Sunday, March 28, 2010

Death Match: Socrates v. Thoreau

Didn’t think there’d be two Thoreau posts in as many weeks, but wasn’t paying attention when I started writing this and bam - there he was.

But this one isn’t about the woodsy zen-like pond-gazing Thoreau, but the defiant and outraged Thoreau who wrote one of the most powerful, persuasive and influential political speeches of all times, ranked with that Pericles’ Funeral Oration and those of Lincoln, Churchill and King in more modern times. Because it was originally a speech, when it was later publish it went under a bunch of different names but Civil Disobedience will do. Gandhi, Tolstoy and King, just as examples, have noted its effect on them.

The post isn’t so much about him as it is about a philosophical problem, and I pair him up with perhaps the most influential western philosophers of all time – Plato and his Socrates. Unlike figures such as Jesus, Buddha, Lao-tse, etc., we can be as certain as you can be about anything historical that Plato and Socrates were real people as the Athenians were quite literate and the two were well known figures in their own time. In fact, Plato was not the only contemporary Athenian who wrote about Socrates. Nor were there mythical or miraculous elements to the dialogues in which he presented him. In fact, the general Xenophon's writings about Socrates coroborate much of Plato's work.

Here’s the ethical problem:

We are sometimes faced with choices of whether obey laws we don’t like for a variety of reasons. I’m not talking about the petty laws we violate all the time, like traffic laws (I’ve done two informal experiments on the Long Island Expressway – EVERY single person who was a subject was speeding), nor the many laws we violate because there are so many of the pesky things, no person can hope to know them all.

I’m talking about the kind of laws which one finds immoral or perhaps unconstitutional and deliberately disobeys.

Thoreau and Plato’s Socrates provide two different answers. I use for argument Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (”CD”) and for Socrates, who left nothing written, Plato’s Crito (a dialogue named after Socrates’ friend, Criton, and often referred to as The Crito). Both are fairly short works which can be easily read and understood. And, although the language of Crito, obviously a translation, may come off a little stilted, they are both exciting works unless you are just one of those people for whom political philosophy is like a glass of warm milk. I don’t remember when I first read CD, but it was a long time ago. I do remember finding it passionate and filled with pithy little sayings. I also recall when I read Crito because it just happens to be one of the very few things this lazy college freshman actually read. I had dutifully bought a collection of Plato’s Dialogues for Philosophy 101. Like many of my college text books, I read as little of it as I could get away with at the time. I believe we were assigned The Republic, a long and complicated dialogue on government, and at the time that was just too much work for me. However, alone of Plato's dialogues I read Crito, and for a good reason. It wasn’t assigned, which made it more palatable, and, it was really, really short. It presented a little moral problem and solved it. And although I can’t remember whether I read CD or Crito first, whichever was second made me think – it’s almost the same problem as the other one. 

The two cases aren’t completely analogous. Thoreau’s problem simply wasn’t as dramatic as Socrates'. Thoreau refused to pay a poll tax for a number of years as a protest and ended up serving one day in jail when someone intervened and paid it for him. However, he could have ended up there endlessly had that not occurred. He apparently wasn't intending to pay it. Being Thoreau and having a pleasant cellmate, he even enjoyed his day in jail.  Socrates was sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the morals of youth and preaching new gods. The vague charges were apparently not true. In fact, Socrates made such a point of goading his jurors, it would be hard to believe that if it were true, he would have just said so. Soon after his death, Athens regretted it, turned on his accusers, and put up a statue of him.

Thoreau to some degree chose his own path by refusing to pay taxes, whereas Socrates was accused of crimes. On the other hand, while Socrates defended himself, he did so in a fashion designed to annoy and provoke the jurors (hundreds of Athenians) unless they just completely agreed with him. He was almost successful as he apparently fell only a little short of acquittal.

CD was written as a protest against slavery and the Mexican-American War as was the refusal to pay the poll tax was a result of his abhorrence of those two institutions. The M-A war is little remembered by the public now in the way most of our wars are (outside of Civil War buffs, as it was the proving ground for many a future general) which is interesting as a large portion of the western portion of our country was the spoil of that war.

Thoreau is perhaps closest politically to what we would call a libertarian today. Sometimes in it he sounds a bit like an anarchist, although I would not go quite that far. He begins by adopting the motto (which he slightly altered from elsewhere) and so either coined or just made famous the phrase “That government governs best which governs least.”

He had little use for government at all. In fact, immediately after writing that, he wrote that when men were ready, the motto would become “That governs best which governs not at all”. Apparently no one is quite ready for that as it didn’t take off in popularity the same way. For Thoreau, governments paled in force and vitality to a single man. Men should not cultivate a respect for law, but for doing right. Nor should they subjugate their conscience to that of a legislature.

What should men do then? “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”

But, those who “disapprove of the character and measures of a government, [but] yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform.”

When laws are unjust we should not wait until a majority agrees with us, but “transgress them at once.” He sneers at the fear that if the government is resisted, then the remedy would be worse evil it seeks to cure. In other words, don't worry about the country falling apart. Not good enough, he tells us, because it is the government that makes the remedy worse as it is always to slow to follow a wise minority and make reform now. “Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?”

He sneers too at the legislative process we all seem to revere. It takes too long. Moreover, there are too many other things one must do in one’s life. Thus, if the law is wrong – just break it.

Besides, any “man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

But, Thoreau’s path is not an easy one. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” I’ve refrained from comment so far, but this strikes me as just absurd. While I recognize that he is really speaking of  slavery, his statement is so broad. Even the wisest of wise governments will inevitably imprison some unjustly, unless it is without a penal system. I would not choose to go to jail myself because we do not live in an unobtainable utopia.

But then he rattles us with a unique revolutionary call which inspired so many great leaders. “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose.” Thus was Gandhi empowered to withstand the force of mighty British Empire and ultimately succeed without guns or bombs.

As foreign to many of us as Thoreau’s words might sound in our time of great apathy, when there are so many creature comforts available that the thought of giving up our email or cell phone or water jets for one day on account of a needed repair, never mind jail, seems unendurable, it becomes positively inspiring when the wrong that is being fought is a great one. The state, he tells us  . . .

“is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I.”

I haven't led any revolutionary causes nor has my life been very dramatic. But, I do know that at times in my life, when feeling oppressed by a more powerful force (even an employer), this or a similar concept, that I was trying to do "the right thing" was not only empowering, but sometimes irresistible. And, I was in fact inspired by Thoreau (although these were not legal challenges). Some would probably call it just being difficult. And it definitely doesn't make you popular. But that's not the point.

There is so much more we can find in this single essay in the way of aphorisms, qualifications and nuance. In fact, to really complicate matters, Thoreau says that from one point of view, the constitution and our laws (not slavery) are very good, but from another, not so much (guess he covered all bases) - but I will leave CD here with this libertarian bugle call:

“There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, form which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined but not yet anywhere seen.”

Thoreau too much the non-conformist for you? Too taxing and expensive for us to now challenge the state? Or perhaps he was just too pollyannish and while happy to live in his own world, did not realize that others did not feel the same way. If so, we can take a look at Socrates' (or Plato's) view when he is unjustly convicted and condemned to a slow death by drinking hemlock. Although no less brave, perhaps far braver than Thoreau, he comes to a much different conclusion.
Socrates greets Crito when he arrives at Socrates’ prison early in the morning. Crito tells Socrates that he has done a favor for the guard, but it is not clear to me if that meant a bribe or if he just once did him a real service. He’s there for good reason. He wants Socrates to run for it. It has been arranged. Crito’s motivation is not all altruism. He seems overly concerned with what people will think of Socrates’ friends, including himself, if they don’t help him escape.

Socrates questions him in what is often referred to as the Socratic method and what I would say is a combination of a very bad cross-examination, treating your friends like morons and using the type of logic one can find in The DaVinci Code.

Where Thoreau cared not what the majority thought, but who was in the right, Socrates seemed not to care what anyone thought – “My dear Criton, I only wish the many could do the greatest mischief, so that they could also do the greatest good! That would be well indeed. As it is, they can do neither; for they cannot make a man either wise or foolish; they do things quite at random.”

But, at some point Socrates and Thoreau come together, for they love some of the same concepts. I say concepts as opposed to things, because like justice, truth, good and the like are as subjective as you get. Socrates was not concerned about what would happen to him. What he wanted to “examine whether we ought to do it or not; for my way is and always has been to obey no one and nothing, except the reasoning which seems to me best when I draw my conclusions. . . . we must not consider at all what the many will say of us, but only the expert in justice and injustice, and what he will say, the one, and truth herself. . . . [W]e must examine whether it is just that I try to get out of the this, or not just; and if it seems just, let us try -- if not, leave it alone.” Brave words for a condemned man.

But at the end, the two philosophies diverge and when they do, drastically so. For Thoreau is all for the will and conscience of the individual, come hell or high water. Socrates was all for truth and justice, but he was most concerned for the state. At the end of Crito he actually imagines a dialogue within a dialogue, but instead of him using his method on the some poor friend, it is the state and the laws which puts Socrates to the test and chastises him for imagined selfishness. Indeed, the penalty for Socrates, an innocent man saving his own life, would be, in his own mind, the death of the state:

“Tell me, Socrates, what have you in mind to do [says the personified Laws and the state]? In trying to do this, can’t you see that you are trying to destroy us, the Laws and the whole state, as far as you can do it? Or do you think it possible that a city can exist and not be overturned where sentence given has no force but is made null by private persons and destroyed?”

Not only did he have the weight of the fate of the state on his mind, but despite his peril, was quite concerned that saving his life meant he was breaking an agreement (which he and Crito had agreed in the abstract would be bad):

“Was that the agreement between us Socrates? Or was it to abide by whatever statements the state may make? . . . Are you so wise that you failed to see that there is something else is more precious than father and mother and all your ancestors besides – your country, something more reverend, more holy, of greater value, as the gods judge, and any men have sense? You must honor and obey and conciliate your country when angry, more than a father; you must either persuade her; or do whatever she commands; you must bear in quiet anything she bids you bear, be it stripes or prison, or if she leads you to war, to be wounded or to die, this you must do, and it is right; you must not give way or retreat or leave your post, but in war and in court and everywhere you must do whatever city and country commands, or else convince her where the right lies. Violence is not allowed against your mother or father, much less against your country.”

In Crito, we come upon the obsession of Plato (and perhaps Socrates) that makes me wonder why he is still so revered – for his philosophy of the state as the end all has been the cause of so much pain and suffering through the centuries. I understand that Plato was an original and important thinker (who was it who said that all philosophy was a footnote to Plato - Whitehead?), but was somewhat perplexed that he was also seen as a saint like figure. That tells you the perspective that I was raised with - that the success of individuals is the point of the state, not visa versa. This is far from universally accepted.

But, Socrates' self subjection to the state isn’t finished. Guilt is layered on top of cataclysm on top of breach of contract:

“And he who disobeys us is, as we maintain, thrice wrong: first, because in disobeying us he is disobeying his parents; secondly, because we are the authors of his education; thirdly, because he has made an agreement with us that he will duly obey our commands; and he neither obeys them nor convinces us that our commands are unjust; and we do not rudely impose them, but give him the alternative of obeying or convincing us;--that is what we offer, and he does neither.”

Finally the imaginary state and laws reminds him that it was he who loved Athens best and most benefitted under her laws.

“You, Socrates, are breaking the covenants and agreements which you made with us at your leisure, not in any haste or under any compulsion or deception, but after you have had seventy years to think of them, during which time you were at liberty to leave the city, if we were not to your mind, or if our covenants appeared to you to be unfair. You had your choice, and might have gone either to Lacedaemon or Crete, both which states are often praised by you for their good government, or to some other Hellenic or foreign state. Whereas you, above all other Athenians, seemed to be so fond of the state, or, in other words, of us her laws (and who would care about a state which has no laws?), that you never stirred out of her; the halt, the blind, the maimed, were not more stationary in her than you were. And now you run away and forsake your agreements. Not so, Socrates, if you will take our advice; do not make yourself ridiculous by escaping out of the city.”

Perhaps at age 70 Socrates was just ready to die. I don't know, but it did not seem like he was from all description of him. Given his wife and children, and his still active love life, you have to ask if he really believed this stuff. To paraphrase Thoreau in Walden, perhaps Socrates was just marching to a different drummer.

Which to choose, Socrates or Thoreau? I leave you to your own answer, but I will say that there are other considerations and not surprisingly, they become more obvious under the gentle light of moderation. Rather than describe it myself, I give that honor to Supreme Court Robert H. Jackson, who has opined on the need to temper liberty for the common good:

"The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact."

Leaving the facts of that case aside though, as you might not agree with Jackson's conclusion there, I quoted his words for their general proposition. It is a middle road that lets us apply two contrasting considerations in any real life situation. Because that’s the problem with most philosophers and philosophy. Abstract rules or philosophies can sound great until you have to apply them. Then it becomes thorny as hell. Thoreau, Socrates and Plato have the weight of their names behind them, and their brilliant arguments and eloquence - but context rules.

The good news is, is that we live in a relatively free country and those in my age group and younger have been blessed to live in it during a period of time when it is perhaps at its most free. Some would disagree with that, and I won’t go into great detail about it, but you can feel free to stand outside the White House and criticize the president during a war, or go into almost any business you want (some licensing, but I find in cases of the professions, most favor that), buy almost any property you can afford and some that you can’t, accomplish almost anything you are capable of regardless of race, creed or color, etc. If you are accused of a crime, you have more rights here at this time and place than probably any other time and place in the history of the world. The police can’t even question you for serial murders if you so much as peep out the word “lawyer.” More, they even have to tell you that you don’t have to speak to them at all and can have a lawyer. Naturally, there are many exceptions to all this for the sake of civil order and it’s not the debate I want to have today.

Generally speaking, most people believe, at least in the abstract, in following the law, at least where it can be easily checked. But, there are most likely some modern laws I hope I would violate because I believed a great injustice had been done in the course of law enforcement ("[I]f I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." – E.M. Forster). Hope is the key word. It might take more courage than I or most of us have. 

But, what would I and you do if we were faced with a situation where our very liberty is called into consideration? The last time there was really a great public issue raising this question was during the 1960s (Vietnam War and civil rights issue). However, it is the recent health care reform bill that is motivating some to challenge the legislation as destructive of our liberty. Right now, the challenges are legal in nature, but many people are certainly angry, and even the whole nomenclature of "tea party" is a call back to history for inspiration.  I will talk about all that more next week in my political roundup, but the controversy was, in fact, the inspiration for this post.


  1. Nothing like a little classic philosophy to raise the level of debate. Great synopsis of their positions. I have a beautifully photographed edition of Walden you have to check out the next time you are over.

  2. I would argue that the Thoreau and Socrates aren't all that different.

    In The Apology, Socrates considers the option of going free on the condition he stops doing philosophy. His response: "whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times." Like Thoreau, he shows a complete disregard for unjust laws.

    For Thoreau's part, it is easy to overlook the fact that he didn't just spent a night in jail, he wrote (an apology?) about it. In The Crito, the Laws presented Socrates with a choice, 'either persuade us or obey us'. Thoreau is opting for the former.

  3. Reuben, If you go up to the paragraph starting "But, at some point Socrates and Thoreau come together . . ." I do agree that they had a certain amount in common philosophically, but, in the next paragraph I argue that, in the end, for Socrates, at least Plato's Socrates, it is the state that matters, and not the individual, whereas for Thoreau, the opposite was true.

    This is what I would say is the primary position of Plato - L'etat c'est toute - the state; that is all. Only the state matters. When I did read The Republic a few years after college (long after I was supposed to) the nobleness I saw in Plato's Crito was washed away by his vision of the state as the end all. In fact, I was ever after perplexed that I seemed to be the only one (that I knew, anyway) who saw Plato as advocating tyranny (you know, maybe it was on reading The Crito I started to feel that way and clinched it on reading The Republic - it was a long time ago and do you really care?).

    But, at least one philosopher agreed with me, and he was already long out there when I came to Plato. I recommend Karl Popper's The Society and its Enemies for a scholarly treatment of the same point, which I have only read in recent times. Popper acknowledges Plato's brilliance in many philosophical areas and, it is virtually impossible not to agree, but Plato really was an apologist for totalitarianism, and Popper nailed it.

    What would Thoreau do if he were sentenced to death for his oppostion to the war and Slavery, and he had the opportunity to escape? I think he would go, as obstinate as he could be, because he loved life and cherished the rights of the individual.

    Thanks for your comment.


Your comments are welcome.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .