Martin Luther King Jr. and Socrates

There have been several articles over the years (both in print, the fine piece by T. E. Strunk and online: a website and a editorial) about Martin Luther King’s engagement with the Classics–specifically the figure of Socrates and Plato’s Apology–and its influence on his thought and his rhetoric. I think those who want to ‘correct’ his response and reception of Classical models should just be ignored; those who note, however, that such reception must also be understood from a particular theological perspective put their efforts to far better work.

On this day in his honor, I do think it is worthwhile for us to reflect on the process of reception and how MLK made his own Socrates in a way that enriched his life and those of his interlocutors–both the addressees of his Letter from Birmingham Jail and the generations of cultural respondents who have followed him. MLK refers to Socrates three times in that letter:

“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

“In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?”

“To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.”

While a classical Platonist might quibble, what I see hear is the creation of a personal Socrates from multiple texts. In the first passage, Socrates has a revelatory power not dissimilar to Jesus’–this is the Socrates of the parable of the Cave (from the Republic, the philosopher who dabbled in the idea of the ideal forms. This Socrates promises that the world we experience isn’t the real world but that with practice and grace we may be able to through the fallacies that surround us. The second and third passages model a different kind of Socrates, one that is particularly Christian, but also one who models a positive and constructive apostasy close to MLK’s own heart and life.

Apology 30e

“Now, Athenians, I am considerably lacking in defending myself, as one might expect, but instead I do it for you, so that you don’t make a mistake against a god’s gift to you by convicting me. For, if you kill me, you will not easily find another like me—simply put—even if it is rather ridiculous to say—you will lose someone dedicated to the city thanks to the god just as to a great and noble horse who has become sluggish because of its size and needs to be roused from its languor by some gadfly. This seems to be the way the god has attached me to the city.

 I am the kind of person who wakes you up, persuades you and reproaches you and I do not stop assailing each one of you everywhere and all day long. No other like this will arise for you easily, men, but if you listen to me, you will spare me. Perhaps, however, because you are annoyed just like drowsy people suddenly awakened, and you listen to Anytos you could easily kill me and then spend the rest of your life sleeping if the god fails to send anyone else to you because he cares about you.

That I really happen to be the sort of person who is sent to the city by the god you might recognize from this: It don’t seem to care about my own affairs and to worry about my household being neglected for this many years in the manner that is normal for people. Instead, I am always laboring on your behalf, going to each person in private as a father or older brother would, trying to persuade you to care for what is most important.”

νῦν οὖν, ὦ ἄνδρες Ἀθηναῖοι, πολλοῦ δέω ἐγὼ ὑπὲρ ἐμαυτοῦ ἀπολογεῖσθαι, ὥς τις ἂν οἴοιτο, ἀλλὰ ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν, μή τι ἐξαμάρτητε περὶ τὴν τοῦ θεοῦ δόσιν ὑμῖν ἐμοῦ καταψηφισάμενοι. ἐὰν γάρ με ἀποκτείνητε, οὐ ῥᾳδίως ἄλλον τοιοῦτον εὑρήσετε, ἀτεχνῶς, εἰ καὶ γελοιότερον εἰπεῖν, προσκείμενον τῇ πόλει ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ὥσπερ ἵππῳ μεγάλῳ μὲν καὶ γενναίῳ, | ὑπὸ μεγέθους δὲ νωθεστέρῳ καὶ δεομένῳ ἐγείρεσθαι ὑπὸ μύωπός τινος· οἷον δή μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐμὲ τῇ πόλει προστεθηκέναι—τοιοῦτόν τινα ὃς ὑμᾶς ἐγείρων καὶ πείθων καὶ ὀνειδίζων ἕνα ἕκαστον οὐδὲν παύομαι τὴν ἡμέραν ὅλην πανταχοῦ προσκαθίζων. τοιοῦτος οὖν ἄλλος οὐ ῥᾳδίως ὑμῖν γενήσεται, ὦ ἄνδρες, ἀλλ’ ἐὰν ἐμοὶ πείθησθε, φείσεσθέ μου· ὑμεῖς δ’ ἴσως τάχ’ ἂν ἀχθόμενοι, ὥσπερ οἱ νυστάζοντες ἐγειρόμενοι, | κρούσαντες ἄν με, πειθόμενοι Ἀνύτῳ, ῥᾳδίως ἂν ἀποκτείναιτε, εἶτα τὸν λοιπὸν βίον καθεύδοντες διατελοῖτε ἄν, εἰ μή τινα ἄλλον ὁ θεὸς ὑμῖν ἐπιπέμψειεν κηδόμενος ὑμῶν. ὅτι δ’ ἐγὼ τυγχάνω ὢν τοιοῦτος οἷος ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ τῇ πόλει δεδόσθαι, ἐνθένδε ἂν κατανοήσαιτε· οὐ γὰρ ἀνθρωπίνῳ ἔοικε τὸ ἐμὲ τῶν μὲν ἐμαυτοῦ πάντων ἠμεληκέναι καὶ ἀνέχεσθαι τῶν οἰκείων ἀμελουμένων τοσαῦτα ἤδη ἔτη, τὸ δὲ ὑμέτερον πράττειν ἀεί, ἰδίᾳ ἑκάστῳ προσιόντα ὥσπερ πατέρα ἢ ἀδελφὸν πρεσβύτερον πείθοντα ἐπιμελεῖσθαι ἀρετῆς.

This gadfly Socrates stands as the model for the conscientious objector, the social activist, the cultural warrior who agitates for the improvement of her or his state to the point of the sacrifice of self for the greater good.

The reason I wish to dismiss many of those who critique MLK’s use of Socrates as in some way inauthentic is that I believe their policing of his reception has cultural authoritarianism at its core. Even from the beginning of the 4th century BCE the figure of Socrates has been one of the apostate in construction and reception. Xenophon’s Socrates and Plato’s are different. Hell, Plato’s Socrates is rarely the same from one dialogue to the next. His lessons and values shift not just among his students but over time.

MLK’s amalgamation of Socrates is not just a stage in the religio-historical reception of Socrates and, therefore, a vital and important version, but it is also a model of the reception of Socrates as a model by a member of a marginalized group. We can learn from MLK’s Socrates and our responses to his identification with the Platonic figure. And, I dare say, we can learn more from the importance of such a figure from MLK than from standard academic responses.

Here is a passage I have been mulling over the past few days:

“An attempt, termed ‘feminist standpoint theory’ was made by Harstock (1983) to theorize the value of drawing on particular perspectives. The underlying assumption within this theory is that structural privilege precludes clarity of thought because there is no impetus to theorize ‘the norm’. By contrast, structural marginalization increases clarity of thought because such persons not only have access to dominant understandings but also have access to ‘abnormal’ or subjugated perspectives.”

Sam Warner. “Disrupting Identity Through Visible Therapy: A Feminist Post-Structuralist Approach to Working with Women Who have Experienced Child Sexual Abuse.” Feminist Review 68 (2001) 115-139.

As many of us who have taught literature, art, and language in diverse classrooms know intuitively, students who have been marginalized by race, language, gender, sexual identification, or ability, can ‘read’ and ‘understand’ the experiences of individuals of privilege and structural advantages with far more success than the other way around. MLK’s reading of what Socrates means from a broader cultural perspective thus not teaches us merely about what he found valuable in the figure, but it also teaches us about the broader cultural valences.

When Socrates stands up for his beliefs and dedicates himself to the betterment of the state, he sacrifices his own personal good for the good of the state. To this day, activists from all walks of life–but especially those from the margins–risk their own health, wealth, and future success to make the world better for others. For MLK, Socrates was a source of strength, and I suspect, comfort.

Observing this is important not just for us to appreciate the cultural position of both figures–but also for educators and the continuing discussion of how relevant Classics remains and how the reception of Socrates provides encouragement and direction for those who wish to make our world a better place.

Image result for Ancient Greek Socrates gadfly

2 responses

  1. An example of Classical Reception at its best, as opposed to the arid sterility of Scholasticism which was overly concerned with a dogmatic adherence to the letter of characters like Aristotle, rather than the vibrant life of antiquity. The thinkers of the Renaissance were revolutionary because they recognized the broader applicability of the Classics to human life. Even the humanist slogan, ‘homo sum. nihil humani alienum a me puto’ rests upon a deliberate creative misreading of the actual words in Terence.

    Generally, it seems that the use of the Classics has, over the generations, shifted back and forth between serving as an impetus to bold revolutionary thought, and serving as a source of traditionalist reactionary constraint. In our own time, that very conflict is raging, but I am optimistic about the possibility that a universal humanist approach of the sort embodied in Dr. King’s interpretation of Socrates will ultimately win out, if we fight for it.

  2. Words, words, words. I prefer Genghis Khan’s philosophy, that it matters not what you say, but what you do. MLK’s acts stand by themselves. Quibbles over where he got his inspiration and how are but scholarly games.

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