Friday, February 29, 2008

Socrates and the Power of Law

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…

43 comments:

Coleslaw said...

Its funny, because you said in that little intro, that there is a difference between him saying your stupid, or him saying he is better than anyone else. So, if this one man was to try and escape from jail, is he really at this high power in his philosophy that it would alter peoples decisions and they believe they can disobey the law also? In his logic no. For instance, is it fair for him to say that when you can have a serial killer, and he decides to escape from jail, or kill another person, now if that is against the law, which it is, it is not going to trigger most american minds that if he can kill people so can I, or better yet, if he did this bad deed and didn't get the death penalty because he escaped from jail, then i can do bad things and not get punished because i can escape from jail. The odds of people escaping from jail are slim, and i don't think socrates, being the legendary philosopher that he is, can say, if i repay them with this bad deed, i will give the athenians a false concept and that they too can escape from any situation. Life is not this happy fairy tale and that will never happen, if you get in to trouble you will get punished, no ifs' ands or buts.

willie trieger said...

socrates is in a very interesting position as we spoke in class. his options are escaping jail and living, or staying in jail and dying. for probably all humans now, we would choose the plan of escaping and living. but for some reason, socrates doesnt. he thinks it is a better idea to stay and die. i think he chose this because of his idea that one may perish, but his ideas will be around forever. this exact situation happened to socrates. he said something that the government did not like, so he is going to die. however, according to his logic, the harm is already done; he said something and it will stay around forever. dying does not harm the future of his ideas, and he feels it un-important to live, when what he said is permanent.
ALSO, the idea of morality comes into play. socrates obviously thought it was immoral to escape, but i think he had more than that fueling him. i think he knew that by escaping, he would be stooping to the same level of those that put him in jail. obviously, he did not want to be considered as bad as his punishers, so he sat and died like a martyr (one who dies for there beliefs) was socrates desicion the right one? and was it "worth it"? i say yes. he died for what he bleived in, which shows the utmost beliefe in what you say. this proves the confidence of a man who will die for what comes out of his mouth.

willie trieger

Julian just plain Julian said...

If you will forgive the semi crude analogy Socrates views himself slightly as a paris hilton of his day. In the same way that Paris hilton snorts crack and now other young girls are doing it he believed that they may follow his example. The fact that his ideas had also almost triggered a revolution may have left him a deep fear of extremism. And felt that if his own begnign by comparison teachings were taken to such an extreme what could have happened upon outright defiance as opposed to calm debate. In several ways Socrates has characteristics resembling religious figures like Jesus or Moses in that their followers were looking upon them as the source of great light and knowledge and held themselves as useless by comparison and pleaded that they not be left alone. I agree with Trieger that Socrates' ideas will be around for a long time and because of how big a dork I am i'll say it. "If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine"

Evan Silver said...

So, maybe this is what I'm supposed to be posting on? Anyway, although Socrates is really an arrogant jerk, he does have some interesting points. One point that he highlights is that a citizen is NOT on equal terms with the government, and does NOT have the right to rebel because of something they don't like, because that citizen has been 1) educated and nurtured in that city-state, so they are not on equal terms and 2) been given the opportunity to leave to a different city-state if they did not like the laws, but they have not left. I think this is a good argument, but I do see some flaws. Socrates totally thinks someone should try to prove to others that some specific law is wrong, yet he thinks that if they disagree, then they must follow the law. This defies everything else he says! For example, in the cave, the person who has "seen the light" must convince the others to come out and see the light, and should not give up and just stay back in the cave (which would be following the law in these circumstances). He also argues that the opinion of the [unwise] majority does not matter, and all that matters is the opinions of the wise, and to him, the wise is himself. So, if he believes that something is right, or a law is unjust (such as if he believes that he has been wrongly punished and put in prison), then his philosophy should support this as he sees himself as the wise person who has "seen the light." I know I'm probably not being totally clear in MY argument, but I definitely think that Socrates is contradicting himself in the process of trying to sound like a wise old man. My basic point: Socrates says to simply follow the law even if you don't like it because the majority says so, but he also says that what the majority says means absolutely nothing, and that you must be a leader. Not only does it seem contradictory, but hypocritical, as he is not doing anything or taking any action when Crito offers to help him escape. Perhaps he wants to die?

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