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 here 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 see 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 does not teach 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

Your Gods Hate You: Clement’s Critique of the Greek Pantheon

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks III

“Seriously, then, let us add this too: your gods are inhuman and people-hating demons who do not only delight in the madness of humanity but even revel in the slaughter of humans. They gather their incitements for pleasure first in the armed conflicts in stadia and then in the countless arguments in war so that they might be especially able to sate their thirst for human gore. Already they have demanded human sacrifices in cities and nations, falling upon them like plagues. This is why Aristomenes the Messenian killed three hundred men for Zeus of Ithôme, because he believed that these types and numbers of hekatombs bring good outcomes.”

Φέρε δὴ οὖν καὶ τοῦτο προσθῶμεν, ὡς ἀπάνθρωποι καὶ μισάνθρωποι δαίμονες εἶεν ὑμῶν οἱ θεοὶ καὶ οὐχὶ μόνον ἐπιχαίροντες τῇ φρενοβλαβείᾳ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, πρὸς δὲ καὶ ἀνθρωποκτονίας ἀπολαύοντες· νυνὶ μὲν τὰς ἐν σταδίοις ἐνόπλους φιλονεικίας, νυνὶ δὲ τὰς ἐν πολέμοις ἀναρίθμους φιλοτιμίας ἀφορμὰς σφίσιν ἡδονῆς ποριζόμενοι, ὅπως ὅτι μάλιστα ἔχοιεν ἀνθρωπείων ἀνέδην ἐμφορεῖσθαι φόνων· ἤδη δὲ κατὰ πόλεις καὶ ἔθνη, οἱονεὶ λοιμοὶ ἐπισκήψαντες, σπονδὰς ἀπῄτησαν ἀνημέρους. Ἀριστομένης γοῦν ὁ Μεσσήνιος τῷ Ἰθωμήτῃ Διὶ τριακοσίους ἀπέσφαξεν, τοσαύτας ὁμοῦ καὶ τοιαύτας καλλιερεῖν οἰόμενος ἑκατόμβας·

Image result for ancient greek gods vase slaughter

Homer’s Gods and Men: Longinus “On the Sublime” (9.7)

Longinus, On the Sublime 9.7

“It seems to me that Homer, in bringing to the gods a range of suffering including internecine conflicts, grudges and vengeance, tears, and bondage during the Trojan War has made his men into gods in terms of strength and his gods into men.”

῞Ομηρος γάρ μοι δοκεῖ παραδιδοὺς τραύματα θεῶν στάσεις τιμωρίας δάκρυα δεσμὰ πάθη πάμφυρτα τοὺς μὲν ἐπὶ τῶν ᾿Ιλιακῶν ἀνθρώπους ὅσον ἐπὶ τῇ δυνάμει θεοὺς πεποιηκέναι, τοὺς θεοὺς δὲ ἀνθρώπους.

Longinus was a fan of Homer...

Jupiter Stopped Gods and Men From Eating People: Ennius

Most people know Ennius for his fragmentary Annales inspired in part by Greek epic poetry. But he was also inspired by the tradition of Euhemerism, the idea that the gods were just metastasized stories of once great men. He left fragments of a prose work inspired by this Greek mythographical tradition.

Ennius, Euhemerus, 81-87

“In that time, Jupiter used to spend most of his time on Mount Olympos; and people would come to him there if there was any matter over which there was a dispute. In the same way, if anyone found anything new which might be useful for human life, they would go there to show it to him.

It once was the case that Saturn and Ops and even the rest of mankind were in the habit of eating human flesh;. But, in truth, it was Jupiter, the first to make laws and customs for men, who prohibited through an edict that it was any longer allowed to consume that food.”

Ea tempestate Iuppiter in monte Olympo
Maximam partem vitae colebat et eo ad
Eum in ius veniebant, si quae res in
Controversia erant. Item si quis quid
novi invenerat quod ad vitam humanum
utile esset, eo veniebant atque Iovi
ostendebant.

Saturnum et Opem eterosque tunc
Homines humanam carnem solitos esitare;
Verum primum Ovem leges hominibus
Moresque condentem edicto prohibuisse
Ne liceret eo cibo vesci