Front Page Titles (by Subject) Civil Disobedience - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Civil Disobedience - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
“Civil Disobedience and the Opinion of the Many: Plato's Crito.” The Modern Schoolman 54 (January 1977): 123–136.
Civil disobedience (as the deliberate defiance of an unjust law) has its classic philosophic discussion in Plato's Crito. The dramatic highlight of this dialogue involves a simulated conversation between Socrates and the Laws (Crito 50a6–54d1). The Laws, with apparent success, state the case against Socrates' contemplated disobedience of Athen's laws—the laws that have sentenced the gadfly philosopher to death.
Interpreters have disputed the validity of the Laws' arguments against civil disobedience because such arguments would disallow morally justifiable disobedience to unjust laws. These dissenting interpretations are insightful but require refinement.
The Laws address their speech neither to a philosopher alone (who could detect flaws in the Laws' reasoning) nor to Crito the nonphilosopher, but to Crito the friend of a philosopher and so a potential philosopher. The speech of the Laws functions as an introduction to philosophy for persons like Crito. He is exhorted to use his independent reason rather than succumbing to the uninformed opinion of the many.
The purpose of the dialogue is less to formulate a positive answer to the question of civil disobedience than to introduce the potential civil disobedient (such as Crito) to the rational self-examination of reason and philosophy.
Of course, on rational or philosophic grounds, civil disobedience remains an arguable possibility despite the Laws' circular logic. If Socrates the philosopher follows only the best reasoning, then he is obliged to obey the Laws only insofar as they follow reason.
Philosophy and civil disobedience both share a willingness to destroy those laws that are unreasonable. Thus, it is noteworthy that Socrates, in introducing philosophy, seeks to invoke the potential “civility” and principled restraint of the civil disobedient. In this way philosophy resembles more a lawful civility rather than a disobedience conjured up by the unreflective opinions of the many (whose influence over Crito is so powerful).
The purpose of the Crito, then, is to bring philosophy into the “city,” that is, to introduce philosophy to civilized men. But if it is the philosopher who judges what are reasonable laws, we are left with the disturbing and potentially rebellious question posed by the Laws themselves: “whom would a city satisfy without laws?” (Crito 53a4–5).