In The Apology, Socrates talks positively about an instance in which he committed an act of civil disobedience, but in The Crito he argues that civil disobedience is not an acceptable option. These two claims are irreconcilable. Although Socrates claims that civil disobedience is never alright, he insists he would practice philosophy even if it were against Athens’ law. Although Socrates gives himself an out when he says that one must either accept the law or argue that it’s unjust, I do not think this allows him to use his argument to practice philosophy if there were such a law against it.
He may argue against a law that outlawed philosophy, but practicing philosophy would be breaking the state’s law and therefore committing an act of civil disobedience, which he denounces in The Crito. As part of examining our lives through the practice of philosophy, we must be able to perform acts of civil disobedience when necessary. When Socrates says that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a), he forces himself to agree to the principles behind civil disobedience.
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Socrates believes that philosophy is the root of the human soul, and without it, life is not worth living. I think this is an accurate claim, and that this is Socrates’ principle of life. Without the practice of philosophy, and the questioning of virtue, the world would become a stagnant environment, never evolving from past cultures and past ideals. I agree with his principle, and therefore I cannot agree with his other claims against civil disobedience. Socrates says “…it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for man…” (Apology 38a). If he believes in this statement, then Socrates claims against civil disobedience cannot be held in high regard. Without civil disobedience, we are missing a crucial part of the examined life.
He says that discussing virtue is the “greatest good” and without it “life is not worth living.” Socrates claims against him were that he “is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse argument into the stronger argument, and he teaches these same things to others” (Apology 19b) as well as “Socrates is guilty of corrupting the young and not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things” (Apology 24b). Now these charges are most assuredly corrupt, and Socrates has the right to dispute them and stand up for himself in a court of law. But if these corrupt claims can be brought against him, then other corrupt claims such as a law against the practice of philosophy can be created. If this were to happen, and Socrates were freed of his previous charges, Socrates would in no way think of stopping his practice of philosophy. He would therefore be assuredly acting against the corrupt laws, and participating in an act of civil disobedience.
In The Crito, Socrates makes claims that civil disobedience is never alright. This is hard to take when he has just spoken so audaciously in The Apology for his right to discuss virtue and practice philosophy in Athens. He has a valid argument about why civil disobedience is never justified, but together with his statements in The Apology, he goes against his own principles and therefore his two claims are irreconcilable.
In The Crito, Socrates does suggest the opponent’s argument, “…both in war and in courts and everywhere else, one must obey the commands of one’s country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice. It is impious to bring violence to bear against your mother or father, it is much more so to use it against your country” (Crito 51c). Socrates does say the laws allow one to persuade his country as to what is just or unjust, which would make his claims reconcilable. But he also states that a good life is nothing without questioning virtue. In order to persuade one’s country, civil disobedience is often necessary. It is not always necessary, and not always right, but in many cases it is necessary and it by no means always wrong either. If Socrates believes, though, that one must persuade his country as to the nature of “nature of justice”, he must believe in some forms of civil disobedience because it is an innate part of questioning virtue and justice.
Now I do not think civil disobedience is always an unacceptable action. In the case of Socrates especially, if the state of Athens made a law against the practice of philosophy, I would indeed believe this to be a corrupt law, and therefore acts of civil disobedience are in order. The only way to overturn unjust laws is to call to attention that the laws are unjust. I think it is our right as citizens to live somewhere that we believe in the laws our nation has provided for us. Now if you believe the laws are unjust, civil disobedience is an appropriate action for you to be able to voice your opinions about the laws without hurting anyone.
Civil disobedience is not a viable option when violence is used as means to bring about change. Also, if the law being challenged by civil disobedience is one that would cause harm to others by disobeying it, it is wrong to act against it. We never have to accept that the state’s assertion is just, but there is a difference as to when we should use civil disobedience and disobey the laws, or when we should use our words to persuade our government against a certain law. Therefore, laws such as murder are never acceptable to disobey. If were thought a law against murder was unjust, we should use our words to persuade our government against it. This way would not hurt anybody in our attempt to change the laws we see as unjust.
Socrates claims both that practicing philosophy is “the greatest good” and that one should never break the laws of one’s own state. By doing this, Socrates contradicts himself because if philosophy were against the law of Athens, he still would continue to question virtue because “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Civil disobedience is an innate part of examining life and bringing about change. Although it is not always a viable option, in many instances civil disobedience can be an outstanding way to revolutionize stagnant and corrupt laws. Since Socrates believes so strongly in philosophy and examining life, he must think that civil disobedience is certainly not completely unacceptable.
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