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Comparing Thoreau and Socrates

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Comparing Thoreau and Socrates


Thoreau and Socrates start Civil Disobedience and Crito with basically the same premise. They both believe that humans are essentially moral beings. Thoreau says that people if left to their own ends will act justly, and should be treated accordingly by the law. Socrates says essentially the same thing, he says that "no one wants to commit injustice" for its own sake, many people end up doing so anyway. Socrates says that the citizens of a government have entered into an agreement to abide by its laws in exchange for protection. He also says that if one believes these laws to be unjust, one can always leave, but if one agrees to abide by the laws they have a duty to be subjected to punishment if they break these laws. Thoreau on the other hand says that it is the duty of the people not to abide by a law if they perceive it to be unjust, and if they claim to be opposed to it and nevertheless abide by it, they are a hypocrite.
The reason that Socrates and Thoreau can arrive at such disparate conclusions from essentially the same premise. is that the ancient Greek idea of justice is not on idea of morality or conscience, it is based on honor and shame. All wrongs are reflected back by society (or the "majority"), the reason Socrates does not escape of jail is not because he believes it is wrong, but because he would lose all social status, and be cast out of Athens, never to return. Thoreau believes however that right and wrong do not come from what the "majority" believes to be shameful, but from a sense from within. Thoreau believes that each individual has a moral obligation to decide right from wrong for himself, and to act according to that without regard for law, shame, honor, or punishment.
Neither of these works are a plan for a government. They are both written as a response to the conflict of personal needs with the needs of society as a whole. Socrates lived in a very homogeneous society controlled by land-owning adult men. Women, children and slaves were not involved in government, and not even allowed to leave the city if they wanted. Because it was so homogeneous, the will of the majority was a very good representation of the citizen's needs, and therefor it was generally just. However, in a more mixed society, government must work to represent every group, so a majority will not represent the needs the people and Thoreau's idea that everyone must oppose unjust government comes into play. In a large heterogeneous society, every person must be given a voice outside of a popular majority vote, or else issues that affect the masses will never be raised, and justice cannot be attained.

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