When she saw many references to MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on social media recently, Anne K. Knafl, Bibliographer for Religion, Philosophy, and Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago Library, compiled the following sources of that transcendent letter as well as other letters from prison. We thought our readers might enjoy having these resources as well.
Hover over the text for the hyperlink.
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from A Birmingham Jail draft,” Albert Burton Boutwell Papers, 1949-1967, Collection Number 264, Archives Department, Birmingham Public Library, Alabama. Published, print versions are available at the University of Chicago here.
Matt Townsend: One of the things I found reading your work was that the antidote to selfishness is not naturally what I would think of as the fix; what you’re saying is that it’s virtues, it’s go for the virtues, and not necessarily accomplishment.
Candace Vogler: We think that if you have the right understanding, I mean, virtue is an odd word. It basically points to, in my work and the work we’re doing, a quality in your character, a quality you work to cultivate, that basically allows you to pursue things that are good reasonably, and effectively, and in a way that helps you develop the ability to actually take pleasure in being a good person. Those kinds of things. And so, there’s four of them, four cardinal virtues that are the traditional ones—there’s Justice, which has to do with behaving fairly and decently, and in a right way with your fellow human beings, but more generally just in your external actions. There’s Temperance, which has to do with not overindulging in things, with being reasonable in the ways that you move about with things that you find very attractive or shiny. There’s Fortitude, or Courage, which has to do with being afraid of the right things, and with being willing to take stands, when necessary, for things that really matter. And there’s practical wisdom, or in Latin prudentia, or Prudence, which has to do with putting all these things together in a way that allows you to lend some order to your life.
Now each one of those virtues, in the picture I’m working with, finds its happiest home, it’s natural mode, in pursuing common good. What’s great about them, about having them, is that they help me participate in pursuit of a common good of some kind, which is more than just the added up sum of individual bits of pleasure or happiness or senses of achievement or something like that. It’s a general good that benefits more than just the people I happen to know, and has been the kind of good that people have gone after for some time, usually before me, and probably with any luck well after me.
So that’s the basic structure. Ancient philosophers, ancient Greek philosophers, were hopeful that just working to have a good character all by itself would be enough to give you a very good life. That there was a kind of pleasure to be had in it. The medieval shift in that, which took place largely because of Christianity, which was not a minor thing, broadened the scope of things, and articulated more clearly an account of what it is like to lead a fully human life, a really good, fully human life, and that’s a life that understands itself as being involved in pursuit of good, and that goes way beyond private advantage and individual well being, even if your sense of individual well-being extends out to your immediate family and the people in your neighborhood.
Matt: So instead of you in your little world growing a strong, powerful character, with virtue, and wisdom and all of that, that the newer philosophy was like, ok that’s great, but take your character, and serve the world. Serve the people. Serve the greater good.
Candace: Serve the greater good. It’s not enough to look inward and think, Ah, my soul—it’s so beautiful. If it really is that beautiful, it should be of use to others, too.
Matt: So these others, this is the philosophical side of this, this is the underlying theory, and I just think of today’s psychology, is also still more about you. To thine own self be true, I guess.
Candace: Well that’s certainly one powerful kind of work, although interestingly, a lot of research that has been done around self-transcendence has been done by nurses and clinical psychologists, nurses working particularly with geriatric patients and patients with very serious illness, oncology patients, cancer patients, who have a huge stake in figuring out what kinds of things will improve the health outcomes for their patients, and it turns out that if their patients have this self-transcendent understanding of themselves, they’ve got much better health outcomes. Which is stunning, because one of the things severe illness can do to most people is produce a turn inward, where you become hyper-concerned about your health, and then about what your health trouble is doing to your immediate family.
Matt: Circle the wagons. Protect yourself.
Candace: Exactly, especially if you’ve got one of these very serious illnesses, and what they found was that the patients who were self-transcendent in this sense had this attitude, and were understanding of their lives, got better. The older people who were that way had a real stake in their lives, and were more enjoying themselves, in a way that the other geriatric patients were not. So it’s got its feet on the ground in all kinds of odd places. It’s also part of social psychology, the psychologists who are working on questions about family and generativity and that sort of thing, and just attachment to the ongoingness of human life more generally.
Matt: It’s funny because I hear all these themes, and I am of the persuasion of social psychology, and I had never thought about it, but yeah, it’s about this ability of a human to influence lives, other people around them, and the self-transcended, higher-reaching philosophy could guide me to lift other people around me, even if I don’t know them.
Candace: I think that’s one of the most important things, is just that you live your life in a way that’s prepared to—everybody is put in some place where there is the possibility that they could extend out towards others—towards strangers, even—I mean, everybody will find some moment in their lives where that is a possibility. If you’ve got a self-transcendent attitude, you’ll see those as opportunities, not just slightly alarming moments where you’re surrounded by people you don’t know, or something like that.
Matt: And I guess that one of the things you mentioned as what Aristotle was talking about is about how everybody should be able to reach their fullest level of potential, and I guess we used to think that was my potential in me, but this might be more my potential in the we, in all of us.
Candace: Yeah, it’s my potential to participate, really effectively, in the collective pursuit of good, on the part of human beings. Good is not, I think, a private project to be pursued off in a corner someplace. Human good is human good. And it reaches out past the individual in all kinds of tremendously important ways.
Matt: How do we do it? So I’m a dad, our listeners are parents, grandparents — what can we do—what are some steps we can take just in our lives now, in the next few days, few hours, few minutes that would help us start to turn to this higher level of thinking and being?
Candace: Let’s see. If you are somebody who has religious faith, faith in a personal God, or more than one, who cares about what goes on with you, then one of the things you can do is pray for help, for actual guidance.
But another thing you can do is be alive to all of the ways in which the good in your life is made possible by people you’ve never met, people you might never meet, people who might have died a long time ago, and suffered and struggled a long time ago, to make the kind of life you are enjoying now possible.
And with children, to try to help them understand that they come from somewhere and have gotten these good things, and that they’re fully capable—not, you know, you should be ashamed of yourself and you’re not showing enough gratitude for the struggles of the people that went before you—they are fully capable, you know, of moving this forward in their lives in all kinds of ways, and that sometimes the smallest thing you do for another person can be an enormous thing in that other person’s life, and you may never know what you have done for that person.
So you know, there are all kinds of little ways of just being alive to your fellow human beings and trying to understand them as seeking some kind of good or trying to avoid some kind of bad even if they’re doing some kinds of things that look to you to be pretty questionable. Realize that if you’re going to have any understanding of what they’re doing you’re going to have to see them as trying to go for something good or avoid something bad, that you are trying to go for something good or avoid something bad, and that this is a thing that you have in common with your fellow human beings even if their views about good and bad differ from yours pretty dramatically. And to have a lot of respect for the ways that groups of people try to find to work together on behalf of a shared sense of the good that isn’t just for them, but is for human beings more generally. Does that help?
Matt: That’s beautiful. And great ideas. And I love your wording, “alive to life.” Just be alive to all these ideas, I guess, is just get your mind engaged in thoughts bigger than you, past, present, and future.
Candace: And just move around in a way that treats your fellow human beings as worthy. There’s a Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who basically was of the view that the most important thing about the community he was trying to build was that every human being he met was a human being for whom Jesus died. That’s a way of thinking about your fellow human beings that’s super unusual. If that’s the way you approach your fellow human beings, then you’re approaching your fellow human beings in a really powerful way.