Truth-Force

Existential History Politics Religion
I spent some time yesterday reading Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time. It's a powerful document, and among other things it shows us the depth of King's personal scholarship. He cites two modern existentialist philosophers, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, and quotes St. Thomas Aquinas and T. S. Eliot. Intrigued by this, I did some further research into King's intellectual roots, and found a vast array of influences. King was well-versed in Indian philosophy (he'd visited with peace activists in India in 1959, just before he began to play a leading public role in the American civil rights movement) and was particularly interested in the Hindu concept of truth-force or Satyagraha. He was familiar with the works of Hegel and Thoreau, and the one philosopher or theologian who seems to have influenced him most of all was Reinhold Niebuhr.

King was a brave guy, but it takes more than courage to build up the kind of backbone he had. It takes intellect, and it should be instructive to activists and human rights protestors today that King studied so hard to develop his. Some students of philosophy or political science feel humbled by the texts they read, but King was smart enough to recognize in these texts a call to action. His formula is basic and elemental, but not so basic or elemental that it doesn't need to be repeated today: we must fight hard against injustice and oppression wherever it is found, and we must always do so in the positive spirit of non-violence.

Truth-force. Where can truth-force be found in media or politics today? I cringe at the thought that I might spout a cliche and say we live in a cynical age. Let's face it, every age is probably a cynical age, and it's never easy to stand up in public for tough ideals. First you risk embarrasment ... and if you are among the tiny few who reach that point and don't eventually cower and turn back, you graduate to the next level, at which you risk physical danger. The evidence shows that this risk is quite real for political or philosophical idealists. Socrates, Jesus, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were all murdered by their fellow men.

Truth-force. I've recently been immersed in the writings of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher and founder of the European tradition of Transcendentalism, which also inspired the so-called New England Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau. Kant is often considered the first modern philosopher, in the sense that he transcended many prejudices of his day and avoided the stiff constructs of the Continental rationalists, British empiricists and other intellectual gropers of the 18th Century. Kant was the first philosopher to recognize that the most elemental principle in all philosophy is not truth (as the rationalists would say) or nothingness confronting experience (as empiricists would say) but rather the subject, the self, us. In this sense, his work anticipated every modern philosophical movement, from existentialism to pragmatism to linguistic analytics, as well as the psychology of Sigmund Freud and the metaphysical relativism of Albert Einstein.

Kant is probably most widely read today for his epistemological work (specifically, his dense Critique of Pure Reason) but if you look at the progression of his career it seems clear that his greatest interest and crowning achievement was in the field of moral philosophy. He followed the Critique of Pure Reason with a book about ethics, the equally lengthy Critique of Practical Reason, and then summarized this book in a shorter and more accessible volume, On The Metaphysics of Morals. Kant's primary teaching, like Martin Luther King's, is simple: we must always treat others with the same consideration and respect we wish to be accorded ourselves. But Kant is not just reciting the "Golden Rule" ("do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), because Kant aims to prove that this human kindness, this universal empathy is actually an innate characteristic of mankind, a basic component of human psychology.

Evil and injustice are all around us, of course. But Kant was a moral optimist, and taught that good and evil do not share equal standing. Good will towards others is innate; the will to hurt others and the capacity to ignore the suffering of others represent perversions of our innate selves. Who has the courage to rest their personal safety on this formulation? It's easier to be cynical in our violent age -- watch our backs, read the news, keep plastic sheathing and bottled water and gas masks handy.

Where is truth-force today? Where is the Martin Luther King of the Arab-Israeli war, of the Iraq war, of the Sudan?

A few years ago an author named Jedediah Purdy published a book that called for an end to media cynicism, For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today. Nobody wants to read a book like this (especially not by an author whose first name is Jedediah), and I'd be the last person in the world to call for an end to general cynicism or irony or sarcasm (among other things, this would crash the blogosphere faster than a bad hard drive at Typepad.com). But yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in America, and King died three and a half decades ago, and the world seems to have completely given up the idea that philosophical awareness or principled behavior can even be relevant in the world's toughest conflicts. This is wrong; these principles are eternally relevant, and when we forget to heed them it's our own fault. We are failing the truth-force; the truth-force hasn't failed us yet.
15 Responses to "Truth-Force"

by Billectric on

no wonder it's DOCTOR KingI've admired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for years, but I had no idea as to the extent of his scholarly background. He certainly didn't get a mail-order divinity degree and hang up a shingle like I've seen some people do. Also, I read the first few pages of Jedediah Purdy's book on Amazon.com and it was fairly interesting. What I got from the first three pages is:The old adage from Ecclesiastes to "separate yourself from the world" makes sense in today's society, because one can become too sarcastic and/or jaded by absorbing an overdoes of irony from today's media or college professors or other so-called representatives of popular thought.

by warrenweappa on

Million Li'l Pieces Moral ImperativeYour take on Kant's moral imperative is very groovy and much better than Kant excerpts foisted on me. Wasn't Bacon considered the first modern philosopher? As for the also-foisted-on-me Prolegomena -- well, my idea about it differed from the professor's and this situation-ethicist prefers pragmatism and ideas with cash value, which brings to mind James Frey's book My Friend Leonard that is selling well thanks to the success of his A Million Little Pieces, a possibly less than authentic addiction-to-sobriety tale, according to my keyhole on the internet, but doubts of its veracity may even boost AMLP's sales for the curious with a few bucks to splurge on yet another recovery book. As for the truth-force, I wish I had started staying true to myself sooner. Whether my bank account reflects that is another tale.

by boldaslove on

Kant be too kindSpot on comments regarding Kant. I was drawn to him for the same reasons. "Kindness" seems like such a simple word, a word that we used when we were young and didn't know the bigger ones like "benevolent" or "philanthropic." Looking back on my life, when I would describe the quality that I looked for most in a friend or lover, kind never made the cut. Intelligent, witty, spiritual, sexy, those were the dealmakers. But now, I am weary of this modern world and its instant gratification mentality. We live in an age where momentary individual pleasure is at our fingertips. We live in a world technologically that allows us to shut ourselves off from human contact, and those qualities in us that make us innately human are stagnating. We applaud kindness in others. We mentally pat men like Bono on the back from our computer desks and couches. Perhaps it's just a matter of not knowing how to incorporate kindness into our daily lives. I believe kindness is cultivated in the small things. Letting that person with only one item at the grocery store go in front of you or taking your neighbor some cookies just because. Kindness is addicting and the seeds of it rarely fall on hard ground. Kant was a hippie ages before that term ever existed. So was Whitman. Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Dr. King, to them all men were their brothers, all women their sisters. I believe in Kant's notion that kindness comes naturally to us, that it is seated within our beings. But I also believe that kindness is like a muscle, it must be exercised and used or it grows weak or even atrophies. Now if someone were to ask me what quality I look for the most in a companion, it would be kindness. In my mind there is nothing more attractive, more desirable, more downright sexy than someone whose heart shines with kindness (I know, I'm such a dork). I know someone who whenever they go to Starbuck's drive thru, they not only pay for their order but the order behind them as well. I love that. Who knows what that kind of random kindness inspires? Be kind. Such a simple term, such a simple word, but there's nothing simple about the power it wields when put into practice. And in the words of that great writer, Dave Matthews, "Get yourself filthy with funky love, y'all, everyday."

by Billectric on

Well said!And you're not a dork; or if you are, it's a good thing.

by tomcat on

Kant get it right"Kant aims to prove that this human kindness, this universal empathy is actually an innate characteristic of mankind, a basic component of human psychology. . . Good will towards others is innate; the will to hurt others and the capacity to ignore the suffering of others represent perversions of our innate selves."This is a misreading of Kant. He asserts that good actions, in order to be truly good, must be done from duty, not from inclination. That's directly from his ethical writings. Nowhere does he say that man's will or inclinations are innately good. Rather, he claims that morality begins in the presumption that man is free. He explicitly says that he's not doing any sort of psychology.

by brooklyn on

Well, Penn, you should place your comment in context. You and I have been arguing about this for weeks via email ... I know you disagree with several aspects of my reading of Kant, just as I disagree with several aspects of yours. If I ever get my philosophy blog up and running we could debate this in depth but I don't think it makes sense to begin that here, not with the kind of verbiage you and I are both inclined to generate.I stand by my interpretation, just as I know you stand by yours.

by tomcat on

We can't locate truth-power unless we can locate truth. MLK spoke truth. If we want to know where truth-power is today, we have to ask: who speaks the truth? If we disagree about that, our pictures of truth-power won't sync up either. For myself, I see a world still filled with prophets, both great and small.

by boldaslove on

Well, is it the means by which we believe our kindness is derived, or is it the kindness itself that speaks truth?

by tomcat on

Well, is it the means by which we believe our kindness is derived, or is it the kindness itself that speaks truth?I'm sorry, I'm not sure what the question is. Is the question, "Is the important thing the means be which we believe our kindness is derived, or is it the kindness which speaks truth?"Or is the question, "Does the means by which we believe our kindness is derived speak truth, or is it the kindness which speaks truth?" I'm a bit confused.

by coolazice on

No 'truth-force' outside Eden'The world seems to have completely given up the idea that philosophical awareness or principled behavior can even be relevant in the world's toughest conflicts.'Yeah? I would've thought the opposite.Fundamentalist terrorists have extremely principled behaviour, based on their interpretation of the Koran, and their desire to change today's world. On the other side, many fundamentalist Christians and others are quite certain that bringing democracy to the rest of the world is a necessary step towards global co-operation. There's plenty of philosophy and principled behaviour. In fact, it would be more coherent to argue that there's TOO MUCH. I think if you take a look at the vast majority of the world's toughest conflicts you will find two (or more) sides who claim that they have the 'truth-force'. It seems like a very dangerous idea to me. Conflicts are usually better solved on an individual basis, not as part of a wider philosophy or action-plan.

by brooklyn on

That's a really good point, Noah -- in fact, I wish I had rephrased my original comments in light of your observation.You're right that highly principled religious fundamentalism is thriving right now. I've got nothing against religion, but I can't respect the dogmatism, conservatism and (in many cases) violent or dehumanizing agendas of these movements. Meanwhile, principle and conviction seem to be waning among moderate, "mainstream", humanistic thinkers. Yeats said it: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity". That's closer to what I meant to say.

by Tulate on

Not forgottenI do not agree with your premise repeated here:"But yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in America, and King died three and a half decades ago, and the world seems to have completely given up the idea that philosophical awareness or principled behavior can even be relevant in the world's toughest conflicts." No one has forgotten. Rather we have allowed leaders to pursue politcal, monetary and religious agendas wihtout objection. The result is we support a culture dominated by violence and hatred -- and cynicism.

by boldaslove on

I should apologize for not being clearer. I was suggesting that the common ground can be found in the agreement that the power/truth lies within the act itself, not by its derivation.

by coolazice on

Yeah. I think Bertrand Russell was expressing something similar when he said 'The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts'.

by tomcat on

I'm like you, boldaslove, and less like Kant -- I tend to focus more on the act than on the motivation.