Crito and Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Introduction

Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr. discuss whether it is ever OK to break the law.

Texts

  • Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates, 3rd Edition. Edited by G.M.A. Grube, revised by John M. Cooper. Hackett 2000. ISBN: 0872205541 (Crito is p. 43-54 in this edition; obviously there are others)

  • Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (I use this, which has both an audio and written version, recommending my students listen to the audio: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail It also includes great background info.

Suggested Courses

Introduction to Philosophy, Introduction to Ethics

Overview

Background on Crito: Socrates has been in jail for about a month, awaiting execution. When his death is immanent (1-2 days away), Crito comes to persuade him to escape (this is possible--Crito and his friends have the $ and connections, and even a place for Socrates to go).

Background on “Letter…”: Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham for disobeying a blanket injunction against any “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing.” He wrote the letter in response to “A Call for Unity”--made by eight white clergymen (including clergy from various Christian denominations and one Jewish Rabbi)--which opposed King’s form of nonviolent resistance (calling instead for things to be hashed out in the courts, regardless of the time that this would take).

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the main question Socrates and Crito debate in the Dialogue?

    1. Would escape be just? Would escaping be the right thing to do?

  1. From 47a to (but not including) 48b, Socrates gives an argument (The Trainer Example Argument) for the conclusion that we should not care for the opinion of the many (the majority) about what is just (p. 49-51). What is Socrates’ argument? Do you think it’s a good argument? Who should we listen to? Do you agree?

    1. A man engaged in physical training should pay attention to the trainer, and only the trainer, or else he will corrupt his body.

    2. In all matters, we should follow the opinion of the one (if there is one) who has knowledge of those matters.

    3. So, in matters concerning justice or morality, we should follow the opinion of the one (if there is one) who has knowledge of those matters.

    4. When we disobey the one who has knowledge of matters of justice, then we corrupt our soul.

    5. It is wrong to corrupt or harm our soul.

    6. /.: It is wrong to care for (obey) the opinion of the many about what is just.
       
    7. Value only the good/wise opinions. (Trust experts, but only on the subject of which they are an expert.)
  2. In the Trainer Example Argument, the conclusion  doesn’t actually follow from the premises. Something is missing--something that Socrates assumes but doesn’t state explicitly. What assumption is Socrates making? Why do you think Socrates assumes this? Do you think it’s true?

    1. The many (the majority) do not know about matters of justice.

  3. Socrates and Crito debate whether or not it would be just for Socrates to escape prison when the Athenians have not acquitted him. To figure out the answer, Socrates thinks he needs to answer two questions. What are these two questions?  

    1. Would he harm people?

    2. Would he be fulfilling (sticking to) a just agreement or not?

 

  1. On p. 52, Socrates argues that you must never in any way do wrong willingly, even to someone who has wronged  you. How does Socrates justify this claim? What do you think about this argument?

    1. One must never do wrong willingly.

    2. One mustn’t inflict wrong when wronged (in return) since one must never do wrong.

    3. Doing people harm is no different from wrongdoing.

    4. /.:   One should never do wrong in return, nor do any man harm, no matter what he may have done to you.

  1. Do you think Martin Luther King would agree? Why or why not? How does this ideal connect to King’s strategy of nonviolence? Do you think there’s ever a time when violence is necessary?

    1. MLK is definitely a fan of the “turn the other cheek” approach and would likely support Socrates’ claim that one should never harm anyone. He doesn’t think, importantly, that harming someone includes making them uncomfortable. He actively supports creating tension (nonviolent tension), since he thinks that tension is necessary for change and growth (p. 4) “we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism…”

  1. On p. 53, Socrates says that escaping would harm people. Who will it harm? Why? Do you think this is true?

    1. Intend to destroy the laws of the city--which would in turn destroy the city and everyone in it. Destroying the laws b/c not obeying them. Interestingly, King echoes this sentiment when he says “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law as the rabid segregationist would do. This would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly...and with a willingness to accept the penalty” (p. 8-9).

  1. In his letter, Martin Luther King claims that there is a difference between just and unjust laws. What is this difference? Do you agree with him?

    1. King claims that a just law “squares with the moral law or the law of God.” He says a just laws is one that is “rooted in eternal and natural law” such as one that “uplifts human personality” while an unjust law is one that “degrades human personality” (p. 7). He gives examples re segregation (insofar as it distorts the soul in making the segregated have a false sense of inferiority while the segregator has a false sense of superiority, creating an I-it instead of an I-thou relationship. He also says that an unjust law is one that “inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself,” or one that “that minority had no part in enacting or creating because they did not have the unhampered right to vote” (p. 8). He points out that what Hitler did was “legal” (p. 9).

  1. Why does King think that one only has to obey the just laws? Do you agree? What do you think Socrates would say, given that he says that breaking the laws would destroy the city?

    1. King thinks that he doesn’t have to obey the unjust laws because “an unjust law is no law at all.” (p. 7). He does, however, clarify that: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law” (p. 9).

  2. Besides harming people, Socrates is committed to sticking to his agreements--to not breaking promises. But, he only thinks he needs to keep just agreements. What does he mean by this? What is the difference between a just and an unjust agreement? What might an example of each be? Why don't you have to keep unjust agreements, according to Socrates? Do you agree? How does this connect to King’s arguments for breaking unjust laws?

    1. Just agreement--one that you consented to with full awareness of what you were doing/getting into (example: a contract that you signed after reading and understanding it)

    2. Unjust--one that you were coerced, tricked, etc. (example: a contract with “fine print”)

    3. Socrates thinks it is wrong to break a just agreement, just like it is wrong to break a promise.

    4. King could argue that unjust laws are not laws that people have agreed to (justly) obey--especially in the case of laws that were enacted upon the minority without their consent (and that only apply to the minority).

  3. Who does Socrates have an agreement with? If Socrates escaped prison, what agreement would he be breaking?

    1. Agreement between Socrates and the law (or between Socrates and the city as a whole)

    2. the agreement that he made with the city to obey its laws.

 

  1. Is it a just agreement? What does Socrates think? Why? Do you agree?

    1. Socrates thinks it is a just agreement because he has lived there, benefitted from the city, etc. He had the freedom to leave but didn’t. It is a tacit agreement.

  1. Could someone argue that King and the Black Americans he represents have made a similar just agreement with the US?

    1. Perhaps, but King could argue that Black Americans didn’t really have the choice to leave, like Socrates. Moreover, they didn’t really have the opportunity to change the laws that they disagreed with (at least in a timely fashion). The oppression of Black Americans makes their “agreement” suspect. “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily” (p. 5).

  2. At the end of the Dialogue, Socrates says: “As it is, you depart, if you depart, after being wronged not by us, the laws, but by men” (57). What do you think Socrates means by this? Do you agree with him? Could the same thing be said to King and the Black Americans he represents?

    1. The men of the jury (maybe) didn’t follow the law. But since the procedure was followed, the laws did nothing wrong. Of course, men created the laws, but in this case, King would argue that the laws themselves were also unjust (not just the particular application of them).

  3. In the end, Socrates accepts his sentence and does not escape prison because he thinks it's the right thing to do. Do you think Socrates does the right thing?

  1. Do you think that King is justified in supporting non-violent actions? Or should he do what the clergymen suggest, and wait for these issues to be settled in court? What do you think Socrates would say? Do you agree?

Author Information

Liz Goodnick (Metropolitan State University of Denver)
egoodnic@msudenver.edu