Gandhi the pragmatic philosopher

Richard Sorabji writes: Was Mahatma Gandhi a philosopher? He would not have thought so himself. But I want to show that he was a model for philosophy in the philosophical subtlety of his accounts of non-violence and in his thinking on a vital kind of freedom. Gandhi was full of surprises: in his defence of concrete particularity in ethics when exceptionless rules cannot guide conduct; in his openness to views from other cultures; and in his exemplary response to criticism, which was welcomed, promulgated without being distorted, treated with disconcerting wit, and used to lead to a radical re-thinking of his own views.

Of course, Gandhi (1869-1948) is known for his belief in non-violence, which included, but was by no means confined to, non-violent resistance to the British rulers of India. But it is less well-known that he rejected the non-violence he had heard of in India. Although the most important influence in his life was the Jain faith, on non-violence, he preferred the second most important influence – Leo Tolstoy. He thought, rightly or wrongly, that the Indian view he knew did not sufficiently mind someone else treading on a beetle, so long as one kept oneself pure by not treading on it oneself. Gandhi saw his early self as a votary of violence. It was the Russian Christian writer, Tolstoy, who converted Gandhi to non-violence, a fact that shows his openness to views from other cultures.

For this openness to views from elsewhere, Gandhi acknowledged the value of another Jain view – that ordinary humans have only partial knowledge, from which he concluded that truth must be sought in diverse quarters. He described non-violence as being, on Tolstoy’s view, an ocean of compassion – one would not want anyone to tread on a beetle. But more than that, you should never hate your opponent. With his permission, Gandhi published Tolstoy’s A Letter to a Hindoo (1909), which argued that millions of Indians were enslaved to a few thousand British only because, instead of internalising the law of love, they cooperated with the British in carrying out the violence on which their enslavement depended.

Gandhi combined the attitude of compassion to all, opponents included, with a readiness for self-sacrifice so that, in resisting the British, he was ready to suffer a violent response without ever hating. But he did not think that all should join his non-violent confrontations, because everyone has a different character and hence a different duty (svadharma), since only some can retain the non-violent attitude in the face of violence. For those who could not, he set up a ‘constructive programme’, to carry out a different type of work. [Continue reading…]

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