The Argument For Equality
Ever since the origin of democracy with the ancient Greeks, the philosophical principle of equal rights has been at the forefront of political discussion and debate. Freedom and justice have been held as two of the highest, yet most elusive ideals that a society can strive towards. In George Orwell’s satire on totalitarianism, Animal Farm, Squealer the despotic pig states, “all animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Though the novel was meant to bring to light the ills of a tyrannical society, this single phrase also encompasses the flaws of any well-intentioned form of government. In attempting to compromise the rights of his subordinates with his own lust for power and possession, he sheds light on the fact that government is only a human enterprise and therefore destined to occasionally falter or even fail. Unfortunately, since the ideal of a utopia doesn’t exist, there are the citizens of a nation, and then there are the citizens of that nation who are “more equal,” or have better rights and more freedoms such as suffrage and equality that the rest of the populace can only dream of.
Separated by millennia of human experience, Socrates and Marin Luther King Jr. were each men who realized that their respective nations were tantalizingly close to reaching the ideal of a truly great society, but were hindered by but a few glaring disparities. These were men who accepted their government with its strengths and its flaws and were proactive enough to instigate powerful and meaningful change. They each attempted to correct the system in which they lived, wishing not to completely redirect its path but to alter its direction towards the narrow lane of righteousness and just action.
As is evident in the Apology, Socrates believes that for a government to properly function and provide for the basic freedoms of its citizens, it is necessary to constantly question the status quo. In his eyes, complacency leads only to corruption. Socrates views himself as a “gadfly” that serves to keep the ponderous horse that is the Athenian democracy awake, alert, and mobile. In his search to disprove the Oracle at Delphi of her declaration that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, he questioned politicians, poets, and craftsmen regarding their wisdom as opposed to his. The hostility that arose as a result of his inquiries was typical of most individuals. As a whole, people are disgusted and angered when told that they are wrong; especially when it is regarding every belief or idea that they have ever held. Socrates’ method of questioning may have gotten him sentenced to death, but it also exposed the lack of wisdom and appreciation for the truths that are necessary for a just society. He would meet any man by saying, “My excellent man, you’re an Athenian, you belong to the greatest city, renowned for its wisdom and strength; are you not ashamed that you take care to acquire as much wealth as possible—and reputation and honor—but that about wisdom and truth, about how your soul may be in the best possible condition, you take neither care nor thought?” (Plato 45) Socrates wished to impart his level of awareness and obedience to the highest power that is truth, holding the ability to question and search for that truth in highest esteem.
Socrates lived in the classical world of philosophy and was in part the pioneer of a new and influential form of government. He lived and died to uphold the truth and justice that Athenian democracy was capable of. In his opinion, Athens was a city so great that he chose to raise his family there and wished to remain there his entire life, even if it meant his death. Martin Luther King Jr., though separated by time and place also lived under a government that he believed was founded for and capable of complete equality and justice amongst its citizens.
King declares his mission in his “I Have A Dream” speech when he states, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (King 102). King was raised to be the third in a line of evangelical Christian preachers. This upbringing and experience gave credence to his argument of equality and brotherhood in a vastly conservative Christian nation. He mentions the skewed version of religion that the majority of moderate, middle class whites were following at the time, refusing to acknowledge the disparity between the equality of Christianity and the current social situation of the United States in the 1950s. King held that the policy of “separate but equal” was clearly out of line not only the United States Constitution, but with the will of God as well. The Oxford English Dictionary defines equality as “the condition of having equal dignity, rank, or privileges with others; the fact of being on an equal footing.” King believed that the United States would remain hidden behind the “battlements of injustice” until every one of its citizens were on this equal footing. He used powerful rhetoric and the imagery of a “bedrock of brotherhood” to bolster the Civil Rights Movement and justify his own brand of civil disobedience through nonviolent action (King 103).
Socrates and Martin Luther King Jr. were surprisingly similar in their methodology. Both men new that wisdom lay within justice and right action. Only through the relentless pursuit of the truth would any government or society be able to reach its full potential. Constant questioning and reevaluation of any ruling body and its citizenry would to either man seem to be an absolute necessity. Both men make valid, stirring arguments pleading and proving their case. There is not an argument that is more effective, only more applicable. Speaking to a group of five hundred Athenian jurors requires a different use of tact than speaking to several thousand civil rights activists. The pursuit of truth transcends time and place. Each man found himself placed in the right moment at the right time to instigate powerful and meaningful change. Though death halted their corporal existence, their movements have obviously lived on and will continue to do so until society reaches its zenith and “… justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” (King 104).
King Jr., Martin Luther. “I Have A Dream.” I Have A Dream: Writings and Speeches that
Changed the World. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.
Plato. “The Apology of Socrates.” The Trials of Socrates. C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis:
Hackett Publishing Company, 2002