Archive for December, 2014

Gandhi, Sartre, the Depths of Violence

Between the years 1893 and 1914, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (later known as the Mahatma, or “Great Soul”), was living in South Africa, and it is then he formed his personality and his political and spiritual path, becoming a social and spiritual leader. Gandhi’s book, Satyagraha In South Africa, recently published in Hebrew (Babel Press, tr. Matan Kaminer) was written about the struggles he led as a local labor leader of the Indian migrant worker community there. It was through these activities that Gandhi consolidated his non-violent struggle principles, which he called Satyagraha. Decades later he would use this path in the fight for Indian independence from British rule. In South Africa he uses Satyagraha to force the British imperialist machine to acquiesce to the demands of the local Indian laborers for fair treatment.

Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore

Satyagraha means “Holding on to truth”, and is a principle rooted in ancient Indian culture, and to which Gandhi gave a modern rendering. The idea is that the truth – which here is not just the facts as they are, but the proper deed, action according to one’s karma, preordained role and ego-less work – has a power of its own, and those who hold on to it steadfastly, even at the cost of personal suffering, are assured of victory. In fact, the suffering which the holder-on-to-truth is willing to accept is an integral part of this path: By internalizing pain and sorrow the individual gathers inner power which is translated into effective force with which to change the world. This is a force that derives not only from the righteousness of the individual’s moral position and not only from his or her ability to bring their interlocutor to recognize this righteousness. In the end it is also a super-natural power employed upon the world by one who is at once within it and outside of it, concurrently in the conditional field and the absolute field, charged with the fire of justice and endowed with the lever of absolute truth.

According to Gandhi:

Satyagraha is soul-force pure and simple, and whenever and to whatever extent there is room for the use of arms or physical force or brute force, there and to that extent is there so much less possibility for soul-force. […] not only has hatred no place in satyagraha, but it is a positive breach of its ruling principle. […] In passive resistance there is always present an idea of harassing the other party and there is a simultaneous readiness to undergo any hardships entailed upon us by such activity; while in satyagraha there is not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent. Satyagraha postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person.

Gandhi led the Indian laborers in South Africa on various campaigns and time after time managed to force the British rulers to capitulate to his demands – without, as mentioned above, resorting to any violence whatsoever. Gandhi’s critics would claim that his method is only successful against an opponent capable of appreciating courage, nobility and fairness, an opponent like British colonialism and unlike one founded upon totalitarian ideology or fundamentalist religion. This is probably true, although one should keep in mind that Gandhi was perfectly willing to die for the truth he held, and to him this would not have proved that he had lost the struggle, but rather that he had upheld the truth to his death – a priceless achievement according to him.

Sartre with Che Guevara

In the preface to Franz Fanon’s book The Wretched Of The Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre brings a completely different approach to the struggle against oppression. Sartre states that the duty of the oppressed is but one: “to thrust out colonialism by every means in their power.” According to Sartre the irrepressible violence of the oppressed is “neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man re-creating himself.” For Sartre:

…no gentleness can efface the marks of violence; only violence itself can destroy them. The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms. When his rage boils over, he rediscovers his lost innocence and he comes to know himself in that he himself creates his self. Far removed from his war, we consider it as a triumph of barbarism; but of its own volition it achieves, slowly but surely, the emancipation of the rebel, for bit by bit it destroys in him and around him the colonial gloom […] The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity. For in the first days of the revolt you must kill: to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man.

Like the pod of a thorny thistle about to burst, this text holds within it the seeds for several fertile post-colonial vectors currently eating away at the moral and ethical spine of various Western intellectual circles. Sartre not only shows tolerance for anti-colonial violence, but puts it on a pedestal, seeing its deployment as the personal realization of the occupied person, his final release. Sartre’s existentialism-is-humanism gives a license to kill anyone by any means, provided that the killer be in the midst of a struggle for political liberation. According to Sartre, en route to achieving political freedom the violent person will also achieve his or her own personal liberation, for he or she is fulfilling their duty and obligation toward themselves, indeed recreating themselves.

It is important to see that while Gandhi’s path is different, opposite in fact from that of Sartre, it aims at the same outcomes. Not only does Gandhi, like Sartre, wish to remove the yoke of the oppressor from the neck of the oppressed – that goes without saying – but like Sartre, Gandhi also sees the consolidation and liberation of the oppressed individual the essence of his struggle. The struggling individual, with his duties towards himself as well as towards the surrounding society, are at the heart of the liberation journeys depicted by these two thinkers, and they both forge an ethical framework within which the individual is supposed to act in order to realize his goal – which is to say, his self-realization.

In addition, note that for both violence is the axis around which one must align throughout his or her journey. For Gandhi violence is the weapon of the weak, the oppressor, and the ability of the oppressed to make him employ it unopposed, the ability of the oppressed to persevere in non-violence and the willingness of the oppressed to endure the oppressor’s brutality, are supposed to bring about a transformation on both sides: The oppressor will realize the immorality of his actions, whereas the oppressed, through his holding on to the truth, will enhance his moral image and gather power (political, and as mentioned above, super-natural as well). For Sartre it is incumbent upon the oppressed, in response to the oppressor’s violence, to retaliate in violence and destroy him. For Sartre, as well, a transformation occurs on both sides: “There remain a dead man, and a free man.”

The different directions to which the two thinkers point the violence – Gandhi inwardly, Sartre towards the other – are replications in miniature of divergent cultural directions in East and West (speaking in a schematic and simplified manner). Major schools of Eastern religions provide their adherents with a path of spiritual progression based on looking inward to the soul. The individual is required to direct his actions – or his refraining for various actions – towards a transformation that is mostly internal. On the other hand, the Western religions turn away from man, to a divinity that is inherently different from him. Here the individual is required to direct his actions towards the “complete Other”, the source of truth and good as far as he is concerned, to refrain from that which this supreme source forbids and to try to get closer to it, or become more like it, inasmuch as he can. While India and China will give us different kinds of “spiritual paths”, Rome and Israel will give birth to different ways to stand before heaven, to pray.

These two paths translate into a relationship with the violent element in life. While the West will use violence as part of the dialogue with the divinity – sacrifices, crusades, jihad – the East will teach itself to internalize violence, use it upon itself in various forms of asceticism and self-denial. As said, this division is highly schematic, and there are more than two ways to address violence in both hemispheres. But I think this division is well illustrated in the cases before us, of Sartre and Gandhi. Sartre turns outward to deal with the problem he encounters. Gandhi turns inward. Sartre is in a dialogue – that turns into a monologue. Gandhi is in a monologue, which is intended to produce a dialogue.

Gandhi’s and Sartre’s thinking, with the central place they accord to violence in the individual’s spiritual/existential journey, raises the centrality of violence in man’s search for meaning. We must note how different this idea is from our typical approach to violence as modern people. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor points out how far mankind has come since the days when violence (along with sex) was a central means of religious ritual. Killing and intercourse were means to achieve intimacy with the divine. Through the offering of sacrifice and through sacred orgies the basic urges served as steps to the Gods.

A great change took place with the rise of religions which distanced the spiritual or sacred realm from the world and from nature. Upanishadic Hinduism, Buddhism, Rabbinical Judaism and then Christianity and Islam all turned the desire for violence into a negative thing, and violence itself into a necessary evil at best. Violence ceased to be a way to worship the divine, and sometimes turned in and of itself into a taboo, something forbidden (at least in theory).

After the Protestant revolution the West underwent another phase, in which violence became something despicable, a sin. In fact, in the modern perception we have become accustomed to writing off violence as nothing more than a malfunction, something that happens when proper order is upset – a nuisance. But if we recall the roots of the human attitude to violence, perhaps we can better understand what excites so many young people about violence, from brawls over football to enlisting in wars they have nothing to do with.

In his book Humanity, philosopher Jonathan Glover brings testimonies of soldiers (mostly Russian and American) who describe taking part in war as nothing short of ecstatic. Beyond the intensive activity and the blood-ties forged between the fighting men, the encounter with death – and with killing – placed the individual face to face with the yawning chasms of his soul. He quotes a Vietnam veteran who testifies that war

is for men at some terrible level the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: the initiation into the power of life and death. It is like lifting off a corner of the universe and looking at what’s underneath.

One may wonder whether, in the course of our diligently cultivated bourgeois respectability we haven’t lost something, some direct contact with the underbelly of things, some deep intuitions regarding the forces that drive humans. We may have forgotten that they are not only the aspiration for freedom and goodness, but a yearning for the absolute, for life and death. Of course, these very sentiments were sounded from fascist throats in the early 20th century. They also mocked bourgeois refinement and glorified violence. I have no intention of joining them. I wish only to offer another vantage point on the desire for violence – and most certainly not to approve it.

Both Gandhi and Sartre, I think, treat violence with the respect it deserves, as a deep element around which various forces are arrayed in the human soul, as an essence in reality through our relationship with which we learn about ourselves – and about the truth. It seems to me that without denying many other reasons (religious, cultural, social, economic), only through such an understanding can we properly evaluate outbreaks of mass violence, be they in the West during the world wars, or these very days, in the Iraq of the ‘Islamic State’.


Published in Hebrew on Makor Rishon newspaper.

Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

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