Jailhouse Rock with Thoreau and Socrates

[This entry is made up mostly of quotes taken out of context and put into a new context as a way of imagining what a conversation between Henry David Thoreau and Socrates might have sounded like if they had found themselves in jail together. The Thoreau quotes are taken from “Civil Disobedience,” and the Socrates quotes are from “Crito.” I have used Thoreau’s description of being put in jail as the opening of the dialog – it also comes from the same essay. For continuity I have added a few lines by way of description.]

Henry David Thoreau: I have paid no poll tax for six years. I was [put into jail once on this account for one night….The night in prison was novel and interesting enough….My roommate was introduces to me by the jailer as a “a first-rate fellow and a clever man.”

My roommate was a man named Socrates, who was awaiting a death sentence after being convicted on charges of corrupting the youth and making the weak argument the stronger. He said that his friends, Crito among them, offered to bribe the guards to help him escape, but that he turned down their offer. I asked him about this and below is the conversation that followed.

Thoreau: Isn’t wrongly condemning a man to death evil? Shouldn’t you accept the offer and escape?

Socrates: And what of doing evil in return for evil, which is the morality of many – is that just or not?

Thor: A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, not wish it to prevail through power of the majority.

Soc: Then consider the matter in this way: Imagine that I am about to play truant (you may call the proceeding by any name that you like), and the laws and the government come and interrogate me: “Tell us, Socrates,” they say; “what are you about? Are you going by an act of yours to overturn us – the laws and the whole State, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?” What will be our answer, Henry, to these and like words?

Thor: The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to, — for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well, — is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed.

Soc: “And was that our agreement with you?” the law would say; “or were you to abide by the sentence of the State?…Tell us, – What complaint have you to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the state? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have an objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?” None, I should reply. “Or against those of us who after birth regulate the nurture and education of children, in which you were also trained? Were not the laws, which the charge of education, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?” Right, I should reply. “Well then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have the right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to revile or do any other evil to your father or your master, if you had one, because you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands? – you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return and your country as far as in you lies?…Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that  our country is more to be valued and higher and holier than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding?…And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence: and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battled or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and country order him; or he must change their view of what is just; and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his own country.” What answer shall we make to this, Henry? Do the laws speak truly or do they not?

Thor: Government is at best but an expedient; most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient….The government itself, which is the only mode which the people have chosen to execute their will is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. This…government, – what is it but a tradition…endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its ding, to satisfy that idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we must allow. Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inhered in the…people as done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.

Soc: Then the laws will say, “Consider, Socrates, if we are speaking truly that in your present attempt you are going to do us an injury. For having brought you into the world, and nurtured and educated you, and given you and every other citizen a share in every good we have to give, we further proclaim to any[one] by the liberty which we allow him, that if he does not like us when he has become of age and seen the ways of the city, and made our acquaintance, he may go where he pleases and take his good with him….But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the state, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him. And he that 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.”

Thor: [The government] can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual….There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the states agrees to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from 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 treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even will 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 neighbor and fellowmen.

Soc: Then they will say: “You, Socrates, are breaking the covenants and agreements which you have 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 appears to you to be unfair.”

Thor: Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally under a government such as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults and do better than it would have them?….Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority them; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.

Soc: [The Laws will say] “Listen, then, Socrates, to us who have brought you up. Think not of life and children first, but of justice first,  that you may be justified before the princes of the world below. For neither you nor any that belong to you will be happier or holier or juster in this life, or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids. Now you depart in innocence, a suffered and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of laws but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least of all to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will receive you as an enemy; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us. Listen, then to us and not to Crito and Thoreau.”

This, dear Henry, is the voice which I seem to hear murmuring in my ears, like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic, that voice, I say, is humming in my ears and prevents me from hearing any other. And I know that anything more which you say will be vain.


One thought on “Jailhouse Rock with Thoreau and Socrates

  1. Brilliant!

    Nice piece of work! They say the great books form a great conversation, and I think you’ve pretty well gone and proved it. I’m glad I took the trouble to hunt down this blog again.

    I have to say, I strongly side with Thoreau. History has shown the dark fate that awaits those who think like Socrates. If I remember my chronology correctly, Thyucidides came after Socrates, and in his Melian dialogue Athens shows a similar disregard for transcendant notions of right and wrong. Athens went on to get trashed by the Syracusans. More recently, Mao all but destroyed China with his great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. So, perhaps if Socrates had lived in a later generation, with the benefit of these lessons of history, he’d have had a different opinion.

    Justice matters, and it cannot be cheated without unpleasant fallout. Someday humanity will learn that.

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