“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself”

 Holistic philosopher Dr.Claudius van Wyk reflects on what we can learn from Martin Luther King and those who inspired him on the anniversary of his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.

Martin Luther King was committed to non-violent social transformation. And that commitment whilst rooted in his enlightened Christian ethos – was profoundly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘satyagraha’ approach. King referred to India’s Mahatma Gandhi as ‘‘the guiding light of our technique of non-violent social change’’. He reportedly contemplated traveling to India to deepen his understanding of these Gandhian principles.

As one of the writers who most deeply guided Gandhi’s political, spiritual, and philosophical evolution, Leo Tolstoy, experienced his own dramatic transformation. From landed aristocrat to social radical, he renounced property and position to advocate strenuously for social equality. It is reported that Gandhi eagerly read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You, the novelist’s statement of Christian anarchism. That book was described thus by Gandhi in his autobiography “(It) left an abiding impression on me.” And after further study of Tolstoy’s religious writing, he “began to realize more and more the infinite possibilities of universal love.”

Leo Tolstoy’s comment, from his great novel, ‘War and Peace’, that “…the greatest science is the science of the whole” has some profound implications. The whole is made up of its constituents – but they become transformed in the whole. This is the philosophical essence of the Christian ethos that informed Tolstoy, inspired Gandhi, and that motivated Martin Luther King. With this insight Tolstoy lamented: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” But then he reassures us that: “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.”

From todays insights in complexity science, and our better understanding of the functioning of whole complex adaptive systems, we can see that Tolstoy’s insights are deeply significant. We can all influence the ‘whole’ in some way. Our individual lives matter.

In his inspiring book ‘The Silent Pulse’ (1986) George Leonard described attending a serrmon by Martin Luther King, accompanied by the famous journalist Cal Bernstein who was so deeply involved in exposing President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. King’s theme was simple: “Life cannot be fooled”. Leonard evocatively describes this sermon where King declared that injustice universally would be “…overwhelmed by the intrinsically redeeming forces of existence”. Leonard confirms that King had been schooled in the philosophy and tactics of Gandhi’s satyagraha, as non-violent truth force.

Though the message was simple, Leonard nevertheless describes how King preached his sermon in four eloquent modes of discourse; philosophically, historically, religiously, and emotionally. But beyond the inspiring rhetoric, King also invited participation in the civil rights movement, which, he assured, offered the chance to join with the flow of the universe, “…at the heart of which could be found forever the creative power of love”.

This theme of active engagement is brilliantly promoted in the book ‘Disclosing New Worlds – Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity’ (1997) by MIT academics Spinosa, Flores and Dreyfus. There they argue that human beings are at their best, not when they are engaged in abstract reflection, but when they are intensely involved in changing the taken-for-granted everyday practices in some domain of their culture. That, they suggest, is when they are ‘making history’. But they emphasise, that history-making “…refers to changes in the way we understand and deal with ourselves.

Their study goes on,”For King… the principle of equality was not just legal dogma in the United States; it expressed the early colonists’ sense of the infinite worth of every soul, and the practice of agape love, that ought to obtain if individuals appreciated the souls of other individuals.”

The authors emphasise that for King the American retreat from equality was not merely a legal problem that had been present with the United States from its constitution but a falling away from a concern with spiritual equality that had been part of American self-understanding from the time of the pilgrims.   Martin Luther King seized upon that deeper spiritual meaning of being human as intrinsic to the American dream, and challenged ordinary Americans to rise to their potential.

In today’s fractured world this ethos, that inspired King, Gandhi, and Tolstoy, appears to have become so contaminated with dogmatic religiosity, that the spiritual baby has all but been thrown out with the muddied bathwater – at least in the West. Yet President Donald Trump goes to church in Washington, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin goes to church in Moscow, as do increasing millions of new Christian converts in China, India and Africa.

Herein must lie a potent opportunity, and for that to occur it is surely time for a spiritual re-awakening. As Jan Christian Smuts said at the end of the 2nd world war when the talk was about a new world order; “We don’t need new orders – we need to return to the true order of the Man of Galilee.”


i] The title of this blog comes from Leo Tolstoy

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