerful quote said by King is that, Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. So, although he may have felt that it was wrong for Socrates to be in jail, and that society was punishing the wrong person, he believed that it was like a march and therefore a positive thing for Socrates to do. With this, I feel that he would agree with the Laws of Athens because they are just laws themselves. It was man that put Socrates in jail and made him drink hemlock, not the laws. However, I think that if Martin Luther King, Jr. were in the same position, he would instead try to persuade them differently, as that is one of the choices of the laws.
Overall, I think that Socrates and King see eye-to-eye on this issue, however their reasons for believing so are different. King, on one side, looks at Socrates imprisonment as an act to bring thought to this law. Whereas, Socrates sees it as just obeying as he should and being moral. After all, he had his chance to choose banishment, and said that he would rather die than be banished. I would like to conclude with a quote from Socrates, It is never right to do a wrong or return a wrong or defend ones self against injury by retaliation.