Friday, September 17, 2010

Ethea and Society: The Imprisonment of Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Eric Stockhausen

September 16, 2010

Word Count: 1,214

Ethea and Society: The Imprisonment of Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Both Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr. embrace imprisonment as a consequence of the tension between their ethea and society. Socrates and Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) exercise freedom by following their bioi over local customs of oppression. Ethea are guiding spirits which motivate ideas and actions, but can also refer to ideals and beliefs of a culture. Both Socrates and MLK have guiding spirits, which they appeal to as a higher authority. Bioi is to lead a way of life, and Aristotle “distinguished three bioi which man might choose freedom” (Arendt 13). King and Socrates lead different ways of free living. Though their ethea and bioi are different, imprisonment does not impede their kind of freedom. Applying the trade-unionism-like model of rebellion of Albert Camus, both MLK and Socrates rebel in the sense that they assert values essential to their ethea; though unintentionally in Socrates case, they become examples for their fellow human beings.

Athens sentences Socrates by a two-thirds vote to death. Because Socrates employs reason unaided by sophisms popular at his time, his apology offends his jurors. Athenians already has a prejudice against Socrates taught to them by the accusers, so it was emotion and not reason that sentenced him. Socrates opines that Athenians need him to enlighten them and steer them from folly. In order to live his ethos and follow his divine sign, Socrates considers himself obligated to live the philosopher’s life and prove the claim made by the Oracle of Delphi. Not only is he obligated by his divine quest, but Socrates feels that the unexamined life is not worth living (Apology 38a). Imprisoned, Socrates persuades his elder companion Crito that exile would be worse than death because if the Athenians would not accept him, then foreigners would be even less likely to. He also has attachment to the Law that nurtured him and derives meaning from his obedience, so Socrates feels an obligation to follow the Law. Drinking the hemlock, Socrates has repeatedly asserted to himself and his followers that death may be good in order for all of them to cope with his execution.

Socrates follows bios theoretikos, the life of the thinker or contemplator. Socrates in The Apology explains that he did not take part in the praxis (action) of the bios politikos (life of the statesman) in order to be safe and to concentrate on his philosophizing (Ardent 14). He was a citizen of Athens. He served the military and benefitted from the guiding spirit of the Law. By emphasizing the value of the examined life, Socrates acts freely as a thinker. Prison only restricts his body and capital punishment only shortens his life. Even in prison, he continues his dialogues, living consistently with his bios. Though Socrates used the ethos of the divine as a higher authority, the life of the philosopher represents the freedom of his guiding spirit.

Socrates rebels in the sense that he asserts the rights of others. As Albert Camus claims in The Rebel, “I rebel—therefore, we exist” (Camus 22). Camus means that rebelling inherently means to confirm solidarity. Socrates unintentionally extends the ideal of the philosopher’s life to the people of Athens and eventually to Western thought in general. His followers took on Socrates’ mantle, especially Plato, and out of Socrates came the birth of Western philosophy. In The Apology, Socrates claims not to be corrupting the youth intentionally because by doing so, in his words, he would harm himself. The young Athenians follow Socrates in the streets, learning to question those who claim wisdom and finding entertainment in Socrates interrogations. Socrates asserts that he did not intend for the Athenian youths to take to his dialogues. They also decide to follow Socrates without his approval. Despite unintentionally rebelling, Socrates becomes an example by asserting his particular ethos. Like a slave, who rebels against his master when he or she reaches a limit of oppression, by asserting freedom, Socrates asserts a value on his ethos by choosing philosophy, imprisonment, and death over exile.

Birmingham incarcerates Martin Luther King, Jr., because he had dared to question the local customs. The de facto segregation oppressed the African Americans, in MLK’s opinion, more than anywhere else in the country (King 99). Contacted by a local affiliate, MLK came to Birmingham in order participate in nonviolent direct action protest. The city neither imprisoned King indefinitely nor sentences him to death, but will eventually free him. While in jail, MLK responds to some clergymen. In his letter, he defends his actions, arguing for the effectiveness and necessity of direct action.

Martin Luther King, Jr., rebels against the status quo, asserting a value for justice and for civil rights founded on the ethea of Satyagraha and Christianity. Part of method of protest, to which MLK subscribes, is “collectivization of facts” (King 99). After determining their grievances, a protestor decides if he or she has reached a limit. Satyagraha means holding firmly to truth, which King exemplifies by not breaking from his principles during the “ordeal of prison” (King 100). Both Satyagraha and Christianity had long histories and were passed from generation to generation in order for them to reach MLK. By accepting imprisonment, MLK confirms the principles of Christianity and Satyagraha for all.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had the bios politikos or life of the politician. He led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, aided his organization’s affiliate and appeared on national news (King 99). Basically, he backed his bios with praxis (action). In this case, he followed the tradition of nonviolent direct action. Politikos means man of the city, and in A Letter From Birmingham Jail, MLK partakes in both local and national politics. MLK expressed the freedom by following his ethea in political action.

Both Socrates and MLK exist within the authority of their respective ethea can exercise freedom by the means of their bios. For both, there is a concept of the Law, which has a divine basis. By living within the ethical limits of this Law, they act freely. For them a human being wants to act justly, and to act according to that desire is freedom. The guiding spirit, whether a divine sign or some Judeo-Christian deity, establishes those ethical boundaries. But just having boundaries and knowing the just from the unjust is not enough, Socrates and MLK also have bioi. For Socrates, he leads the life of the philosopher. MLK leads the life of the politician. While these are different faucets of action, they have a kind of freedom that imprisonment does not take from them. This means that because society is unjust for not letting them act according the highest authority; for Socrates and MLK, being ethical necessitates aggravating society and being imprisoned.

Tension between the just individual and the unjust society results in innocent people being incarcerated, but as Socrates claims a “good man cannot be harmed” (Crito 48b), the just person remains free while embracing imprisonment. Despite Martin Luther King, Jr., and Socrates having a freedom from righteousness, the question of who is freer still stands. Is political freedom greater than philosophical freedom? Is it better to be the founder of a new freedom (like in Socrates case) or an inheritor of the rebel’s tradition? Even with these questions of value, both MLK and Socrates are great spirits, becoming authorities on justice for inheritors of the freedom tradition.

Works Cited:

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. New York: Doublebay and Company, Inc.: 1959

Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Translated and Revised by Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage International, 1991.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. A Letter From Birmingham Jail. 1961.

Plato. The Trial and Death of Socrates. Translated by G. M. A. Grube and Revised by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.


Henry Thoreau derived nonviolent protest from Eastern philosophy. Reading Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi conceived of Satyagraha, which means holding firmly to truth. Gandhi’s protests in India inspire MLK’s nonviolent direct action protest.

Martin Luther king, Jr., and Socrates rely on ethea, utilize rational arguments, act freely while imprisoned and assert values with rebellious actions. An ideal as concept of rebellion is “if not religious at least metaphysical” (Camus 170). Guiding spirits provide individuals ordering principles for their lives, so that they can believe away the absurd or meaninglessness. A divine sign and the tradition of Christianity supply MLK and Socrates respectively with abstract ideals in which to make their lives ultimately meaningful. The actions that this ultimate meaning necessitates make them free in the positive sense.

Neither MLK nor Socrates abandons humanity for this ideal presented by their ethea. As Socrates is an Athenian, MLK is an American. These group identities are human, as opposed to divine, in nature and represent their humanism. Humanity as an ideal can become a replacement for a deity, as it did for the Soviets. Because MLK and Socrates have solidarity with their tribes, their humanism is not religious. With humanism comes secular philosophy, which is characterized by open-endedness and reliance on reason. In order to persuade, both MLK and Socrates rely on arguments appealing to both human and divine concepts. Now an ethos can be secular if it is a custom or a social contract. In MLK’s case, the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court cases are secular entities, receiving their power from the consent of the governed (though often a deity is referred to as a higher authority in the people’s place). While in prison, both exercise their bioi, so are still essentially free. Their rebellious praxis represented their particular values, which make them examples for society.

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