As Martin Luther King Day approaches, it is worth remembering that King’s belief in the justice of civil disobedience, the cornerstone of his precious legacy, was once unthinkable. While it is obvious to us that there are just laws we must obey and unjust laws we should sometimes flout, the idea that conscience and not the state must be the ultimate arbiter of our actions was utterly foreign to the overwhelming majority of ancient peoples. Their rulers had a mandate from heaven—and their rule, automatically legitimate, knew no bounds. Only a few hundred years ago this doctrine of absolutism that dominated European politics and monarchist intellectuals such as Hobbes mocked the notion that justice was anything but what the king dictated.
So what happened? Why do we now instinctively reject this absolutist view of justice—and what is the ultimate source of our views? These are precisely the kinds of questions that Chicago’s Core curriculum was designed to address; yet, it does nothing of the sort. Perhaps because the University of Chicago is modeled after the prototypical German research university, it has adopted the historiography of 19th-century German academia, a history of ideas which is utterly incapable of explaining the emergence of King’s—and our own—conception of justice. Due to anti-Semitism, or some other form of collective madness, German academia decided to claim that virtually every valuable Western idea, among them the view that adherence to justice takes precedence over obedience to the state, descends directly from Greek philosophy. Thus, the Hebrew Bible is nowhere to be found in Core syllabi, even though it is the real foundation of disobedience theory—and everything that King held dear.
In contrast to Socrates, who passively accepted his death sentence rather than flee his polis in protest, biblical figures show no such deference to the will of the state. In the book of Daniel, for instance, three servants of the Babylonian king brazenly defy the law of the state that requires them to prostate themselves before a gold statue, telling Nebuchadnezzar that they serve a God higher than the king’s caprices. Lest we think that this and the countless other examples of moral independence in the Hebrew Bible demonstrate nothing more than the preferences of individuals, the text makes clear that the contingency of authority is one of its central philosophies. Deuteronomy, for instance, limits the right of the king to amass wealth and luxury, and insists that the duration of his rule is dependent on his adherence to God’s law. The institution of prophecy, whose role it was to declare the message of the deity in opposition to the actions of the king, ensured that the predominance of right had constitutional standing in Israelite government.
No wonder, then, that in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he formally advocated resistance to state injustice, King alluded to Daniel, Amos, and other Hebrew prophets. He certainly did not point to Plato and Aristotle, the first two authors whom students read in Classics of Social and Political Thought before skipping ahead to the Middle Ages. How could he, when in Politics Aristotle argues that rulers should be reluctant to change even bad laws of the state because they are so sacred? How could he, when Plato writes in Crito, “[E]ndure in silence whatever [your country] instructs you to endure, whether blows or bonds, and if it leads you into war to be wounded or killed, you must obey.”
Students in the Classics sequence eventually do read Locke, who fortunately rejects these pernicious views. Like King, he too believed that the Hebrew Bible supports his views of justice and did not think twice about citing it readily in support of his cause. Unlike Locke, however, and unlike the man whose life we will be celebrating in the coming days, most University of Chicago students will never have the chance to probe this most thoughtful of books to find the source of their proudly held beliefs.