Tag Archives: evil

Law According to Bonhoeffer, King, and Socrates

Socrates, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King all believe that human laws are not, in and of themselves, perfect. They argue that laws can not stand alone, but must rest on something much more fundamental, the divine laws, the laws of God. They claim society can not survive without being grounded in God, and humans can not live full lives without following a universal code of morality.  Socrates’ speech in Plato’s Apology is based on the idea that Athens is a city founded on the divine laws, and his criticism is of men that have an “eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while {they} do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth”[1], instead of an eagerness to follow those laws.  Bonhoeffer says society is doomed without respect among mankind for human individuality, individuality which finds its roots in God. Finally, Martin Luther King stated that there are two types of laws, just and unjust. He claims the just laws are  in accordance with the divine laws and benefit humanity, the unjust laws are in disharmony with the divine laws and must be fought against in order to save society from self destruction.

In, the Apology, Socrates’ central argument is that, although Athens has great laws, ones which reflect what he perceives as the divine laws, they are of no use until its people begin to implement them in a just way. He says that in order for the people to listen to justice, they must ground themselves in the gods, admitting that “the human wisdom is worth little or nothing”[2], and seeking “truth”[3] and “excellence”[4] instead of “wealth”[5] and other worldly things.  He does

not state the difference between just and unjust laws as clearly as Martin Luther King, but Socrates does draw a difference between his just behaviour and the unjust behaviour of the “dangerous accusers”[6]. He claims his actions are made just because they are rooted in “service to the god”[7], and a great respect for both Athens and the divine principals it was founded on.

Throughout the Apology Socrates’ criticises  men who, without breaking any laws, led others to believe lies, “accused [him] quite falsely”[8], and “spread rumour”[9]. This criticism reveals what is right to ground ones values in, by showing what the Atenians are doing wrong. Socrates accuses Meletus of  “attempting to have a man executed unjustly”[10], because he is grounding his work in “insolence, violence and youthful zeal”[11]. He claims the jurors are only willing to vote for his death because they “are not ashamed of [their] eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while {they} do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth”[12]. It can be seen that wisdom in this sense refers to the divine wisdom, as Socrates has already said human wisdom is “worth little or nothing”[13] .  Because Athens is a democracy in which the populous is in charge of making laws, Socrates’ argument also applies to what those laws must be grounded in. He says men must “judge according to law”[14], and must look to divine wisdom, to the divine laws, and to truth in order to do so.

On top of pointing out that his accusers are grounding their values, and thus the laws of Athens, in the wrong things, Socrates also shows how he has grounded his life in the right things. He is in the court to “obey the law and make [his] defence”[15]. The entire reason he is being tried is because his “investigation in the service of the god”[16] caused him to “[become] unpopular”[17], to the point where those he questioned wanted him dead. He had “live[ed] in great poverty because of [his] service to the god”[18] and is not ashamed of dying because he believes a man “should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong”[19]. Socrates even goes so far as to say that he will follow his “course of action, even if [he is] to face death many times”[20], and will wake  people in the city from the sleep of ignorance, even if they “strike out at [him]”[21]. He shows again and again that his life is a just one, and that it is so simply because he is completely dedicated to serving the god.

The purpose of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letter, After Ten Years, is to prove that humanity must ground it’s values in God in order to prevent self-destruction and create a just society. Bonhoeffer argues that not having a respect for the individuality of humans, an individuality which stems from God, causes  people to be very easily led astray. This can be seen when he says, “Unless we have the courage to fight for a revival of wholesome reserve between man and man, we shall perish in an anarchy of human values”[22]. This argument also applies to law in that,

without this same respect and grounding of values in God, there will be nothing to prevent lawmakers from  writing laws contrary to what is right and just. This is what happened during the Nazi regime, when Bonhoeffer saw people following evil laws and objectifying their fellow man, leading to the murder of millions solely because of race. Unjust laws were written because lawmakers did not ground their values in God and  have the respect for humanity that is required to live justly, and those laws were followed because the populous lacked exactly the same thing. As such, Bonhoeffer believes, like Socrates, that in order for society to function, society must be grounded in the divine and universal laws of God.

Bonhoeffer claims,

The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical

concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical

necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought

up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who

bases his life on the Bible it merely confirms the fundamental

wickedness of evil[23].

This quote is a great summation of Bonhoeffer’s argument. “The great masquerade of evil”[24], can be taken to mean Facsim, which disguises itself in a manner that “traditional ethical concepts”[25], cannot see through. Bonhoeffer shows the Christian, to whom this “merely confirms the wickedness of evil”[26], as seeing through the disguise. This is because a Christian does not simply rely on “traditional ethical concepts”[27], or even “his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue”[28], but “is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God”[29]. In other words, only the man with his faith grounded in God is able to resist evil disguised as good. This reflects Bonhoeffer’s vision of what law must be grounded in. The fundamental reasons these people follow evil is because they, and the writers of the laws they follow, do not have their lives grounded in God.

Bonhoeffer also claims that “In the subordination of all personal wishes and ideas to the tasks to which we have been called, we have seen the meaning and greatness of our lives”[30]. He is saying that, in order for a life to have meaning, a person must submit to a greater power and cease living for themselves. The problem with subordination is that man has, “misjudged the world; he did not realize that his submissiveness and self sacrifice could be exploited for evil ends. When that happened, the exercise of the calling itself became questionable…”[31]. Submissiveness, when it is not to God, can easily be corrupted. In this case, the German people have submitted to Hitler’s evil Nazi regime. It was evident that the calling of Fascism was questionable because it resulted in the deaths of millions. It was obviously fundamentally wrong because it had not been grounded in God and respect for human individuality, which made it extremely easy to justify so many horrible deaths.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s attitude towards justice and what society’s values must be grounded in is very similar to that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and Socrates’. In his Letter From Birmingham Jail he responds to a letter, written by fellow clergymen, which says the civil rights

movement he leads is moving to quickly. King’s response is a biting one, in which he reveals the horrors of racism and segregation, and shows that there is no better time to act then the present. He justifies his position by clearly defining just and unjust laws, saying exactly what society needs as a base in order to function properly, and revealing the relationship between time and justice.Unlike Bonhoeffer and Socrates, King is not at all subtle. He comes right out and states that “a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.”[32], and that “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law”[33].  He shows how a law can be recognized as aligning with morality when he states, “Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust”[34]. King applies this rule to the segregation when he says, “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority”[35]. King is claiming that laws must be rooted in morality for them to be just, and that people have a moral obligation to break unjust laws. This disobedience, King says, “is in reality expressing the highest respect for law”[36]. The reason breaking laws can show the, “highest respect”[37], for law is because the person breaking the unjust law is, in reality, fighting for true law. This is the universal moral law of God, under which all men are free and equal. This true law was written into the American constitution, and is exactly what King is attempting to have implemented in the south.

The fact that, as King sees it, some people in the south are considered inferior and others superior, is objectification. This objectification is something which Dietrich Bonhoeffer also saw in Nazi Germany, and is caused by a lack of respect for the human person. King explains this when he says segregation “substitutes an ‘I-it’ relationship for an ‘I-thou’ relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things”[38].  This, “I-it”[39], relationship can only be changed when people garner a respect for the value every person has, stemming from their individuality, and rooted entirely in God.

When King says that the white moderate are “more devoted to ‘order’ then to justice”[40], he is making a very similar point to that of Socrates. The philosopher criticised the citizens of Athens for their “eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while {they} do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth”[41]. Seeking order, while sacrificing justice, is similar to a lust for wealth. This is because order allows for the peaceful enjoyment of possessions and status, while the implementation of justice can threaten both false peace and unjustly achieved status. Those were the very things the white moderate wished to defend.  King continues this argument when he says the white moderate  “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom”[42]. Because this moderate only cares about order, choosing to ignore the fact that the God given rights of Black persons hardly exist in the southern United States, they are setting up “dams that block the flow of social progress”[43]. They fight against a “substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality”[44], and are using time as an excuse to build these “dams”[45]. King calls time “neutral”[46], saying, “it can be used either destructively or constructively”[47], and that “the time is always ripe to do right”[48]. In his analysis of time and criticism of the white moderate,  King reveals that when it comes to God given rights, there is no bad time for implementation, and friction will never be absent in the fight for equality.

The speech of Socrates in Plato’s Apology, the letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his friends in response to the complacency of and horrors caused by the people in Nazi Germany, and Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, all carry the same message. They argue that in order for people, and society, to be successful and just, they must have their values grounded in the divine laws, and thus in God. Socrates believed this meant people must seek truth and the true, just application of law . King and Bonhoeffer, seeing the objectification of persons destroying so many lives, believed that grounding values in God meant moving past racism. It requires forgetting conventional morality, being strengthened in the divine laws , and achieving a respect for all mankind through an appreciation for the individuality in every person.


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.”After Ten Years,” Letters and Papers from Prison. Ed. Eberhard Bethge. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967.

King, Martin Luther. Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963

Plato. “Apology,” The Trial and Death of Socrates. 3rd ed: Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Revised by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.

[1]Plato, “Apology,” The Trial and Death of Socrates. 3rd ed: Translated by G.M.A. Grube.                 Revised John M. Cooper. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 32.





















[22]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: After Ten Years. (New York: The                 Macmillan Company, 1967), 35.










[32]King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Why We Can’t Wait. (New York:                 Harper & Row Publishers, 1963), 85









[41]Plato, “Apology,” The Trial and Death of Socrates. 3rd ed: Translated by G.M.A. Grube.                 Revised John M. Cooper. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 32.

[42]King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Why We Can’t Wait. (New York:                 Harper & Row Publishers, 1963), 87.







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