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Satyagraha – Letter from Birmingham Jail Essay

Mohandas Gandhi’s, “Satyagraha,” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” each argue for non-violent civil disobedience. However, each author uses different rhetorical appeals, such as ethos, to establish their credibility. In paragraph ten of King’s statement he asks rhetorical questions the Clergymen might have. “You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path”(King 2)? Gandhi also does a great job of breaking down the complexity of his argument by separating his “new terms” and defining them one by one. With these two aspects in mind the authors set out their framework for their argument and presented it in their own way with their own style.

In Gandhi’s Satyagraha we see a totally different framework for his argument. Gandhi creates ethos in an intelligent way by setting up a “dialogue” in his work. The “reader” offered questions and challenges to Gandhi. Gandhi then took the role of the “editor” and responded point by point in a philosophical exposition of his ideas. “Reader: Is there any historical evidence as to the success of what you have called soul-force or truth-force? Editor: The poet Tulsidas has said… This appears to be a scientific truth”(Gandhi 208). In setting up this dialogue Gandhi is preventing a counter argument, which is vital when creating a “new language.” It stops the reader from questioning Gandhi’s argument and puts them in check with no rebuttal thus further building his credibility. Like King, Gandhi greatly influences the thought process of his audience. He not only prevents the reader from questioning his statement but he also doesn’t allow them to think about if it is wrong or not. He establishes his ethos so well that his audience doesn’t think there is any legitimate counter argument.

Like Gandhi, King asks three rhetorical questions to the Clergymen. “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path”(King 2)? With this statement King allows some indirect input from the Clergymen. He then goes on to answer the questions with legitimacy and reason. King’s questions force the Clergymen to think about how they would answer them. But when King himself tells them the answers, it forces them to think differently. It forces them to think like King. Throughout the whole letter King does such an incredible job of allowing his audience to think for themselves but then provides an alternative way of thought. In doing this King is hoping that the spark of an alternative thought would in turn get the readers to question whether or not their actions are right or wrong. Martin Luther King Jr. establishes ethos by utilizing his knowledge of the Bible and referencing it to his main audience, the Clergymen. “…and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I”(King 1).

King could not have a better audience to write to than the Clergymen because he can back up all of his statements with references to the Bible that they also can relate to. He can use his knowledge to influence the thinking of these Clergymen and justify his actions. King essentially uses Biblical references as a tactful “shame on you” towards the Clergymen. He relates himself to Paul, a highly regarded apostle, who had a similar mindset as King. In doing this King was making himself look like the better person because he was actually doing something for good and following examples of past Biblical leaders. If King could break down the patterned thinking of not just the Clergymen, but also all of the ignorant people, he would not only get his message across but it would also be accepted. Gandhi’s most impressive aspect is his ability to fully understand his audience. In his extreme understanding of his reader, Gandhi can gear his argument so that it will make so much sense that the reader won’t be able to question it.

In Satyagraha he creates new terms that no one has heard before. Satyagraha, Passive Resistance, Civil Disobedience, and Non-co-operation are the new terms he sets forth in his work. These terms are very complex for the reader to understand so Gandhi breaks them down and defines them one by one. “Satyagraha is literally holding on to Truth and it means, therefore, Truth-force”(Gandhi 207). He provides examples and states the significance of these new words in such a simple manner. What Gandhi is really doing is setting up the readers thought process to become more open and accepting to his argument. Once they understand the core basis of his argument it becomes a lot easier for them to change their way of thinking.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi’s higher level of thinking and understating of their audience allows them to structure their argument in the most compelling way possible. They have a way of shaping the readers minds and molding it to the standards of their argument that surpasses many of the influential leaders of the day. They establish their credibility in such a forceful way that the reader cannot help but pay close attention to what they are portraying in their argument. King and Gandhi’s tactics for justifying their arguments are amazingly influential and that is why they were such highly regarded leaders. They had the power to manipulate people’s minds to allow them to not think in such a patterned way. They provided alternatives to the traditional way of thought.

Works Cited

Gandhi, Mohandas. “Satyagraha.” Writing About the World. Navajivan Trust. 206-211.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Joan Daves. Writer’s House LLC, 1963. 172-189.


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