Happy Birthday, Mahatma Gandhi!

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn in the late 1920's. Gandhi started the ultimate 'Shop Local' movement, in which he called on his fellow Indians to wear only homespun, locally made fabrics to counteract the British colonialist's exploitation of Indian textile worker

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn in the late 1920’s. Gandhi started the ultimate ‘Shop Local’ movement in which he called on his fellow Indians to wear only homespun, locally made fabrics to counteract British colonialist’s policies which impoverished and nearly destroyed India’s textile industry. I founded an apparel and accessory line and boutique in the early 2000’s based on the same principles, carrying only locally and US-made products as an alternative to buying goods made in overseas sweatshops whose workers were unprotected by labor laws. Gandhi’s and my own approach were nationalistic and protectionist, which I no longer believe goes far enough in promoting equal human rights for all. While such approaches may be a good place to start in some circumstances, a better way to go about improving the lives and prospects of workers around the world is to require our governments to institute more comprehensive labor laws and rigorously enforce them. This must include holding companies responsible for the abuses of their contractors, of course, to actually be effective. But Gandhi did, I think, point us down the right path, towards consciousness about what we buy, why we buy it, and how our market decisions effect others.

There are very few non-Americans, outside of our mother country of Britain and our godmother France, who have had a greater impact on the history of the United States and our attitudes towards human rights than the incomparable Mahatma Gandhi. For someone who preached simplicity, often wearing nothing but a loincloth, weaving his own fabric, and living a severely rustic lifestyle to exemplify his own teachings, Gandhi was a very complicated person.

He was a human rights activist, politician, journalist, social and religious reformer, and to many, a sort of messiah. Originally a British loyalist, Gandhi’s studies and personal observations led him to change his own views, often radically, many times over the course of his long life. His beliefs in the revolutionary and morally suasive power of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance were and continue to be particularly influential in the United States, beginning with the mid-20th century civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr, Gandhi’s intellectual and spiritual descendant, emerged as the leader of this movement following his role in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. King’s and Gandhi’s ideas about the civil disobedience and non-violence, in turn, both incorporate Henry David Thoreau’s ideas from his landmark essay ‘Civil Disobedience’.

Here are excerpts on Gandhi’s influence on the American civil rights movement from the encyclopedia of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University:

‘Upon his death, Mohandas K. Gandhi was hailed by the London Times as ‘‘the most influential figure India has produced for generations’’ (‘‘Mr. Gandhi’’). Gandhi protested against racism in South Africa and colonial rule in India using nonviolent resistance. A testament to the revolutionary power of nonviolence, Gandhi’s approach directly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued that the Gandhian philosophy was ‘‘the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom’’ (Papers 4:478)…

Gandhi was born 2 October 1869, in Porbandar, in the western part of India, to Karamchand Gandhi, chief minister of Porbandar, and his wife Putlibai, a devout Hindu. At the age of 18, Gandhi began training as a lawyer in England. After completing his barrister’s degree he returned to India in 1891, but was unable to find well-paid work. In 1893, he accepted a one-year contract to do legal work for an Indian firm in South Africa, but remained for 21 years. It was in South Africa that Gandhi was first exposed to official racial prejudice, and where he developed his philosophy of nonviolent direct action by organizing the Indian community there to oppose race-based laws and socioeconomic repression.

Gandhi returned to India in 1914. In 1919, British authorities issued the Rowlatt Acts, policies that permitted the incarceration without trial of Indians suspected of sedition. In response, Gandhi called for a day of national fasting, meetings, and suspension of work on 6 April 1919, as an act of satyagraha (literally, truth-force or love-force), a form of nonviolent resistance. He suspended the campaign of nonviolent resistance a few days later because protestors had responded violently to the police.

Within the next few years, Gandhi reshaped the existing Indian National Congress into a mass movement promoting Indian self-rule through a boycott of British goods and institutions…’ (Continue reading)

I’ve included a list of links of many excellent online sources on Gandhi below, including journalist and social critic Christopher Hitchen’s critique. Gandhi did, at times, express ideas and make decisions that many regard as problematic to this day, such as his early rhetoric on black Africans and his relations with some of the women in his life, including his wife Kasturba. Gandhi was no plaster saint: like the rest of us, he struggled to find truth and meaning in a world of mutually contradictory yet worthy-seeming values, principles, and goals; sometimes, like the rest of us, he didn’t get it right, and sometimes, he was very, very wrong. True understanding, I believe, is never reached through uncritical hero worship, even of one as influential, internationally revered, and I believe ultimately beneficial to the intellectual, activist, and political history of human rights as Gandhi.

Appreciating Gandhi Through His Human Side ~ by Hari Kunzru for the New York Times‘ Books of the Times, Mar 29, 2011

Civil Disobedience ~ by Kimberley Brownlee for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gandhi and Civil Disobedience ~ from the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Gandhi the Philosopher: Better Known as the Face of Non-violent Protest, Gandhi Was Also a Surprising, Subtle Philosopher in the Stoic Tradition ~ by Richard Sorabji for Aeon

In Search of Gandhi ~ by Lalit Vachani, from BBC’s Radio Four Storyville Why Democracy? series

Life of Gandhi ~ a documentary by GandhiServe Foundation: Mahatma Gandhi Research and Media Service.

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand (1869-1948) and India Trip (1959)two entries from Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Global Freedom Struggle: Encyclopedia of the MLK Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

Mohandas Gandhi ~ by Salman Rushdie for Time magazine, Apr 13, 1998

The Real Mahatma Gandhi: Questioning the Moral Heroism of India’s Most Revered Figure ~ by Christopher Hitchens for The Atlantic, July/August 2011 issue.

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When I Help You, I Also Help Myself: On Being a Cosmopolitan, by Massimo Pigliucci

Kunyu Quantu, or Map of the World, 1674 by Ferdinand Verbiest. At the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow

One of the axioms of modern morality is that there is an inevitable tension between altruism and selfishness. The more you focus your attention, energy and resources toward your own benefit, the less ‘of course’ you can do for others. As a result, we all strive to find some balance between these two opposing demands, often ending up far short of our ideal, and feeling guilty about it. (Well, some of us feel guilty, at any rate.)

But what if this is in fact a false dichotomy? What if we adopted a different framework, according to which helping ourselves helps humanity at large, and conversely, helping others helps us as well? This is the basic idea behind cosmopolitanism, literally being a citizen of the world, which originated in Ancient Greece and was further developed in Rome. Turns out, ancient Greco-Roman philosophy still has a thing or two to teach us moderns.

The term ‘cosmopolitan’ was associated with the ancient Cynic philosophers, named after a word that didn’t have the modern connotation at all, but rather indicated a group of radicals devoted to challenging society’s norms by living simply, owning no property or housing. One of the schools of Hellenistic philosophy influenced by the Cynics was that of the much more mainstream Stoics (who lived in actual houses, and some – like the Roman Senator Seneca – were even rich). The Stoics developed the idea of cosmopolitanism into a general philosophy that guided their everyday thoughts and actions. As Epictetus, the slave-turned-philosopher of second-century Rome, put it in Discourses: ‘Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with: “I am Athenian,” or “I am from Corinth,” but always: “I am a citizen of the world.”’ This strikes me as something we ought to remember, internalise, and practise – especially in these times of fear-mongering, xenophobia, Brexit, Trumpism, and nationalistic tribalism.

The Stoic idea was simple and elegant: all humans inhabit the same big city, indeed we are so interconnected and interdependent that we are really an extended family, and we ought to act accordingly, for our own sake. The Stoic philosopher Hierocles came up with the image of a number of concentric circles of concern: at the centre of the smaller, inner circle, is you. Right outside is the circle of your family. Outside that is the one comprising your friends. The next circle over is that of your fellow citizens (ie, in the literal sense of those inhabiting the same city), then that of your countrymen, and finally humanity at large.

A modern philosopher such as Peter Singer talks of expanding the circles, meaning that we should aim at enlarging our concerns to encompass more and more people, thus overcoming our natural selfishness. Hierocles, in contrast, thought that we should aim at contracting the circles, bringing other people closer to us because we realise that they are our own kin. The closer we get them to us, the more the self/other dichotomy dissolves, and the more our interests align with those of our community. Indeed, Hierocles went so far as to instruct his students to address strangers as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ (or, depending on their age, as ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’), in an early form of cognitive therapy aiming at restructuring the very way we think about others – and consequently the way we act toward them.

In his Meditations, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, also a Stoic, summarised the idea of cosmopolitanism and our duty to others in the form of a logical sequence: ‘If the intellectual part is common to all men, so is reason, in respect of which we are rational beings: if this is so, common also is the reason that commands us what to do, and what not to do; if this is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of some political community.’

This is what the Stoics captured in one of their fundamental slogans: ‘Live according to nature.’ It doesn’t mean that we should go around naked, hugging trees in the forest, but rather that we should examine human nature and live according to it. And human nature is fundamentally that of a social being capable of reason. (Notice that I said capable of reason, some of us employ such capacity more often or more keenly than others…) It follows that living according to, or in harmony with, nature, means doing our part to use reason to improve society. Whenever we do so, we at the same time make things better for us (because social beings thrive in a functional and just society) as well as for others. Which means that the modern self/other dichotomy is far too simplistic, and in fact misleading, because it artificially pits the interests of the individual against those of society. Of course, there will always be specific cases where we have to choose between the immediate interests of, say, our children and those of strangers. But keeping in mind that in the long run our children will thrive in a flourishing society helps to shift our way of thinking from treating life as a zero-sum game to seeing it as a cooperative one.

Stoic cosmopolitanism should not be taken to imply that the ideal human society resembles a beehive, where individuality is subsumed for the benefit of the group. On the contrary, the Stoics were keen defenders of human freedom and very much valued the independence of individual agents. But they thought that the freedom to pursue our individual goals, to flourish in our own way, is predicated on the existence of a society of similarly free individuals. And such society is possible only if we realise that our collective interests are broadly aligned. We might be from Athens or Corinth (or the United States or Mexico) as an accident of birth, but in a deeper sense we are all members of the same global polis. We would be well advised to start acting like it.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, 2017. He lives in New York. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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