Dr. Martin Luther King and the Greek classics
January 20, 2008
By Alexandros P. Mallias – This year will mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. His death on April 4, 1968, found my country in the midst of one of its darkest hours, as the one year anniversary of an oppressive military dictatorship neared.
With my fellow citizens living under military rule and deprived of the very basic freedoms, I was inspired by the people of Birmingham, Ala., of Memphis and Atlanta, who, in a most dignified way, poured into the streets, standing up for what was rightly theirs.
Across the Atlantic, the civil-rights movement reached us in the clarion voice of Martin Luther King Jr., and hope stirred in the hearts of many Greek people like myself that “We”, too, “Shall Overcome.”
Upon my arrival in Washington as Greece’s ambassador, and influenced by what I call the current “Golden Age for the Classics” in the United States, I have gone back to the staples of my education with new appreciation Sophocles, Plato, Homer, Heraclitus, Thucydides. And I realized that the Rev. King’s speeches and homilies are fraught with references to the Greek classics.
I pored over his writings and speeches and realized his was no simple preaching. I began to sense he had a profound understanding of what we call the “classics.” In his Nobel acceptance speech, he spoke of Greek literature, of Homer and the temptresses Sirens, of Orpheus not in dry academic fashion, but as part and parcel of his understanding of the world.
As the beneficiary of a classical education, as were most young Greeks of my generation, the words of Dr. King brought to mind great orators of ancient Greece Demosthenes, for one, who had to overcome his own particular limitations.
In his sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., Nov. 17, 1957, Dr. King expounded on the power and comprehensiveness of the Greek language, explaining how Greek “comes to our aid beautifully in giving us the real meaning and depth of the whole philosophy of love … for you see the Greek language has three words for love … eros … a sort of aesthetic love. Plato talks about it a great deal in his dialogues, a sort of yearning of the soul for the realm of the gods. Then the Greek language talks about philia… the intimate affection between personal friends. The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape… the understanding, creative, redemptive good will for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return.”
Erudite men and women have researched the education of Dr. King, concluding that he studied the ancient Greek classics at length and drew inspiration not only from the Bible, but also from ancient Greek philosophers, playwrights and political figures.
Dr. King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” of April 16, 1963, was addressed to his fellow clergymen and expounded upon his own theory of civil disobedience: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment … is in reality expressing the highest respect for law” brought to mind Antigone, a reluctant but inevitably brave heroine, in Sophocles’ namesake play, who said: “I will not obey an unjust law, and if something happens because of it so be it.”
This was not wasted on classics professor Lewis Sussman of the University of Florida, who wrote extensively on this connection.
I need no further proof of the inspiration Dr. King imparted from the classics than his own words in the last speech of his life, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” which resounded around the world on April 3, 1968, just one day before his assassination in Memphis: “I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.”
Dr. King’s words continue to inspire me. And what I impart from him is similar to what I imparted from the ancient Greek tradition that the “good life” is the one in which the individual partakes in the responsibility and concerns of all society.
Alexandros P. Mallias is Greece’s ambassador to the United States and received the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award for International Service in January 2007.
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