NY Times Book Review–Two New Books Confront Nietzsche and His Ideas

November 26, 2018


by Steven B. Smith

A Life of Nietzsche
By Sue Prideaux
Illustrated. 452 pp. Tim Duggan Books. $30.

On Becoming Who You Are
By John Kaag
255 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

Ask college students majoring in philosophy how they got interested in their subject and more than likely the answer will be “Nietzsche.”

Nietzsche has probably been more things to more people than any other philosopher. In the years after World War II, he seemed irreparably stained by his association with National Socialism. His open contempt for equality as a form of slave morality, his language of superior and inferior peoples and races, and his advocacy of a new elite that might reshape the future of Europe seemed more than enough to banish him from the canons of serious philosophical thought, if not simple decency.

The reconsideration of Nietzsche began as early as 1950 with Walter Kaufmann’s influential “Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist,” which portrayed him as a German humanist in the tradition of Goethe and Schiller. Kaufmann traced the misappropriation of Nietzsche by Hitler to the influence of Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, and her husband, Bernhard Förster, who bowdlerized his texts to support their own anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi sympathies. While few today accept the details of Kaufmann’s analysis, the rehabilitation of Nietzsche has been in full swing in recent years.


Nietzsche has been recovered as an ethicist teaching a creed of radical libertarianism, an aesthete who saw the world as akin to a piece of literature, a “perspectivist” who taught that all philosophy is essentially autobiography and more recently a deconstructionist and “critical theorist” who advanced his genealogical method against all received ideas. By this time, the Nietzschean clock seems to have come full circle.

The two books under review here ride the wave of this newfound fascination with Nietzsche, although neither engages directly with the complex legacy of his reception. Sue Prideaux’s “I Am Dynamite!” — the phrase is his self-description from “Ecce Homo” — follows Nietzsche’s life from his birth in 1844 into a family of pious Protestant burghers, his early academic accomplishments at the University of Leipzig and his appointment to a chair of classical philology at the University of Basel at the age of only 24.


One might be forgiven for thinking that Nietzsche’s life would have taken the boring trajectory of scholarly studies followed by academic honors and other signs of accomplishment, something like that of his Swiss colleague Jacob Burkhardt. Instead, he took a violent turn away from his chosen profession with the publication of his first book, “The Birth of Tragedy,” in which he skewered academic philology in the name of the higher values of life and music. He has never been entirely forgiven. The best parts of Prideaux’s book focus on Nietzsche’s infatuation and his later break with Richard Wagner and Cosima von Bülow — the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt — who invited the young scholar to become part of their inner circle at their villa on Lake Lucerne.

Nietzsche’s life became increasingly erratic as a series of illnesses — whether real or imagined is not altogether clear — kept him away from teaching. It was during this period of self-imposed exile that he wrote his greatest and most enduring books, “The Genealogy of Morals” and “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” His later years were spent in wanderings throughout Italy and Switzerland before his final breakdown in Turin, where he threw his arms around the neck of a horse that he saw being beaten on the street, leading to his final institutionalization.

Prideaux ends her book deploring the Nazification of Nietzsche’s legacy, but without ever asking whether Nietzsche bears any responsibility for this misappropriation. Why did he write in a way that permitted such misuse? Dangerous thinkers should expect to attract dangerous followers. What else to expect from a philosopher who describes himself as dynamite? Nietzsche would no doubt have despised populist demagogues like Mussolini and Hitler, but then one who promises that “one day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful” should not be surprised when something frightful comes along.

As the author of previous biographies of Edvard Munch and August Strindberg, Prideaux clearly knows her way around the world of European high modernism. She is strong on Nietzsche’s life, but much less so on his ideas. In fact, apart from Nietzsche’s ideas, his life is of relatively little import. She does little to explain what makes Nietzsche an enduring philosopher who continues to exercise great influence. Nor does she attempt to put Nietzsche in the context of his great fin de siècle contemporaries and admirers including William James, Freud, Gide and Shaw, among many others.

John Kaag’s book, “Hiking With Nietzsche,” is a semi-autobiography that follows the author as a 19-year-old, hiking to Sils-Maria in the Swiss Alps in search of Nietzsche’s house, then recounts him making the same trip 18 years later as a professor of philosophy with his wife and baby daughter in tow. It is often said that you can understand someone only when standing in their shoes; Kaag believes that wisdom comes only when hiking on their trails.

This book is less a scholarly study of Nietzsche than a meditation on the relation between hiking and philosophy. For Kaag, walking is not about the destination but the adventure itself. Almost all of the great philosophers — Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Rousseau, Kant, Thoreau — were walkers whose ideas germinated only in motion. He takes Nietzsche’s challenge to “become who you are!” as a call to schlep his young family around the Alps to achieve his own goal of self-discovery. His wife must have the patience of a saint.


Kaag is a lively storyteller who brings Nietzsche’s life into continual contact with his own. This is both the strength and the weakness of the book. He succeeds quite well in maintaining a balance between Nietzsche’s life and thought and makes some nice connections to Emerson, Hesse, Mann and Adorno. I imagine he is an excellent teacher. At other times, a cloying style gets the better of him as we learn a little too much about the author’s parenting skills.

Like Prideaux’s, Kaag’s Nietzsche is a largely apolitical existentialist who challenges his readers to be what they might become. What he doesn’t tell us is how to become what we might be. Nietzsche is presented as the great apostle of the free spirit, the nonconformist and the rugged individualist living in the age of the philistine and the “last man.” Kaag doesn’t exactly ignore Nietzsche’s rough edges — his fascination with eugenics, his flirtations with anti-Semitism, his hatred of democracy in all its forms — but he sees them as not fatal to Nietzsche’s project of individual self-overcoming.

In the important new book “Dangerous Minds,” the political scientist Ronald Beiner argues that Nietzsche has become a part of the cultural air that we breathe. His intoxicating call to embrace liberation and to live up to our highest aspirations has inspired generations of novelists, playwrights and philosophers, to say nothing of countless undergraduates. Yet he also prophesied a world of “great politics” characterized by wars and revolutions fought over the very future of civilization.

Nietzsche was the Marx of the right, the original culture warrior who believed that the future belongs to those with the courage to face the nihilism of the present and mold it like potter’s clay. It is possible to think of Nietzsche’s Übermensch as a solitary walker responsible to no one but himself, but just as likely he was imagining a new Caesar, Borgia or Napoleon. To ignore this dimension of Nietzsche is to give him less than his due.

Steven B. Smith’s latest book is “Modernity and Its Discontents: Making and Remaking the Bourgeois From Machiavelli to Bellow.”


A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 17 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: A Most Controversial Thinker. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe



Hermann Hesse’s Arrested Development

November 15, 2018

Hermann Hesse’s Arrested Development

The stories Hesse tells appeal to young people, because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow.

“It has to be said, there are no points to be won from liking Hesse nowadays.” This rueful assessment of the novelist Hermann Hesse, quoted in the opening pages of Gunnar Decker’s new biography, “Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow” (Harvard), appeared in an obituary in 1962; but it could just as well have been pronounced yesterday, or a hundred years ago. Ever since he published his first novel, in 1904, Hesse has been one of those odd writers who manage to be at the same time canonical—in 1946, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature—and almost perpetually unfashionable among critics. The great German modernists who were his contemporaries mostly disdained him: “A little man,” according to the poet Gottfried Benn; “He displays the foibles of a greater writer than he actually is,” the novelist Robert Musil said. In America today, Hesse is usually regarded by highbrows as a writer for adolescents. Liking him is a good sign at age fifteen, a bad one by age twenty.

For many readers, Hesse’s novels are among the first serious fiction they encounter—a literary gateway drug. This was particularly so during the international Hesse craze of the nineteen-sixties, when the books became passports to the counterculture and Timothy Leary advised, “Before your LSD session, read”‘ Siddhartha’’ and ‘Steppenwolf.’  But, long before then, adolescents were the core of Hesse’s readership, a fact that sometimes irritated him.

His first novel—“Peter Camenzind,” the tale of a moody, nature-loving young man who drops out of bourgeois society—was taken up as an inspiration by the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature youth movement that promoted what Hesse himself derided as “campfire Romanticism.” For Peter to inspire a mass of followers, Hesse complained, was a misunderstanding of the whole point of the character: “He does not want to follow the path trodden by many, but to resolutely plow his own furrow. . . . He is not made for the collective life.”That book was at least written by a young man about the problems of the young.

“Steppenwolf,” on the other hand, tells the story of an aging intellectual’s midlife crisis; you don’t need the clue offered by the initials of Harry Haller, the book’s unhappy hero, to make the identification with the author. It seems strange that such a book would become a bible of the sixties, inspiring the name of the band behind “Born to Be Wild.” Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. “I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over ‘Steppenwolf,’ ” he wrote, in 1955. “After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.”

Still, Hesse’s young readers, then and now, were not wrong to feel that he was speaking directly to them. The stories he tells appeal to young people because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow—the woundedness, the exaltation, the enormous demands on life. The young Emil Sinclair, the narrator of “Demian,” is a good example of Hesse’s totally unironic self-seriousness: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams—like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”

Many young men, in particular, see a glamorous reflection of themselves in the typical Hesse hero—a sensitive, brooding man who cannot find a place for himself in ordinary society. This figure might live in India in the age of the Buddha, like Siddhartha, or in Germany in the Jazz Age, like Harry Haller, or in the Middle Ages, like Goldmund in “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Whatever the setting, his path will generally feature the same landmarks. He will be plucked out of his childhood surroundings and sent to an élite school, where he will suffer deeply. He will rebel against conventional ideas of success and refuse to pursue any kind of career, combining downward mobility with spiritual striving. Often, like Peter Camenzind, he will turn to drink, regarding alcoholism as a kind of noble infirmity. “The god of wine loves me and tempts me to drink only when his spirit and mine enter into friendly dialogue,” Peter says.

Because the Hesse hero occupies a precarious position outside human society, he is at the same time extremely arrogant—Siddhartha refers to the normal human beings around him as “the child people”—and full of self-contempt. No wonder he is much given to thoughts of suicide, whether or not he actually commits it. For, as Hesse explains in “Steppenwolf,” “to call suicides only those who actually destroy themselves is false. . . . What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk.”

The idea that one’s inner life is unusually dangerous and risky is one that most adults grow out of—partly because we get calmer with age, partly because we come to recognize the full reality of other people. But Hesse’s heroes are punk Peter Pans—they don’t grow up, and despise people who do, because they see maturation as a surrender to conformity and accommodation. Things that most people learn to put up with strike Harry Haller as the fetters of a living death:

Without really wanting to at all, they pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain, and it could all be done or left undone just as well by machines; and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead.

Most people, in other words, are what Holden Caulfield, another favorite avatar of teen-age readers, called “phonies.” What torments Hesse is the difficulty of being authentic—of staying true to who you really are, despite the enormous pressures of alienation and conformity. “If I search retrospectively”—in his own writing—“for a common thread of meaning, then I can indeed find one,” Hesse wrote near the end of his life. “A defense of (sometimes even a desperate plea on behalf of) the human personality, the individual.”


Decker’s biography shows that Hesse’s life was an uneasy compromise between his spiritual absolutism, which pushed him in the direction of irascible isolation, and his human needs, which encumbered him with wives, children, and houses that he never quite wanted or accepted. Married three times, he was unhappy as a husband and as a father, and the characters in his books mostly shun both roles. His last novel, “The Glass Bead Game,” is a futuristic fantasy about an academy of scholars who are all male, and all single.

It is not surprising that Hesse would remain attuned to adolescence, since his teen-age years, in the eighteen-nineties, were the most dramatic and consequential period of his life. It was then that Hesse was first forced to confront the entire weight of the institutions ranged against him—family, church, school, society—and do battle with them in the name of defending his individuality. He won, but not without sustaining deep wounds; in a sense, his fiction is a series of reenactments of this primal struggle.

From a very young age, it was clear that there was a mismatch between Hesse and his family. He was born in 1877, in Calw, a small town in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany, where his father and grandfather worked together in a Christian publishing house. On both sides, he was descended from devout Pietists—members of a German Protestant sect that, like the Methodists in England, rejected the established church in favor of a fervently inward, evangelical striving for virtue. In Decker’s words, Pietism “regarded as the devil’s work everything that did not serve the ultimate purpose of preparing one for the kingdom of God in the hereafter.” When it came to child-rearing, this conviction translated, at least in the Hesse family, into a concerted effort to break the young Hermann’s will, to teach him the docility and submissiveness that God demanded.

Yet in Hermann this religious force met an immovable object. “I was the child of pious parents, whom I loved tenderly and would have done even more so had they not made me aware from a very early age of the Fourth Commandment. Unfortunately commandments have always had a catastrophic effect on me,” Hesse recalled in an autobiographical sketch. Compelled to honor his father and mother, he instinctively refused. In one incident recorded in his mother’s diary, the three-year-old Hesse put an iron nail in his mouth, and, when he was told he could die if he swallowed it, he stubbornly replied, “I don’t care! If I die and go to my grave, I’ll just take a couple of picture-books with me!” Some years later, his father contemplated sending him away “to an institution or to be raised by another family.” For his part, Hesse recalled that, as a child, he would dream of setting the family’s house on fire and of murdering his father.

These tensions boiled over in 1891, when the fourteen-year-old Hesse enrolled in Maulbronn Monastery, an élite state-run boarding school housed in a medieval abbey; its mission was to recruit the region’s brightest boys and turn them into Lutheran ministers. Getting into Maulbronn required passing a gruelling examination, an experience that marked Hesse so deeply that he returned to it in several novels. Indeed, many of his books are not just novels of education—the Bildungsroman that had been a classic genre in European literature since Goethe—but specifically novels of schooling. Each of the dormitories at Maulbronn, for instance, had a grandiose name; Hesse lived in Hellas, a tribute to the school’s conventional idolatry of ancient Greece. Fifteen years later, when he came to fictionalize his school days in the novel “Beneath the Wheel,” the main character goes to just such a school and lives in a dormitory called Hellas. And thirty-seven years after that, in “The Glass Bead Game,” Hesse told the story of Joseph Knecht, who once again lives in a dormitory called Hellas.

“Beneath the Wheel” assigns many of Hesse’s own experiences to Hans Giebenrath, a gifted boy who is emotionally destroyed by the pressure of studying to get into a Maulbronn-like school. He passes the examination, but only by cramming so intensively that his boyish love of life is extinguished. He is soon overcome by apathy and despair, and has to drop out; in the end he drowns in a river, possibly a suicide.

The conclusion of the book channels the self-pity that Hesse remembered so well: “All nausea, shame and suffering had passed from him; the cold bluish autumn night looked down on the dark shape of his drifting body and the dark water played with his hands and hair and bloodless lips.” (The very title of the book is an indictment, and “Beneath the Wheel” belongs with other German works of the period, such as Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel,” as an exposé of a soul- and libido-crushing educational system.)

Hesse avoided Hans Giebenrath’s fate, but only barely. In March, 1892, he ran away from Maulbronn and was reported missing. He returned after just a day and, as Decker writes, truancy hardly sounds like an unprecedented crime for a fourteen-year-old. But the reaction from school and family was extreme. It speaks volumes about his parents’ religious sensibility, for instance, that his mother’s response to the news of his disappearance was to hope that he was dead: “I was very relieved when I finally got the feeling . . . that he was in God’s merciful hands,” she wrote in her diary.

Unfortunately, he returned alive, a bigger headache than ever. Hesse had to leave school, and his parents, unable to cope with him, resorted to having him committed to a mental asylum. Facing the prospect of indefinite, possibly lifelong incarceration, he bombarded his parents with heartbreaking letters: “I loathe everything here from the bottom of my heart. It is like it has been designed especially to show a young man how wretched life and all its aspects are.”

After several months, Hesse was released on a trial basis, and he was able to attend a local high school. But the damage to his relationship with his parents was permanent: when his mother died, in 1902, he refused to attend the funeral. And the damage to his career seemed equally irreparable. At Maulbronn, he was on a fast track to a prestigious and secure job as a minister or a teacher. Now college was out of the question, and Hesse became an apprentice to a bookseller. To his parents—often, surely, to himself—it must have looked as if he had failed for good.

But Hesse’s genius was to embrace this failure and make it his inspiration. “In the beginning was the myth” is the first sentence of “Peter Camenzind,” the book that rescued Hesse from poverty and obscurity; and many of his books are retellings of the same myth, one that Hesse devised to interpret his own unhappy existence. Indeed, Hesse’s novels are best understood as successive versions of a spiritual autobiography—a form that, ironically, was a staple of Pietist literature. “The only way I can conceive” of writing, Hesse once said, is “as an act of confession”—a statement that could have been endorsed by his paternal grandfather, a doctor who left behind a memoir in two volumes. Indeed, in rebelling against his Pietist upbringing, Hesse ended up recapitulating its central themes: he never lost the habit of rigorous self-examination or his feelings of unworthiness and his longing for an experience of the divine.

The difference was that he could not imagine finding that experience within Pietism. “If I had grown up in a respectable religious tradition, for example as a Catholic, I would probably have stuck to the faith throughout my life,” he explained wryly.

Instead, he was driven to look for spiritual wisdom in other traditions, always admiring figures who seemed to defy dogma and doctrine. Francis of Assisi was an early inspiration: Hesse wrote a short biography of the saint who preached to the animals and spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.

He soon found himself looking farther afield—especially to the East, to the religious traditions of India. This, too, was a kind of atavism—his maternal grandfather, a missionary, had spent many years in India, and his mother had partly grown up there. But, while they went to spread a Christian faith they knew was the true one, Hesse went as a seeker. In 1911, he made an impulsive journey to Ceylon and Singapore, which proved disappointing at the time—he could not get used to the climate—but laid the groundwork for his later book “Journey to the East,” which imagines a spiritual secret society that includes the great minds of Europe and Asia.

Image result for hermann hesse siddhartha quotes


The book that connects Hesse with India for most readers, of course, is “Siddhartha.” Published in 1922, in the wake of a world war that had destroyed and discredited European civilization, “Siddhartha” takes refuge in a distant place and time—India in the age of the Buddha, in the fifth century B.C. In this short book, Hesse boils down his archetypal story to its mythic core. Once again, we meet a sensitive, gifted young man—Siddhartha, the son of a Brahman priest—who rejects his family, its religion, and its aspirations, and sets out to discover the truth for himself.

Along the way, he experiences the extremes of deprivation, as an ascetic, wandering monk, and of satiety, as the wealthy lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. But he remains unhappy in every condition, until he finds that the only true wisdom is nonattachment, a resigned acceptance of everything that happens. Life cannot be fixed in place; it flows, like the river where Siddhartha receives his revelation:

And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.

Image result for hermann hesse siddhartha

“Siddhartha” appears to be a kind of wisdom writing—a teaching. Yet the central message of the book is the impossibility of learning anything that matters from a guru or teacher. Siddhartha’s revelation sounds very Buddhist, and Hesse borrowed the character’s name from Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. But, in the book’s most important scene, Siddhartha actually encounters the Buddha—and spurns him. While his more timid and conventional friend, Govinda, becomes a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha knows that any kind of religion—even a true and admirable one—is an obstacle to enlightenment. “No one will ever attain redemption through doctrine!” he exclaims. After all, the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha by following the Buddha; he forged his own unique path. Hesse’s moral is similar to that of a famous Zen koan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Hesse’s emphasis on self-reliance, with its echoes of Emerson—another writer fascinated by Eastern religions—helped to make him a trusted guide for a generation of readers whose faith in institutions was destroyed by the First World War. Indeed, Hesse’s reputation as a sage rests mainly on the books he wrote after the war—starting with “Demian,” in 1919, and continuing through “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” in the nineteen-twenties.

Although Hesse was a German subject, he was a resident of Switzerland—he lived there on and off during his early life, and permanently starting in 1912—and he viewed the war fever that infected Germany from an ironic distance. (He nonetheless volunteered for the German Army, but was rejected because of his weak vision, the result of a childhood fireworks accident.) Early in the war, Hesse published an essay in which, while he still expressed hope for a German victory, he insisted on the need to preserve humane values and communication between nations. “This disastrous world war should serve to drum into us more insistently than ever the realization that love is better than hate,” he wrote. Even so mild an avowal earned Hesse the permanent hostility of many Germans. For the rest of his life, he would be attacked by incensed nationalists, both in the press and in regular deliveries of hate mail.

By the same token, in the nineteen-thirties Hesse’s hostility to Hitler was automatic. Nazism, with its blood sacrifice of the individual to the state and the race, represented the opposite of everything he believed in. In March, 1933, seven weeks after Hitler took power, Hesse wrote to a correspondent in Germany, “It is the duty of spiritual types to stand alongside the spirit and not to sing along when the people start belting out the patriotic songs their leaders have ordered them to sing.” Still, while he hosted and helped many émigré writers—including Thomas Mann, a good friend—Hesse never threw himself into anti-Nazi politics. Decker points out that, in the nineteen-thirties, he made a quiet statement of resistance by reviewing and publicizing the work of banned Jewish authors, including Kafka. But, tellingly, his own books were not banned by the Nazis until 1943.

It was Thomas Mann who, at the end of the First World War, published a book called “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man”; but the title would have applied much better to Hesse, for whom being nonpolitical was a first principle. After all, if the world and the self are illusions, it is delusive to believe that they can be redeemed. To those who wanted him to take a more public stand against Hitler, Hesse replied that anti-fascism was as much a betrayal of the self as fascism: “What’s it got to do with me?” he asked. “I can’t change a thing. What I can do, though, is offer a little succor to those who, like me, strive in everything that they think and do to undermine the whole filthy business of striving after power and political supremacy.”

This attitude to politics and history is characteristic of what Hegel called “the beautiful soul”—one who remains unstained by the world because he declines to engage with it. The phrase was invented by Goethe, who used it in his “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” a fictional memoir in which a Pietist noblewoman describes her spiritual life. Hesse, by analogy, might be called an ugly soul, one who is so occupied with his own spiritual distempers that the outside world barely makes an impression. This is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the November 19, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Art of Failure.”


We Are All Isaiah Berliners Now

November 8, 2018


We Are All Isaiah Berliners Now

The political theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin on Oct. 23, 1992. (Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images)

The political theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin on Oct. 23, 1992. (Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images)

Nationalism is back, but nobody seems to know what it means. A forgotten essay marking its 40th anniversary can help.

By Robert Zaretsky

At his Houston rally on October. 22, U.S. President Donald Trump got one of his loudest cheers when he used the “n-word.” No, not that “n-word,” but another one that respectable public figures are not supposed to use. Teasing his full-throated audience, Trump clucked his tongue: “Really? We’re not supposed to use that word?” After a brief pause, he brayed: “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”

The crowd, of course, roared while commentators pored over the word’s significance. What, precisely, does it mean to be a nationalist? Does it carry the same meaning for those who bawled their approval at Trump or, for that matter, those who bewailed its ascendancy in Western politics? The answer, pretty clearly, is no—but much less clear is whether either side has a clear grasp of what a nation even is.

The best guide to our current encounter with nationalism happens to be celebrating its 40th birthday. In 1978, the renowned political theorist and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin published “Nationalism: Past Neglect and Present Power,” his final and fullest account of nationalism. Berlin attempted to capture what he called, rightly, “the most powerful, single movement at work in the world today.”

It is, Berlin warned in words all too relevant today, a movement that for those who failed to predict its growth “paid for it with their liberty, indeed, with their lives.”

The funny thing about nationalism, for Berlin, was that he should be discussing it at all in the mid-20th century. When it first appeared on the European stage—and this regional stage, truth be told, was the only one that truly interested Berlin—neither the actors nor audience anticipated a long run. Liberal observers, in particular, dismissed nationalism as a passing phase—a reaction to the despotic reign of thrones and altars across the continent. Once these reactionary vestiges of the dim past were relegated to the wardrobe, nationalism’s role would be made redundant.

Yet, among the many isms formed in the crucible of the French Revolution (1789), nationalism proved to have greatest lasting power.

From communism to totalitarianism, socialism to liberalism, it is the last great ism standing. For Berlin, the sources of this durability reside in our very nature. “The desire to belong to a community or to some kind of unit, which … has been national in the last 400 years,” Berlin once said, “is a basic human need or desire.” This, for Berlin, was less an argument than an acknowledgment—it is, quite simply, how we are built. The need for community is the common grain running through the crooked timber that constitutes humankind.

As for his definition of nationalism, Berlin could prove as hard to pin down as the concept he was hunting. Even sympathetic critics observed that he could contradict himself not just from one article to the next but at times within the same article. Moreover, Berlin did not offer taxonomies as much as he offered tales. His writings on nationalism, with their usual cascades of clauses and subclauses, are discursive and often digressive. (No doubt, Berlin would have agreed with Herodotus’s claim that his own many digressions are his history.) Finally, as a student of nationalism, he was more comfortable in the company of those who thought and wrote about it instead of those who channeled and acted upon it.

Nevertheless, Berlin presents a largely coherent account of nationalism, one that he builds out from four fundamental claims.

First, nationalism claims that all human beings belong to particular groups whose way of life—language, customs, and culture—differ from one another. The critical corollary is that members of this group simply cannot be understood outside the group that has formed and informed them.

Second, it portrays the group as a kind of biological organism, one whose development and ends are primordial. Should the group encounter certain values that are not its own, its own must prevail.

Consequently—and this is the third claim—nationalism declares that the beliefs and principles of this group are to be privileged precisely because they are the group’s. There is no higher or greater standard. Finally and fatefully, it holds that a group has the right to force other groups to yield should they come into conflict with it. “Nothing that obstructs that which I recognize as my—that is, my nation’s—supreme goal, can be allowed to have equal value with it,” Berlin wrote.

Image result for Johann Gottfried Herder

From the first to the fourth trait, Berlin more or less travels the distance between what we might call benign and malign nationalisms. The first, and perhaps only, true philosopher of nationalism Johann Gottfried Herder, for whom Berlin had a soft spot, gave voice to the kinder and gentler form of nationalism. Friend of romantics and enemy of rationalists, and the man who coined the term “nationalism”—Nationalismus—Herder portrayed humanity as a dazzling mosaic of peoples, each infused with its own particular values and views but each enthused by the prospect of peaceful coexistence. For him, the group was defined not by blood or race but instead by a shared language and history.

But caught in the ideological sheers of 1848, Herder’s nationalism had the durability of a fruit fly. In fairly quick order, its malign cousin came to dominate European affairs, ravaged the continent during the first half the 20th century, and, after a 50-year respite, now threatens to undo the European Union and, for good measure, the United States. What happened? For Berlin, the answer is found in the metaphor of the bent twig. By this image, he made the case for what we might now call “cultural backlash”—a particular group’s slow accumulation of real or imagined injuries and insults that, when economic, political, and cultural factors converge, snaps back with sudden and sharp violence.

Admittedly, Berlin was not always consistent in his attitude toward nationalism. At times, he seemed to accept it, not embrace it, while at other times he compared it unfavorably to what he called “national consciousness.” Whereas the latter is, he believed, a fact of human existence, the former is a “pathological condition.”

Reaching for yet another vivid metaphor, he described it as a “state of wounded consciousness,” one that lashes out at either its real or imagined enemies. At other times, though, he seemed to believe that nationalism, at least in the tolerant variation he associated with Herder, was not only inevitable but also valuable.

No less importantly, Berlin argued that while demagogues can and will exploit this wounded consciousness, they do not invent it. These wounds instead result from the savage pace of financial, technological, and social changes in liberal democracies. Ambitious politicians who pose as nationalists or populists do not inflict such wounds but instead inflame them for their own ends. What Berlin called “faux populists” seek to create an “elitist or socially or racially unequal regime, which is totally incompatible with the fundamental, if not fraternity then, at any rate, the passionate egalitarianism, of the real populist movement.”

Related image

Along with Richard Hofstadter, Berlin grasped earlier than many observers the growing resentment of citizens toward the cosmopolitan elites. In a 1967 conference devoted to populism, Berlin noted the hostility of what was only recently christened the “silent majority” toward “the excessive civilization of the East Coast, its centralized capitalism, Wall Street, the cross of gold, frivolous, polite, smooth forms of insincere behavior on the part of Harvard or Yale university professors, or smooth members of the State Department.”

At first glance, Berlin’s position smacks of irony. After all, his own life, personal as well as professional, was conspicuously cosmopolitan. Yet he spurned cosmopolitanism as an “empty” claim. People, Berlin insisted, “can’t develop unless they belong to a culture.” In this sense, Berlin might have concluded that the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence are the tribute that U.S. particularism pays to philosophical universalism.

But this stance did not make Berlin a conservative—or, rather, it made him as odd a conservative as he was a liberal. While deeply skeptical of multiculturalism, he embraced value pluralism, which claims that human values do not all issue from a single source.

Instead, values are nearly as multiple as are peoples and are consequently often “incommensurable”—one of Berlin’s pet words—with one another. Nationalism, he believed, need not be malignant. By the same token, liberalism need not be blind to the human need to be recognized as members of something greater than the individual and the resentment that festers when this recognition is denied.

Ultimately, Berlin believed the cure to nationalism was more nationalism. Not, though, the closed and aggressive forms of political nationalism now simmering in the West but instead the open and defensive nationalism embodied by Herder.

Image result for ürgen Habermas

Jürgen Habermas

This form of liberal or civic or constitutional nationalism, since taken up by thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas, insists on the existential importance of an individual identifying with a group defined by a common language and values. But it also insists on the existential danger of transforming this sense of belonging into the reflex of abominating other groups.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’sHonors College, and author of the forthcoming book Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.

We Are All Isaiah Berliners Now

Ideals to aspire beyond the Chinese Dream

November 7, 2018

Exclusive to CHINA WATCH

Ideals to aspire beyond the Chinese Dream

By Michael Heng | Updated: 2018-11-06 15:24
Michael Heng


Recently I met up with an old friend and we recalled our conversation years ago. He was then a visiting professor at one of the top universities in Shanghai. Though a foreigner, he is a great fan of Chinese literature and speaks fluent Mandarin. He has been all the while a keen student of Chinese history. It is fair to describe him as a Sinophile of some sort.


Soon after his arrival at the Shanghai University about 15 years ago, his colleagues brought him out on a sight-seeing tour in the financial district. They pointed out to him the array of skyscrapers dominating the area, expecting him to utter words of admiration. Instead, he kept silent and shook his head. When asked why, he said: “These super-tall structures are bad for the environment. They are expensive to build and expensive to maintain. What if there is a fire? Moreover, these buildings will not last for thousands of years. If you ask me, one thousand of such buildings cannot impress me as much as one Li Bai or one Wang Wei.” Li Bai and Wang Wei are two preeminent poets of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Image result for ancient china

Fast forward to today, I asked for his take on the Chinese Dream. His reply was no surprise. The Chinese Dream is a multi-dimensional project, but he prefers focusing on its cultural dimension. Instead of pouring so much resources into massive iconic structures, it would be more fruitful and enduring to direct the resources to improving the educational conditions for children in rural regions and places lacking decent living environments. He has traveled to many parts of China and the school conditions in most rural areas caused him heartache. Of course, better schools and teachers by themselves will not guarantee production of awe-inspiring poems and novels. But they can increase the chances by widening the talent pools and nurturing potential Li Bais and Wang Weis.

To support his position, he mentioned the legacies of ancient Greece, whose brilliance in literature, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy remains today a gold standard for others to emulate. The achievements not only form a key foundation of European civilization, but are also an immense contribution to the cultural resources of the world. These cultural-intellectual achievements, rather than McDonalds, Hollywood or jeans, are soft power in the most profound sense.

The conversation somehow steers me to reflect on the Chinese Dream and his approach inspires me to come up with three suggestions.

Image result for Confucius


First, ancient China, like the ancient Greece, was a period of intellectual brilliance with its thinkers and literature. Names like Confucius, Mencius and Sun Zi are well known all over the world, with Taoism of Lao Zi exerting influence in food, healthcare, paintings, science and literature. However, unlike Greek mythologies, Chinese literature of that period is relatively unknown outside East Asia. It is even less well known than The Arabian Nights. In percentage terms, probably more Chinese know about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves than Arabs about Chang-E Flying to the Moon. China will do well to rectify this situation.

Second, to embark on a project of compiling a set of books, pretty similar to the Great Books of the Western World which was an initiative of the University of Chicago, in collaboration with the Encyclopædia Britannica publishing house. Let us tentatively name the proposed set the Great Books of the Chinese Civilization. The collection shall bring together the essential core of the Chinese cultural and intellectual canons and includes China’s most significant achievements in literature, history, philosophy and science. With authoritative editing and introduction, the books will provide as complete and accurate as possible the background and ideas that have shaped the course of Chinese civilization.

The project can serve as a platform for top scholars of China all over the world to work together, creating as a byproduct a network of intellectuals of similar interests. It would produce a convenient reference work for libraries all over the world. It should become a key component of a common body of knowledge for global-minded citizens.

The third project is to modernize traditional Chinese medicine and widen its scope of application. TCM represents distilled knowledge accumulated over many centuries of herbal medical practice and many associated treatment methodologies. It is evidence-based. However, critics of traditional medicine often claim that it is not scientific because its research method departs from that of Western medicine.

The theory of TCM needs a modern set of vocabulary and to be updated to take into account new medical findings. Asia is the home of traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Indian medicine Ayurveda, and traditional Islamic medicine practiced in the Middle East. It would be a rewarding project for the three streams of traditional medicine to share their insights and exchange their advances. This is an area for active collaboration among Asian countries, the success of which can boost the intellectual confidence of Asia, while making tangible contributions to healthcare in the whole world.

Michael Heng is a retired professor who held academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands, and at six universities in Asia. The author contributed this article to China Watch exclusively. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of China Watch.


“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”

October 198, 2018

“Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”

On October 4th, 2018, Karen Armstrong, writer and religious historian, delivered the sixth Annual Pluralism Lecture titled “Compassion or Toleration? Two Approaches to Pluralism”.

Please to listen to Karen’s lecture and reflect. Egoism is our problem. God is always Great.  –Din Merican


Brief Outline of Gandhi’s Philosophy: Truth and Non-Violence

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, text

October 3, 2018

Brief Outline of Gandhi’s Philosophy:

The twin cardinal principles of Gandhi’s thought are truth and nonviolence.The ultimate station Gandhi assigns nonviolence stems from two main points. First, if according to the Divine Reality all life is one, then all violence committed towards another is violence towards oneself, towards the collective, whole self, and thus “self”-destructive and counter to the universal law of life, which is love. Second, Gandhi believed that ahimsa is the most powerful force in existence. Had himsa been superior to ahimsa, humankind would long ago have succeeded in destroying itself. The human race certainly could not have progressed as far as it has, even if universal justice remains far off the horizon. From both viewpoints, nonviolence or love is regarded as the highest law of humankind.

Source:  https://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/murphy.htm

This summary will attempt to describe Gandhi’s philosophy in as simple a way as possible. Inevitably this must be a personal interpretation, but I hope it has some merit.

What is Gandhian philosophy? It is the religious and social ideas adopted and developed by Gandhi, first during his period in South Africa from 1893 to 1914, and later of course in India.

These ideas have been further developed by later “Gandhians”, most notably, in India by, Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. Outside of India some of the work of, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. can also be viewed in this light. Understanding the universe to be an organic whole, the philosophy exists on several planes – the spiritual or religious, moral, political, economic, social, individual and collective. The spiritual or religious element, and God, is at its core. Human nature is regarded as fundamentally virtuous. All individuals are believed to be capable of high moral development, and of reform.

The twin cardinal principles of Gandhi’s thought are truth and nonviolence. It should be remembered that the English word “truth” is an imperfect translation of the Sanskrit, “satya”, and “nonviolence”, an even more imperfect translation of “ahimsa”. Derived from “sat” – “that which exists” – “satya” contains a dimension of meaning not usually associated by English speakers with the word “truth”. There are other variations, too, which we need not go into here. For Gandhi, truth is the relative truth of truthfulness in word and deed, and the absolute truth – the Ultimate Reality. This ultimate truth is God (as God is also Truth) and morality – the moral laws and code – its basis. Ahimsa, far from meaning mere peacefulness or the absence of overt violence, is understood by Gandhi to denote active love – the pole opposite of violence, or “Himsa”, in every sense.

The ultimate station Gandhi assigns nonviolence stems from two main points. First, if according to the Divine Reality all life is one, then all violence committed towards another is violence towards oneself, towards the collective, whole self, and thus “self”-destructive and counter to the universal law of life, which is love. Second, Gandhi believed that ahimsa is the most powerful force in existence. Had himsa been superior to ahimsa, humankind would long ago have succeeded in destroying itself. The human race certainly could not have progressed as far as it has, even if universal justice remains far off the horizon. From both viewpoints, nonviolence or love is regarded as the highest law of humankind.

Although there are elements of unity in Gandhi’s thought, they are not reduced to a system. It is not a rigid, inflexible doctrine, but a set of beliefs and principles which are applied differently according to the historical and social setting. Therefore there can be no dogmatism, and inconsistency is not a sin. Interpretation of the principles underwent much evolution during Gandhi’s lifetime, and as a result many inconsistencies can be found in his writings, to which he readily admitted. The reader of Gandhi’s works published by Navajivan Trust will notice that many are prefaced with the following quotation from an April 1933 edition of “Harijan”, one of Gandhi’s journals. He states straightforwardly: “I would like to say to the diligent reader of my writings and to others who are interested in them that I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many news things…. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he still has any faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject.”

That there are inconsistencies in Gandhi’s writings accords with the fact that the ideas are not a system. In coming to grips with Gandhi’s way of thinking it is most important to understand that the perception of truth undergoes an ongoing process of refinement which is evolutionary in nature.

In Gandhi’s thought the emphasis is not on idealism, but on practical idealism. It is rooted in the highest religious idealism, but is thoroughly practical. One label (and almost the only one) Gandhi was happy to have pinned on him was that of “practical idealist”. The important principle of compromise is relevant here, as is the acknowledgement that perfect truth and perfect nonviolence can never be attained while the spirit is embodied.

As alluded to above, Gandhian philosophy is certainly considered by Gandhians as a universal and timeless philosophy, despite the fact that on the more superficial level it is set in the Indian social context. They hold that the ideals of truth and nonviolence, which underpin the whole philosophy, are relevant to all humankind. (Recently some have been suggesting that a distinction can be made between the core elements of Gandhi’s thought and peripheral elements which, depending on the particular element under consideration, may or may not have timeless relevance.) Also, it can be universal despite being fundamentally religious, as its religious position stresses not so much the Hindu interpretation of reality as the beliefs which are common to all major religions, and that commonality itself. It holds all religions to be worthy of equal respect and in one sense to be equal. As all are creations of mortal and imperfect human beings, no single religion can embody or reveal the whole or absolute truth.

Gandhian philosophy is also compatible with the view that humankind is undergoing gradual moral evolution. While conflict is seen as inevitable, in fact not always undesirable, violence as the result of conflict is not regarded as inevitable. Simply put, human beings do have the capacity to resolve conflict nonviolently. This might be difficult, but it is not impossible. Liberation from a violent society is seen as requiring many decades or longer – but it is not an impossible ideal.

Importantly also, it is not an intellectual doctrine. Gandhi was not an intellectual. Rather, Gandhi’s thought was conceived, to a great extent, out of action and as a guide to action, by a man of action. He hesitated to write about anything of which he did not have personal, first-hand experience. In the sense of it being a call to action, Gandhi’s thought can also be seen as an ideology.

As a guide to action, Gandhian philosophy is a double-edged weapon. Its objective is to transform the individual and society simultaneously (rather than in sequence, as Marxism describes), in accordance with the principles of truth and nonviolence. The historic task before humankind is to progress towards the creation of a nonviolent political, economic and social order by nonviolent struggle. The social goal was described by Gandhi as Sarvodaya, a term he coined in paraphrasing John Ruskin’s book Unto This Last, meaning the welfare of all without exception. Its political aspect was expressed by the late eminent Gandhian Dr R.R. Diwakar in the following words: “The good of each individual in society consists in his efforts to achieve the good of all.”

As the foundation of the Gandhian or nonviolent social order is religious or spiritual, economic and political questions are seen from the moral or humanistic perspective. The welfare of human beings, not of systems or institutions, is the ultimate consideration. Materially, it centres on the following concepts and ideals:

Political decentralization, to prevent massive concentrations of political power in the hands of too few; rather, to distribute it in the hands of many. The Gandhian political order takes the form of a direct, participatory democracy, operating in a tier structure from the base village-level tier upward through the district and state levels to the national (and international) level.

Economic decentralization, to prevent massive concentrations of economic power in the hands of too few, and again, to distribute it in the hands of many. Therefore villages, which are anyway geographically decentralized, become the basic economic units. However, where unavoidable, certain industries may be organized on a more centralized basis, and their ownership and control come under the umbrella of the State.

The minimization of competition and exploitation in the economic sphere, and instead, the encouragement of cooperation. Production on the basis of need rather than greed, concentrating, where India is concerned, first on the eradication of poverty (and on the worst extreme of poverty).

Recognition of the dignity of labour and the greater purity of rural life.  The practice of extensive self-reliance by individuals, villages, regions and the nation.

Absence of oppression on the basis of race, caste, class, language, gender or religion. A deep respect for mother nature, necessitating an economic system based upon the preservation rather than destruction of the natural environment. Such concepts clearly represent pillars for a new social order.

A theory closely linked to the concept of Sarvodaya, also developed by Gandhi, is that of Trusteeship. Its fundamental objective is to create nonviolent and non-exploitative property relationships.


Gandhi believed that the concepts of possession and private property were sources of violence, and in contradiction with the Divine reality that all wealth belongs to all people. However, he recognized that the concept of ownership would not wither easily, nor would the wealthy be easily persuaded to share their wealth. Therefore a compromise was to encourage the wealthy to hold their wealth in trust, to use themselves only what was necessary and to allow the remainder to be utilized for the benefit of the whole society.

It is apparent that Gandhi’s philosophy has much in common with several Western philosophies which uphold the ideal of a more just and equitable society. For example, the Gandhian social order has been described as “communism minus violence”. (However, Marxists have traditionally rejected Gandhi because of what they regard as his “bourgeois” outlook. Gandhi rejected violent class conflict and the centralization of political and economic power in the hands of the State as counterproductive to the development of a nonviolent society.)

Nevertheless, Gandhian philosophy, particularly in the Sarvodaya ideal, does contain many socialist sentiments. In fact, such an entity as Gandhian Socialism emerged in theoretical literature during the 1970s and 1980s.

Gandhi’s thought has been likened also to Utopian Socialism and Philosophical Anarchism, and can be compared with strands of Maoist thought (though not a Western philosophy), and even Western liberal thought. However, Gandhi is incompatible with many aspects of Liberalism and is virtually entirely incompatible with the modern, intensely competitive, ecologically destructive and materialistic capitalism of the West.

Image result for mahatma gandhi


As already observed, Gandhi’s thought is equally a philosophy of self-transformation. The individual’s task is to make a sincere attempt to live according to the principles of truth and nonviolence. Its fundamental tenets are therefore moral. They include – resisting injustice, developing a spirit of service, selflessness and sacrifice, emphasising one’s responsibilities rather than rights, self-discipline, simplicity of life-style, and attempting to maintain truthful and nonviolent relations with others. It should be understood that by simplicity is meant voluntary simplicity, not poverty, which has no element of voluntarism in it. If there is one thing Gandhi does not stand for, it is poverty.

A Gandhian should also avoid political office. He or she should remain aloof from formal party politics and equi-distant from all political groupings. But this is not to say, and in my view Gandhi does not require, that the individual should remain aloof from all politics. For often injustice cannot be resisted unless the political power holders and structures are engaged nonviolently.

What was the freedom struggle itself if not a political struggle, against the greatest concentration of political power the world had ever known, the British Empire? In my eyes, there is no particular virtue in attempting to avoid contact with politics. What must be avoided, however, is assumption of political power by a Gandhian (at least this is necessary in the short and medium terms in India), and cooperation with un-virtuous holders of political power on their terms.

The ultimate responsibility of a Gandhian is to resist clear injustice, untruth, in conjunction with others or alone. Resistance should be nonviolent if at all possible. But Gandhi did condone use of violent means in certain circumstances, in preference to submission which he regarded as cowardice and equivalent to cooperation with evil. In relation to the use of violence he stated categorically: “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence…” As surprising as it no doubt sounds, Gandhi disliked most not violence, but cowardice and apathy. The eminent peace researcher Johan Galtung has correctly observed that Gandhi preferred first, nonviolent resistance, second, violence in a just cause, and third, meaning least of all, apathy. In general, however, it is held that immoral means, such as violence, cannot produce moral ends, as means are themselves ends or ends in the making.

For the individual self-transformation is attempted with deliberateness rather than with haste. One should not seek to become a Mahatma overnight, because such attempts will surely fail, but to reform oneself over the whole of one’s life, as far as one is capable. (Nor should there be any question of superficial imitation of Gandhi.)

Gandhi viewed his own life as a process of development undertaken “one step at a time”. He saw the need to continually “experiment with truth” (from which he derived the title of his autobiography) in whatever field, in order to come to see the truthful path. Though they were rooted in the highest idealism, the experiments were carried out on a very down-to-earth plane – India’s moral, political and social needs as he saw them. Such an approach is available to all at all time.

Gandhi believed his own moral and spiritual development to be far from complete at the time of his death. Despite the great heights he had attained, this was indeed true. He had not achieved perfection, as some of those who were close to him have testified.

The perception of what is the truthful path is largely a matter for the individual’s reason and conscience, which therefore play key roles. The individual should subject each idea to the test of his or her own conscience and reason. Reason and rationality have enormous roles to play in the Gandhian way of thinking.


This, I feel, is one of the major Western influences in Gandhi. If there is genuine, sincere disagreement, an idea can be discarded. However, once a principle is accepted a sincere attempt must be made to adhere to it. Ideally there should be harmony between thought, word and action. In this way the outer life becomes a true reflection of the inner, and a mental harmony is also achieved.

The remaining central concept in Gandhi’s philosophy is Satyagraha. Defined most broadly (as Gandhi defined it), Satyagraha is itself a whole philosophy of nonviolence. Defined most narrowly, it is a technique or tool of nonviolent action. Because of the intention here to keep this discussion as simple as possible, Satyagraha will be described here in its latter guise.

As a technique, Satyagraha was developed by Gandhi in South Africa to give the Indian population there a weapon with which to resist the injustices being perpetrated upon it by the colonial government. But Satyagraha can be practiced in any cultural environment – provided the necessary ingredients are present, not least Satyagrahis (those capable of Satyagraha). A Satyagraha campaign is undertaken only after all other peaceful means have proven ineffective.

At its heart is nonviolence. An attempt is made to convert, persuade or win over the opponent. It involves applying the forces of both reason and conscience simultaneously. While holding aloft the indisputable truth of his or her position, the Satyagrahi also engages in acts of voluntary self-suffering. Any violence inflicted by the opponent is accepted without retaliation. But precisely because there is no retaliation (which can make the opponent feel his violence is justified), the opponent can only become morally bankrupt if violence continues to be inflicted indefinitely.

Several methods can be applied in a Satyagraha campaign, primarily non-cooperation and fasting. The action is undertaken in the belief in the underlying goodness of the opponent, and in his or her ability to acknowledge the injustice of the action and to cease the injustice, or at least to compromise. Satyagraha in this sense is highly creative. It creates no enemies, hatred or lasting bitterness, but ultimately only mutual regard. After a successful campaign there is not the least hint of gloating, nor is there any desire to embarrass the opponent. The former opponent becomes a friend. There are no losers, only winners. A truthful Satyagraha campaign, though it demands courage, self-discipline and humility on the part of the Satyagrahi, brings to bear tremendous moral pressure on the opponent and can bring about remarkable transformations.

Two factors are absolutely crucial to understand. There can be no Satyagraha in a cause which is not indisputably just and truthful. Nor can there be any element of violence or bitterness in a Satyagraha campaign – it must be conducted in a spirit of genuine nonviolence. Any campaign which is insincere in its spirit of nonviolence, or is not undertaken in a clearly just cause is not Satyagraha as Gandhi meant it.

Image result for Gandhi

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Mahatma Gandhi: The Intellectual–Politician, and his Philosopher-Guru

To sum up, Gandhian philosophy is not only simultaneously political, moral and religious, it is also traditional and modern, simple and complex. It embodies numerous Western influences to which Gandhi was exposed, but being rooted in ancient Indian culture and harnessing eternal and universal moral and religious principles, there is much in it that is not at all new. This is why Gandhi could say: “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” Gandhi was concerned even more with the spirit than with the form. If the spirit is consistent with truth and nonviolence, the truthful and nonviolent form will automatically result. Despite its anti-Westernism, many hold its outlook to be ultra-modern, in fact ahead of its time – even far ahead. Perhaps the philosophy is best seen as a harmonious blend of the traditional and modern.

The multifaceted nature of Gandhi’s thought also can easily lead to the view that it is extremely complex. Perhaps in one sense it is. One could easily write volumes in describing it! Yet Gandhi described much of his thoughts as mere commonsense. Dr. Diwakar sums up Gandhi’s thoughts in a few words: “The four words, truth, nonviolence, Sarvodaya and Satyagraha and their significance constitute Gandhi and his teaching.”

These are indeed the four pillars of Gandhian thought.


His is the One Luminous, Creator of all, Mahatma
Always in the hearts of people enshrined,
Revealed through Love, Intuition and Thought
Whoever knows Him, Immortal becomes!!!
Bless us O Bapu, so that we may attain Success in all that we do!
Source: Adapted From: “Why Gandhi is Relevant in Modern India: A Western Gandhians Personal Discovery”, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi; Academy of Gandhian Studies, Hyderabad, 1991.)