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Socrates according to Martin Luther King, Jr.

September 19, 2010

Although I’ve read Letter from a Birmingham Jail several times and through a variety of different perspectives, my most recent reading of the text brought a new light to some of his meaning because of our discussions on Socrates. I am a big fan of Dr. King, and have always been a bit on the fence regarding Socrates – at some points he seems like the smartest man in the world, and other times, just a rude, pompous guy with absolutely no thought for others. However, I think that Dr. King’s three separate allusions to Socrates’ work make him seem a worthwhile figure and paint him in a different light than that in which I’ve typically seen him.

King’s first mention of Socrates regards his theory of the necessity of a tension in the mind. Using his well-known method of questioning, Socrates sought to create a cognitive dissonance that would force the person to reevaluate his own opinions and, especially, the status quo. King uses this same thought process to create his own method: We need “nonviolent gadflies”, such as peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins and protests, in order to create a sort of mass cognitive dissonance that will force the general public to realize the evils intrinsic in their segregated society.

Socrates is also mentioned as an example of an act of civil disobedience. According to King, Socrates’ disregard for Athenian law was a vital stepping-stone on the way to academic freedom as we know it. By throwing off the status quo and getting others to do the same, to the point at which he was tried and ultimately put to death, Socrates performed a service to society. Dr. King’s letter insinuates that this civil disobedience formed a debt that we as a society will always owe the philosopher for our academic freedom.

The third and final allusion to Socrates in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail again uses him as an example, for emphasis toward King’s condemnation of his critics regarding the precipitate violence inherent in their peaceful demonstrations. King’s response is to refer to the blamelessness of various controversial historical figures. Socrates, he says, was ultimately killed because “his unswerving commitment to truth” struck the general public quite the wrong way.

Because our discussions of Socrates, as well as my own opinions, have been largely critical, I was taken a bit by surprise by the three separate positive allusions to Socrates in Dr. King’s letter. While it’s easy to get caught up in the arrogance and unfeeling of a lot of Socrates’ work, it’s also important to realize the incredible gains he made for society and for academia. While King’s accolades may have gone a bit over the top, it’s still a good point to remember. Socrates made a lasting imprint on society, whether we like it or not. It took a renewed reading of King for me to realize that.

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