Richard Sorabji presents a fascinating study of Gandhi's philosophy in comparison with Christian and Stoic thought. Sorabji shows that Gandhi was a true philosopher. He not only aimed to give a consistent self-critical rationale for his views, but also thought himself obliged to live by what he taught—something that he had in common with the ancient Greek and Christian ethical traditions. Understanding his philosophy helps with re-assessing the consistency of his positions and life.
Gandhi was less influenced by the Stoics than by Socrates, Christ, Christian writers, and Indian thought. But whereas he re-interpreted those, he discovered the congeniality of the Stoics too late to re-process them. They could supply even more of the consistency he sought. He could show them the effect of putting their unrealised ideals into actual practice. Both learnt the indifference of most objectives—the Stoics from the Cynics, Gandhi from the Bhagavadgita. But both had to square that with their love for all humans and their political engagement. Indifference was to both a source of freedom.
Gandhi was converted to non-violence by Tolstoy's picture of Christ. But he addressed the sacrifice it called for, and called even protective killing violent. He was nonetheless not a pacifist, because he recognized the double-bind of rival duties, and the different duties of different individuals, which was a Stoic theme. For both Gandhi and the Stoics it accompanied doubts about universal rules. Sorabji's expert understanding of these ethical traditions allows him to offer illuminating new perspectives on a key intellectual figure of the modern world, and to show the continuing resonance of ancient philosophical ideas.
Richard Sorabji is an Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and a Fellow and Emeritus Professor of King's College, London.
Gandhi’s use of Platonic, Christian, and Stoic values: reinterpretation, experimentation, and mere convergence
Gandhi As Philosopher
Was Gandhi a philosopher? Yes. He was forever seeking a consistent rationale for all that he did, and, more than any philosophers I have encountered, he subjected his views to relentless criticism, sometimes his own, but more often that of other people, which he published voluminously in his weekly newspapers. He wrote daily letters and sought to answer criticisms and explain his ideas in relation to new situations. More-over, he thought himself obliged to live by what he taught. Philosophy as a way of life was the main tradition of ancient and of much subsequent philosophy, and went hand in hand with the thinking to which philosophy has sometimes more recently been confined. Gandhi was indeed a thinker, and he offered philosophical reasons for what he thought. His plea, for example, which we shall meet shortly, that we can learn from religions other than our own, a Hindu from Christ's Sermon on the Mount, has a profound philosophical basis concerning the nature of God and humanity. It should become clearer as we go along why I regard Gandhi as a philosopher, and I shall return to the question in chapter, both to confirm Gandhi's philosophical credentials and to draw a further conclusion about the un-usual character of his philosophical method.
Was Gandhi influenced by the Stoics? No. He felt that some of his views chimed with those of the Stoics, when he read about them. But the Western thought that directly influenced him was rather Plato's account of Socrates and St. Matthew's of Christ, along with writing in those traditions. So Platonic and Christian influences will certainly need discussing. But whereas those influences are well known, few have noticed the much more indirect relation to the Stoics. Moreover, I hope that the comparison with the Stoics will throw light not only on Gandhi, but also on the Stoics, or sometimes just on the ideas themselves.
Convergence of Stoic Values And Gandhi’s Experimentation
Stoic values overlapped with Gandhi's to some extent. For different reasons, they both sought to practice emotional detachment. Yet, despite the detachment, they both believed in extending love to all humans, and both sought to engage in politics. The emotional detachment gave to both a certain kind of freedom. The concern for all humans took each of them in the direction of human duties, not of human rights. In deciding on duties, each had a conception of being true to your own individual persona. Each was correspondingly suspicious of universal rules of human conduct. Each was ready to accept poverty, though in different ways. Each sought in different ways to square ideals of perfection with imperfect people. Gandhi made a merit of unattainable ideals as a counsel of perfection.
It was particularly hard to realize the Stoic ideals of feeling kinship with all human beings and of detachment from most natural objectives. It was hard to combine detachment with love, whether of family or of all human beings, and again to combine it with the urgency of political objectives. Yet the emotional detachment had to be rigorous if it was to confer the kind of freedom they sought. It was at least rare to fulfill the ideals of being true to your own persona—although the Stoics had a favorite example in the Stoic Cato—and of exercising Stoic freedom—where they had to seek examples outside Stoicism in Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic.
The Stoics tended to admit that probably no Stoic had succeeded in put-ting all their ideals into practice. But Gandhi sought to practice most of these pursuits, and he did so in a wealth of instances and with almost daily commentary, discussion, explanation, and answers to criticism, all within living memory and preserved in writing for posterity. Insofar therefore as his ideals overlapped, albeit only in part, with those of the Stoics, he was showing how their ideals might fare if they actually were put into practice. I do not say that Gandhi always lived up to his ideals, but, given their difficulty, I think that the extent to which he did was remarkable. And in chapter 11, while recapitulating some of his lapses, I shall also offer a reason why I think not so much can be made of the lapses as is sometimes thought.
Gandhi has often been thought of as a politician who made up inconsistent rationales as he went along. I have already said that in fact he sought consistency. Stoicism can reveal how close he was in certain ways to an ethical system that was exceptionally self-consistent, and how little he would have had to change in order to achieve a higher measure of consistency himself.
Gandhi knew the Stoics at most only through a book on three major Stoics that he records having read between 1922 and 1924 in Yeravada jail and which he specially picked out from his huge volume of reading as "an inspiring book."' In addition, it was noticed by Gandhi's learned secretary, Mahadev Desai, that his ideals were sometimes remarkably similar to theirs.
In translating into English and commenting on Gandhi's Gujarati translation of the Gita, we shall see that in two places Desai compares statements by the Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. The comparison between Gandhi and the Stoics is not based on his having read them as he read some of Plato and of Christian thought. But even though the overlap of values was a mere convergence, and not the result of influence, Gandhi's devotion to experiment—the term he used in the title of his autobiography—throws light on the Stoics. The point is that both Gandhi and the Stoics were accused of having impractical and bizarre ethical ideals. If the Stoics did not succeed in achieving their ideals, whereas, I believe, Gandhi to a surprising extent did succeed, this is enough in some cases to throw light in both directions. With the Stoics we can see how some of their ideals might have worked out in practice, and on what scale, if any, they might have been practical, and whether it would have been for good or ill. With Gandhi, we can see how close he came to a much more consistent ethical system than he actually managed to formulate, and we can see where he deviated from consistency. The Stoics could have made him more the consistent philosopher. He could have shown the Stoics how far and in what ways some of their ideals would look practical and attractive, when realized.
Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno from Citium in Cyprus around 30o BCE. Zeno studied with philosophers of several schools in Athens, including Crates, a major representative of the shockingly eccentric Cynic individualism. Zeno managed to create out of these origins a respectable and lasting philosophy that became a model for many ordinary Greek citizens and eventually for Roman aristocrats and even for the emperor of the Roman world, Marcus Aurelius.
In later Stoicism from the late second century BCE, the Stoics seem to have responded to the criticism that the ideal Stoic sage had never been realized. They turned their attention instead to the possibility of progressing in the direction of the ideal, and in the absence of the elusive ideal sage they turned to the ordinary person with ordinary problems and imperfections. This gave Stoic ethics an unparalleled ability to reach out across the millennia and tap us on the shoulder. It also inspired the continuous prose in the next three centuries of Cicero's expositions, and of the Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, which is much easier to read than the early Stoic fragments, although it presupposes that early Stoic thought.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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