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MinorityOfOne

Socrates on Injury and Civil Disobedience

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Since we've got a rockin' new section for essays, I'll post a couple of my old papers. By old, I mean freshman year old. OLD. So don't expect them to be the works of utter brilliance I'd put out now. (Maybe I'll post some of that later.) <_<

However, they certainly don't suck.

I'm posting these together because the second works off of the first.

*****

Socrates on Injury

In the Crito, Socrates argues that one should never injure another person, even if that person has wronged you. His basic argument is as follows:

Injuring people is no different than wrongdoing [49c], and since wrongdoing is in every way harmful and shameful to the wrongdoer, one must never do wrong - nor must one, when wronged, inflict wrong in return. [49b]

This seems to be a straight-forward statement of pacifism. But in the Apology, Socrates makes comments which appear to contradict this professed ideal. First, he praises Achilles for his uncompromising resolve to revenge his friend’s death by killing Hector. [Crito, 28c-d] Later, he states without regret that he was a soldier at Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium. [Crito, 28e] How can all of this fit together?

The easiest way out of this would be to simply accept that Socrates is a hypocrite. This answer, though, is unsatisfying when applied to a man who turned down an opportunity to escape execution rather than act against his principles.

A slightly more satisfying account would be as follows: Socrates did not actually praise Achilles for his vengeance itself, but just for his extreme dedication to his principles. Given that Socrates brought the topic up to illustrate the validity of his own resolve in a very different situation than that which Achilles faced, this seems quite plausible. However, this still leaves open the question of Socrates’ own military service. If not for his comment that he has held these ideas for a very long time [Crito, 49d], it might seem reasonable to assume that he held different principles as a youth. Given this comment, however, we either are reduced to the undesirable and untenable conclusion that Socrates was a hypocrite, or we must look for a more elegant solution.

The key to a more integrated analysis of this conflict lies in Socrates’ conception of harm, injury, and wrongdoing. Actually, he seems to use these three terms almost interchangeably to refer to the same idea. In Crito 49c, he explicitly equates injury with wrongdoing. If he is making any distinction between injury and harm, it is so slight as to be insignificant for the purposes of this paper.

To resolve this dilemma, it is useful to go back to the section where Socrates initially discusses his notion of “harm.” A working definition of harm, according to Socrates’ usage, might be that which makes something worse than it had been. (That’s not a very precise definition, but it IS functional.) He then goes on to set forth his belief that “that part of us, whatever it is, that is concerned with justice and injustice” (ie., the mind or spirit) is much more valuable than the body. [Crito, 47e-48a] From this, he infers that damage to the spirit is worse than damage to the body; the extremity of his position is demonstrated in his willingness to face execution rather than live with a dent in his integrity.

So, while Socrates may not dismiss physical harm as meaningless across the board, he does dismiss it when it is set against any sort of spiritual harm. What does this mean for his application of harm? If to harm somebody is to make them worse than they had been, harm must generally be spiritual in nature. Specifically, I believe Socrates’ use of the term pertains directly to damaging somebody’s character. Notice that when Socrates discusses his decision not to leave Athens, he brings up two primary issues. First, the context of the situation: he had chosen to stay in Athens, knowing its rules and knowing that he was free to leave at any time. In short, he had implicitly agreed to this punishment in advance. Second, that by violating Athens’ laws, Socrates would be destroying it, for according to him, a city which cannot enforce its laws no longer governs. So the two issues are HIS moral negligence, or at least carelessness, and the destruction of the virtue of the city which would occur if he were to follow Crito’s advice.

Having established this idea of harm as the one that Socrates was using, we can step back to the Apology and understand much more clearly what he meant. When he discussed the vengeance of Achilles, he did not imply that Achilles had harmed Hector in the morally reprehensible sense he describes in Crito, because through his actions, Hector had already given up any claim to morality. And when he spoke of his experiences as a soldier, his killing of other soldiers did not make them worse; it made them dead. Their virtues, whatever they were, remained as they had been.

This use of “harm” does not correspond with the common-sense use of the term, so a couple more points should be brought forth as evidence to support this claim. Firstly, Socrates chose the greatest physical harm possible over a bit of arguably minor spiritual damage. If we assume that he is consistent, we can expect him to apply the same standard to others that he applies to himself; this is consistent with what we see in the Apology. If that evidence does not seem strong enough, looking ahead to Phaedo we find Socrates arguing for a very strong mind-body split — and he clearly takes the side of the mind. Given that evidence, it might even be reasonable to presume that Socrates delegates no importance to physical harm per se. However, such a claim is outside the scope of this paper, and is not necessary to prove its central point, which is: Socrates’ claims in the Apology do indeed fit together without contradiction with his morality as stated in the Crito.

REFERENCES

Plato: Five Dialogues. Grube (trans.).

Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980

*****

Can Socrates allow for civil disobedience?

The first place to start when trying to determine Socrates’ stance on civil disobedience is with his view of morality as applied to politics. As I argued in my previous paper, “Socrates on Injury,” Socrates holds that it is wrong to harm another person no matter what injury they may have inflicted upon you; and by harm, he means to damage somebody’s character — to make them less capable of virtuous action. [Crito 47-49] So clearly it is impermissible to engage in an act of civil disobedience if the result would be to inflict harm, as described above, upon any man or group of men.

When faced with the possibility of being smuggled away from his impending execution, Socrates refuses. In their imaginary dialogue, the Laws tell Socrates that if he were to illegally escape, he would be severely injuring the city: “Or do you think it possible for a city not to be destroyed if the verdicts of the courts have no force but are nullified and set at naught by private individuals?” [Crito 50a-50b]

Of course, it is true that Socrates considers the verdict in his trial to be unjust. If this injustice were a result of the laws themselves, they would themselves be unjust, and an act of disobedience on his part could not harm them. The Laws later bring up a key point, though: “As it is, you depart, if you depart, after being wronged not by us, the laws, but by men…” [Crito 54b-54c] This is consistent with Socrates’ defense in Apology; he did not claim that the laws were wrong, but that he had not broken any of the city’s laws in the first place. So the injustice here lies not in the legal system itself, but in an aberration of implementation. Thus, the laws can be harmed by Socrates, which explains his concern.

All of this is based on the assumption that the Laws have some sort of valid reason to claim the right to enforce their views upon Socrates. But there must be an explanation for this right, or the preceding argument fails. Why is it that the government of Athens has the exclusive right to tell Socrates how to act and to punish him if he acts otherwise? Hypothetically, say Crito made the argument that in refusing to accede to his escape plan, Socrates was harming him — what makes this different than the same claim when made by the Laws? Clearly Crito would be out of line — he would be acting unjustly, and thus Socrates would not harm him by refusing to obey. But why is the case of Athens different?

To preempt such a query, Socrates has the Laws ground their claims by arguing that Socrates has made an implicit contract with them. The following paragraph puts it best:

“Reflect now, Socrates,” the laws might say “that if what we say is true, you are not treating us rightly by planning to do what you are planning.  We have given you birth, nurtured you, educated you, we have given you and all other citizens a share of all the good things we could.  Even so, by giving every Athenian the opportunity, after he has reached manhood and observed the affairs of the city and us the laws, we proclaim that if we do not please him, he can take his possessions and go wherever he pleases.  Not one of our laws raises any obstacle or forbids him, if he is not satisfied with us or the city, if one of you wants to go and live in a colony or wants to go anywhere else, and keep his property.  We say, however, that whoever of you remains, when he sees how we conduct our trials and manage the city in other ways, has in fact come to an agreement with us to obey our instructions.”

[Crito 51c-51e]

So the Laws claim that the very fact that Socrates has lived in Athens willingly for the duration of his life, never once leaving except for the duration of his military service — the fact that he raised children in Athens — and the fact that Socrates has shown no distaste for the city, but only contentment, are enough to conclude that he has implicitly agreed to live in accordance with the city’s laws. [Crito 52c-52d]

Does civil disobedience somehow fit within this framework? To find out, we must first define civil disobedience. My trusty desktop dictionary lacks an entry, so I will resort to making my own. I define civil disobedience as follows: “An intentionally public violation of the law which is intended to bring about political change.” To see the validity of this definition, think back to the Vietnam War. One of the most famed acts of civil disobedience at that time was the burning of draft cards. If it was done alone in a dark alleyway at 2:00 in the morning, it would hardly qualify as civil disobedience as we usually use the term; similarly, had it been done after the draft was eliminated, or had it been done only because the draft-burner needed to start his wood stove and was short on kindling, we wouldn’t call it civil disobedience. In the first case, it is not done publicly; in the second, it is not illegal; in the third, it’s not intended to bring about political change. All three elements are necessary for an act to be accurately labeled civil disobedience.

Given this understanding of Socrates’ political views and the nature of civil disobedience, it can be shown that Socrates would support civil disobedience in a very limited set of circumstances. Essentially, the agreement between man and state would have to be lacking, either because it never existed at all or because it was somehow breached. I can think of two situations in which Socrates would allow for civil disobedience.

In the first situation, the agreement between man and state never forms. That is a case in which a man is not allowed to leave his city; if he has no option but to stay, he is not freely acceding to the laws of his city and thus cannot really be said to have formed an agreement. In such a case, he can break the laws without regard to harming the city, because the city’s demands are baseless and unjust to begin with.

The second situation is one in which his agreement is breached. Assuming that his agreement was implicit to begin with, since that’s the only type of political agreement Socrates addresses, it was formed based on his observations of the state’s conduct. If the state should drastically change its conduct without warning in such a way that he would be threatened with punishment and have no option to leave, it would be violating the conditions of an implicit agreement. In such a case, it can be said in a sense that the state is no longer the same one he made an agreement with, and thus he is not bound to obey it.

It is under these conditions, and only these conditions, that Socrates can consistently allow for civil disobedience.

REFERENCES

Plato: Five Dialogues. Grube (trans.).

Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980

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I’m not sure you're right about Socrates' views on civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a process to bring about a democratic change in laws. Socrates being a citizen of Athens certainly supported the democratic process as a way to change laws. While civil disobedience usually involves a violation of a law it's not intended to bring about a defacto destruction of the law, it's just a way to show your lack of support.

P.S.

"Does civil disobedience somehow fit within this framework? To find out, we must first define civil disobedience. My trusty desktop dictionary lacks an entry, so I will resort to making my own." --Ouch

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I’m not sure you're right about Socrates' views on civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a process to bring about a democratic change in laws. Socrates being a citizen of Athens certainly supported the democratic process as a way to change laws. While civil disobedience usually involves a violation of a law it's not intended to bring about a defacto destruction of the law, it's just a way to show your lack of support.
Well, I agree that civil disobedience is a way to show your lack of support. But why SHOW your lack of support? I'd think you'd do so because you want to change the law? ;)

In any case, I didn't mean to imply (if I did) that his refusal to escape from his execution was itself a rejection of civil disobedience -- simply running from the law is not civil disobedience. Rather, I intended to point out that the principles which he supports in discussing his decision also have implications for when he could & could not support civil disobedience.

However, if I were to rewrite this essay, I would point out that Socrates fails to deal with the need for objective law & consistent application thereof. If he had a real grasp of this, he would have been able to say something like "I am not destroying the laws by failing to accept their misapplication", if he indeed believed he had not violated the laws. (Given how he dodges the anti-religion charge by changing the subject, it's not entirely clear to me that he really thought that.) But he didn't; he took submission to the state seriously, since he viewed it as an implicit contract and a point of honor.

"Does civil disobedience somehow fit within this framework? To find out, we must first define civil disobedience. My trusty desktop dictionary lacks an entry, so I will resort to making my own." --Ouch

Like I said... old paper. B)

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