Aquinas v. Socrates

June 1, 2018

The ultimate controversy regarding the conviction of Socrates is whether one should accept the punishment imposed on him by legal means that are unjust. Aquinas provides a framework for thinking about obligations in the face of both unjust laws and generally just laws that have been unjustly applied.  It is evident that Aquinas has some beliefs that run parallel with those of Crito, Socrates’ good friend who offered to save him from death. Furthermore, Aquinas believes that changing the laws can damage the common good to a certain extent but is necessary and just if the change is conducive to the common good (Halsall, 13).

According to Aquinas there are four types of law: eternal law, divine law, natural law, and human law, and laws can be either just or unjust. Laws are just “either because of their end, when they are ordained to the common good; or because of their author, when the law does not exceed the power of the lawmaker; or because of their form, when burdens are distributed equally among subjects for the common good. Accordingly, laws which inflict burdens equitably are just, bind the conscience, and are legal laws” (Halsall, 11). Laws can be unjust if they deny the three criteria just mentioned or because they are opposed to the divine good (Halsall, 11). An example of a law that opposes the divine good would be something that leads men to idolatry. According to Aquinas, these acts should never be observed because “one must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) (Halsall, 11).

The unjust conviction of Socrates has played a significant role in the history of legal tradition. Socrates was punished for questioning people and having independent beliefs and opinions. During this time, it was a major crime to not believe in the Athenian gods, so it may have seemed just to punish Socrates with death, but Socrates was only expressing his intelligence and independent thoughts. Socrates was a man who had great respect for the laws, but he did not hesitate to question their legitimacy. Additionally, he often questioned the moral integrity and wisdom of those around him. Although he knew his punishment was unjust, he believed he would be a hypocrite if he broke the laws that made him the man he was, to save himself. Having enough pride to be willing to die for his beliefs shows how high he held his principles and virtues.

Similar to Crito, Aquinas would maintain that Socrates has been the victim of unjust laws, and for this reason, Aquinas would believe that it is proper and right for Socrates to disobey the laws. Aquinas believes that laws can be changed if it is benefitting the common good, but also understands that changing the laws can be damaging to a certain extent as it is a breach in custom (Halsall, 13). Moreover, Aquinas believes that someone subject to the law can act outside the letter of the law if it attains to the common good. Although Socrates’ passion for his beliefs is very admirable, it would also be revolutionary if he rebelled and changed the laws for the better of the common good. Socrates chose to die for his beliefs, but Aquinas would have encouraged Socrates to escape from this unjust punishment. If Socrates escaped from his punishment and tore apart the unjust rules, norms, and systems, and rebuilt them under what he believed benefitted the common good, the legal system could have been influenced differently.


Halsall, P. (1996, January). Aquinas On Law. Retrieved June 1, 2018, from

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