Socrates in “Apology” and “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”

Many themes and ideas found in Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” are derived from Socrates’s “Apology.” The statements of ethical theory found in the two works of philosophy overlap and converge in a number of ways. Each of these texts have been written in order to discuss the nature of justice and injustice and what it really means to challenge injustice. When it comes to political terms, it is also clear that they are similar in the way each one of them is being presented by a recognized authority or a leader. In this case Socrates is a recognized authority while King Jr. is a leader. In a very direct and clear manner Socrates says that he has many dangerous enemies while the Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a response to the eight clergymen of Alabama who made public criticisms saying that King Jr’s protests in Birmingham were of no good but only aimed at corrupting the members of the public. In addition, from an analytical point of view, the two texts are very similar when it comes to the systematic dissection of the allegations made against them as wrong. Both Socrates and King Jr. are functioning in the kind of environment full of social and political controversy. The themes in the two texts touch upon various issues such as justice, freedom, and power imbalance and the two authors use various techniques to criticize the society, religion, and politics.

King Jr. notes that the clergymen are very anxious because of the willingness of the black people to “break laws.” He is willing to show the distinction that exists between just and unjust laws and insist that each individual has a legal as well as a moral responsibility to follow those laws that are just but one also has an equal moral responsibility to decide not to follow those laws that are unjust. As such he goes ahead and offers a definition of the just and the unjust laws. He states that the just laws are laws that conform to the law of God or the moral law. When it comes to the unjust laws he states that these are those laws that fail to be in harmony with the moral law. Form this point of view he explains that just laws are used for the purpose of uplifting human personality while the unjust ones only serve to degrade human personality. King justifies the civil disobedience by clearly stating that just as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego failed to obey the unjust laws implemented by Nebuchadnezzar, he refuses conform to those laws and injunctions that serve to promote continued segregation while at the same time denying citizens the privileges of the First-Amendment which are peaceful assembly and protest. With this King denounces the inaction of the clergymen and states that human progress can only be achieved when men make tireless efforts to becoming co-workers with God.
When it comes to civil disobedience King seems to agree with Socrates especially where in his, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he states that academic freedom is a reality today especially because Socrates also practiced civil disobedience. Dr. King was famously known for his strong belief that the best way to combat unjust laws was through the use of civil disobedience. King believes that just like Socrates, his radical mind and thoughts are necessary in order to enlighten the other people around him. Just as Socrates criticized the Athenian society for being complacent and making assumptions that the political leaders had the interests of the common people at heart, King denies that he not corrupting the society rather he is trying to awaken them to the reality and make them refuse to follow unjust laws that only serve to degrade them. King goes ahead to state that just as Socrates felt the great need to create tension in the minds of the people to make them aware of myths and half truths, he is also working with nonviolent gadflies to create tension in the society and make people rise from the dark depths of the unjust laws that promote prejudice and racism. He is willing to help people understand the true meaning of brotherhood.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King clearly states that he does not promote the unconsidered flaunting of laws that have been put in place because this will only result in anarchy. He serves his jail term without problem to show that he respects the law even though he is unwilling to follow the unjust laws. The fact he is willing to serve the jail term because of his stand that segregation is an unjust act clearly shows that he has the highest respect for law. When it comes to Socrates in the “Apology,” it is also clear that he has the highest respect for law. This is shown through the way he is willing to be executed even when he knows that he is innocent. He could have chosen to flee to another country to avoid his death sentence but he serves it willingly.

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Socrates in “Apology” and “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”. (2022, Feb 24). Retrieved from

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