Res Publica - Journal of Undergraduate Research


PSCI 315 Classical Political Thought: Democracy in Athens and America is a foundational course in the political science major, and one option in the required political theory sequence at Illinois Wesleyan. One of the goals of the course is to introduce students to some of the fundamental problems in political thought. The issue here was the nature and extent of civil disobedience. This assignment began with the queries: when are we justified in disobeying the law? Do democratic lawmaking procedures and the opportunity to dissent before the law is passed make a difference in assessing the warrant of disobedience? Students read Plato’s Crito, where Socrates argues in favor of the duty to obey. The law in question was a bar on public impiety or openly expressing doubts about Athens’ established religion. Ironically, and perhaps to his credit, the law in question was one that led to Socrates’ being sentenced to death. To provide an American parallel to the Athenian example, the students read a 1968 debate between Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas and historian Howard Zinn on the justifications put forward for and against the protests—some of which involved breaking the law—mounted by members of the civil rights movement.