Socrates and Martin Luther King's Ideas of Civil Disobedience

We usually understand freedom as the possibility to do as we wish. In this sense, to the extent that an individual is not constrained in his/her desire to accomplish a goal or satisfy a desire, we can say that the individual is free. However, upon reflection, we do not notice that we're almost faced continuously with cons, trains, and these are not merely limited to external forces but also internal ones such as habits, instincts, and passions. So, it seems that our behavior is much more determined than it appeared at first.

This comes in play in our society today where we have laws made to guide our day to day lives and behaviors. For some reason, these laws tend to infringe our desires and self-satisfaction, but at the same time, we have to abide by the same rules because they are made by the authorities. It takes courage and sacrifices to shun such laws that infringe on the people and in most cases those who go against authorities to oppose infringing laws (civil disobedience) end up crucified.

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This paper analyses some of the greatest philosophers in history, namely Socrates and Martin Luther King, approaches and compares and contrasts their views and practices in line with civil disobedience during their fight on oppressing laws. Both of these philosophers had great doubts concerning self-independence and expression of humans, and they used their social positions to spread awareness to their people (Raz). Socrates and Martin Luther King, however, had different reactions and thoughts in displaying displeasure against unjust laws and this showed that they had different views concerning civil disobedience.

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Martin Luther King believed that protesting against oppressing laws is necessary because it helps in uplifting human dignity and bring reforms to society. Socrates also believed in human independence, but his display of civil disobedience has a sharp contrast with that of Martin Luther King (Raz).

Martin Luther King defined unjust laws as those that degrade human dignity and is not in line with the moral laws. On the other hand, moral law, according to Dr. King was that which uplifts human dignity and personality and abides by the moral or religious laws (Singer 84). According to him, all these laws are man-made and should conform to human morals and has a positive effect on both individuals and society. King suggests that if one has to break an unjust law, it should be done openly, willingly, lovingly, and must be willing to accept the consequences of his or her actions. He goes ahead and says that any person who feels that a particular law is unjust should break it openly and accept the punishment after that. This he says, is the expression of the highest respect for the law (King 1).

Martin Luther King Jr. and Socrates have some similarities in their way of thinking and behaviors towards the laws. Both the philosophers were champions of human rights and fought the oppressive laws in the communities where they lived. As a result, both of them were jailed for disobeying the laws which according to them were unjust. Also, both Socrates and Martin Luther King Jr. shared similar ideas about the independence of the masses. They believed that the general populace should be allowed to think for themselves and not controlled by the few who were in power. The two men were also very persuasive and are considered to be extremists. They both would go to extreme extents to express their ideas whether good or bad to the authority provided it conformed to their beliefs and principles (King 2).

Both were accused of using their oratory skills to incite people in the society. Socrates, for instance, was accused of disrespecting the gods and trying to incite the youth to believe in what he believed was right. Plato captures Socrates' controversy in his writing and says, 'With regard to the first count Socrates professes himself in doubt as to whether the accusers meant that he did not believe in gods at all, or only that he believed in different gods from those who were recognized by the city' (Plato 16). Similar accusations were labeled against the king. He persuaded people to resist unjust laws and participate in non-violent protests. In this case, he was teaching people civil disobedience in cases such as racial segregation.

However, the two men who were very aggressive in fighting injustice in society had different thoughts on how to go about civil disobedience. Their reasoning for why people should practice civil disobedience was similar but the reasoning behind how to go about it contrasted sharply. According to King Jr., civil disobedience was "a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." Remember Martin Luther King Jr. reasoned that to exercise civil disobedience is to openly, lovingly go against unjust laws then accept the aftermath of their actions. Socrates did not meet these criteria when he was accused and jailed in Athens (Rawls). Through his friend Crito, it is revealed that he was not willing to oppose unjust laws. Instead, he was pleading for his innocence. Crito asked with him to escape into an exile, but he refused to go saying that he was innocent and was remaining in Athens to fight and plead for his innocence (Raz 223).

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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Socrates and Martin Luther King's Ideas of Civil Disobedience. (2024, Feb 16). Retrieved from

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