Socrates and Mary Jones (SVS student) and the Law

The great Greek historian and traveler Herodotus includes the following conversation with the queen of Persia in his histories. He is trying to explain how things are in the Greek democracies of the 5th century BC.

Persian queen, Atossa, asked him, "Who are the Greeks?"

"I am a Greek," Herodotus answered. "When you look at me, you see a Greek."

"What master do they obey?" the queen asked again.

"The Greeks have no master; they are not slaves," was Herodotus' bold answer.

"Whom do they obey then?" the queen insisted.

"They obey the laws!"

"The laws? What are the laws? They have no master. What a strange people!" The queen shook her head.

When I read this passage I am reminded of my efforts to describe SVS to people not familiar with the school. When I explain that there are no teachers, and that all the students take part in running the school, I encounter equally confused modern day queen Atossas.

“What teachers do they learn from?” The queen enquires.

“They have no teachers; they are not slaves.” I reply.

“Whom do they obey then?” The queen asks.

“They obey the laws!” I try to explain.

“The law, what kind of laws? They have no teachers. What a strange school!” And the queen shakes her head.

Bust of Atossa. The queen was perplexed by the notion of people who obeyed only “laws”. Queen Atossa is also known as the first historical reference to a probable case of breast cancer.  A Greek physician eventually performed surgery on the queen, but no details remain of the outcome.


Of course I should not be surprised at the similarities. In the case of Queen Atossa, Herodotus is trying to explain how under a democracy a city or nation does not have to obey any one leader, but instead agrees to obey the mutually agreed upon laws. 

One of the key aspects of the Sudbury Valley School is the adoption of many of the same democratic principles developed in Athens over 2500 years ago to the school environment. Today, most traditional schools, public and private, have an organizational structure that would have not seemed strange to Queen Atossa. Teachers, or tutors, controlled what was “taught” and by definition, what was “important” to learn.

Our founding fathers drew heavily upon the early Greek democracies in forming our nation. The New England Town Meeting would not seem all that strange to an Athenian citizen of 480 B.C.E. Even within corporate America, at the board of directors’ level, the principle of majority rule is used. Why is it then, that very little trace of our democratic roots can be found in our education system?

What about “Student Council”?, you may ask. I ran for student council in 6th grade. “Tighe is your guy” was my slogan. My older brother suggested I serve beer in the boys' rooms as part of my “get out the vote” strategy. I remember even then realizing it was all a sham. We tried to discuss what we would do if elected. I, like most candidates, supported the installation of a Coke machine in the cafeteria, this being about the only issue where we might have some small influence. But even then, I knew that others outside of the student council would decide if that would be allowed. Ours was simply a popularity contest. And I lost to Paula Poundstone (the comedian: The teacher said it was a very close vote and implied that I lost by a single vote. To this day I wonder if that was true, or if she was just trying to make me feel better. But I digress…

The Persian interest in things Greek was much more than a casual curiosity. Twice during a ten year period of the 5th century BC, huge Persian armies were defeated by much smaller Greek armies. Persia, centered in the Tigris - Euphrates river valley, ruled an empire from India, to Egypt and to the coast of Asia minor. The Greeks were just a group of little cities, constantly squabbling among themselves. But in 490 BC, a force of about 10,000 Greeks defeated a much larger Persian force (some estimates as high as 60,000) on the beach of Marathon just 26 miles (get it?) north of Athens.

Military historians have had endless discussions about what role the differing technologies and the power of the Greek Phalanx battle formation may have contributed to the Athenian victory at Marathon. Or perhaps it was just the audacity of the Athenian strategy, or perhaps it was sheer luck. But I side with those who point to the motivational power of the Athenian democracy. The combatants on the Athenian side were not professional warriors, they were the “citizen soldiers” of Athens, the world’s first democratically run city. They were the very people of Athens that constituted the Athenian democracy. The threat had been considered so great that all able bodied citizens fought at Marathon leaving only the children and elderly to guard the city walls. The Athenian force was highly motivated, they were used to working cooperatively with their fellow citizen soldiers, and more than just the battle of the day was at stake. Their way of life that allowed them to be master of their destinies was on the line. The generation that fought at Marathon was well aware of the significance of their victory.

The famous and award winning Athenian playwright and father of Tragedy, Aeschylus, chose to note his participation in the Battle of Marathon, over his playwright skills on his burial marker:

This tomb the dust of Aeschylus doth hide,

Euphorion's son and fruitful Gela's pride.

How tried his valor, Marathon may tell,

And long-haired Medes*, who knew it all too well.

*Medes is another name used by the Greeks for the Persians. 

The Athenian tradition of citizen soldiers ensured there was no distinction between the interests of the military and the interests of the citizens. The crews of the Athenian fleet, in particular, were fiercely democratic. Unlike the movies showing slaves rowing Roman Galleys, the most deadly weapon of the 5th century BC, the Athenian Trireme warship, was powered by the free citizens of Athens.

They would go to war when duty called, but they would rather be home tending family and farm. They cherished their city’s democratic system that gave them a say on when and where they would put their lives on the line.

In the midst of the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta (431 - 404 BCE), there was a brief coup d’etat in Athens and a small ruling council seized power. The Athenian fleet was away defending shipping lanes vital to Athens’ food supply. When they heard of the coup, they immediately rebelled, constituted themselves as an Athenian Assembly, and elected their own leaders. They continued their task of fighting the Spartan Navy, until sufficient advantage had been won, allowing part of the fleet to return to Athens to complete the restoration of democracy.

It is likely that the founding fathers had the model of the Athenian citizen soldier in mind when they set out to design laws for a new nation. Many of the founding fathers saw in the history of Rome the threat that a professional standing army can pose to a democracy. President Washington for many years opposed having a standing army or Navy in the new nation. Instead he thought the new nation should depend upon a citizens' militia to defend the country. This concern is probably the basis for the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states:

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

When individuals can directly participate in how their community makes decisions, and those decisions are critical to the individuals' well-being, you get individuals who will be fiercely committed to defending democracy.

Luckily the Sudbury Valley School does not need a “well-regulated Militia” to maintain its survival, nor does the SVS community have the power and authority to wage war on its neighbors. So perhaps the men who fought at Marathon, the rowers on Athenian Triremes, and the minutemen at Concord Bridge had more at stake than the average SVS student on any given day. But I suspect SVS students would put up some serious resistance if someone attempted to replace the current governance system, by putting one individual appointed by the city of Framingham, completely in charge of all rules and decisions at SVS.

Let’s turn to another colonial democratic tradition. Upon arrival in North America, the Pilgrims (men only of course, just like the 5th century BC Greeks), all signed a “Compact” that included:

…combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899


The key here is that individuals, of their own free will, agree to participate in a democratic process, and to be bound to “obey” those Ordinance, Acts … as shall be thought ….for the general good of the Colony.

This is the power of the rule of law. The rule of law is not measured by the number of soldiers you can muster to enforce the law, but the degree to which those governed by the laws consider themselves freely bound to those laws. 

This notion that laws, in a democracy, draw their strength and authority from the consent of its citizens is clearly reflected in the Declaration of Independence:

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

SVS students also sign a “compact” with the SVS community. When families enroll or re-enroll in SVS three things happen: tuition must be paid, parents must sign and each student must sign the document agreeing to abide by the rules and governing processes used by SVS. They are essentially signing the SVS equivalent of the pilgrims' compact. They are consenting to be governed by the democratic institutions of the Sudbury Valley School.

For SVS kids, I suspect the act of putting their John Hancock on the document probably does not carry a great deal of weight. More important is probably the daily living and participation in the process of SVS governance. The comings and goings of the JC and School Meetings, simply knowing that you can bring someone up, and that you can be brought up for your actions, these are the things that make the signing of the compact real.

So what does any of this have to do with Socrates and Mary Jones?

Socrates was an Athenian citizen. Though we may think of him primarily as a Philosopher, he was also just one of thousands of Athenian Citizens. He voted in the assembly. Like all citizens he served in various city positions by lottery. He was a citizen soldier and fought in at least three separate campaigns of the Peloponnesian war 431-404 BC. He was one of those Greeks whose only master was “the laws”.

In 397 he was charged with “impiety” and “corrupting the young”. He was found guilty by a jury of his peers in a system not unlike the JC at SVS. The Athenian Jury had more far reaching powers than the JC and he was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock.

Most historians agree that he could easily have avoided his sentence. He could have gone into exile. He also had opportunities to escape prison and get out of Athens if he was willing. Reams have been written on why Socrates chooses to stay and willingly drink the hemlock that caused his death. But most of it boils down to the notation that though he may have disagreed with the particulars in his case, he had participated and believed in the laws that governed Athenian society, “the laws” were his only master. And obey them he did.

Socrates reaches for the cup of hemlock while his friends listen to his final words, some in agony. The jailor who is passing the cup to Socrates is portrayed as crying. The role of jailor in Athens was filled by lot--somewhat similar to JC membership. 

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787)


In October 2010 a young SVS student named Mary Jones, “brought herself up”. That is, she filed a complaint against herself with the school’s Judicial Committee. She charged herself with violation of rule 1112.01. Rule 1112.01 prohibits the bringing of “large branches or sticks into the school building (with the exception of orthopedic devices for health use)”. At the Judicial Committee (JC) she pled guilty and received only a “warning”.

Mary Jones, whose name has been changed, is not an anomaly at SVS. A review of the over 600* JC cases heard in 2010, shows that approximately 3% of all cases involve individuals “bringing themselves up”. About half of these involve students who were bringing themselves up for failing to put their wheeled vehicles away at the end of the day. The violation of this rule can cause said wheeled vehicles to be put into a restricted area. The retrieval of your wheeled vehicle then requires a JC hearing. So these cases are not likely to be on the same moral high ground as Socrates's. However, other cases do hint a more selfless motivation. In addition to Mary Jones’s case there are cases where students brought themselves up for breaking something, situations where students broke the conditions of a prior JC sentence (3202.01) and an interesting case where a name-calling incident led to some pushing and shoving. In this last case the complainant brought himself and his friend up (asserting violations of both safety and infringement rules).

Another 3% of the JC cases involve situations where the original complainant ends up being included in the investigation and ends up being found guilty, along with those against whom the complaint was filed. These cases illustrate student commitment to using the JC as an instrument of justice, even when their role in the situation may not be entirely innocent. In these situations, un-mitigated self-interest may have been better served by remaining quiet or seeking some revenge outside of the community’s justice mechanism. But when members of the community are totally and wholeheartedly committed to their own community’s mechanism of justice, self-interest becomes almost synonymous with community democratic processes.

The SVS Handbook does not include any rules for which the punishment involves drinking hemlock, but the democratic processes used at the Sudbury Valley School foster a sense of commitment to these processes that in some ways are similar to Socrates's commitment to abiding by the decisions of citizens of Ancient Athens.

It is interesting to contrast the behavior of SVS students with those of more traditional schools. At a traditional school, breaking rules and “getting away with it” is often seen as a badge of courage. Those who go out of their way to comply with whatever “community justice system” exists are often ostracized and ridiculed for being “tattletales”.

Truly democratic communities earn the fierce loyalty of the citizens. That loyalty that can give those citizens tremendous power; as in when 10,000 Athenians defeated a much larger force of Persians. That loyalty also creates a fierce commitment to their community’s laws and governance, as seen by Socrates's acceptance of the verdict against him, and Mary Jones’s charge against herself in JC. This loyalty transcends self-interest and is one of the great strengths of our nation. Depriving our children of real experiences with democratic processes is foolish and short-sighted, particularly in an age where more than ever we need good citizenship and a renewed commitment to our democratic principles.


*I would like to thank my daughter Coriander for helping me review all of the JC cases in 2010 so that I could report on how often students bring themselves up and what kinds of cases are involved. I would also like to thank the Sudbury Valley School for allowing me open access to their archives while researching this article.



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