Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gandhi, Socrates and satyagraha, part 1



In London, I saw my old friend Bhikhu Parekh, a Gandhian, a fine political theorist – author of Gandhi’s Political Philosophy - a leader about race relations in Britain and now a member of the House of Lords. He gave me his wonderful new book - Talking Politics - which included a startling fact I had not known. In 1908 in South Africa, Gandhi translated Plato’s Apology into Gujerati (vol. 8). Meditating on it was part of Gandhi’s campaign to fight against the racist degradation of Indians (and blacks) under the British foreshadowing of apartheid (divide and rule). As he relates in his Autobiography, it was near the beginning of Gandhi’s great journey.

I wrote immediately to Bhikhu to ask about what bent Gandhi reveals in the translation (I do not know Gujerati, but fortunately, Gandhi also published an English version of his translation/commentary). I had long known that Gandhi relied on Socrates along with Jesus as a founder of satyagraha – roughly, cleaving to the truth - along with 8 Hindus including Mirabai.*

And I had long underlined Socrates (and Plato’s) stance that it is better to suffer evil than ever to do it in the Apology and the Republic as a foreshadowing of and commonality with Gandhi. This is a unique attitude in the history of political philosophy, one which separates them from others and, in the twentieth century, gives rise to nonviolence or satyagraha.

But Gandhi’s translation of the Apology reveals a devotion to Socrates – a model of what we call civil disobedience see here, here, here and here - and a deeper pursuit of the experience and argument in the Apology and Crito – than I had realized. As I will suggest, Gandhi also studied the Symposium and Phaedo.

In "The Story of a Soldier of Truth," Gandhi offers an English commentary on his translation (see vol. 8 here). Note how he renames the Apology: Socrates, the first satyagrahi in Gandhi's view, is a soldier of truth. This vision is also part of Gandhi's notion of satyagraha as the nonviolence of the strong: those who could strike back but choose not to, those whose spiritual strength subdues the opponent. They are thus soldiers of truth...

One might recall Socrates's own statements about holding to his post as he had done in battle (28d-e) and his analogy with Achilles who did the honorable thing, avenging Patroklus, rather than sulking in his tent (28b-d). One can get the image of the soldier of truth strongly from the Apology.

One of Gandhi’s rules for satyagrahi is that one must protect the weak, under attack. This is both a point about Indians in South Africa – victims of English proto-apartheid (apartheid was legally specified under later Boer rule) but its worst victims (see my recent post on Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s experience of divide and rule in Uganda here) – and a deeper conclusion.

As Gandhi recognized, the cause of truth is not limited to oneself or to people of one’s own ethnicity, but extends to all humans, and thus, sharply to the most oppressed. This makes humanity and not nationality the core point. It is similar to what Marx practiced in fighting for what I call democratic internationalism (see Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy, ch 4)

Gandhi’s 17th rule for satyagraphi is that a Hindu practitioner must interpose himself and, if need be, give his life to defend a Muslim being beaten by a Hindu mob:

"17. do not take sides in [communal] quarrels, but assist only that party which is demonstrably in the right; in the case of inter-religious conflict, give your life to protect (non-violently) those in danger on either side." (Gandhi, “Some rules of satyagraha,” Youung India (Navajivan), 23 February, 1930 in Collected Works, vol. 48, p. 340)

Gandi knew and had braved that which he spoke of. For he had gone back to India from South Africa in 1898 and mobilized Indians about the indignities that their countrymen suffered in the latter. When he returned to Natal, a mob came out to lynch him. And he barely escaped.

“As soon as we landed, some youngsters recognized me and shouted 'Gandhi, Gandhi.' About half a dozen men rushed to the spot and joined in the shouting. Mr. Laughton feared that the crowd might swell, and hailed a rickshaw. I had never liked the idea of being in a rickshaw. This was to be my first experience. But the youngsters would not let me get into it. They frightened the rickshaw boy out of his life, and he took to his heels. As we went ahead, the crowd continued to swell, until it became impossible to proceed further. They first caught hold of Mr. Laughton and separated us. Then they pelted me with stones, brickbats, and rotten eggs. Someone snatched away my turban, whilst others began to batter and kick me. I fainted, and caught hold of the front railings of a house and stood there to get my breath. But it was impossible. They came upon me, boxing and battering. The wife of the police superintendent, who knew me, happened to be passing by. The brave lady came up, opened her parasol though there was no sun then, and stood between the crowd and me. This checked the fury of the mob, as it was difficult for them to deliver blows on me without harming Mrs. Alexander."

"Meanwhile an Indian youth who witnessed the incident had run to the police station. The police superintendent, Mr. Alexander, sent a posse of men to ring me round and escort me safely to my destination. They arrived in time. The police station lay on our way. As we reached there, the superintendent asked me to take refuge in the station, but I gratefully declined the offer. 'They are sure to quiet down when they realize their mistake,' I said 'I have trust in their sense of fairness.' Escorted by the police, I arrived without further harm at Mr. Rustomji's place. I had bruises all over, but no abrasions except in one place. Dr. Dadibarjor, the ship's doctor, who was on the spot, rendered the best possible help."

"There was quiet inside, but outside the whites surrounded the house. Night was coming on, and the yelling crowd was shouting, 'We must have Gandhi.' The quick-sighted police superintendent was already there, trying to keep the crowds under control not by threats, but by humouring them. But he was not entirely free from anxiety. He sent me a message to this effect: 'If you would save your friend's house and property and also your family, you should escape from the house in disguise, as I suggest.'

"Thus on one and the same day I was faced with two contradictory positions. When danger to life had been no more than imaginary, Mr. Laughton advised me to launch forth openly. I accepted the advice. When the danger was quite real, another friend gave me the contrary advice, and I accepted that too. Who can say whether I did so because I saw that my life was in jeopardy, or because I did not want to put my friend's life and property or the lives of my wife and children in danger? Who can say for certain that I was right both when I faced the crowd in the first instance bravely, as it was said, and when I escaped from it in disguise?"

"It is idle to adjudicate upon the right and wrong of incidents that have already happened. It is useful to understand them and, if possible, to learn a lesson from them for the future. It is difficult to say for certain how a particular man would act in a particular set of circumstances. We can also see that judging a man from his outward act is no more than a doubtful inference, inasmuch as it is not based on sufficient data."

"Be that as it may, the preparations for escape made me forget my injuries. As suggested by the superintendent, I put on an Indian constable's uniform and wore on my head a Madrasi scarf, wrapped round a plate to serve as a helmet. Two detectives accompanied me, one of them disguised as an Indian merchant and with his face painted to resemble that of an Indian. I forget the disguise of the other. We reached a neighbouring shop by a by-lane, and making our way through the gunny bags piled in the godown, escaped by the gate of the shop and threaded our way through the crowd to a carriage that had been kept for me at the end of the street. In this we drove off to the same police station where Mr. Alexander had offered me refuge a short time before, and I thanked him and the detective officers.”Autobiography, pp. 123-4 here.

In the Apology, Socrates says that crowds kill lightly and then, wish sometimes, if they could, to bring the dead back to life...(Apology 24c, 30a-b, Crito, 48c),

Yet Gandhi was able to withdraw the sting of the mob's anger with nonviolence. More than others – though Mr. Laughton and Mrs. Alexander helped him and thus, provide a paradigm for his rule 17 for satyagrahis – he was able to pursue a course of removing the cause of rage. But he suffered wounds…

“On the day of landing, as soon as the yellow flag was lowered, a representative of The Natal Advertiser had come to interview me. He had asked me a number of questions, and in reply I had been able to refute every one of the charges that had been levelled against me. Thanks to Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, I had delivered only written speeches in India, and I had copies of them all, as well as of my other writings. I had given the interviewer all this literature and showed him that in India I had said nothing which I had not already said in South African in stronger language. I had also shown him that I had had no hand in bringing the passengers of the Courland and Naderi to South Africa. Many of them were old residents, and most of them, far from wanting to stay in Natal, meant to go to the Transvaal. In those days the Transvaal offered better prospects than Natal to those coming in search of wealth, and most Indians, therefore, preferred to go there."

"This interview and my refusal to prosecute the assailants produced such a profound impression that the Europeans of Durban were ashamed of their conduct. The press declared me to be innocent and condemned the mob. Thus the lynching ultimately proved to be a blessing for me, that is, for the cause. It enhanced the prestige of the Indian community in South Africa and made my work easier.” p. 126

Consider, in the context of this mob violence, Gandhi’s words in 1908 in admiration of Socrates going to his death and expressing the defiant thought that he did not know whether death was a bad thing as people say. Socrates did know that participating in injustice (in ceasing questioning about virtue, i.e. who he was, or in Gandhi’s case, allowing a mob to tear apart an innocent human being) was worse.** In the conclusion of the Apology, he says:

“Now the time has come, and we must go hence: I to die, and you to live. God alone can tell which is the better state, mine or yours.”

[Gandhi says:] This is a historical event, that is, an event that actually occurred. We pray to God, and want our readers also to pray, that they, and we too, may have the moral strength which enabled Socrates to follow virtue to the end and to embrace death as if it were his beloved. We advise everyone to turn his mind again and again to Socrates’s words and conduct."[From Gujarati]

Indian Opinion,
9-5-1908 (from The Story of a Soldier for Truth which includes the translation, Gandhi, Collected Works, vol. 8 here ).

One might repeat Gandhi’s powerful words: that each of us must pray to have the moral strength to, if need be in pursuit of virtue, embrace death as if it were his [or her] beloved.

If one thinks of Gandhi’s Autobiography with its emphasis on defeating desires and purity of motive – see, for instance, the chapters on Brahmacharya - and Socrates’s (and Plato’s) emphasis in Phaedo in being a soul and renouncing the body, one will recognize a deep commonality. (That Gandhi’s attitude toward the body is fiercer than Socrates’s except perhaps in the Phaedo, also needs to be taken in. And of course, others of us might disagree with each of them – the soul is embodied…)

“We advise everyone to turn his mind again and again to Socrates’s words and conduct.” In his Autobiography, Gandhi says something as strong only about Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within you or the Bhagavad Gita. The Apology was an experience whose words Gandhi lived with, modeled satyagraha on.

In reading Gandhi's translation, an additional and equally prominent theme about questioning and seeking the truth came quickly to mind. Gandhi did not believe that a wise person could hope to learn the "absolute" truth. Instead, he was interested in experiments with truth. It is what gives his life, in seeking to overcome hypocrisies, to fight indignities in South Africa, to develop the ashram as well as the movement for a united and free India, its meditative, flexible, and innovative qualities. In Gandhi’s Political Philosophy, Bhikhu describes Gandhi’s efforts to cleave to the truth – satyagraha. That is, the truth is something that none of us possesses beyond glimmers (the glimmers, i.e. that slavery or colonialism are bad, are dazzlingly clear compared to alternatives- see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1).

The theme of the Apology is Socrates’s questioning: it is the sense in which Socrates is a soldier of truth (28d-e). For the Delphic oracle, speaking for Apollo, has stationed him in seeking out the riddle of the saying that he is wisest (Socrates himself chooses to do so by questioning others reputed to be wise). Listen to his words:

"Wherever a man stations himself in belief that it is best, wherever he is stationed by his commander [Apollo, Socrates's daimon], there he must I think remain and run the risks, giving thought to neither death nor any other thing except disgrace. When the commanders you chose stationed me at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, I there remained as others did, and ran the risk of death; but I should indeed have wrought a fearful thing, Gentlemen of Athens, if then, when the God stationed me, as I thought and believed, obliging me to live in the pursuit of wisdom, examining myself and others - if then, at that point through fear of death or any other thing, I left my post." (28d-29a)

In characterizing his wisdom as merely human wisdom – not puffing oneself up to be divine and out of hubris committing the frivolous murders of politicians, not thinking because one knows something (as artisans do) that one knows about other things, Socrates relies on the path of questioning - of experiments with truth - and conversation (22a-e).

"From this examination, Gentlemen of Athens, much enmity has risen against me, of a sort most harsh and heavy to endure, so that many slanders have arisen, and the name is put about that I am 'wise.' For on each occasion those present think I am wise in the things in which I test others. But very likely, Gentlemen, it is really the God who is wise, and by his Oracle means he means to say that 'human nature is a thing of little worth, or none.' It appears that he does not mean this fellow Socrates, but uses my name to offer an example, as if he were saying that 'he among you, Gentlemen, is wisest who, like Socrates, realizes that he is truly worth nothing in respect to wisdom.'

The Delphic oracle had told his friend Chaerophon, a democrat, that Socrates was wisest of them all. Socrates set out to test this saying by questioning those who seemed to be wiser. But he soon detected, that he himself was wiser only in this:
that they think they know and do not, whereas I neither know nor think I know.(21c-e)

"...I concluded that though he [a famous politician] seemed wise to many other men and most especially to himself, he was not. I tried to show him this; and thence I became hated, by him and by many who were present. But I left thinking to myself, 'I am wiser than that man. Probably neither of us knows anything worthwhile; but he thinks he does and does not, and I do not and do not think that I do. So it seems at any rate that I am wiser in this one small respect: I do not think I know what I do not."(21 c-d)

Gandhi’s view of truth – of experimenting with or striving for truth which goes beyond what one has known or experienced and which Gandhi identifies with God - is explicated by this passage in Socrates’s Apology. In the Apology, Socrates says that he lives in poverty because of his service to the God...(23c)

Note that Gandhi was raised a Hindu – and maintains the vegetarianism of the Vaishnava - but that he is not one religiously (he recognizes in the Autobiography that many traditions get aspects of the truth). If one had to say, in argument, what Gandhi thought about these matters, his translation of the Apology and words about it would give one a direction…

No other explication is as deep or pointed.

About the truth to which he cleaved, Gandhi follows the example and words of Socrates.***


*Gandhi invokes Mirabai at p. 141 of his Autobiography: "'The Lord has bound me
. With the cotton-thread of love, 
I am His bondslave,' 
sang Mirabai. And for me, too, the cotton-thread of love that bound me to the community was too strong to break. The voice of the people is the voice of God, and here the voice of friends was too real to be rejected."

**Upon reading the Apology in the beauty of the original Greek, I.F. Stone, who had stopped writing his brilliant Weekly because of a heart attack, said the last lines gave him chest pain. He had not known of Gandhi’s response; he might have reconsidered some of his thinking about Socrates had he realized this alternative way of looking at the latter's experience – ironically, a questioner’s or dissident’s way, a way nearer Stone's own than what he offers in The Trial of Socrates. But Stone's response to these lines is deep – see here, here, here, and here.

***As is Martin Luther King in his jail cell in Birmingham. See here.

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