As Martin Luther King Jr sat in his cell in April 1963, he composed his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. Amidst these ardent lines which highlight the need for direct action against injustice, there is one which stands out to the Classicist. King makes a remarkable reference to a philosopher who lived over two-thousand years before him:
Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.
The image of Socrates in a similar position – a characteristically virtuous figure locked up by the powers that be – is striking. And yet the dialogue which witnesses Socrates’ final, reflective days behind bars, Plato’s Crito, is one which has been used to cast the philosopher in a very different light from that in which King illuminated him.
Far from being a work which has defended a moral responsibility to break the law, the Crito has been interpreted as clear evidence that Socrates supported an authoritarian political philosophy. But why would King use as his model a figure who appeared to be so opposed to law-breaking that he was willing to die for it? Resolving this puzzle requires taking another look not just at the Crito, but at Socrates’ life as a whole.
Consider, first, the dialogue’s general proceedings. To begin, Crito pleads that Socrates escape jail for the sake of his children, his own virtue, and his friends (45d–46a). These all seem compelling reasons: if Socrates has done nothing wrong, and Socrates’ death will leave his children and friends bereft of his treasured company, then what reason does he have for staying in jail, awaiting execution?
In response, Socrates affirms that one should not trust the opinion of the many (47b). This brave insight pervaded his life’s project: we should interrogate each matter on its own grounds instead of allowing ourselves to be carried along by the current of popular opinion. The point is not so much that the opinion of the many is always wrong, but that it takes a proper interrogation for us to determine whether it holds any truth. Socrates was not one to abandon this maxim when it came to more serious matters, even those of life and death: even if escape seems like the right option at a first glance, it’s important to think deeply about what justice really requires in this instance.
Upon this foundation, what does Socrates say? He states that one must abide by one’s agreements with the city even if injustice has been committed against them (49b–e), that disobeying laws would destroy the city (50a–b), and, even more remarkably, that one must act like an offspring and slave (ἔκγονος καὶ δοῦλος, ekgonos kai doulos – 50e). Since Socrates was born and educated in Athens, even having his own children there, he suggests that he has effectively agreed to abide by its laws.
Although there is truth to the notion that the functionality of law requires a significant majority to respect it, Socrates’ arguments seem awfully unsympathetic given the injustice to which he has been condemned. Unless we leave our city at voting age (51d), we appear to be subject to whatever bad decisions the state might make against us. It’s easy to see why Socrates, at least in the Crito, has been viewed as someone entirely alien to those endorsing civil disobedience. But could Socrates, so renowned for his commitment to introspection and questioning the status quo, really have held that breaking the law was never justified?
One solution is to agree that the arguments in the Crito are indeed of this authoritarian persuasion, but that Socrates did not really believe in them. There is some credibility in this view, held most notably by Roslyn Weiss, especially when we confront the fact that many of the dialogue’s arguments are delivered by a rhetorical device; Socrates speaks through the Athenian “Laws”, imagining what their arguments would be against someone determined to break them. However, there is something unsatisfactory about this reading. A Socrates willing to appease his aged friend with arguments he did not believe in seems antithetical to the philosopher’s life as a whole.
Instead, we should ask ourselves whether there are more subtle motivations behind Socrates’ actions. When we consider the junctures leading up to Socrates’ being ordered to take hemlock, it is clear that he rejected many opportunities which could have averted it. The offer to help Socrates escape jail in the Crito is hardly the first point at which he could have avoided execution, as some of the other dialogues demonstrate. In the Euthyphro, for example, Socrates spends all his time talking to the namesake of the dialogue instead of preparing for his meeting with the Archon. This may even be a suggestion that he missed it, ensuring that the unopposed indictment presented by Meletus went to trial.
Similarly, instead of saving himself in the Apology by speaking sympathetically in court or offering a reasonable counter-proposal for his punishment, Socrates prefers to chastise his accusers for their ignorance, appealing to the knowledge of experts (28b) instead of rumour (18c), which should be no obstacle to doing good (28b). It is striking that these same elements are brought up in the Crito. Socrates’ final moments behind bars, just like the courtroom of the Apology, can be seen as another arena for him to expose the injustice of those around him and the system they endorse.
There are two important points to articulate when we acknowledge Socrates’ willingness to accept (or, as others might see it, his active role in bringing about) his death sentence. First, his claim that escaping prison would be unjust is not quite as extreme as it first appeared. The combination of citizens remaining in a city their whole lives, benefitting from its services, and then neglecting various opportunities to exculpate themselves, represent conditions which significantly temper the initial “authoritarian” reading of the Crito. But we should not stop here.
Socrates does not claim that breaking the law is unjust simply to appease Crito, nor does he believe that citizens are completely at the mercy of the powers that be, for there are various points at which they can persuade as to the nature of the justice, such as in the courts. Further, Socrates purposely chooses to forgo these opportunities because he has a much more powerful form of persuasion in mind. He mentions that his escape would actually reinforce the conviction made by the jury (53b–c), in much the same way as sophistic verbal arguments in the Apology would have discredited his life and mission. Socrates is, therefore, well aware of the reception of his actions, and it is this lens which brings about the second, more important insight.
Rather than accepting the court’s verdict of execution because he believes they are right, Socrates accepts their verdict to show just how little power they hold over him. With the knowledge that he has acted justly, threats of death mean nothing to the philosopher. It is precisely in Socrates’ obedience, then, that his disobedience emerges. The central point of the Crito is not that law-breaking is always unjust, but that it is not always necessary nor the most effective way of rebelling. Self-preservation by clever argumentation or escape from jail would have undermined Socrates’ ability to expose the injustice around him. Similarly, Martin Luther King championed non-violent resistance as the most effective way to rebel and expose injustice.
There is a tragedy at the heart of this message. Just as Socrates’ practising philosophy should not have landed him in jail, nor should King’s organising marches and sit-ins against racism. The effectiveness of their rebellion, however, affords some consolation. As modern political theorists like Hannah Arendt have reminded us, it is often at the point of resorting to violence at which power begins to loosen its grip. Both Socrates and Martin Luther King show us that, in the face of injustice, resolved and non-violent commitment to our ideals can eventually expose it, creating a powerful tension in the mind which cannot be fettered: the call to justice becomes irresistible.
Ed Lamb is currently studying for an MPhil in Classics at Clare Hall, Cambridge, funded by a Cambridge Trust Scholarship. He is researching Plato and the Stoics, and is interested in finding ways that ancient philosophy can enrich our perspectives on the present.
For work on how other schools of ancient philosophy have parallels with modern civil rights leaders, see Richard Sorabji on the connection between Gandhi’s non-violent protests and Stoicism. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963) can be read in full here. For those interested in contemporary work in political philosophy on violence, see Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberly Hutchings, Can Political Violence Ever Be Justified? (Polity, Cambridge, 2019). Finally, for a seminal study of Socrates’ unique attitude to philosophy, consult Gregory Vlastos’ Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cornell UP, Ithaca, NY, 1991).