Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy, by Ronald J. Terchek

Gandhi. Struggling for Autonomy

Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy is exactly the kind of book I eagerly read as a college student and graduate student, as I tried to better understand the (mostly implicit) moral and political philosophy of Gandhi, and as I tried to work out my own.

Now this kind of material just doesn’t affect me the way it used to. Not because my opinion of Gandhi’s philosophy has lessened, certainly. I feel as strongly as ever that there was much truth in what he taught, and how he lived. I still believe there is considerable overlap between my morality and his.

Maybe it’s that I’m largely out of practice in reading and assessing scholarly works and works of philosophy. Maybe it’s that I’ve long since realized I’m not going to clarify a lot of these points and present my conclusions about Gandhi and my morality and have anyone listen. Maybe it’s that I’m confident enough in what I believe on these matters—or set in my ways enough—that I’m really not looking for other possibilities to replace that understanding with.

I’ve pretty much absorbed what I’m going to absorb from Gandhi; I doubt I’m going to be persuaded away from it by someone else’s interpretation. Or maybe I’d be persuaded that Gandhi is not as close to me as I thought, but then so much the worse for Gandhi.

Though on the other hand I do still find reading Gandhi’s words themselves somewhat interesting when I read the Collected Works, and occasionally it probably even has some slight impact on my own value system.

But in any case, though I found this to be a high quality book and found most of what the author says to be plausible, it didn’t inspired me in a big way, cause me to rethink my beliefs and values, or get me excited and remind me why Gandhi’s ideas have been so huge in my life.

I feel like I skimmed along the surface of this book, never totally bored, never totally lost, yet never more than mildly engaged. I understood the bulk of what I read, and I agreed with the bulk of what I read, but I really didn’t stop to think it through and analyze it, I didn’t go back over the occasional section where my mind had wandered and I hadn’t really caught what was being said, I didn’t have all that good a sense of the overall structure of the book, how it all hung together as an argument, and I retained little in the way of specifics once I closed the book.

Part of the problem is the whole project of trying to make explicit what is largely an implicit philosophy. It’s not like there really is a Gandhian philosophy to be discerned from his writings and speeches. He didn’t try to put together a coherent system like that. He lived his life as best he could, and he made some efforts at times to put into words his reasons for doing some of what he did, but nothing like in the sense an academic would. You can be inspired by the general approach he took to life, you can agree or disagree with specific things he said or decisions he made, but you can only agree or disagree with his overall philosophy in a very limited sense, because there is no clear, specific philosophy there to be agreed or disagreed with.

When you write about Gandhi’s philosophy, you’re very likely going to be putting a lot of yourself into it, interpreting his ideas such that if he had laid out his philosophy explicitly, surely it would be very close to what you in your gut hope he meant.

I know, because I’m sure I’ve done that. My stuff was a little different though. My ideas were always central in my writings. Mine was like, “My philosophy is this, this and this. And look how it overlaps considerably with Gandhi’s since we can infer he believed this, this and this.” This author sticks more to “We can infer Gandhi believed this, this, and this,” but there’s an underlying approval, a sympathy toward these ideas, an acknowledgement that Gandhi’s ideas should be pretty appealing to sensible, right-minded folks like us.

Also, the book probably didn’t connect with me because the older I get, the more I need ideas to fit in the general framework I’ve developed. Even if someone’s disagreeing with me, I need them to be speaking the same language, looking at the same questions, trying to solve the same problems.

I’ve worked out some ways that, at least tentatively, I think Gandhi’s core concepts of truth and nonviolence can be unpacked, and I’m curious about such things as how to deal with the fact that they seem to imply a philosophical anarchism, yet some of what Gandhi said and wrote seemed to accept a certain amount of state coercion as justified. Now I don’t know that ultimately there’s a contradiction—I tend to think with some of the things he said there was an implied conditional which would sidestep the contradiction—but I’m receptive to hearing theories about how they can or cannot be reconciled.

But the author’s approach, the author’s framework, doesn’t fit exactly (not surprisingly) with where I am in my journey to better understand Gandhi. So in that sense, even when I found something he said convincing, he was mostly talking past me.

For the author, the core principle of Gandhi’s political philosophy is autonomy. I can see that. I maybe wouldn’t put it quite that way, but there’s a sense in which my analysis of his use of the concepts of truth and nonviolence fits that.

One thing I did maybe gain a little more insight into through this book was the extent to which Gandhi was a religious radical trying to reshape Hinduism. He consistently presented his ideas as if they were the original or pure Hinduism, the Hinduism they’d all always believed in, stripped of various lesser customs and detours it had accumulated along the way.

But really a lot of it was as far from the Hindu mainstream as Tolstoy’s pacifism was from Christianity. Even his basic principle of nonviolence was merely one of many contradictory strands in Hinduism, which few people saw as somehow the supreme strand that the others are to be measured against.

His relentless campaigning against Untouchability, for instance, wasn’t a matter of inspiring people to live up to the religious ideals they’d all always shared; it was an attempt to reinterpret longstanding interpretations of Hinduism that were widespread both among the masses and religious scholars.

He was always very clear, by the way, where he’d come down in a conflict between his values and his religion. His attitude was that he thought the essence of Hinduism was utterly incompatible with the ugliness of Untouchability, but that it was entirely possible he was mistaken on that point, and that if he was, then he wasn’t really a Hindu. He was more firm in his moral belief that Untouchability was wrong than he was in his belief that Hinduism agreed with him on this point, and if there did prove to be a conflict, it was his moral belief that he’d cling to.

Really I think on most particulars, like on Gandhi’s acceptance of voluntary suffering to break through people’s defenses and shake them up enough to listen to reason, the author’s pretty much got it right. Where he compares Gandhi’s ideas with Locke, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, etc., I didn’t have as clear a sense of whether his points were valid, but when he just explicates Gandhi’s philosophy, I don’t recall anything where I perceived him as really missing the boat.

I suppose if I have a criticism, though, it’s that the author seems a little too inclined to present Gandhi in a way that will be palatable to a readership of Western academics, like “Don’t worry. He’s not as weird or extreme as you might think. There are ways to interpret the stuff that seems contrary to common sense in such a way as to make it really not so far out.”

But what appeals to me about Gandhi is precisely that he does seem out of step with a lot of “common sense.” I think he meant the extreme stuff. I think to live a life according to Gandhian principles would be vastly different from what most people think is right and proper.

But I think that’s just the kind of paradigm shift we need. I would guess we’ll be extinct or close to it in the next few decades or at most the next couple centuries if we continue believing roughly what we do now about what human behavior is acceptable and what isn’t, if we think that humans are roughly on the right track in how they treat each other, and that no more than incremental improvements are necessary.

Gandhian nonviolence to me doesn’t just have a little different nuance, a little different emphasis here and there from the world as it’s been shaped by the West’s most influential thinkers. It’s a radically different way of seeing the world and morality.

This author perhaps doesn’t give Gandhi the credit (or blame) he deserves for how far outside the box he was, how much of a genius/nut he was.

But again, that’s kind of a vague feeling I got from the book as a whole. On the particulars, I don’t know that there are any where I felt the analysis was wildly off.

Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy is the kind of book I really should reread more carefully, but that’s just not where my mind is at this point of my life.

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