I am in Athens teaching a seminar on the trial and death of Socrates. Gandhi identified Socrates as the first civil disobedience – or one who holds to the truth (satyagrahi). He and Jesus were the two non-Indians on the list. Mirabai, the great Indian poet and disobedient for Vishnu, was the one woman.
Two days ago, our group had gone to Fillappous Hill to see the Pnyx – the meeting place of Athenian democracy and perhaps the trial setting of Socrates – and to the jail cells where Socrates, it has been maintained since at least 1862, was held awaiting trail. The cells are carved out in the rock; they are near the Pnyka where the trial took place, involving some six hundred jurors to whom Socrates perhaps spoke something like the lines in Plato’s Apology. Plato was there and listened, struck by his teacher, and if there is a time when Socrates speaks more than the hybrid creature Plato’s “Socrates”, it is here. A fateful case – the verdict disgraced the Athenian democracy down through the ages; the first free city murdered its wise man. Yet the case was decided by 60 votes; a shift of a mere 30 votes and Socrates would have been acquitted. So some estimate that there were 600 hundred jurors to whom Socrates delivers his long and often interrupted speech.
Last night we had a class on Plato’s Crito, his shortest and perhaps most complex dialogue, in which Socrates’s friend Crito comes to his cell and offers Socrates the chance to escape. Socrates gives a powerful speech, incarnating the laws of Athens who speak to him with the force that the Corybants, the participants in the mystery religions, hear the flutes. These are the democratic laws of Athens. They convince Crito so that he can no longer speak. Socrates says, here, this one time, ask any further questions Crito that you need to but you will not convince me. He has gone further along the path of arguments than Crito; some further unstated argument, Plato suggests, convinces Socrates. Socrates is often misinterpreted as offering ideal allegiance to laws in general, Instead, he has some allegiance in these specific circumstances – seventy years old, refusing to betray his words at the trial or grovel to the public in the face of death, as most did - to the democratic laws of Athens. Yet Socrates goes to his death because of his refusal to give up questioning (see the very end of my essay "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?," Constellations, 2009, here). It is here that his act is a pure and explicit precursor of civil disobedience.
Matt Bates, one of my students, chose to present on Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham City Jail. He decided that his own commentary was no match for the words, King wrote. He read it. We were sitting on a terrace of the hotel in the evening; it has a startling view of the Acropolis and the ruin – the blown up but in the process of patient reconstitution - structure of the Parthenon. It was the early evening with the fierce heat of the Meditaerranean just dying, increasingly beautiful, as we went over the riveting words of King, the three invocations of Socrates as a “nonviolent gadfly,” the one to whom we owe academic freedom, and the one blamed as King was by the “moderate” white ministers for questioning segregation just as the deluded mob of Athens put Socrates to death for questioning twenty-four hundred years before. Socrates here came to King as the killing of an innocent just before he turns to Jesus who was also, even more cruelly, martyred. But Socrates weighed on his mind as he wrote the essay in jail even more than Jesus (Jesus is mentioned twice – my students counted - St. Paul and St. Augustine once each).
Last spring at Whole Foods in Denver, I had met my friend Sudarshan Kapur, the author of the beautiful book on the black response to Gandhi, Raising Up a Prophet, and a teacher at Naropa. I mentioned how King, writing the essay in the jail on the back of a New York Times (the best thing ever written on a New York Times) had summoned Socrates three times. Having read in King’s papers more extensively than I, he said, “Can you think of any other essay in which King mentions Socrates?” I couldn’t. Neither could he. He said: it was because King was in jail that the story of Socrates came back to him, again and again.
There is a longstanding fallacy among commentators that it is being outside public action – solitary, hidden in cloister-like libraries - which enables scholars to write. As I once showed in my book Marx’s Politics, roughly the opposite was true for Marx. But the same thought applies to the recent practitioners of nonviolence. At the height of the movement in Birmingham, when King was bewildered about what to do, he took a nap, put on casual clothes (jeans and sneakers, not the ministerial suit) and went out to join the high school students and others to be arrested. It was a noble act and a clarifying one. The victory of the movement sprang from his act and the words of this “Letter” were written in his cell. His letter from the jail will be read – as will his speech in the Riverside Church breaking with the war in Vietnam, April 4, 1967 – as long as American English is read (Thoreau’s "Civil Disobedience" will also, but in three or four hundred years, not so many others). He drew profound strength from the story of Socrates.
We all marveled at his words. He knew also that in the hands of police chief and would-be mayor Bull Connor who had attacked the students with high powered fire hoses (the stream peeled the bark off trees) and police dogs tearing at the flesh, his mortality was there. His invocation of Socrates and Jesus reveals an inkling that he too would, very likely, be killed. He told Coretta often that he didn’t expect to reach the age of 40. The first assassination attempt had been in Montgomery in 1955. But it was not yet his time to die.