A Comparison of Socrates’ and Luther’s Ideas of Freedom

Despite a difference of around two millennia, or 2000 years, the claims to freedom of the Greek philosopher Socrates and the German Leader of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther lend themselves to both similarities and differences.

Although there are more differences than similarities, the two works have both not only expressed the dreams and aspirations of these two great man but especially changed the societies in which they lived, although gradually.

This paper will discuss the similarities between Socrates’ claims in the Apology and those of Luther in Concerning Christian Liberty. This paper will discuss the similarities between Socrates’ claims to freedom in the Apology and those of Luther in Concerning Christian Liberty.


The claims of Socrates and Luther to certain freedoms share a few similarities.

An Exhortation to Oppose Established Institutions. Both Socrates’ and Luther’s claims for freedom exhorted people to oppose established institutions. While Socrates tried to undermine the immoral ways of Athenian society, Luther wanted to expose the defects in the theological bases of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.

Socrates, on one hand, criticized Athenian society when he said, “If there were a law at Athens, such as there is in other cities, that a capital cause should not be decided in one day, then I believe that I should have convinced you” (Apology).

And somehow he implied a certain attachment of Athenians to money when he said, “I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue come money and every other good of man, public as well as private.” (Apology)

On the other hand, Luther exhorted Christians and Catholics to question the theological basis of the Catholic doctrines. He expressed his opposition when he mentioned every time he mentioned that works were not a path to spiritual salvation but only faith and faith alone. Aside from this, he mentioned that:

“…it will profit nothing that the body should be adorned with sacred vestments, or dwell in holy places, or be occupied in sacred offices, or pray, fast, and abstain from certain meats, or do whatever works can be done through the body and in the body.” (Luther)


The claims of Socrates and Luther to certain freedoms also lend themselves to a number of differences from the notion of their freedoms to the way they have presented their claims.

Notion of Freedom. Socrates and Luther were both fighting for different kinds of freedoms.

First of all, one of the freedoms that Socrates was fighting for was more of a freedom of expression, or specifically a general freedom to question the logic that operated behind the Athenian justice system. The Athenian Meletus accused Socrates of being “a doer of evil, and corrupter of the youth, and he does not believe in the gods of the state, and has other new divinities of his own” (Apology).

To this accusation, Socrates’ sarcastically claims his freedom of expression by saying, “If my offence is unintentional, the law has no cognizance of unintentional offences; you ought to have taken me privately, and warned and admonished me” (Apology). This is the more personal freedom that Socrates was fighting for in the course of his defense. Socrates proved Meletus’ illogic several times during his defense so Socrates was indirectly making here a claim for the freedom of the mind through logic.

As for the other freedom that Socrates seemed to have been fighting for was the freedom of philosophy. This freedom was implied when Socrates said, Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy…” (Apology). Such a statement was naturally taken by the Athenian court as a defiance of the authority of the state that defined obedience to God as obedience to the laws rather than to one’s philosophy.

Furthermore, Socrates’ claim for this freedom and his defense of it in Plato’s Apology was more of a defense of personal convictions considering that Socrates himself was on trial at the time that he declared his claims for this freedom.

Based on the aforementioned points, the idea of freedom of Socrates was different from that proposed by Luther. Luther’s ideas were more on religion rather than on logic and philosophy. Luther expressed the nature of the freedom that he claims when he said, “For faith alone, and the efficacious use of the word of God, brings salvation” (Luther). This therefore is a freedom from works, and is explicitly stated by Luther when he said, “…this faith cannot consist at all with works…”(Luther) and that “…no work can cleave to the word of God…” (Luther).