- Gandhi and the Stoics: Modern Experiments on Ancient Values by Richard Sorabji
Richard Sorabji has written an unusual book on Gandhi, in the light of the Hellenistic philosophers, and Stoics in particular. Unlike his earlier works on the Stoics and Christianity, where the subjects that are dealt with exhibit an unbroken historical continuity, in Gandhi and the Stoics: Modern Experiments on Ancient Values he aims to present and analyze the affinities between Gandhi’s thought and the Stoics, who do not, from the standpoint of history, share any documented relation of either continuity or influence. Any philosophical affinity that Gandhi shares with the Stoics, then, should be the concern of this book. Sorabji hopes and therefore claims that this comparison “will throw light not only on Gandhi, but also on the Stoics, or just on the ideas themselves” (p. 2).
This book aims to defend the claim that Gandhi is a philosopher, understood especially in the sense in which the ancient Greek tradition viewed the practice of philosophy as a way of life, that is, living by what one thinks and teaches. What [End Page 354] strengthens this line, according to Sorabji, is the argument that Gandhi offered “philosophical reasons” for the many things to which he applied his thought. Of course, Gandhi is not a philosopher in the conventional sense. And therefore Sorabji relies not only on Gandhi’s ideas available in print but also on numerous accounts of his life available from varied sources to illustrate the peculiar kind of philosopher that he was. Thus, the author often adopts Gandhi’s biographical details for philosophical purposes.
Although the book is only some two hundred pages long, it discusses a wide range of pertinent issues in its eleven chapters—indifferent action, emotional detachment, individual freedom, nonviolence, universal love, human rights, personal duty, conscience, and private property, to name a few—with exemplary clarity and astuteness. It also includes in its itinerary many a philosopher from antiquity to modern times—from Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic to Leo Tolstoy and Isaiah Berlin. In fact, given the large number of issues and historical references, the book leaves the impression of lacking a continuous argument, namely that of proving Gandhi’s philosophical credentials. In what follows, a critical review of the main concerns of the book will be presented.
Chapter 1 is a comparative account of how Gandhi and the Stoics differ, even as there are similarities, in their views of the relationship between the love of one’s own family and the love of humanity. Sorabji provides instructive discussions about how the Stoics attempt to reconcile family love with the love of humanity by advocating that any expression of love should be detached from its object. Thus, the love of family for the Stoics is continuous with the love of humanity. In contrast, for Gandhi the love of family is incompatible with love and service to humanity. This is because any kind of love, for Gandhi, must remain untouched by our personal interests. The Stoics never take up the language of human interests. However, they do operate with a notion of impersonal interest when they propose that the moral life should not contravene the fulfillment of natural objectives. Although Sorabji is right in stating that Gandhi’s preoccupations, and the actions that result from them, are experimental in spirit and character, it would have been more helpful if he had built on the fitting contrast that the Stoics were always motivated by a clear theoretical interest while Gandhi was not. I would also think that Gandhi’s consistency lies less in getting his beliefs, both fallible and otherwise, into a sort of coherent order over time and more in an effort to preserve his beliefs unchanged. Even in cases when he changed his beliefs it was more in response to what in his personal life caused this change than in the interests of having his philosophical beliefs sorted out.
If, for their own reasons, both Gandhi and the Stoics...