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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OP Recommends: The Best Philosophy Books of 2017, Recommended by Nigel Warburton at Fivebooks

A view of Edinburgh Central Library’s Reading Room

Now that my papers are done and I have five weeks or so to choose my own reading, I’m heading to Edinburgh’s beautiful Central Library to pick up some books I’ve been itching to get into. One of them was already on my list: Dennis Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (one of my goals for the year is to learn as much about Scotland’s intellectual history as I can while I’m here). Nigel Warburton has made a list of his five favorite philosophy books of 2017, and Massimo Pigliucci’s book is among them. These are two excellent philosophers in the public square I’ve been following for a long time, and their philosophy podcasts are among my favorites.

Looks like I have four more books to add to my list; better get to it!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Bertrand Russell Got Stoicism Seriously Wrong, by Massimo Pigliucci

I’m an admirer of Bertrand Russell in some ways, and not in others. For one, I, too, have discovered over time that Russell had gotten some things very wrong about some philosophers and their ideas, and had to overcome some of the prejudices his History of Philosophy had instilled in me. Thanks for the defense of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci! This essay serves as a good introduction to Stoicism as well.

How to Be a Stoic

IMG_8246When I was growing up in Italy, the very first book of philosophy I ever laid hands on was by Bertrand Russell. Well, to be exact, it wasn’t a book of philosophy, but about a philosopher: his autobiography. From then on, I went to read Why I am Not a Christian, which solidified my own misgivings (as a teenager) about the Catholic faith I was brought up with. And of course soon afterwards I read Russell’s famous History of Western Philosophy. I realized even then that this was no neutral historical survey of the philosophical canon, but rather a highly opinionated personal take on more than two millennia of philosophizing. But I was a teenager, with little or no previous knowledge of philosophy, opinionated was fun! Recently, however, a viewer of my YouTube channel asked me what I thought about Russell’s harsh criticism of Stoicism. I couldn’t…

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Seneca to Lucilius: On Old Age, by Massimo Pigliucci

portrait-of-seneca-after-the-antique-the-pseudo-seneca-by-lucas-vorsterman-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsThis is the 12th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, and it deals with an issue that an increasing number of people in the first world of today have to deal with: old age.

Seneca begins by recalling a recent visit to one of his country houses, during which he complained to one of his employees that too much money was being spent to keep it up. But his bailiff protested that the house was getting old, and the repairs were therefore entirely warranted. So Seneca writes to Lucilius: “And this was the house which grew under my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones of my own age are already crumbling?” (XII.1)

He then argues that there is much to be cherished in that stage of his life that the bailiff’s unchallengeable argument suddenly made him appreciate:

“Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it. Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline.” (XII, 4-5)

Notice the awareness of a coming “abrupt decline,” which Seneca is not foolish enough to argue will make for an enjoyable part of his life, should he live long enough (as it turns out, he didn’t). While not expressly mentioned here, this was the reason why the Stoics — including both Seneca and Epictetus, not to mention Zeno — thought that the wise man should make an exit, take “the open door,” as Epictetus memorably put it, when the appropriate time had come, no a moment sooner, but also not a moment later.

So what should be the wise person’s attitude toward old age? Seneca puts it very vividly to Lucilius:

“Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say: I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me is finished. And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: ‘I have lived!’, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.” (XII.9)

I am often struck by Seneca’s language, and this is one of many instances. “I have lived!, every morning I arise I receive a bonus.” Indeed.

As he frequently does in the early letters, Seneca parts from his friend with a “gift,” a meaningful quotation from another author, which in this case is: “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint” (XII.10), another, more direct, reference to suicide to be chosen under certain circumstances.

The twist is that the above saying is from none other than Epicurus, the chief rival of the Stoic school at the time. Seneca, then, imagines Lucilius protesting: “‘Epicurus,’ you reply, ‘uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?’ Any truth, I maintain, is my own property.” (XII.11)

Again, a beautiful turn of phrase, and an example of real wisdom: it doesn’t matter where the truth comes from, once discovered, it is our collective property.

~ This piece was originally published at How to Be a Stoic on September 15, 2016

~ Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York and member of the faculty at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Massimo has a background in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. His most recent book, co-edited with Maarten Boudry, is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Seneca: On Tranquility of Mind, by Massimo Pigliucci

Another excellent piece by one of my favorite philosophers in the public square. I, for one, would do well to heed Seneca’s advice: I often find myself stressed and overwhelmed by running around too much and just doing, doing, doing, without enough reflection on whether or not it’s most conducive to my well-being and to the overall success of my endeavors. Thanks, Massimo, for bringing the wisdom of Stoicism to the hectic modern world!

How to Be a Stoic

Roman drinking wine Roman drinking wine

After having tackled Seneca’s views on what makes for a wise person, let’s take a look to what he had to say on the topic of peace of mind, which was a major goal especially of Roman Stoicism (as opposed to an exclusive emphasis on the cultivation of virtues in Greek Stoicism).

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David Hume, the Skeptical Stoic, by Massimo Pigliucci

c9bd8-portrait2bof2bdavid2bhume2bby2ballan2bramsey252c2b1754252c2bscottish2bnational2bgallery252c2bpublic2bdomain2bvia2bwikimedia2bcommonsI have always been a philosophical fan of David Hume. His clear writing, commonsense approach to things, rejection of abstruse philosophizing, embracing of science, and constructive skepticism have been the sort of traits I have aspired to, however imperfectly (no, I assure you this ain’t false modesty), throughout my career. Hume’s idea that a wise person proportions beliefs to evidence, later popularized (and somewhat distorted) by Carl Sagan in the motto “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” has guided me for many years, hopefully leading me to make as sound judgments as possible, as well as to change them when the cumulative evidence requires it. Add to this that le bonne David, as he was known in the Parisian salons of the Enlightenment, had a generally mild and pleasant character, and you get the features of an intellectual role model. A Stoic, however, David Hume certainly wasn’t. Or was he?

A recent article by Matthew Walker in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy (2013) tackles the question in an interesting way. Walker focuses on four essays in which Hume explores the nature of “the true philosopher,” simply entitled “The Epicurean,” “The Stoic,” “The Platonist,” and “The Sceptic.” Hume, who does not write in his own voice, but attempts an analysis of each school by writing as if he were a member (just like Cicero had done in his De Finibus, which Hume used as a model for his own essays), seems far more sympathetic to the Stoics and the Skeptics then to the Epicureans and the Platonists.

Walker, then, explores an apparent contradiction in the way Hume talks about Stoicism and Skepticism: on the one hand, he accepts the Stoic tenet that there is a way of life that the true philosopher attempts to follow, and that it is the best life possible. On the other hand, however, he also agrees with the Skeptics that there is no single way of achieving happiness. What gives? The answer, Walker suggests, lies in Hume’s flexible concept of how a true philosopher should live.

Let’s begin with Hume’s presentation of the Stoic point of view. It hinges on three theses: i) virtue-eudaimonism, the idea that virtue is the primary contributor to the happy life; ii) the reflection thesis, whereby the true philosopher guides his actions by reflection, the same way he develops and maintains his character; and iii) the supremacy thesis, the proposition that this is the best life for a human being.

Walker provides a nice analysis of Hume’s commitment to virtue-eudaimonism — the first of the three Stoic theses — albeit in a qualified fashion. He does think that the “sole purpose [of virtue] is, to make her votaries and all mankind … cheerful and happy,” but then distinguishes different virtues according to their specific contributions. So we have virtues that are immediately “agreeable” to oneself (cheerfulness and pride), those that free us from harmful behaviors (discretion, industry and frugality), virtues that are immediately good for others (wit), and those that are good for others in the long run (humanity, generosity, beneficence). Interestingly, Hume’s take come close to that of a minority opinion within ancient Stoicism, as expressed for instance by Panaetius, of whose thought Hume was aware.

Hume is also committed to the reflection thesis, the second one advanced by the Stoics. Here he takes a cue from a famous phrase by the poet Ovid: “A faithful study of the liberal arts humanizes character and permits it not to be cruel,” meaning that learning and reflection do make crucial contributions to a worthwhile human life. For Hume, philosophical reflection can help both negatively, by “extinguishing” violent passions, and positively, by improving our sensitivity to agreeable passions. Importantly, Hume doesn’t think that simply thinking about stuff improves our character and conduct, but he maintains that rational reflection can be used to change behavior and that, through repetition and habituation, one eventually can alter his character and disposition for the best. Needless to say, this is very similar to the Stoic doctrine of the gradual development and practice of virtue.

What about the supremacy thesis? That’s where things get interesting. Hume’s Skeptic answers the Stoic by saying that only a philosopher could be so blind as to think that the life of reflection is the only path to happiness. Plenty of people are happy by pursuing different lives, resulting in a type of pluralism that appears incompatible with the supremacy thesis. Moreover, Hume agrees with the Skeptic that the powers of philosophical reflection are limited, and so is their efficacy on strong passions like anger and ambition.

Hume attempts at synthesizing the two schools (just like Cicero’s before him), beginning with the contention that the Skeptic “carries the matter too far” in his criticism of philosophical reflection. Sure, one’s anger doesn’t go away because of one’s philosophizing, but critical reflection makes us see that anger is a destructive passion, therefore inducing us to take steps to curtail it, if not extinguish it. The Skeptic is right in thinking that reflection by itself cannot instill virtue, but the ancient Stoics did not think this either, hence their above mentioned developmental psychological account of virtue, from children before the age of reason to mature adults.

Also, Hume again agrees with the Skeptic that Stoicism can be used to conceal cold-heartedness and self-absorption, but counters that in effect those would be cases of bad Stoicism, as the philosophy itself only counsels a reasonable detachment from externalities, nothing more. Stoics, in other words, do not attempt to extirpate passions, but to moderate and redirect them.

The core of Walker’s argument, however, is that Hume reconciles Stoic and Skeptic positions, rescuing the supremacy thesis, by suggesting that there are two types of “philosophical” lives: narrow and broad. Walker’s analogy with religion here is brilliant and very helpful: we have no trouble understanding that religion can guide, and be central to, the lives of people. But we don’t translate that into the absurd idea that everyone should be a monk. Rather, we recognize a religious life narrowly defined, which is attractive to a few people, who achieve a meaningful existence through contemplation, prayer and the study of scriptures. But we also recognize a broadly defined religious life, which is practicable by most people, which still provides meaning and requires certain practices and studies, but that is also compatible with a number of other, non-religious aspects of existence. This is the case across religious traditions, from Christianity to Buddhism.

Analogously, says Hume, a few people can live the life of the philosopher in the narrow sense, i.e., spend most of their time reading and writing philosophy at a fairly abstract level, treating it almost as a monastic practice. But most of us can live a “philosophical” life in the sense of reading and reflecting about certain principles and attempting to put them into everyday practice, while at the same time engaging in other, more common, pursuits, what the Stoics call “preferred indifferents.”

The Stoic position, then, becomes untenable for Hume if they meant that only the narrow philosophical life is conducive to happiness. But they clearly did not. Just like there were Stoics who did live that life — Zeno, Chrysippus, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus — there were others who lived a Stoic life in the broad sense, including Cato and Marcus Aurelius.

As Walker concludes his essay, his analysis shows both that Hume keeps being fresh and relevant today, and that a Humean account of Stoicism-Skepticism demonstrates “how the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life remains a conception worth examining even today.”

~ This piece was originally published on Massimo’s blog How to Be a Stoic on April 22, 2016

~ Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York and member of the faculty at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Massimo has a background in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. His most recent book, co-edited with Maarten Boudry, is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!