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Analysis of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Usage of Socrates Ideologies

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is renowned for not resorting to violence during his campaign for racial equality, but for creating civil disobedience through peaceful alternatives. These protests and sit-ins created more of a disruption in American society than violence could have likely accomplished on its own. King credits his method to a philosopher from over two thousand years ago, Socrates. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he alludes to Socrates many times as an arbiter of justice and a source of inspiration for his own goal of racial equality. An example of these allusions is when Martin Luther King, Jr. writes “To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience” (565/84). Regardless of the two century time gap, Dr. King insists that Socrates’ belief, analyzing civil institutions is vital to maintaining a just society, is the basis of his campaign. No matter King’s intent, the methods by which Socrates and Dr. King utilize “academic freedom” are very different. Socrates portrayed his version of academic freedom through means of questioning and critique (passive civil disobedience) while King demonstrates it through intentional physical acts of civil disobedience (active civil disobedience).

Academic freedom is the ability to teach and do research in any field without constraint, and to discover and create new ideas no matter how controversial they are (Robinson, 1). Like other accepted liberties, academic freedom requires individuals, authorities, and governments not only to allow scholars to work without fear of persecution, but also to prevent any interference with this freedom. In addition, academic freedom requires something more: that society provide conditions in which new ideas can be generated, nurtured, and freely exchanged. Both King and Socrates exhibit the use of academic freedom, but in their own ways.

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In the Apology, by Plato, Socrates displays academic freedom by “arousing and persuading and reproaching” citizens to perceive truth and justice through passive civil disobedience (30e). To him, the priorities of social status and money are negligible concerns in comparison to the understanding of truth and the drive to perfect the soul. Socrates preaches this ideology to the youth of Athens with the aim of spreading the concept of academic freedom. His main goal is of criticizing the Athenian government. He compares himself to a gadfly stinging a lazy horse, which represents the Athenian state. Socrates claims that without his critiques, the state is able to become docile and weak, but through his guidance, antagonizing as it may be to some, the government can be wakened into a state of productive action (30e). Although he evidently participates in civil obedience through criticizing the government, he does so in a passive non-physical method of academic freedom. An additional example of this is when Socrates cites the time he sat on the committee that tried “ten generals who had failed to pick up the survivors of the naval battle” and was the sole believer of their guilt (32b). Instead of caving into the other committee members’ position, he thought he “should run any risk on the side of law and justice rather than join you (Meletus), for fear of prison or death, when you (Meletus) were engaged in an unjust course” (32b,c). Socrates is civilly disobedient in the sense that he uses the academic freedom, described earlier, to criticize the government and attempt to change Athens for the better.

Martin Luther King, Jr., although hoping to accomplish the same general goals of Socrates, approaches the use of academic freedom in a more active form of civil disobedience. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King describes his use of academic freedom through “nonviolent campaign [where] there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action” (560/6). Socrates’ and King’s views are aligned until the step of direct action. King’s purpose of “direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation” (561/10). He demonstrates this idea through his use of marches, sit-ins, and protests (561/10). King’s idea of direct action creates a more aggressive form of civil disobedience that Socrates does not pursue. Instead of just using analysis and criticism to persuade the public to do what is just, like Socrates does, King intensifies the methods by physically showing what is wrong in society and causing conflict.

Dr. King does not acknowledge this discrepancy, and for the most part, associates his activities with those of Socrates. King additionally believes that Socrates’ “academic freedom” informs his Letter. In his letter, King believes that he is participating in the same fight as Socrates of convincing people to “see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (561/10). This statement exemplifies that King associates his activities with those of Socrates by alluding to Socrates’ description of academic freedom, furthering the idea that King’s inspiration was from Socrates.

Even though King diverged from Socrates’ traditional definition of academic freedom, his adaptation better suited his situation. This variation shows that academic freedom is not only the ability to “analyze and critique” an external entity, but to be able dissect what it means to the individual and transform it to fit a situation. So, just because Socrates and Dr. King approach their method of academic freedom differently, both approaches are equally valid and well suited for their specific environments.

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