Socrates has gone down in history as one of the greatest philosophers in Ancient Greece, if not of all time, having turned the subject away from nature, from the stars, and to man, as Cicero put it. He went around Athens asking everyday people whether they knew such grand ideas like “justice,””temperance,” and “courage,” much to their annoyance, such that, by the time he had become notorious, he had been tried by the Athenian court for corrupting the youth and being impious toward the gods. He defended himself bravely, but in the end, he was sentenced to death. In 399 B.C., surrounded by friends, Socrates willingly drank the poisonous hemlock, which would momentarily kill him. Fast forward 2,300 years to Charming, California, where the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original (SAMCRO) operates under Jackson “Jax” Teller. Started by Jax’s father, the Sons of Anarchy is the name of a network of motorcycle clubs. As can be gathered from the name, the club values anarchy, or the absence of authority, and this is shown by the fact that they can pretty much get away with anything they want with impunity, be it bribing, selling drugs and weapons, doing drive by’s, or killing left and right—in a word, absolute freedom, anarchy. After the (forced) resignation of Clay Morrow, the young, ambitious Jax Teller becomes heir to the motorcycle throne, and becomes President, which leads to a tumultuous series of events littered with dead corpses. By the end of the show, Jax severs all ties, finally establishes peace—we hope—lets his sons live a normal life, and, with a slightly clearer conscience, decides to go out the same way his father did: At the wheel. And so, as we watch Jax extend his arms like Jesus, close his eyes, and smile as he rushes into an oncoming truck, we must ask ourselves: Why did Jax take the hemlock?
Thought to be written around 360 B.C., the Crito is Plato’s dialogue concerning Socrates and his decision not to escape from prison, but to accept his fate. While he sits in prison awaiting his execution, Socrates is awakened by his friend Crito, who is a wealthy man. Crito is a close friend of the accused and offers Socrates a way to escape if he wishes. He tells Socrates that he can easily bribe the guards, for they are known to accept low payments. Socrates is not convinced, however, so Crito argues that his friend should escape because he owes it to his sons, whom he would be leaving behind if he should die, and they would be without a father and a wise role model. Furthermore, if Socrates were to run away with his help, then he could seek refuge in other city-states, which would gladly welcome him, based on his many friends, connections, and students. All this seems convincing, as it would to Jax Teller, too. After all, the Sons of Anarchy (abbreviated SOA or “the Sons” hereafter) are notorious for finding their way out of trouble. If an APB is put out on one of them, then they can just talk to one of their corrupt cops, or if someone is in prison, then they can talk to one of their contacts and get the problem “taken care of.” Throughout The Sons of Anarchy, gang members are constantly in trouble, including Jax, who, under the threat of being arrested upon sight, is rescued by the “Mayans,” another motorcycle gang, and safely contained. By the end of the show, Jax is wanted by the police because he has killed Charlie Barosky and August Marks and the rest of the SOA charters because he has killed another club president, and the punishment therefor is “Mayhem,” or death. As such, despite being in such a pickle, Jax can easily rely on his own charter to get him out of the mess, and he does—to an extent. If he were to escape, then Jax could take his sons elsewhere, and start anew, away from the club, away from violence. Unlike Socrates, however, Jax cannot just go to another charter as Socrates can go to another city-state, given the tensions between Jax and the other charters. Nonetheless, escape is a viable option if he goes out of the country, for example.
Crito says to Socrates, “I do not think you are undertaking a right thing by throwing yourself away when you can be free. What’s the good of taking pains to do for yourself exactly what your enemies would like to do, and what those who tried to destroy you want?” (Crito, 45c). In other words, Socrates is wasting his opportunity for getting his life back. All it takes is a little bribe and he can have his life back. Why, asks Crito, would Socrates want to die just because has been condemned to? The Athenians sentenced Socrates to death, so they are his enemies; but why do what his enemies want, why fulfill their sentence, when he can just as easily not? Likewise, the enemies of the Sons—the police, the Chinese, the other Sons charters—want to see Jax dead, or at least imprisoned, and by killing himself, Jax is only satisfying their needs, not his own. It seems nonsensical. Why not go on living? If such a fate is avoidable, why not avoid it? Jax can easily ride away free, with the help of his club.
Socrates is not content with Crito’s pleas. Instead, something is gnawing at his conscience; something is telling him deep down that to escape is not the right thing to do. He engages in his famous dialectic to get at the why’s and wherefore’s of his resignation, and to convince Crito why he ought not to run away from his condemnation. Socrates begins by asserting that it is wrong to do evil or injustice to another in any circumstances whatever. Crito accepts this. Socrates, arguing on this premise, states that even if one is wronged themselves, then it would be wrong to fight back. In short, two wrongs do not make a right. Just because he was unfairly sentenced does not mean he is allowed to do something unfair to those who accused him. No evil can be traded for an evil, such as breaking a law for death. Moreover, Socrates is obligated to the state, above all, so to disobey the state is to do evil to it, and nobody should willingly do evil. Thus is Socrates’ argument, which moves Crito, although not entirely: A stronger argument is needed.
Now Socrates speaks to Crito through the voice of “the Laws,” a personification of the state to which he is obliged. What are laws, they say, if exceptions can be made by the privileged? A state is dependent on laws, of course. Socrates can get out of jail and break the law no problem, it is true; but what does that mean for the Laws? It creates an example: It says that, if Socrates can get away with this injustice through money, then anyone with enough money can! The Laws are thereby undermined, and soon, the city-state collapses into anarchy. Strangely enough, the Sons of Anarchy, despite their appraised freedom, still live by rules, too. It is through and under the state that we live. Through institutions, we are conceived, raised, and housed. To do away with the laws of a city, is to do away with the city itself, for it will inevitably fall apart. The Laws observe that we are careful not to rebuke our parents out of respect; however, if the state is more powerful than one’s parents, then surely we must be even more respectful of the state. Socrates, bespoken by the Laws, questions, “Do you not realize that you are even more bound to respect and placate the anger of your country than your father’s anger? That if you cannot persuade your country you must do whatever it orders, whether it be flogging or imprisonment?” (Crito, 51b). By now, it should be clear that what the state or country is to Socrates, the motorcycle club (MC) is to Jax. We see that Jax, embodying anarchy, can be unfeeling, going so far as to kill both his step-dad and his own mother. But it is simply inconceivable to see Jax killing the club. Not only is it hard to do because it is an institution, not a person, but also because he has dedicated his life to it. So while Jax is not afraid to go against his parents, he is afraid and unwilling to against his own club. “Everything I do—,” he often says, “—I do for the club.” Whatever the club orders, be it his own charter or the neighboring one, he must comply with.
Socrates, by staying in Athens his whole life, thereby pledged his loyalty to it, implicitly. He stuck by it. At any time, he could have moved to another city-state, knowing full well how Athens treated its people. Similarly, Jax grew up in Charming and took his father’s mantle when it was necessary. However, there were several points at which he could have put the gavel down, walked away, and made a new life; he chose not to. By staying president, even after getting out of jail, Jax takes responsibility for his actions, and all that results therefrom. From what has been said, it follows that Socrates, being an Athenian citizen, must either act according to the state or persuade the state otherwise; by doing neither, he disobeys the state, meaning he is doing an injustice to them—something morally bankrupt. To quickly summarize the argument up until now: It is wrong to do immoral things, and we are in a social contract with the state when we stay in it, meaning that we must obey it, because disobeying is an immoral thing, or convince it, because lying is an immoral thing. Hence, there are two choices: Give in, or fight for one’s rights. Jax is given the same ultimatum by the SOA: The penalty for killing another president is a Mayhem vote, which must be unanimous. Therefore, Jax has two options: He can either accept his death penalty, or he can try to convince the other charters that what he did was out of self-defense, or was justified because the victim was a rat. The problem is, the second option is not an option at all, as Jax admits to the Sons that Jury, the president he killed, was not in fact a rat, and Jury’s club does not think that Jax’s actions were out of self-defense, seeing as it was Jax who instigated the brawl leading to Jury’s death. It seems unlikely at this point that Jax would disobey the MC in spite of it all.
The Laws of Athens say to Socrates, “[Y]ou will not be the least culpable of your fellow countrymen, but one of the most guilty” (Crito, 52a). By this, the Laws mean that Socrates, in defying the state, would be doing only himself a favor, to the damage of the city-state and its constituents. Because Socrates is not actually guilty, Crito believes Socrates has the right to go against the law, since it is unjust. On the contrary, Socrates’ leaving would not absolve him of any guilt; it would only add to it. By leaving, it is not as though all the wrong-doings of Socrates will be forgiven and evaporate; rather, by breaking a law, Socrates will be all the more injurious to the state. Take Jax’s situation: Even if Jury were the one who turned in the MC to the Chinese, Jax’s taking him out might appear righteous to the Redwood MC, but to the rest, it would seem like cold-blooded murder. However, this is not so, as Jury was not the rat. This only makes Jax’s situation worse, obviously. The death of Jury is just another wrong for a wrong, so Jax would not be pardoned for anything, only blamed more.
Now the Laws make another point: Socrates lived in Athens for all 70 years of his life, fought for it, had children in it. Is this not a man loyal to and loving of his state? Compare this to Jax Teller, the Charming native, whose father John Teller started not just SAMCRO, but the SOA itself. Jax then became president of the club, lived in it, fought for it, had children in it. His former wife, Tara, wanted desperately to get their two sons out of Charming, out of crime, and into a safe place, but all in vain; for Jax and his mother Gemma refused to move anywhere but Charming, and neither did they want their progeny to. Such is a show of loyalty for the club. The whole of Jax’s life was dedicated to the club. Even though he claimed his actions were for his sons, they were really for the club. If you count the number of times he states his motives, “for the club” will be more numerous than “for my boys” or “for my sons.” Another thing the Laws hold over Socrates is his choice to do things legally or illegally. During his trial, Socrates could have opted for banishment rather than death. Done this way, his escape would be legal; but if Crito were to help Socrates escape, then it would be illegal. Why not just do it during the trial and save all this trouble? Accordingly, escape is not an appealing option for Socrates. In Sons of Anarchy, Jax might have been able to bend the rules so as to allow his patch to be taken off, and just that. He would have to live with that shame. That is, if the vote were not unanimous, which was a possibility. If it were so, then the legal-illegal distinction would not apply. Considering it does though, Jax, if he chose to escape, would be doing so contrary to the club. All of this arises from the fact that both Socrates and Jax, out of free will, on their lives, chose to obey through their actions their respective institutions—the former Athens, the latter the SOA.
If all these arguments from the Laws are not enough to dissuade Socrates, then surely the consequences of his actions will. Perhaps principles are too abstract, and repercussions are needed to show the severity of his disobedience and disloyalty. First and foremost, Crito’s helping Socrates would make the former complicit in aiding and abetting a criminal. Two innocents will be imprisoned at the cost of one. Should Socrates be caught being helped by either friends, or should the guard who was bribed be interrogated, then many innocents would unnecessarily be dragged into the mess and hurt. And even if Socrates were to escape Athens without being caught, who says the other city-states will let him in with open arms, like Crito said? If anything, they will see Socrates as a miscreant, a troublemaker, a criminal, and a breaker-of-laws. Such is not a good image. But Jax does not have to deal with this image, his being a notorious gang member and all. It would not matter his reputation; he already has one. When Jax escapes death by the hand of his own club—they orchestrated it together—he puts them at risk of being discovered to have helped him. This is a risk they are willing to take, though, given that he is their president. What if, when the other charters come to see if the job has been done, they see Jax escaped, and figure out they staged the whole thing? Surely, SAMCRO would be in big trouble, and not just Jax. The option of finding safety at another charter is basically insane, for no amount of history between Jax and them could pardon what he has done. No charter, like a city-state for Socrates, will harbor a defier-of-principles like Jax, no matter if he is the “son of anarchy.”
Let us look at children briefly: If Socrates takes his kids with him, then they will grow up not knowing their home, and they might be considered as disobedient as their father; and if he leaves them in the care of his friends, then what is the difference whether he dies or flees? They will never know him either way. Jax could tell his ex-wife Wendy and business partner Nero to bring the kids with him to another country, but such would be too uprooting in Jax’s mind. Or he could leave the kids with Wendy and Nero to go up to a farm, which he does. Thus, it matters not whether he dies or goes out of the country: They are in safe hands regardless. Finally, the Laws caution Socrates that by obeying them, he would not be breaking any principles, and he would thereby be ridden of all guilt:
As it is, you will leave this place, when you do, as the victim of a wrong done not by us, the laws, but by your fellow men. But if you leave in that dishonorable way [escaping], returning wrong for wrong and evil for evil, breaking your agreements and covenants, and injuring those whom you least ought to injure—yourself, your friends, your country, us—then you will have to face our anger in your lifetime….” (Crito, 54b-c)
Put another way, Socrates’ acceptance of his death, albeit unfair and not at all deserved, would not be the result of the principle at work, the law, but the result of Socrates’ fellow Athenians, who pronounced this sentence upon him. Do not blame us, the Laws are saying, Blame those who condemned you, those who were only acting in accordance with us. In a sense, the Laws are just the messengers, and they are saying not to kill the messenger, in essence. To die at the hand of these principles is honorable; to flee from them is dishonorable. Because escaping, we have said, is just evil acting out against evil, it means that Socrates’ social contract with the state is broken. In doing so, he endangers himself, those who are close to him, the state, and the laws. We can relate this to Jax. The penalty of death was not put on Jax by the laws of the MC, but by the members of the MC, the charters of the SOA. The MC is just an idea, of course, an institution, nothing concrete. The laws prescribed by the MC were laid down by his father and the original members and have largely gone unrevised (except, recently, for the admittance of African-Americans). As such, Jax cannot shake his fists at the MC, shouting in revolt, “Curse you, Sons of Anarchy!” Instead, all he can shout is, “Curse you, members of the MC!” In a word, it is not the MC that is to blame for its rules, but those who make the rules, and those who enforce them. Perhaps pure anarchy was a better option than a representative democracy in retrospect? Notwithstanding, Jax, should he disobey the MC’s rules, would be injuring many in the process, not just himself, but SAMCRO, the entire MC, and his extant family.
In conclusion, both Socrates the Greek philosopher and Jax the reflective motorcycle gang (actually, officer, it’s a club) president killed themselves in the name of a principle, of an idea. Like a heretic of the Renaissance, they stuck to Truth with a capital “T” and accepted the consequences thereof. Socrates urged his friends not to cry as he drank the hemlock, calm and collected, and Jax comforted his loyal members—Chibs, Tigg, Happy—telling them, “I got this,” before talking one last time to his father, only to ride out on his motorcycle, a parade of police cars and motorcycles trailing behind him, a confident look on his face, replaced by an accepting smile as he approaches the truck, arms out like Jesus on the cross, going out doing what he loved most. Now, by comparing Jax to Socrates, I by no means equate the two. Socrates was an exemplar of virtue, Jax of mercilessness and impetuousness. Jax certainly had his virtues, but he also had many a vice. See, Jax had one thing many other characters in Sons of Anarchy did not: Acceptance of death. Much like Socrates, Jax regarded death positively and embraced it, seeing in it salvation, promise of renewal. The Will-to-live is prominent in the show, as you are able to see just to what extents people are willing to go to stay alive. Connor drives desperately to evade SAMCRO even though he knows he will die by either them or the Irish Kings. His death is certain, but he postpones it futilely because he wants to live. We see in Gemma this Will-to-live most: She spins a spiderweb of lies in which everybody gets caught up—all for what? She says the only things she has left are her grandsons, over whom she is fanatically possessive. Her lies get hundreds of people killed, and she refuses to tell the Truth because she will do whatever it takes to avoid death, to keep living, to be with her sons. Anything that keeps her alive, she will do. Jax, on the contrary, knows what he has to do and welcomes death with open arms—literally. Jax is not a good person. Even he admits it to Wendy. He is conscious of his shortcomings. Jax, viewing death as Socrates did, redeems himself and gives himself over to death, in the name of conscience, ideals, and principles.
It is as if, when Jax is about to hit the semi, we can hear him utter, “We owe a cock to Asclepios.”
For further reference:
Sons of Anarchy (2008-20014)
Crito by Plato (2008)