The Magic Word

Plato is not often wrong. As perhaps the most well-known and respected philosopher of all time, Plato knew what he was talking about (the man died 2400 years ago and is still a household name – he certainly did something right). To claim that Plato is mistaken is to challenge a well-thought-out view held by one of the greatest thinkers in history, a view that was passed down over more than two millennia, each generation agreeing that it was interesting and valuable enough to be read by the next. To claim as a 19 year old undergraduate that Plato is wrong – Now that’s really daunting. Fortunately, I have support from another of history’s great thinkers in Martin Luther King, Jr. In his Gorgias, Plato claims that you only need to be a skilled writer if you don’t have truth and justice on your side. I don’t think that’s right, and King flat out rejects it. If you bear with me for a few pages, I’ll flesh out this flaw in Plato’s philosophizing about rhetoric, a flaw that has implications even today for how people communicate about the world’s most important issues.

We’ll start in 1963. On April 12th of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested after demonstrating against racial violence in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the nation’s most segregated cities. On that same day, eight white religious leaders published a letter criticizing King with the sort of faux-moderate ideas most corrosive to the civil rights movement: Those that claim to agree with racial justice on the whole but resist disruption of the status quo. In this case, the demonstrations in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely” (quoted in King, 1).  King spent his time in jail drafting a response, writing in longhand on scraps of paper and the margins of a newspaper. Completed in just four days and published under a modest title, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the response garnered national attention over the following months.

You already know how high the stakes of King’s movement were: The abhorrent institutions of segregation and racial oppression abused millions of Americans every day. As King sat in Birmingham Jail with pencil in hand, he sat with the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. You know the significance of the challenge he faced: King had to overturn the very foundation of society, to make one of the most important arguments ever made in the 20th century. You know, even if his audience in 1963 did not, that King stood on the side of truth and justice: Racial equality is unambiguously right, just, and good. So, when King began to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” when he began to write on behalf of millions of oppressed Americans at a pivotal point for truth and justice, what did he write? And, perhaps more important for our disagreement with Plato, how did he write?

Before we answer that question, let’s see how Plato would expect King to write in this context, namely a situation in which one writes on the side of truth and justice. Plato’s expectations are explicit in Gorgias. Speaking through Socrates, Plato calls skilled writing “rhetoric,” which he defines as “persuasion which produces conviction” through “producing pleasure” (18, 27). Pleasure in Plato’s sense is unclean and harmful; a focus on pleasure distracts from the essential goodness and truth in an argument, waters down or sours justice with superficial appeal. Plato’s distaste for pleasure ruins all rhetoric for him: He says that rhetoric “boils down to sycophancy, sucking up to people,” and that it has “no concern for what is best” (28, 30). Pleasurable writing amounts to either regrettable entertainment or a tainted tool of the malicious. Plato argues that “for the person who is not planning to act unjustly I don’t think [rhetoric]’s use is very great – if indeed it is any use at all, which it hasn’t been shown to be” (55). Plato does, however, offer a way out, a way to argue on the side of justice without contaminating truth with rhetoric’s impurity. Plato imagines two kinds of writing: One would be “sycophancy, the worst kind of appeal to the public; the other would be admirable, … battling to say what is best, regardless of whether this makes it more pleasing or unpleasing to those listening” (84). The distinction here is solely the focus on pleasure. Sycophancy aims to please, and according to Plato is of no use to someone speaking on the side of truth and justice. Admirable writing absolutely disregards pleasure. It is this second, pragmatic style of writing unencumbered by attempts to please which Plato would implore King and others advocating truth and justice to use.

But, Plato continues, this second kind of writing, writing that spreads justice with no regard for pleasure, “is a rhetoric which you have never yet seen” (84). Although writing on the side of justice without regard for pleasure is an option, not a single skilled writer does it. Plato takes this lack of a perfectly just rhetorician to discount rhetoric as a whole. Here’s his logic: Appeals to pleasure sour truth and justice, and all skilled writing aims to please, so all skilled writing strays from truth and justice. This is where I think Plato is wrong: He takes the fact that nobody writes without regard for pleasure to mean that writers don’t have society’s best interests in mind. I think skilled writers aim to please only because they must in order to communicate effectively with their audience. Disregarding pleasure simply does not work. Even if you argue on the side of truth and justice, you still need to write pleasurably.

King understood this. But before we get to him, let’s first define what exactly it means to write pleasurably. In other words, what does Plato think King should avoid? One key characteristic of pleasurable writing, and the most troubling for Plato, is that it caters to the beliefs of its audience: It has an impulse towards “giving the citizens what they want” (83). Beyond conforming to its audience, pleasurable writing aims to produce enjoyment. Plato repeatedly uses the difference between cooking and medicine to illustrate his point. Pleasurable writing feeds you what feels good, what will keep you reading, even if, like a tasty but fatty desert, its value is only superficial. Plato believes writing should act like medicine, giving you only what is best and truly valuable regardless of how it feels. We can see that Plato condemns writing that includes any and all stylistic flare, that goes out of its way to demonstrate graceful command of language, that shapes concepts with sharp but perhaps extraneous literary devices. In short, Plato distrusts writing that detours even slightly from plain truth for the sake of eloquence. If arguing for truth and justice, King must not aim to please.

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., does just what Plato abhors: He is clearly on the side of truth and justice, yet he focuses intensely on writing pleasurably. The claim that King aimed to please in the letter may seem counterintuitive and even troubling when considering the gravity of his situation. As previously explained, the consequences of failure were grim. But that is precisely the point: That even when truth and justice are most direly threatened, pleasure must be a focus of writers standing in opposition.

King invokes pleasure in several ways. First, King handles his audience carefully. Explicitly, the audience is the eight white clergy who publicly criticized the Birmingham demonstrations. However, King never actually sent his letter to those clergy and instead had it published for a wider audience of religious white moderates resistant to the civil rights movement. King establishes a friendly, respectful relationship from the start by mentioning that his detractors “are men of genuine good will and [their] criticisms are sincerely set forth” (1). This respectfulness, which Plato might deem sucking up, is continued throughout the piece. King refers to his audience as “my friends” and “my Christian and Jewish brothers,” and is eager to point out when they are correct (2, 3). For example, he says, “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation,” and agrees that their apprehension regarding lawlessness “is certainly a legitimate concern” (2, 3).

Further, King conforms to his audience’s beliefs in both religiosity and patriotism. King is clearly conscious of his Christian audience and appeals to religion incessantly. Two quick examples: At the start, King explains his presence in Birmingham in Biblical terms. “Just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ, … I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown” (1). Later, in response to accusations of being an extremist, King remarks, “Was not Jesus an extremist in Love? … Was not Amos an extremist for justice? … Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ?” (4). King also connects his movement to American values. He says his goal of freedom will be reached “because the goal of America is freedom,” and that his movement’s “destiny is tied up with the destiny of America” (5). King calls upon the Pilgrims, Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence for inspiration. At the close of his letter, King writes that his movement stands “for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage” (6). Christian values and the American dream: What more could the southern religious white moderate ask for? Plato rolls in his grave at every mention of God-given rights, every Biblical allusion, every time King deviates from his argument to remind the audience that he shares their Christianity and love for America. But there’s a reason King spends so much time comforting his audience: He has to. Without gaining the trust of the religious white moderate and demonstrating shared interests, King could not gain their support in his campaign for truth and justice.

A more conspicuous point of conformity is King’s attention to grammar, which is especially clear in how he frames a quote from Rosa Parks. King writes that Parks responded to an inquiry “about her tiredness with ungrammatical profundity, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested’” (6). King’s audience is educated. By conditioning Parks’ statement with such a highbrow phrase as “ungrammatical profundity,” King makes clear that he is aware, as his audience surely will be, of Parks’ grammatical mistake. This is small but important. If King were writing for a less educated audience, he would not need to exalt his own grammatical knowledge above Parks’. King goes out of his way to demonstrate sophistication to his educated audience. Plato would deem this unnecessary, but King knows he must gain the intellectual respect of his audience if they are to believe his message about truth and justice.

Beyond flexing his command of language to demonstrate shared sophistication, King writes eloquently to make his work pleasurable to read. He polishes his letter with spectacular aphorisms and lofty metaphors such as in these lines: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (1). King beautifies his ideas with sharp images such as “stinging darts of segregation,” “shattered dreams of the past,” and a “dark shadow of deep disappointment” (2, 5, 1). Although the subjects he speaks of are gloomy, the language used in describing them is extravagant. Stylish language is not at all pragmatically necessary, but it adds an element of pleasure that attracts and embraces readers.

By studying King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we can see that pleasure is not incongruous with arguing for truth and justice; in fact, pleasure advances King’s just argument by making it effective in reaching its target audience. If King had followed Plato’s commandment to write incognizant of pleasure, his letter would have been ineffectual in the campaign for civil rights. You need to be a skilled writer to stand purposefully on the side of truth and justice.




Works Cited

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The Atlantic Monthly; Volume 212, No. 2; pages 78 – 88. 1963. Print.

Plato. Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras. Translated by Tom Griffith, edited by Malcolm Schofield, Cambridge University Press. 2010. Print.