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Tomorrow the United States celebrates a holiday in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boston University, where I work, is always eager to remind everyone that King got his doctorate there. They are not always as eager to remind you that King studied at the School of Theology – and clearly learned his lessons there well, for he was not merely a great activist but a great philosopher.

I have come to know King’s thought through the courses I have taught in BU’s philosophy department – even though the courses were on Indian philosophy. I have nevertheless included King on the syllabus for that class, with guest speakers introducing him to the students, because I wanted to show students the contemporary relevance of Indian philosophy. Specifically, King drew a great deal of his ideas from Gandhi – who was a philosopher-activist like King, and in turn drew on earlier Indian thought like Jainism and the Bhagavad Gītā. It seems to me on reflection, though, that the student surpassed the teacher: that what King said and wrote with Gandhi’s influence was profounder and more valuable than Gandhi’s own thought was in itself.

Martin Luther King Jr.

The core idea that King drew from Gandhi, of course, was nonviolence – which Gandhi used to translate the Jain vow of ahiṃsā. Ahiṃsā more literally means “non-harm”, which is not exactly the same thing. Gandhi’s major achievement is to turn ahiṃsā into the idea of nonviolent action: changing unjust social conditions by means of peaceful mass protests that call attention to them. This idea was not in traditional Jainism, which like its sister tradition of Buddhism, was not politically active; nor was it in the Gītā, a more political text whose explicitly stated message is the opposite of nonviolence. But Gandhi put it to powerful effect, drawing enormous sympathy for the cause of Indian independence, which eventually became successful.

King learned from Gandhi and used the same tactics, similarly successful, to end the official régime of racial segregation in the American South. In their activism – deploying nonviolent resistance to end an unjust situation – they were very similar. Where they really differed was in their political thought. King had philosophical training where Gandhi didn’t – and it shows.

Gandhi pushed his theory of nonviolence much further than King, into a sort of anarcho-libertarianism that considered state action an unacceptable form of violence. He proclaimed that “I shall be no party to dispossessing the propertied classes of their private property without just cause” – and providing food and livelihood to the poor and hungry did not count, for him, as just cause. Instead he encouraged a voluntary redistribution, where “the rich should regard themselves as trustees for the whole of society rather than as owners of the wealth they might possess.” Gandhi’s followers, like Vinoba Bhave, made a sincere effort to convince the rich to share their land and wealth with the poor – but it didn’t work. A few noble souls were convinced, but not enough to make any meaningful dent in the poverty of the villages where it was tried. And on a more fundamental level, Gandhi never seemed to object to the state violence involved in keeping property in its current hands, through laws against theft.

King had a much more realistic view. Like Gandhi, he believed that guarding power was bad for the powerful: segregation harmed the white man’s own soul. But from his other great influence Reinhold Niebuhr – coiner of the Serenity Prayer – King learned to reject a “false optimism”. Niebuhr, drawing in turn on Augustine, knew that the darkness in human nature runs deep. Voluntary changes of heart benefit everyone and they are to be celebrated. But they are not sufficient to bring about social change. Thus King’s Poor People’s Campaign demanded a more standard form of social democracy, where the government would tax the rich to fund housing and income for the poor.

I greatly admire King’s political vision because it forms an admirable synthesis of two crucial political currents. I think that James Doull is right to bemoan a politics of “division” in which the interests of different human groups and individuals are fundamentally set against each other, with no larger picture of a common good. Such a division got much worse in the decades after Doull’s death: my Facebook feed in the mid-2010s (pre-Trump) was full of feminist advice not to say that patriarchy hurts men too (even though it absolutely does), because the fight against patriarchy should only be for women and not men. Such views of intrinsic antagonism set in motion what Hobbes called a war of all against all – and in a war of all against all, all will lose.

Doull regularly criticized Marx as one responsible for promoting that division. But Marx, I think, saw what Doull and Gandhi did not: that power structures tend to be captured and serve the interests of the powerful. Public shaming can end such obvious injustices as colonialism and segregation – but even there, it does so through a change in the state and its apparatus of coercion. Moreover the powerful are often blinded to the unjust operations of their power. One can see that blinding just by reading Doull’s own heroes, Aristotle and Hegel: one cannot imagine Aristotle writing of “natural slaves”, or Hegel writing that slavery “causes the increase of human feeling among the Negroes”, had they ever been slaves themselves. Appeals to the common good can all too easily become appeals to the good of the powerful.

And I cannot name any thinker from any era who navigated this problem better than Martin Luther King. King refused the naïveté that trusted the rich to give up their land voluntarily. And yet he never stopped believing in the common good. Segregation did hurt white people as it hurt black people; it’s just all too difficult for white people to see that. When the powerful wield power unjustly, one must take some of that power from them by force – but in a way that ultimately makes a better world for everyone.

Happy Martin Luther King Day.

EDIT (4 Jul 2023): “the student surpassed the teacher” had originally been written “the student surpassed the pupil”, which didn’t make any sense.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.