Comparison: Letter from Birmingham and Crito


The two great philosophic figures, Socrates and Martin Luther King Junior, each argue for a different definition of the relationship between the individual and the law. With strongly contrasting argumentative styles, Socrates and King both look to separate authorities for moral guidance. Both argue convincingly, but who is right? Should we obey the law of the land and tolerate injustice, as Socrates would have us do, or should we stand up to injustice and instead obey a higher, natural law, as King thinks we should? By comparing and contrasting their arguments, language, and support, this essay will reveal whose argument is stronger.

In Crito, Socrates asks “Shall I do what is right, or not?” and goes on to establish that what he thinks is right is for him to obey the state. He acknowledges that he is in an implied contract with the state and is obligated to obey its laws. His premises leading up to this conclusion are many. For one, he claims that the state brought him into existence, as his mother and father were married according to the laws of the state. The state also furnished him with an education. For these reasons, he claims that his relationship to the state is analogous to that of child and father, or slave and master, and he has no right to disobey the state. By staying in Athens when he has had ample opportunity to flee, having his children there, and enjoying the benefits of its citizenship, Socrates has entered into an implied contract with the state to obey its laws. For these reasons Socrates considers it unvirtuous to escape from jail, and as a philosopher who has upheld virtue in his teachings, he would be contradicting his philosophies by committing such an unvirtuous act.

Socrates also has practical reasons for not fleeing. If he left with his friends and children, they would be deprived of the benefits of Athenian citizenship, and would be looked upon as fugitives who are subversive to the system of government. In less civilized lands than Athens, they would be in the company of criminals. Thus, if he were to flee Athens, he would be wronging and disgracing his family and friends, which would undoubtedly be an unvirtuous act. Thus, Socrates’ final conclusion is that though he has been unjustly jailed and is soon to be executed, his only option if he is to maintain his virtue and not wrong his family, friends, and government is to obey the law and remain in jail.

In Letter from Birmingham Jail, King outlines quite a different attitude toward the law. In an attempt to reform segregation laws in the South, King directly violates the laws and then accepts his punishment for it. King thinks that the segregation issue must be solved by negotiation, but he also thinks that the breaking of laws is necessary to generate the creative tension through which the true nature of the issue can be revealed and then negotiated upon. King claims that laws which violate and degrade humanity and which are inflicted upon a minority with no voice in the democratic process are unjust. He then points out that segregation degrades human personality, and because black folks in the South are prohibited from voting they do not have a voice in the democratic process. Thus he defines segregation as an unjust law. He then calls any law that separates human beings as sinful. Since segregation is by definition the separation of people, he calls it a sinful law. Because St. Augustine claims that “an unjust law is no law at all,” King believes that such unjust laws should be broken. This is a strong argument, because his intended audience is clergymen who look to the bible for guidance.

Whereas Socrates looks to the state for the laws that should be obeyed, King instead looks to a higher, natural law. We know this because he uses Jesus as an example of “extremism for love”, and because he expresses his disappointment that the church has not been a moral beacon leading Christians to “higher levels of justice”. Thus, while the concept of ‘natural law’ is quite vague, King effectively provides us with a definition by equating it with Christianity. Even so, his argument in some ways depend upon the belief of the reader; if one does not accept the bible as the ultimate guide to morality and virtuousness, King’s arguments are weakened because they depend on accepting the Bible as the specific definition of “natural law”. Without knowledge and acceptance of the bible, this definition of virtuousness is either extremely vague or inapplicable. Does that weaken King’s argument? I would say so, though the vast majority of Americans King appealed to in his teachings was Christian, so his religious arguments were well taken. Even though accepting his reasons for upholding virtue depends upon a belief in the Bible, his argument still holds because of the practical reasons he presents for disobeying the law. Specifically, he argues with sound logic that the only way to open up negotiation on the segregation law and ultimately amend it is to defy segregation to generate the creative tension that brings the issue to the forefront of American consciousness. So other than upholding virtuousness by not complying with an unjust law, he also seeks to change the segregation situation by direct action. This is a practical reason for his direct action that can be accepted regardless if one agrees with his definition of virtuousness.

Socrates, on the other hand, relies in part on defining the state as analogous to parents or a slave master. I think this is a rather weak analogy, because the slave-master relationship is not one that would be valued by a slave in the way that Socrates values his relationship to the state. Also, parents possess an unconditional love for their children, which would imply a willingness to forgive, and that is not the case for the state and its subjects. Thus, the state-subject relationship is not as desirable as a parent-child relationship. For these reasons I don’t buy his analogous argument. Also, when he claims that in city-states other than Athens his quality of life will be reduced, i.e. he will be in the company of less civilized men and won’t enjoy certain benefits that supposedly only Athens can provide him, he does not back up his premises. Thus I find that I have to take for granted that that Athens is the best place in the Greek empire to live for his argument that it is virtuous to obey the law to be effective, and he does not thoroughly convince me of this. King’s arguments concerning the virtue of breaking unjust laws are strong for the sheer number of premises he backs up his arguments with. So, because King presents so many premises and defines his vague terms, and Socrates instead relies merely on what are in my mind weak analogies and an insufficient number of premises, King’s argument on the whole is considerably stronger.

Another reason I might consider King’s argument stronger than Socrates’ is his use of language. While Socrates’ tone is straightforward and logical, it lacks the visceral punch of King’s emotionally provocative language. Such diction as “…so that individuals can rise from the bondage of myths …help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood,” powerful metaphors like “…see the depressing cloud of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky,” and intense imagery like “…hate-filled policemen kick, curse, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters…” forces the reader to engage with King’s struggle on a gut level. While King’s logic is sound without this emotive language, it adds quite a lot to his argument because it disallows the reader to ignore the emotions King and his fellow blacks feel, and thus forces the reader to better understand and sympathize with the struggle blacks face daily. So, without relying exclusively on emotion, King strengthens his argument with intensely emotive language.

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