Socrates provides us with a really intense look at the role of law in society, as well as an interesting character look into the guy himself. First of all, it must be mentioned that the guy wasn’t well liked by the people in power-how would you react if someone walked around all day and told you how dumb you were? But its important to understand the difference between saying “you there-you’re stupid,” and “you there-I’m smarter than you.” Socrates doesn’t claim to be smarter than anyone until he actually speaks with them and questions their knowledge. This is a key difference, because although Socrates has a fairly negative attitude about virtually all citizens, he doesn’t necessarily think that there’s no one out there who might be smarter than he. He just hasn’t found that person yet.
More significant to this unit (although Socrates will make a return appearance in our next unit) is not necessarily Socrates’ life, but his death. Not necessarily the death itself (although drinking hemlock is kinda cool), but the manner in which he decides that it is not his place to escape from prison and avoid death.
The key to his decision has a direct impact on the concept of law in society. Even though Socrates doesn’t think the city-state of Athens is populated by geniuses, he believes the city-state as a whole is greater than the collective intelligence of the people who live there. The city-state, in his opinion, is greater than anything a single individual could create. It has raised him, given him education, provided safety and security for him and his family, and generally been the center of his world for his entire seventy years. As such, to disobey their laws would be to spit on what he feels is the greatest creation in the history of mankind. Regardless of what he thinks about the citizens currently in charge of it, Athens has made him who he is and he cannot betray it.
Furthermore, if he disobeys the laws, he feels that this would give anyone, no matter how ignorant, the right to do the same, because if one citizen can decide “the law doesn’t apply to me,” then everyone should be allowed the same right. Given Socrates’ general opinion about the intelligence of the average citizen (ummm…not so good), he thinks disobeying the law will be the first step towards destroying Athens for good. People, he believes, do not have the right to pick and choose the laws they obey. If they don’t like the laws, they can go to another city-state, but as long as they stay in Athens, their presence is the equivalent to signing a contract (this word will be back later this unit) with the government, by which they will obey all the laws, regardless of whether or not they agree with them.
This is not to say that Socrates doesn’t believe people should try and change the law if they disagree with it-he believes they should absolutely do whatever they can to convince others that the law is wrong. However, if they fail, they need to simply obey the law regardless.
So Socrates presents a very clear stance about the law-if you believe in your country, you follow the law, regardless of what you think about it. This will present an interesting contrast to some of the later people we’ll study, namely Martin Luther King, who would purposely break laws that he felt were unjust. I wonder if Socrates would have marched for civil rights…