Comparing Socrates to MLK

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There is much to be said regarding Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr. Surprisingly, the two men were quite similar in their command of language, understanding the world and pointing out how changes were needed. Formidable and unrelenting in their principles and beliefs, both men advocated that the general populace should think for themselves and not fall prey to the common rationale associated with the times they were in. Plato diagnosed a speech given by Socrates in The Apology, which was both an argumentative and defensive speech about the murky avenue that Socrates had walked throughout his life. Martin Luther King, Jr. accounts in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on a similar path that he constructed throughout his life. Through their powers of persuasion, commentary on civil disobedience, and extremism; history records Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr. being more alike than different.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Socrates contended with much accusation for being a denigrator among the people. The root of this denigration began as a result of Socrates being noted as disrespectful to the gods and corrupting the mind of the youth. Socrates was heavily controversial and Plato notes that "whatever the opinions of Socrates may have been, there is no doubt at all about his practice" (Plato 20). "The Apology" speaks to the indictments of Socrates and Socrates' handling of said indictments. Socrates has been indicted on two specific counts: irreligion and immoral influence. "With regard to the first count Socrates professes himself in doubt as to whether the accusers meant that he did not believe in gods at all, or only that he believed in different gods from those which were recognized by the city. This is a doubt which we must be content to share" (Plato 16). Due to the irreligion aspect that Socrates held, he formally and informally persuaded the townspeople to consider his ways of thinking or at a minimum question the function of the daimonia in society. Socrates had found a way into the minds of many of the townsfolk, which is what catapulted him into coming under trial for causing such ruckus.

Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. argued through his powers of persuasion that people need to think for themselves in the ways of societal operation. King, Jr., advocated nonviolent resistance, to accomplish the goals and objectives of thwarting injustice and issues. Through his oratorical skill, King, Jr. was able to argue that the battle against racial segregation needed to be accomplished in the court system, rather than the streets. "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification and direct action. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality" (King Jr. 1). By injecting that language into the letter, King, Jr. was able to gather even more individuals who agreed with him that racial injustice was wrong and thus, needed to be combated via nonviolent resistance. Like Socrates, King, Jr. was able to subtlety get people on his bandwagon. That is not to say that was a premise of negativity, in fact quite the opposite. King, Jr. and Socrates allowed people to open their eyes so to speak to the realities and conditions in which they lived. It is as if the people were blind or brainwashed prior to the bravery of the two men to do things differently. 

While Socrates was persuasive in causing people to think differently about daimonia in society, Martin Luther King, Jr. was strictly grounded in his Christianity foundation. His letter's undercurrent is one of believe in the "gospel of Jesus Christ and [he was] compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond [his] particular hometown. Like Paul, [he had to] constantly respond to the Macedonia call for aid" (King, Jr. 1). Socrates did not see religion that way. Socrates offered fascinated into another point of view with his persuasive tactics. In the journey of Socrates, he saw himself as a savior of sorts. "Socrates inculcated disrespect of parents and relations generally by pointing out that mere goodwill was useless without knowledge. The effect of such teaching it was declared was to make the associates of Socrates look so entirely to him, that no else had any influence with them" (Plato 20). The charges that were thrown at Socrates were not far off. He had a knack for unearthing the problems in society and urging his followers to do the same. King, Jr. did not see himself as a savior necessarily, but one that was called on to fight injustices by the savior himself. He was able to utilize his powers of persuasion that way without inciting violence against the establishment.

Civil disobedience was a concept that aligned with both Socrates and King, Jr. Socrates had an understanding that the obligation of the law is one that rests on one's own morality, noting that the laws play a role for us as we play a role in being obligated to others. Socrates felt that one must never perform a wrong act, in direct response to another wrong. Socrates refuted "such discourses" (Plato 20). King's thought was that certain types of disobedience in certain situations could potentially improve the legal dynamics of society. He remarked "you may well ask, why direct action, why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path? You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. This is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community is forced to confront the issue" (King, Jr. 2). It can be purported here that while King, Jr. was not necessarily inciting violence to deal with the legal mores of society, he was in effect, creating tension as a byproduct to make the communities wake up and smell the proverbial coffee that a change was needed. This exhibition of civil disobedience is how the two men differed. Where Socrates felt disobedience to the law was frivolous, King, Jr. felt it was the only facet which could be explored in the face of seeking change in society and in turn, the legal language of the time in which he lived. 

Socrates is more conscientious as a citizen of society in terms of dealing with the mechanics that society operates under. Socrates functions along the lines of conscience and the repercussions of rebellion against wrongdoing. He considers that a higher value in deciding whether to civilly disobey the social and political arena. With the 'Apology' Socrates is somewhat explanatory in his honesty regarding civil disobedience. The focal point of his apology was to defend his inner workings and that his accusers had gotten it all wrong in terms of his faith and "expressions of belief in one Supreme Being" (Plato 19). Socrates' argument is that he only does what he feels he must do in terms of expressing his beliefs regarding religion, disobedience and influence. In other words, he did not mean any harm by suggesting that individuals think for themselves, but felt the need to share it within the context of abiding by the laws of conscience.

Contrastly, King, Jr. was more of a revolutionary in this reasoning behind civil disobedience. While he was similar in Socrates in his conscience thought behind the whys of disobedience, he reasoned that he was doing what he felt was right. King, Jr. was able to establish a mental construct in his followers that discrimination and segregation were wrong and that "justice too long delayed is justice denied. [He noted that] we have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter" (King, Jr. 2). That statement uses both convincing language as well as rationale behind why civil disobedience was needed. It was an influential concoction of the reason behind the plight of African Americans at the times that served the purpose of inciting a revolution and thereby gain equality for a people that had been shut out of equality for centuries.

Both Socrates and King, Jr. are very similar in the point of extremism. In "The Apology," Plato surmised that Socrates thought highly of himself, irrespective of his feelings regarding the law. "Socrates felt that he was wiser than most men only in that he did not know anything" (Plato 19). Thus, the reason for the apology was how influential he had become as a man of elegantly woven wisdom "without knowledge" (Plato 20). His extremist point of view is what birthed the second count of the immoral influence. "Socrates rose to present his estimate of the treatment he deserved to suffer, which was support for the rest of his days in the Prytaneum. If the judges had been annoyed before, they were utterly exasperated now and the death penalty was confirmed" (Plato 22-23). 

With that statement, it illuminates the thought regarding the extremist nature of Socrates. He is a man wrought with both wanting to do what he believed he was hearing from the Supreme Being while maintaining that if those thoughts rubbed off on anyone else, that he was solely responsible. Socrates, in essence was a twisted martyr in that he understood his beliefs and values would alter societal viewpoints and knew the repercussions of his extremist views of the time. He like Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that their perspective on society had repercussions, but were so defined by their mores that it did not necessarily matter what happened to them as a consequence; they would be prepared to handle and defend said actions.

King, Jr. defended his activity as a man fighting for justice. "You sp[eak] of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I started thinking about the fact that i stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes and the other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocated violence" (King, Jr. 4). Here, King, Jr. was backing up his cause and also speaking to the riotous nature that he had become known for even though he presumed to not be the case. His main ideology was one of conscious and unconscious freedom. 

King, Jr. expected others to follow suit in his justice movement. King stated in his letter tha, "I have been disappointed with the white church and its leadership. I do not say that as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel who loves the church, who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its Spiritual blessings, and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen" (King, Jr. 5). For King, Jr. the church was the reason behind such a movement towards justice. He believed that he was selected by God to rouse the people and get them to be cautiously courageous to tackle the battle of discrimination and segregation, despite any critical claims that he was extremist. Socrates also stood behind his values and beliefs understanding that they would be somewhat controversial and expressing that he was fine with the outcomes of such controversy if it meant getting the people to think for themselves and understand the basis for their beliefs and values rather than blindly following the ideals of the time.

Much of King, Jr. and Socrates' perspectives on life and their overall purpose was similar. Each man established a point of persuasion with the public they orated in front of and were able to ignite a fiery arena of thoughts and ideas that were contrary to the time in which they lived, with immovable conviction. While Socrates was very different from Martin Luther King, Jr. in terms of race, and in the context of the aforementioned civil disobedience, he was not all that different with regard to being viewed as an extremist. The Apology and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” allow the reader to delve into the interesting visionaries that each man was.

Works Cited

King, Jr., Martin L. "Letter from Birmingham Jail." Online posting. Originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, V.212, N.2. University of Southern California Rossier Staff, Aug. 1963.

Plato. The Apology of Plato. 3rd edition, Oxford: The Claredon Press, 1899.