I spent some time yesterday reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time. It’s a powerful document, and among other things it shows us the depth of King’s personal scholarship. He cites two modern existentialist philosophers, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, and quotes St. Thomas Aquinas and T. S. Eliot. Intrigued by this, I did some further research into King’s intellectual roots, and found a vast array of influences. King was well-versed in Indian philosophy (he’d visited with peace activists in India in 1959, just before he began to play a leading public role in the American civil rights movement) and was particularly interested in the Hindu concept of truth-force or Satyagraha. He was familiar with the works of Hegel and Thoreau, and the one philosopher or theologian who seems to have influenced him most of all was Reinhold Niebuhr.
King was a brave guy, but it takes more than courage to build up the kind of backbone he had. It takes intellect, and it should be instructive to activists and human rights protestors today that King studied so hard to develop his. Some students of philosophy or political science feel humbled by the texts they read, but King was smart enough to recognize in these texts a call to action. His formula is basic and elemental, but not so basic or elemental that it doesn’t need to be repeated today: we must fight hard against injustice and oppression wherever it is found, and we must always do so in the positive spirit of non-violence.
Truth-force. Where can truth-force be found in media or politics today? I cringe at the thought that I might spout a cliche and say we live in a cynical age. Let’s face it, every age is probably a cynical age, and it’s never easy to stand up in public for tough ideals. First you risk embarrasment … and if you are among the tiny few who reach that point and don’t eventually cower and turn back, you graduate to the next level, at which you risk physical danger. The evidence shows that this risk is quite real for political or philosophical idealists. Socrates, Jesus, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were all murdered by their fellow men.
Truth-force. I’ve recently been immersed in the writings of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher and founder of the European tradition of Transcendentalism, which also inspired the so-called New England Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau. Kant is often considered the first modern philosopher, in the sense that he transcended many prejudices of his day and avoided the stiff constructs of the Continental rationalists, British empiricists and other intellectual gropers of the 18th Century. Kant was the first philosopher to recognize that the most elemental principle in all philosophy is not truth (as the rationalists would say) or nothingness confronting experience (as empiricists would say) but rather the subject, the self, us. In this sense, his work anticipated every modern philosophical movement, from existentialism to pragmatism to linguistic analytics, as well as the psychology of Sigmund Freud and the metaphysical relativism of Albert Einstein.
Kant is probably most widely read today for his epistemological work (specifically, his dense Critique of Pure Reason) but if you look at the progression of his career it seems clear that his greatest interest and crowning achievement was in the field of moral philosophy. He followed the Critique of Pure Reason with a book about ethics, the equally lengthy Critique of Practical Reason, and then summarized this book in a shorter and more accessible volume, On The Metaphysics of Morals. Kant’s primary teaching, like Martin Luther King’s, is simple: we must always treat others with the same consideration and respect we wish to be accorded ourselves. But Kant is not just reciting the “Golden Rule” (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), because Kant aims to prove that this human kindness, this universal empathy is actually an innate characteristic of mankind, a basic component of human psychology.
Evil and injustice are all around us, of course. But Kant was a moral optimist, and taught that good and evil do not share equal standing. Good will towards others is innate; the will to hurt others and the capacity to ignore the suffering of others represent perversions of our innate selves. Who has the courage to rest their personal safety on this formulation? It’s easier to be cynical in our violent age — watch our backs, read the news, keep plastic sheathing and bottled water and gas masks handy.
Where is truth-force today? Where is the Martin Luther King of the Arab-Israeli war, of the Iraq war, of the Sudan?
A few years ago an author named Jedediah Purdy published a book that called for an end to media cynicism, For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today. Nobody wants to read a book like this (especially not by an author whose first name is Jedediah), and I’d be the last person in the world to call for an end to general cynicism or irony or sarcasm (among other things, this would crash the blogosphere faster than a bad hard drive at Typepad.com). But yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in America, and King died three and a half decades ago, and the world seems to have completely given up the idea that philosophical awareness or principled behavior can even be relevant in the world’s toughest conflicts. This is wrong; these principles are eternally relevant, and when we forget to heed them it’s our own fault. We are failing the truth-force; the truth-force hasn’t failed us yet.