Thursday, October 11, 2012
Satyagraha against one's own people - how Gandhi read Socrates, part 2
It is important to realize what satyagraha is and accomplishes from Gandhi’s point of view, and how different this conception is from say King’s conception and the civil rights movement .
For Gandhi, Socrates does not just model civil disobedience as an honorable protest technique against the powers that be. Instead, Socrates seeks, through personal example, poverty and sacrifice even of his life, to cleanse the diseases of Athens, just as India needs to be cleansed, to stand up nonviolently against British colonialism and free itself:
“Only when we succeed in these [tasks] can India be rid of its many afflictions. We must learn to live and die like Socrates. He was, moreover, a great satyagrahi. He adopted satyagraha against his own people. As a result the Greeks became a great people. If through cowardice or fear of dishonor or death, we fail to realize or examine our shortcomings and fail to draw the people’s attention to them, we shall do no good to India’s cause, notwithstanding the number of external remedies we may adopt, notwithstanding the Congress sessions [we may hold], not even by becoming extremists. India’s good does not lie along that direction. When the disease is diagnosed and its true nature revealed in public, and when, through suitable remedies, the body of India is cured and cleansed both within and without, it will become immune to the germs of the disease, that is, to the oppression by the British and the others. If, however, the body itself is in a state of decay , then if we destroy one kind of germs, it will be attacked by another, and this will ruin the body – India herself.” (Indian Opinion, Collected Works 8: 173-74)
Gandhi is not particularly drawn to democracy, let alone deeply a democrat. He functions within an empire, which for a long time, he is quite attached to and even fought for - see here. But the British Empire was not democratic for blacks or Indians in South Africa or Indians in India. As a result, Gandhi does not see Socrates fully as a citizen of a democracy in Athens that he was. He does not see Socrates a philosopher who seeks to remodel a democracy to make a continuing space for the practice of questioning about virtue and justice, of exposing injustice, of earning what Gandhi calls the wrath of the envious.
In 1921, the great strikes Gandhi led – revealing an important emphasis on exploitation in this translation – resulted in a police attack which killed strikers. Some strikers responded by killing police. Gandhi then went on a hunger strike against the violence and called off the strike.
Listen to his comments in his translation of 1908 in which he, but not Socrates, speaks of exploitation:
"He made a powerful impression on the minds of the young who followed him about in crowds. [Socrates' teaching] had the result of putting an end to unconscionable gains made by persons [with predatory tendencies]. It came in the way of those who lived by exploiting others." (“Story of a Soldier of Truth, part 1, Indian Opinion, Collected Works 8:172-73.
In the Meno one might say on Gandhi’s behalf, Socrates did show that the standard justification of slavery was false. Any of Meno’s slaves could prove under questioning an advanced theorem of Greek geometry. One could think of the slave not as an object but as a free person. But there is no whisper in Socrates of exploitation as a characterization of oppression.
Gandhi’s satyagraha was, in fact, a terrible blow to the growing strike movement. Arguably, his action set back the campaign for an independent India for 10 years (unlike the Southern civil rights movement which had a serious of interrelated actions over 10 years, until the salt march to the sea, the movement in India was much more desultory and less effective).
In 1948, however, Gandhi went on a lengthy hunger strike against Hindu slaughters of Muslms along the new border with Pakistan. This is an admirable action against a Ku Klux Klan or Meletus-like democracy, deficient democracy. It is exactly a modern echo of Socrates.
And it is completely different from what we think of as civil disobedience – nonviolent action against or noncooperation with an unjust law. In King, it is only the government that is the focus; in Gandhi, it is the government but sometimes, the people. In this, Gandhi understood Socrates as a paradigm of satyagraha in a way which is deeper than the American experience, and sometimes resonant.
This understanding of Socrates underlines why Gandhi did what he did. It corrects a misunderstanding. Socrates’s was a long run example of doing the right thing, which made the Greeks great – despite themselves – and helps establish a public space for doing philosophy. It is important to take in this aspect of Socrates deeply as perhaps King did not. For Gandhi saw himself as a leader in an undemocratic movement and many looked to him for leadership. He became a great center of attention.
In contrast, King worked in the even more murderous setting of the South – a one party racist dictatorship – the “Democrats” - against blacks and whites who fought racism, a setting that featured orgies of lynching. In marching to Jackson after James Meredith was shot, King was accompanied by the Deacons for Self-Defense, an armed group to protect the nonviolent march against further hidden Klan gunmen. What King did was to supply a kind of democratic police protection, given that the Southern police (and often the federal forces) were – or were in with – the Klan.
As a member of a despised minority, King led a revolt centered in blacks in the South but with much support from anti-racist whites in the North and Federal law and sometimes the Federal government.
In a different situation, Gandhi led the vast majority against British colonialism. The violent white Englishmen were a tiny minority.
But Gandhi also saw a personal aspect, an aspect against his own people, to cure its weaknesses and diseases as he put it, in fighting colonialism. It was only when India was up to nonviolence that it could take up its true heritage, teach the world. Note that there is something rather admirably grandiose in this ambition.
But compared to King, he also undercut the actual movement for independence in which people could have learned to act themselves in (mainly) non-violent struggle. He could have warned against the violence, but not called off the movement. He did not.
In this respect, the greater democracy of the American movement – similar to Socrates in Athens – perhaps rendered its impact on black and white Southerners and all Americans deeper. In both societies, however there has been a weakening of nonviolent resistance since these initial movements, even though the need for it has always been considerable and is becoming glaring.
Gandhi launched – experimented in – the first great mass political movement against oppression, which reveals nonviolence, novelly, as a political strategy. This was something not tried previously, with a vast potential to make mass spontaneous revolts more successful. Yet Gandhi’s hunger strike against the strikes and calling them off also reflects a fundamentally undemocratic misconception of how to build a mass movement. He does not believe that ordinary people need to learn nonviolence through the experience of the struggle. He short-circuits the experience – with its difficulties like the incident of violence – which can lead to a mass movement growing, having many leaders, affirming mass nonviolence or noncooperation both because it is right and because it is more effective.
Modeling himself on Socrates, Gandhi presumed to be too much a leader in the movement. In this respect, King was less Socrates and a better political leader – a less imposing, single one - of a successful, nonviolent struggle.
In the first essay here, I emphasized the contradiction between Socrates’s wisdom – the interlocutor thinks he knows something, Socrates says, and does not, and I neither know nor think that I know – and others’ boasting. But this point leads into a second contradiction about whether satyagrapha aims to reform Athenian democracy or whether it seeks, more broadly, to make the Hellenes a great nation. As Gandhi puts it in his commentary in the first installment (part 1 of 6):
“We have much to struggle for, not only in South Africa, but in India as well. Only when we succeed in these [tasks] an India be rid of its many afflictions. We must learn to live and die like Socrates. He was, moreover, a great satyagrahi. He adopted satyagraha against his own people. As a result the Greeks became a great people.” (Collected Works 8:173)
What makes the Greeks a great nation? That we think of Socrates, increasingly as founding civil disobedience (see John Rawls’ conception of civil disobedience – “resistance to an unjust law within a context of overall fidelity to the laws”). That we think of Greek culture as wise often in resisting hubris (about which, as I suggested in part one here, Gandhi sometimes faltered).
But Gandhi substitutes the Greeks here for Athens and the democracy. For Socrates at his trial sought to strengthen Athenian democracy by making a place in it for questioning, for philosophy. Many, perhaps including Gandhi, miss this point because the Athenian democracy, for but a scrap of life, a couple of years as Socrates warns them, put its wise man to death. It became infamous for this.
Further Socrates points out that for him, as a virtuous person, to participate in politics was to risk death. And he describes how, when serving once as the head of the prytany, he objected to the naval commanders (mostly aristocrats) being put to death for not picking up dead rowers/soldiers in the water in the midst of battle (Xenophon says in a storm). The democrats – note again a Mccarthyite, Ku Klux klan defective democracy or in Rousseau’s terms a will of all - then called for his death.
Aside from soldiering, Socrates had been in the public arena, twice. The other time, the Tyranny of the Thirty had bid him join 4 others in arresting Leon of Salamis – Gandhi mysteriously says “Lyson” – and bring him to be executed. Critias and Charmides – Plato’s cousin and uncle - had sought to annex Socrates to their crimes. But Socrates had gone home and would, he says, have been killed by the tyrants if the Thirty had not fallen.
Each time he had faced death. The third was his trial…
So Socrates says, one must be like Achilles and not fear death but hold one’s position. Gandhi again does not deeply know Greek culture, substitutes Patroclus for Achilles. But the latter avenged the death of Patroclus, his friend, by cutting down Hector at the cost of his own immortality (his mother Thetis, a nymph, had warned him); even the editor of Gandhi’s Collected Works has no idea of the significance of Achilles in Homer:
“If as you imply, an act which involves the risk of death is a bad act, all must be deemed very bad men indeed. Patroclus was warned by his mother that, if he killed Hector, his own death would follow swiftly upon Hector’s. Patroclus replied that it was a thousand times to be preferred that he should die for killing Hector to that he should live on as a coward. Patroclus was not frightened of death. The right thing for a man is not to desert his post, even if he has to run the risk of being killed or any other risk, whether he has chosen the post of his own will or has been put there by a superior.” (Gandhi, Collected Works, 8:213).
The editor notes that: “The warning was given not to Patroclus but to his comrade, who was eager to kill Hector and avenge the death of Patroclus.” But the two were also lovers, and more significantly, Achilles is the great character – the book begins with his wrath (menis)- and his fate, as of all other warriors, is a theme of the Iliad.
Socrates extends this thought to philosophy. He fights for questioning in the city – in the democracy – as he fights to defend the democracy. And his life is at play. For as he says repeatedly, it is better to be just, be virtuous, and stick to it even at the price of one’s life, than to be wicked and live.
Gandhi strongly gets this last point – it is at the heart of nonviolence/satyagraha – but he misses the point about sticking to one’s post in a democracy – as soldier, as philosopher/questioner – entirely.
Not only is this mistakenly reading Socrates as a citizen, as it were, of an empire – a moral resistant in a people disenfranchised. It deprives Socrates of his democratic agency, of his questioning and holding his place honorably within a democracy.
At the end of the Crito, it is the laws of democratic Athens which murmur to Socrates. Though he sees the contradictions in them and in some ways, Plato satirizes them – see here – he also honors them intrinsically. Socrates does not value all laws, but in a limited way, democratic ones.*
In addition, Athens does not become stronger from Socrates’s nonviolent strike to the death against it. The democracy, defeated by Sparta, and, murdering Socrates, declines. In the first century BC, it is crushed by Rome (all the men slaughtered in the Acropolis; the blood ran down the Pan-Athenian way as Athanasios Bobos, a Greek historian and teacher who spoke with my students in Athens, put it (h.t Jonilda Dhamo), and it lived on, in memory, with the ill fame of having murdered its wise man. That wise man who often remarked on the deficiencies of democracy acquired the false reputation – along with the writer Plato – of being an anti-democrat.
But isn’t opposition to democracy a serious charge against Socrates? Doesn’t the arrogant person of Xenophon’s account (Xenophon was fighting with the Persian emperor and drew his account from the tale of Hermogenes…) or Leo Strauss’s embody this?
No. Socrates could not have gone to his death sneering at the laws. That would be, as Heidegger rightly suggests, falling into the one. It not a plausible, let alone honorable way to die, not one in which Socrates, as he says, hears the voice of the laws as the Corybants – the participants in the mystery religions of whom Socrates was one - hear the droning murmur of the flutes, drowning out all others.
Socrates had to act as a philosopher and pursue the course that his inner voice did not warn him against: to stand in a good relationship, intrinsically, and not as a matter of reputation, to the laws. It was not the laws, the laws say in the speech Socrates conjures in Crito, but the decision of men that put him death. But one might also think that the law against blasphemy, permitting capital punishment, was defective. Or one might note with Socrates, that with a four day trial in a capital case, as some cities permit, he would have persuaded the jurors of his innocence.
In any case, the disrepute of the laws was caused by the will of all, the defective democracy, not by Socrates doing the right thing in relation to the laws in going to his death to preserve and honor philosophy and his life as a philosopher. For improving the laws of a democracy – ones protecting freedom of speech and conscience, for example - is possible.
*In a May 3, 1963 letter to Leo Strauss which I found in Regenstein Library, Joseph Cropsey interprets the Crito subtly but entirely misses the central point.
"I have come to think that Socrates' defense of himself has perhaps this place in the overall scheme: Everyone accepts his later statement in prison at face value, when he says that to escape would be to contradict the whole course of his life. The impression is that to violate the law would be to contradict the whole course of his life [no, since he has already done so by continuing to question], but in that situation, the way he manifests that refusal is by sticking to the truth. He sticks to the truth by declining to defend himself with the whole truth, for the whole truth could not wholly contradict the charge with respect to atheism [that he did not believe in the gods of Athens hardly shows he was an atheist, a foolish Straussian conclusion...]. (Thus, repelling the accusation that he teaches that the sun is a stone and the moon is of earth, he does not say that he doesn't teach it, but rather that Anaxagoras taught it long ago)."
Strauss does not answer this letter - he often did not challenge or correct his students - but he, too, has no understanding of or sympathy for civil disobedience.