Law Vs Morality : can we break the law ?

I just woke up, and I have no watches on. According to my stomach, it is probably lunch time. My Grand-father is in the crop-field, gently waiting for the wood of his guitar to talk. On this melody, if he was still alive, I would ask him multiple question, that I believe he would answer rightly, because my Grand father could understand the algorithm of life, the velocity of death, the sound of silence and the secret of the heart of men. I once asked him about how to live happily. And here is the answer he gave me: to understand that life is a paradox, and that one need not to worry about it, but only needs to rediscover this paradox, teasing his beliefs, over and over again.

Throughout history, we heard of hundreds of men who died, defending their beliefs, fighting for what they thought was “right”. One fought for love, the other for knowledge, and an other one fought against man’s suffering. But if I was about to remember only one of them, it would clearly be Socrates. Why him ? For the simple fact that he pulled the greatest trick: convincing people that he wasn’t wise. But the truth is that he was way ahead for his time. In a constant reflection and deep questioning, Socrates is one of the best illustration of how philosophy operates: a hand full of astonishments and a hand full of backgrounds. This is how he lived a life that now attracts so many people.

In this paper, I am going to discuss one scene of Socrates’ life dealing with “breaking the law “, an issue tackled in “Crito” one of Plato’s dialogues. I am first going to adopt Socrates’ logic to see when, if ever, we can break a law and why. And then, I will give my own opinion, whether I endorse his saying or not, and why.

When Crito came early in the morning to persuade Socrates of the obligation of saving his life and escaping from prison, Socrates refused and supported his choice with some strong arguments.

Men are always afraid of what they don’t understand, but the smartest, the true philospher, would be excited by what he doesn’t know. Socrates doesn’t know anything about death, but he is not afraid, for instance he usually says: “May it be for the best. If it so please the Gods, so be it” (Plato 46 ). Knowing this unavoidable end, enabled him to live his life calmly, looking for more wisdom and deciphering every human action. And because humans are just as sand castles, strong and weak at the same time, stuck in a inner war, we all want to know, how one can still be influenced by others and vice versa. So Socrates goes and asks “why should we care so much for what the majority think?” (Plato 47).In fact, Socrates thinks that one should only consider the opinion of an expert. Besides that, we know that the majority will always choose the easiest way. But the fact is that in the Athenian democracy, the law is represented by chosen people, and by the popular opinion, the majority, in extension. Once again Socrates would affirm that if people “inflict the greatest evils, for they would then be capable of the greatest good” (Plato 47), in other words, just like DesCartes said once, despite the imperfection of each human being, the world is still perfect, and that is some ways laws, voted by the majority, are always just.

It sounds from the beginning that breaking the law for Socrates is not acceptable. Socrates thinks that ” The most important thing is not life, but a good life” ( Plato 51). Why would he bother living the life of a public enemy ? Surely someone who is escaping has something to regret and hide, and that will only confirm the sentence cited by the court of law. Socrates doesn’t want to escape, not even using the emotional appeal as everyone does, but Socrates wants to convince the Law only! He is aware that he lived seventy years happily in Athens, and that at any time , he was able to take his goods and leave, he speaks on the behalf of the laws and conforts his claim ” we proclaim that if we don’t please him, he can take his possessions and go wherever he pleases” ( Plato 54). By staying, Socrates just came to an agreement, what will be in the future known as the social contract : abiding by the laws. Breaking them at this point will harm the city that gave him birth, educated him and nurtered him for years, the people living in it that are supposed to be protected by the law, and will make him “The most guilty of the Athenians” (Plato 55 ), a hard reputation to hold, for someone who praises virtue and justice.

In addition, it won’t only affect him, but it will affect his friends as well ” Your friends will be in danger” ( Plato 56). The ultimate proof that Socrates was not an old embittered greek, a heartless thinker living in the woods, but actually he was a man who always put others first and tried to protect his friends and family as he could. Finally, the man accused by corrupting the youth and not believing in the Gods whom the city believes in was afraid that his after life won’t be gentle, just because he tried to escape: ” The laws of underworld will not receive you kindly ” (Plato 57).

Now, personally, I do not particularly agree with Socrates. In some cases, it is mandatory to break the law, for a greater good. We should always weigh the utility of our actions. Let us take an example.

We are in 1962. After 132 years of colonization, Algeria gets rid of the French government. Algeria becomes a state standing by its own. No experience in administration whatsoever, however, politicians had to rule the country and form a constitution. Arabic, by law, becomes the first and only official language. This law, for several years, overlooked half of the Algerian population which is not Arab, but Berbers, the first to inhabit Algeria. Berber as a language was pratically banned, conferences in Berber were cancelled. So, riots were organized. Police forces would beat berber youth and intellectuals, resulting in several dead and injured people. We didn’t stop, until Berber became an official language as well. Recognizing the similarity and appreciating the difference, that is a greater good. Making Algeria greater again. That justifies breaking the Law.

When Socrates refuses to escape, Socrates is merely respecting the concept of law : punishing the wrong doer. But Socrates fails to notice that, now, in his case, the basis of this concept (Socrates being guilty) is absolutly non-sense. His unability to defend himself in the court of law, doesn’t justify his emprisonment. Judges should have looked for tangible evidence and not taking the prosecutor’s gossips as a reference.

But, I would like to mention that, eventhough I don’t agree with Socrates, I do respect his position, for the simple fact that his time is not mine. The context was different. Back that time a man has to show no fear and handle the consequences of his actions.

To conclude, I would complete my Grand-Father’s words. Life is a paradox, and life is also a change. Times and situations are never the same, there is always something new going on. Some laws were valid yesterday, and are no longer valid today. We were, we are and we will be breaking rules, for the sake of our values and rights., for those things are never constant, for a new evil always brings a new good to chase.

Work Cited :
Grube, George Maximillian Anthony, and John M.Cooper. ” Plato: Five dialogues”. Indianapolis, 1981 GrubePLato: Five Dialogues 1981 (2002).


Thilleli G.


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