The Idea of Civil Disobedience in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and “Crito” Comparative Analysis

Posted on November 8, 2023

Comparative Analysis Sample

Civil disobedience, the deliberate act of defying unjust laws, embodies the delicate balance between individual conscience and societal duty. Martin Luther King Jr. explored this topic in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” during the American Civil Rights Movement, addressing the need for racial equality. Meanwhile, Plato’s “Crito” is a philosophical dialogue that takes place in ancient Athens and revolves around Socrates’ refusal to disobey the law in the face of injustice. These works have opposing views on civil disobedience because of philosophical disagreements around higher moral law and the social contract, but they both support nonviolent approaches to change.

The view of civil disobedience in “Crito” is deeply rooted in the importance of the social contract. The argument takes place in the context of Socrates’ impending execution and his friend’s efforts to persuade him to escape. Socrates responds that citizens have an implicit agreement with the state to abide by its laws and regulations. Disobeying the laws of the city is unjustifiable because doing so would undermine the societal foundation and the legitimacy of the state’s authority. Thus, Socrates urges his friend to bear injustice for the greater good: “Do not value either your children or your life or anything else more than goodness” (Plato 21). It is his rational duty to accept the penalty of death rather than escape and betray the laws that have allowed Athens to flourish. This commitment to the social contract emphasizes Socrates’ belief that civil disobedience is never appropriate because order and the rule of law must be upheld for civilization to exist.

“Letter From Birmingham Jail” depicts civil disobedience as a powerful means of protest against unfair laws because morality is above the state’s authority. King responds to criticisms from fellow clergymen who urged him to cease his activism, explaining that his actions are morally justified in the fight for civil rights and equality. He argues that individuals have a responsibility to challenge unjust laws and systems through nonviolent direct action when dialogue and negotiation fail to bring meaningful change. Moral principles transcend the legal system, so one must engage in civil disobedience when the law is out of harmony with these higher standards. For example, King argues that “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was illegal” (3). Breaking unjust laws becomes necessary to expose the inherent inequalities and bias within the legal framework, provoking public awareness and prompting action.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “Crito” offer contrasting perspectives on civil disobedience, showcasing how philosophical beliefs can shape one’s response to injustice. Although Socrates and King both speak while being in political imprisonment for unfair allegations, they find different solutions based on their values and views on society. King’s approach centers on active resistance and aims to create immediate awareness and change to prevent the same unfairness from happening again. He argues that waiting for justice to naturally occur is insufficient and that individuals must disrupt the status quo to speed up the process. In contrast, Socrates focuses on patient engagement and working within the existing legal framework instead of resorting to civil disobedience. He believes that individuals should seek change through dialogue and persuasion rather than through direct defiance. Thus, this disagreement reflects the conflict between King’s belief in a higher moral law that transcends legal statutes and Socrates’ adherence to the social contract.

Nonetheless, both works acknowledge the dangers of civil disobedience and warn their audience against seeking change through violence. Socrates is concerned about such potential negative consequences as undermining the laws and institutions that hold society together and keep people safe. He believes that respecting the laws, even unjust ones, is the only way to maintain social cohesion, prevent society from falling back into barbarism and disorder, and build a prosperous future. King admits that civil disobedience might lead to tension and conflict, but he believes that such tension is necessary to provoke positive change and bring attention to critical issues. However, he emphasizes nonviolent direct action as the only way to win the hearts and minds of the broader public. If protestors refuse to engage in violence, they maintain the moral high ground and create a stark contrast between their actions and the unjust system they oppose. Therefore, both perspectives insist on achieving change through nonviolent means, even though only one of them believes that civil disobedience can be peaceful.

In conclusion, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and “Crito” support nonviolent change, but they disagree on civil disobedience because the former insists on a higher moral law, while the latter supports the social contract. King advocates for civil disobedience to challenge and change unjust laws, but Socrates is committed to the rule of law as the foundation of his society. Likewise, King believes that justice requires direct action, while Socrates prefers to work within the system. Although both perspectives voice concerns about the negative consequences of defiance, they still represent two different ends of the spectrum that cannot be reconciled.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Atlantic Monthly, Aug. 1963, pp. 1–6,

Plato. Crito. Bristol Classical, 1999.

Upgrade your essays with these FREE writing tools!
Get started now