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This article is taken from PN Review 18, Volume 7 Number 4, March - April 1981.

A Dissent on an American Classic Milton Hindus

SOCRATES VERSUS THOREAU ON CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

WHITMAN began his Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass on a condescending note toward the past ("as if it were necessary to trot back, generation after generation, to the eastern records . . .") but reached the conclusion, years later, in Democratic Vistas, that, if faced with a choice, he would prefer to all the vast material riches of the United States the "precious minims" of a handful of literary classics, among which he named Plato. It is still unclear how much America has added to this heritage. To read, for example, Thoreau's celebrated essay "Civil Disobedience" (which has influenced profoundly Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King) after reading Plato's dialogue Crito is calculated to make one aware of the difference between a charming and even brilliant piece of rhetoric and the most ripened wisdom of mankind.

Before exploring the difference between Socrates and Thoreau, it might be well to consider what they have in common. Both are strikingly individualistic and independent of public opinion. When Crito appeals to the opinion of "the many" for support, Socrates reminds him that one should be concerned not with popularly received ideas but with those entertained by the exceptional "good men" of the world. To Crito's objection that it is prudent to heed the opinion of the masses because of the injuries they can inflict upon those who don't, Socrates responds that if "the many could do the greatest ...


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