Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


Cybersecurity law expert Joel Brenner says (hat tip to Andrew Sullivan) Eric Snowden is a wimp because he didn’t stay to face the legal consequences of his whistleblowing. In fact, it’s not civil disobedience at all unless you stay and drink the hemlock.

From Socrates through Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, the great theorists and practitioners of this form of resistance to law have told us in words and actions that civil disobedience requires the disobedient citizen to suffer the legal consequences of his or her unlawful act. In Socrates’s case, the consequence was death at the hands of the Athenian authorities. For Thoreau, Ghandi, and King, the consequence was jail. Through their suffering and example, they sought to undermine the moral position of law they found objectionable. Because unless the disobedient citizen takes the legal consequences of his unlawful action – he’s nothing but a criminal or a rebel.

Now, I love Thoreau, and he invented the term “civil disobedience”, but he spent one night in his hometown jail and then let a friend pay his fine. As with his roughing-it-in-the-cabin-but-don’t-miss-Sunday-dinner-with-the-folks stay at Walden, Thoreau knew better than anyone how to leverage a minimum of physical discomfort into a maximum of moral example. It’s hard to compare him to Snowden, who would have to at least take seriously the possibility that falling into the hands of US authorities would result in him being tortured and/or incarcerated permanently without trial.

But this is also completely wrong as regards Socrates, for a different reason: He precisely refused to flee so as not to undermine the moral position of the law. To put it simply, Socrates (as reported in the Crito) imagines the Law addressing him as follows:

Consider, Socrates, if this is true, that in your present attempt you are going to do us wrong. For, after having brought you into the world, and nurtured and educated you, and given you and every other citizen a share in every good that we had to give, we further proclaim and give the right to every Athenian, that if he does not like us when he has come of age and has seen the ways of the city, and made our acquaintance, he may go where he pleases and take his goods with him; and none of us laws will forbid him or interfere with him. Any of you who does not like us and the city, and who wants to go to a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, and take his goods 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 who 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 wrong; 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.

This is not to say that Socrates did not object to his condemnation, but it was because he believed he was innocent of the crimes he had been convicted of, and that the law had been perverted by wicked men. He argued that for him to deny the validity of the law by fleeing into exile would be to take revenge for the actions of evildoers, on the law who is herself the victim of their depredations. Blaming the victim we might call it.

There is one point where Socrates would probably agree with Brenner’s indictment of Snowden. Brenner writes

Snowden has fled the country. And where has he gone? To Hong Kong, a Chinese dependency that is far from being a bastion of free expression he foolishly says it is, and as people who know it better than he does will tell you, a place whose security apparatus is controlled by the People’s Republic of China.

For Socrates, China was Thessaly. He imagines the Law saying

if you fly to one of the neighboring cities, as, for example, Thebes or Megara, both of which are well-governed cities, will come to them as an enemy, Socrates, and their government will be against you, and all patriotic citizens will cast an evil eye upon you as a subverter of the laws, and you will confirm in the minds of the judges the justice of their own condemnation of you. For he who is a corrupter of the laws is more than likely to be corrupter of the young and foolish portion of mankind. Will you then flee from well-ordered cities and virtuous men? and is existence worth having on these terms?… But if you go away from well-governed States to Crito’s friends in Thessaly, where there is great disorder and license, they will be charmed to have the tale of your escape from prison… but will there be no one to remind you that in your old age you violated the most sacred laws from a miserable desire of a little more life? Perhaps not, if you keep them in a good temper; but if they are out of temper you will hear many degrading things; you will live, but how?- as the flatterer of all men, and the servant of all men; and doing what?- eating and drinking in Thessaly, having gone abroad in order that you may get a dinner.

On the other hand, the Law’s trump argument against Socrates is that he is already an old man, and never chose to leave Athens during his long life, which must be counted as tacit approval. Snowden is not yet 30, and he has made his choice.

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