Jacobello Alberegno — Polyptych of the Apocalypse (1360-90)
I have spent a considerable amount of time in contemplative thought over the past two years. In fact, on any given day, I have made contemplation and its attendant awareness the focus of my thought.
Contemplative thought has been given a bad rap over the past two-hundred years. In fact, so much so, it seems all forms of thought have been thrown into the same barrel, the lid closed and left in the hot sun to rot. From time to time, a public ceremony is declared where we pry open the lid a little and all present quickly agree that whatever is inside stinks. I personally think the word they are actually looking for is odious. But stink will do. It’s more emotionally satisfying and efficient in a tweet.
And for thought to work as a partner in communication, there needs to be a common framework of understanding. And clearly, at the present moment, both of these ways of living are in critically short supply.
I was led to believe by my education that we are at heart and by definition a ‘tool’ using animal. But it turns out that this is a convenience and restrictive definition that shifts our focus in an immense and critical fashion. The end result being that we have arrived at a point that we can equally define ourselves as extremely complex and sophisticated monkeys that have been highly trained to act against our own best interests. This in itself is no mean feat. Nor one to be ignored. But we did not arrive here by accident. And we did arrive here through the complete absence of thought.
I no longer have any memory of the last time I was ‘required’ to think as a part of my daily life. In fact, in many cases, being thoughtful or thought provoking has turned out to be a major liability. It is the position we assign to those we consider as not capable of being team players. Team players don’t think. They act, and hopefully in co-ordination. In fact a well organized and highly trained team is capable of accomplishing many amazing feats of action. Which is why we hold them in such high regard. Seldom will we see any rewards or even attempts to form a highly accomplished thinking team. The results are often disturbing and require actions we don’t like. And stuck as we are in the mental year of 1779, we don’t do things we don’t like unless we are forced to. And that is all the thinking that’s required.
I’m not going to harp on this point. Much has already been conveyed sufficiently to reach a common understanding of the serious implications this involves.
In the end, co-incident with the same period, the last years of the 18th Century; it seems as if thought somehow congealed and took solid form in the resurgence of iron and motive force that we call the first industrial revolution.
Thought was something that now could be preserved, packaged, reprinted, co-modified and consumed through the skill and collaboration of the newly explosive power of mercantile capitalism that was coming to dominate the world and everything in it. A certain concept that founded all value in life as a specifically designed relationship with certain metals, precious and otherwise.
The rich and emerging world of observation and thinking–reflection and contemplative thought–didn’t stand a chance. The hard won personal freedoms of the reformation, the collaborative undertaking that underpinned the age of reason, the threads of Aristotelian thought that were woven into the fabric of the time; they were violently rent asunder and cast aside in our worship of action and commerce. The last vestiges of the age arrived on our doorstep as a permanent insult meant to stop an argument in it’s tracks. A ‘romantic notion.’ A ‘fantasy’ not a fact. Apollo’s handmaidens were again somehow qualified to decide Marsayus’ fate. A fate no less horrific in our time.
I’m not here to defend the Eleusinian Mysteries nor the end of the Romantic world. I am here as a result of our calloused attitudes toward thinking and thought.
For two years, a simple question has faced me every day. A question so simple it is repeated several times, seemingly at random, on purpose, a challenge, with intent. “what’s on your mind?” And every day I fail. I fail at this basic and most inane of tasks. It was designed to fail, and to shamelessly reveal the extent of that failure in it’s full horror.
Never once was a cute cat or any other seemingly important piece of trivial nonsense on my mind. If you knew me in life. I’ve never been able to be trivial. Enough that I consider it to be my most major shortcoming and stumbling block in life.
No… what’s on my mind resembles this post. All the time. And it has been for most of my life. In fact there has been no time I remember it being any different. Normally I’m labeled ‘smart,’ which is even farther from the truth. No… what separates me is that I think. And in this world it is a painful and lonely truth. If there is one approach to life we punish. It is for those who think. It’s always been thus, I believe, to some extent, but the adaptation to healthy thought and any attendant change could be managed within a human’s life or immediate surroundings. But today. The product of thinking is our greatest threat. A threat to the very basis of our constructed life. It means change. And to a world so hell bent on avoiding change at all cost. Thinking is nothing short of catastrophic violence against the system. It’s almost always been vehemently punished as a crime. But equally, and ultimately it has been bound up with our salvation.
And again in our current folly. Thinking, and contemplative thought my be our only lifeline ..and it is disappearing extremely fast. It is a rare and dangerous act. And it is no accident that monastic thought and the institutions that lent it protection and support have more than once saved our collective ass.
This isn’t a new situation, nor one new to me. This has been my single field of study for a solid fifty years. And in the end. There is much to say. And there being no time like the present. Now is the time to say it.
I first encountered Jacques Ellul in the late 1970’s in a series of interviews called ‘Perspective on Our Age’. I was already in my early twenties and already deeply interested in the transformation of the world wrought by Giotto painting the sky blue, I was stopped dead in my tracks by both what he was suggesting and what he had to say.
It was a one shot deal. Two voices on the radio. Transient, important, and too confusing to be memorable. A transcript, if it were available, was worth nearly ten hours of full time wages. Not a single other person I know to this day heard what he had to say. And yet I knew in a profound way. That what he was talking about came from a place of sufficient understanding, experience and struggle that it was necessary to sit up and pay rapt attention.
I scribbled pages of notes as best I could on sheets of three-ringed-paper on my drawing table. I pinned them to my wall and hand copied bits and pieces and put them in my pocket so the were available while I thought and reflected on what he said. I studied and lived with those ideas as constant companions as I went about my every day. I looked under stones, poured through manuscripts and books, talked to knowledgeable people, and traveled to far off places until I felt comfortable that I knew, by my own experience that there was more than just simple merit in his commentary.
In the following years I continued to explore and widen my comprehension of his ideas. I became aware of others who had also made many of the same propositions the subject of their investigations and work as well. The entire project becoming, day by day, and year by year, more critical as the world continued to teeter more precariously on the knife edge of a monstrous and hideous disaster for us all.
The writing was clearly on the wall, but very few had read it, and absolutely nobody thought about what it meant. Fifty years later we are still in the same position, having careened off the edge of a cliff and everyone still arguing about who deserves to ride shotgun and who deserves a window seat. To call this sinful would be not only be accurate. But right.
I had excellent and highly respected instructors for my formal introduction into this world. As early as 1975 the director of the small college I attended began to speak openly about the looming cultural warfare that had already begun, and what was, historically, and otherwise, likely to occur.
My broadening and passionate understanding of history only confirmed what I saw happening around me. We were looking at a fundamental cultural revolution at a scale the human animal rarely experiences and it was going to happen in less time than a single lifetime.
From my current point of view. What I have experienced in the last twelve months amounts to nothing less than cultural genocide. Unheralded but complete. Utterly complete. Utterly thorough. Utterly without thought.
We have arrived folks. Time to get off the bus. Please keep your feet on the Yellow Rubber Line and keep your hands to yourself.
Nobody wants to think.
Nobody has to.
When I re-read the book I quote at length from below. That it was written in 1948 is a chilling blow. I picked this book up again a week ago, the last time I read it being thirty plus years ago. It was only then that I had stumbled once again on the granddaddy of them all when it comes to critical modern thought. He remains along with Ruskin, Neitzche, Goethe, Marx, Gandhi, and a handful of others, capable of speaking accurately to our times and where we have finally arrived.
When I open my Facebook account and it says. “What’s on your mind?” Well. I don’t. I can’t. No amount of social media, zoom meetings or fiddling with the dials are going to get us to where we need to go. Our sickness is spiritual. And a spiritual solution starts specifically at the point where we begin to think. Without our intellectual capacity and it’s communication we are doomed and there is no way around it. And what we have now is the farthest thing we have ever experienced from human communication.
Jacques Elul The Presence of the Kingdom (1948)
“In the sphere of the intellectual life, the major fact of our day is a sort of refusal, unconscious but widespread to become aware of reality. Man does not want to see himself in the real situation which the world constitutes for him. He refuses to see what it is that really constitutes our world. this is true, especially for intellectuals but it is also true of all the people of our day, and of our civilization as a whole It is as though we were confronted by an enormous machine, equipped to prevent man from becoming aware, from driving him into a corner, to an unconscious refusal, or to a flight into the unreal. The dramatic characteristic of this epoch, in this sphere, is that man no longer grasps anything but shadows. He believes in these shadows, he lives in them, and dies for them. Reality disappears, the reality of man for himself, and the reality of the facts which surround him. *
The Man of the twentieth century (and we may say that is the first time in the course of history that this fact appears) oscillates unceasingly between the phenomenon and the explanatory myth: that is to say, between two ‘shadows,’ both of which are extremes, and are opposed to each other. The phenomenon might be described as the external presentation of the fact. Our contemporaries only see the presentations which are given them by the press, the radio, propaganda, and publicity. The man of the present day does not believe in his own experiences, in his own judgment, in his own though: he leaves all that to what he sees in print or hears on the wireless (internet) In his eyes, a fact becomes true when he has read an account of it in the paper, and he measures its importance by the size of the headlines! what he himself has seen does not count, if it has not been officially interpreted, if there is not a crowd of people who share his opinion. This statement, which may seem over-simplified, is in reality at the basis of all propaganda. A fact is untrue, it is printed in a newspaper with a circulation of a million, a thousand people know that the fact is false, but nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand believe it to be true. The the act becomes true. that is what I mean by ‘phenomena or ‘shadows’ that the modern man grasps and knows exclusively. Why exclusively? Because every day he himself has a number–a very limited number perhaps–of genuine experiences, but he is so embedded in his habits, that he doesn’t even know it! On the other hand, every day he learns a thousand things from his newspaper and his wireless, and very important and sensational things. Can he help it, that his little personal experiences, which deal, perhaps, with the excellence of a plum or of a razor blade, are drowned in this flood of important illusions concerning the atomic bomb, the fate of Germany, strikes, and the like. Now, these are facts of which he will never know the reality.
And it is these ‘shadows’ which become his life and his thought. This produces a result, very important from the intellectual point of view, namely, that modern man,submerged by this flood of images which he cannot verify, is utterly unable to master them. They are not co-ordinated, for news succeeds news without ceasing. For instance, in the columns of the newspaper he will read one day about an affair which quickly disappears from the paper, and also from the brain of the reader. It is replaced by others; it is forgotten. A man gets used to living like this, without a present and without a past. He gets used to living in complete incoherence, because all his intellectual activity is taken up with these fugitive visions, themselves without a past and without a future, and without any substance even in the present.
Now in this reality, real facts, within reach of everyone are entirely hidden, they have no outward reality, so of course they do not exist: for instance, social classes (save class dictatorship), the great city or problems of transport (except in the questions of town planning). Attention is given to the fact that has no great importance: the incident, whether political, military or economic.. or nationalization: all these different incidents, by the way in which we colour them, are objects of human passions.
On the other hand, man evidently needs a certain coherence. He cannot submit to being simply an eye which registers [and consumes sic], without understanding, the jerky images of a mad kaleidoscope. Man needs some logical connection, he demands that there should be some coherence between all these surface facts. Now this cannot be their real coherence, for this would pre-suppose a true knowledge of the facts, and not only the superficial view that we have of them, and it presupposes a highly trained and alert intelligence. Now the more that the press and propaganda develop along their own lines, the more they appeal to the crowd, and the smaller the proportion of intellectuals becomes, the more it becomes necessary to simplify, and to present news and ideas in a very condensed way. It is equally urgent to give the explanation, and this link, however must be on the level of the ‘average’ reader, a level which automatically sinks lower and lower.
This leads us to the other pole of our extraordinary present intellectual situation: the explanatory myth. In addition to its political character, and its mystical and spiritual necessities, the ‘explanatory myth’ is the real support of our whole intellectual system. It has often been considered an accident, something which only belongs to dictatorial regimes, but in reality it is the essential element in every kind of politics at the present time, and in our own sphere. Confronted by the confusion of these various phenomena, and the necessity to give them some coherence, they are linked together, from a purely external point of view, by a new phenomenon, which makes it possible to explain the rest. /this phenomenon, which has a spiritual root, and is only accepted by an absolutely blind credulity, becomes the intellectual key which serves to open all secrets, to interpret all facts and to understand what is happening in the tempest of phenomena. We all these explanatory myths: the bourgeois myth of the Hand of Moscow, the Socialist myth of the Two Hundred Families, the fascist myth of the Jews, the communist myth of the anti-revolutionary saboteur, etc., etc.. but what is evidently very serious is that modern man has no other means of intellectual coherence or of political investigation than this myth. If he abandons it, he cuts himself off from the wold in which he is living; he can, of course, simply lead his personal life; but this is a suicidal solution, for modern man cannot contract out of the world that we have made.
This myth, which we only mention in passing, and do not analyze completely, is, further, the stable point in the thought and consciousness of our contemporaries. Thus it is not only the means of understanding and of coherence: it is also the only element which seems fixed in the midst of streams of facts; this helps man to avoid the fatigue of thinking for himself, the disquiet of doubt and of being questioned, the uncertainty of understanding, and the torture of a bad conscience. What a prodigious economy of time and of means, which one can use to great advantage in order to produce a few more flying bombs! Modern man has a good conscience because he has an answer for everything; whatever happens to him, and whatever does, depends on the explanation which is provided for him by the myth. But this process lands him in the most complete unreality. He lives in a perpetual dream, but it is a realist’s dream, woven out of innumerable facts and theories in which he believes with all his might, as a man involved in a mass-civilization, who could not break away from the masses without dying.
What is the reason for this situation, from which it seems impossible to escape? There are a whole number of facts which combine to explain it: first of all, there is the really extraordinary complexity of our world. The more we advance and the more this world is formed of complicated organisms overlapping one another, variable in quality, but all seeming equally important–the more impossible it is to know them all, or to grasp them–so mankind wanders uncertainly through this forest.
Then there is the influence of the means of knowledge, placed at our disposal in order that we may meet these facts. These means (mainly the press, the radio, and the cinema) are essentially mechanical in their nature, and presuppose a considerable capital in order to be put into action. In consequence they are obliged to depend on capital, whether that of private ownership or of the State. These two aspects of the means produce the following consequences in the order of political or economic knowledge: the mechanical character means that they can only be attached to the external aspect of facts. There are things ‘which it is possible to represent technically on the radio, but others are impossible.’ This means that we can only know one aspect. This twofold condition consequently leads to a mechanical choice among the actual facts. We have to find that which corresponds to the demands of means–and, finally, the mechanical aspect means that we have to use large affirmations without any shade s of meaning–and they have to be affirmations, not reasoning, for by the very fact that this has to be don by mechanical means, we are speaking to the crowd. The financial obligation of the means brings with it a certain restriction in choice of the facts which are to be broadcast. The presentation of an aspect of the world based upon hidden presuppositions, and the progressive application of these means to all spheres and to all men, since it is a condition that the affair should yield a high rate of interest (financially, if we are concerned with ‘private information’, politically, if we are concerned with ‘secrets of the State’–it’s all the same!).
A third element of the explanation comes from the crushing character of the means of knowledge with society puts at our disposal. We can scarcely deny the information which is thus transmitted to us, and even if we doubt it personally this does not hinder the adhesion of the crowd, which is evoked by the evidence of power. There is no discussion with the radio or with the press. Their power over the masses is absolutely irresistible when it is employed in certain conditions (which specialized institutions make it their business to control more and more fully).
Finally, evidently we must take into account the question of ‘distraction,’ in the sense in which Pascal uses the word. To-day everyone is ‘distracted’ by civilization; indeed, we might say that our whole civilization, from its games and sports up to its’ serious business, has arranged everything in order to achieve this distraction. This is what I meant when I spoke about ‘the effort to make men become unaware.’ His way of life, his amusements, his work, his political parties, etc., all this absorbs modern man to such an extent that he easily falls a prey to these ways of acquiring information, Their influence is strengthened by the man who uses them, who is profoundly incapable of meditation and of reflection. He is satisfied with these phenomena, with thee apparent explanations, because he is already ‘distracted,’ even before ‘the news-reel’ or the wireless have helped to ‘distract’ him still further. Thus the intellectual situation of modern man is extremely serious; although he knows more ‘things,’ and possesses more mechanical methods, than ever before, and although in theory he may be more fully developed than at any other period in history, this development is due to inaccurate information and hazy facts.
But, someone may object, ‘this is not the position of the modern intellectual, though it may be that of the man-in-the-street; that’s all!’But actually the intellectual is also affected by the same atmosphere, although in a different way.’ the intellectual can easily see through the stupidity of the explanatory myths. He can refuse to accept them, and he can reject the terrible over-simplification and the wretched dogmatism of the present time. But when he has got rid of all this he is absolutely defenseless when confronted by the mass of news which reaches him from every quarter. His is capable, it is true, of rejecting the myth, but he is not capable of attaining reality. Thus in the current intellectual system, which circles round and axis passing through the two poles–the ‘phenomenon’ and the ‘myth’–he is obliged to preserve one of these poles, the phenomenon, and this makes thought wholly unbalanced. he is obliged to adopt this position because the phenomenon does not depend upon himself. But this intellectual may be perfectly well aware that in so doing he is only concerned with an illusion. He can be perfectly clear of the unreality of what others believe to be facts, but he still cannot grasp this reality. What then will he do? For some the solution is 9intellectual0 suicide: such people shut their eyes, and accept the myth, in order to remain in fellowship with the majority; they accept this sophism: ‘doubtless the phenomenon and the myth do not correspond to the facts, but the moment that men believe that they do, they become real, and we must adhere to this reality.’ This is the great paradox of Communist and Fascist intellectuals (it is true that in this camp there were not many of them!). They have to commit intellectual suicide, and to abandon clarity of thought, in order to find a reason for existing at all! The intellectual will then adorn his ‘suicide’ with an intellectual crown, by appealing to the myth in which he believes: such as the ‘permanence of man’, or the ‘dialectic of history’.
Other intellectuals also commit suicide. The ‘phenomenon’ is so crushing and so pervasive–it becomes so impossible to gain a true view of political reality, or of the social and human reality of our day, and human development is so superficial that anyone who understands it despairs of ever knowing anything else, or of finding any kind of coherence in this perpetual motion. Thus the intellectual is gradually led to think that there is no reality behind appearances, or that, if there is one, it is entirely out of reach, and that, so far as man is concerned, it is absurd. henceforth it is useless to look for an explanation, or for coherence, since we are wandering in a world of shadow. and because everything presents itself to our understanding in the form of appearance, because everything has already been interpreted, since the intellectual cannot know the reality of these facts, he refuses to accept any fact as valid and certain. thus he comes to lose awareness of the world in which he is living. The result of this attitude will show itself in different ways, sometimes in a desperate heroism, sometimes in surrealist dilettantism, but in any case it is intellectual suicide due to the despair provoked by the factual situation.
Whether directly or indirectly, all modern intellectuals adopt one or other of these positions. This comes out very clearly in the case of the Parisian intelligentsia. Thus the position of the intellectual is not particularly enviable. It is more precarious in our own day, when there are so many ‘openings,’ when novelists make such fortunes, and cultivated men and technicians are needed more than ever. this precarious situation is not due to material conditions, but to the intellectual and spiritual conditions in which the intellectual has to practice his profession. That is to say, he is menaced from within and no longer from without. However we cannot dwell on this point here.
We have considered one of the aspects of the intellectual transformation of our own time. There is, however, another, which is no less serious.
Until now the intelligence had various ways of expressing itself and of controlling the world and men. In our own day, however, the intelligence has found a form of expression which corresponds to our civilization, and one which presents new and disquieting features: it is technics. Owing to the fact that technics has invaded all spheres of action, we find it also in the sphere of intelligence. It goes without saying that we use this term ‘technics’ in its most comprehensive sense. By it we mean literary technics, technics in the realm of sociology, law, and history, and not only in the realm of science. All the spheres of intelligence are, in fact, exploited by the technicians. this, of course, has the advantages which are always presented by technics, of precision, rapidity, certainty, continuity, universality: which are all characteristics of efficiency.
This does not mean that technics is anti-intellectual. We might easily put it the other way round and say ‘intelligence has become technical.’ It is no use moaning about this situation, but we must be aware of it. Here as elsewhere technics is an instrument at the disposal of intelligence, but after our study of the end and the means this idea is not very reassuring and it must be admitted that this instrument has had a disintegrating effect upon modern intelligence.
It is striking that technics appears to be an instrument of our intelligence which is univocal. Whether we are concerned with intellectual matters or with the control of the world, or with self-knowledge,in all these operations there is a technical way, and this way, since it is swifter, more effective, and more practical, is the only way which a modern intellectual can use. There is no longer a choice. An entomologist will not act any longer like Fabre <<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Henri_Fabre>>, nor an historian like Commynes. <<https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippe_de_Commines>>. For there are precise techniques which give much better results, and if we do not use them we are regarded as amateurs, if not as impostors, charlatans and frauds! In point of fact, we might say that to-day the technical way is the only method which the intellect uses to express itself truly. This comes out very clearly in art itself, whether directly as in the cinema, or indirectly, as in modern painting, which is actually controlled by the obsession of ‘self expression,’ and the effort to be as different as possible from photography–that is, a technical problem. Now this instrument–which the intelligence can modify, bend, and apparently control–this instrument which excludes any other, actually causes profound alterations in intellectual behavior. It becomes imperious. The intelligence may manifest itself by intuition, but it does so in the abstract, it cannot coincide with this instrument which is so remarkably exact. This ‘imperialistic’ attitude of technics can be understood, for instance, if we look at the attitude of our modern intellectuals when confronted by the knowledge of the world, ways of acting on the world …proceeding from other intellectual methods, like eastern spiritual practice, seem to the modern intellectual, to be an object for research, and for sociology, but not as an intellectual path which is still open, another way leading towards the knowledge of reality and of truth. This makes it evident that this way of knowledge does not compete with our technics. This is only one example.
But so far as the intelligence is tied to its technical expression, so far as the intellectual tends to become a technician, his sphere of action–which seemed to be extended by all the technical aids–in reality becomes narrower and narrower. Because the intelligence cannot be freed from its instrument, it remains limited to-day to the sphere in which this instrument can act, can be utilized.
If we are not prejudiced already we ought to consider that according to current opinion there is a ‘serious intellectualism,’ one which can be used–technics–and an intellectualism of fantasy, which no one takes seriously, which has no repercussions in any sphere, that is, one which does not succeed in being ‘technical’ because its object is not suited to this method–as, for instance, theology, metaphysics, and, in general, art.
This is simply the restriction of the intelligence owing to its univocal modern method. It is rationalism, but not as we might currently understand it. Owing to this, the intelligence is forced to act on that which can be seen, weighed, counted, and measured. It acts strictly in the sphere of the material world, and tends to deny the existence of any other. and that which might have been simply the fact of a materialist theory, is now the result (which is more serious) of the very method of the intelligence. It is more serious, because a doctrine can be refuted, but one cannot question the technical method. The intelligence of modern man is no longer nourished at the source of contemplation, of awareness of reality, and is more and more absorbed by the instrument which it has created, an instrument whose principal aim is the control of the material world.
Thus the intellectual who takes his profession seriously can no longer be anything other than materialist, not theoretically, but owing to the method which he uses. If there are other philosophical positions, these will have no effect on his actions, save to question his technical method–which is evidently catastrophic–not perhaps, catastrophic from the genuinely intellectual point of view, but from the point of view of achievement, and of his personal career (for this intellectual will immediately cease to be taken seriously).
So far as the intellectual is concerned, who imagines that he can remain truly idealistic and humanist in outlook while employing the rational technique, his want of lucidity proves that he is not a true intellectual. Action which is entirely directed towards the material world, by eliminating its spiritual elements, in the last resort necessarily destroys this spiritual reality which lies at the heart of intelligence. The latter has become more and more the slave of its method, and can no longer find a way of escape. That which ought to be the liberation of the intelligence is the worst slavery that it has ever known–set free of dogmas it is the slave of means. There is no longer any conflict or tension between Ariel and Caliban. Caliban has produced a system where Ariel in chains finds his whole raison d’etre, and caresses his chains with joy, under the illusion that he possesses a power which is in reality the very one Caliban possesses.
There evidently have been some reactions, sometimes violent ones; for instance, Cubism and Surrealism, which seek by means of the intelligence to gain an influence over the world by a way that is not technical. But what vitiates these reactions is, first of all, the fact that these movements deny the existence of a reality other than apparent phenomena, and refuse to admit an objective reality. This produces the first stage of intellectual degradation of our time. And, further, as soon as these movements were born, from an explosion, they had to look after their ‘efficiency,’ so they had to adapt themselves to the law of the present day, and they started looking for new techniques. This comes out very clearly in the sphere of Surrealism, and in the quarrels between surrealist factions. We thus perceive that they were led to an application of strict rules, forming a different style, but presenting the same fundamental features; strict rules, which are in reality technical rules excluding intellectual liberty.
These two facts which we have just emphasized–the lack of awareness and the enslavement of the intelligence to technical methods–lead, when combined, to the most terrible situation for the intellectual: absence of communication.
It is a platitude to say that the men of our day no longer understand each other. this is nothing new since the Tower of Babel. But God had left a certain relation between men through intelligence. Now it is this bridge which our day has just broken down. Men no longer understand each other: on the level of the peasant this is not evident; on the bourgeois level it is inconvenient, on the intellectual level it is tragic, because for the intellectual there is no other genuine reason for living than that of communication, in order to understand the world. To-day this communication has become practically impassible. In order to understand each other we need a minimum of ideas which are common and valid for everyone, of prejudices and values which are the same for all–and most often unconscious.
Now the mechanism of information increasingly destroys this common basis of communication. Doubtless, other prejudices are created, other common ideas which have other features: instead of being the expression, the most deep and the most authentic, of a certain kind of civilization, they are now the myths and artificial ideas created by propaganda. This means that individuals can no longer meet one another in a given trend of civilization. They can only meet in each the myth in which they themselves believe, and this myth is only an artificial creation (we must come back to this again and again) created in order to prevent modern man from going mad.
Further, we have seen how the sense of reality–objective reality–is increasingly being lost, and the man whom we meet has ceased also to have for us an objective reality, We are more and more plunged into this abstraction, and this is not only with regard to facts, but with regard to men. We can no longer communicate with man, because the man whom we are faced has lost for us his reality. The intellectual of the present day no longer believes in the possibility of rejoining this man. He speaks in an emptiness and a desert, or, when he speaks for the proletarian, for the Nazi, for the intellectual, etc. There never was a time when people have talked so much about Man: there never was a time when so little has been said to Man. The reason for this is that people know that it is futile to speak to him. Conditions are such that ‘man’ has disappeared. He remains in the form of the consumer, the workman, the citizen, the reader, the partisan, the producer, or the bourgeois. Some people wave the tricolor and others are internationalists, but in all this, man has disappeared, yet it is to him alone that on can really speak: it is with him alone that one can really speak: it is with him alone that one can communicate.
Finally, we can no longer communicate with man, because the only intellectual method of expression is a technical one. the fact that the intelligence is obliged to use the technical channel breaks personal relations, because there is no possibility of contact between two human beings along this line. Communication transcends technics because it can only take place where two human beings are fully engaged in a real conversation. Now this is precisely what the intellectual technique of the present day both avoids and prevents.
The modern intellectual is aware of this great impossibility–and it is his very existence which i at stake; what matters is to know definitely whether he still has something to say to man which man can understand, instead of discoursing indefinitely about matter, and how to perfect one’s means; and this also concerns the intellectual who calls himself Christian. The modern intellectual seeks for ways–for instance, DeRougemont with his search for a thought which ‘commits’ you, or Malraux, who re-discovers man in ‘the Event’. This is not false, but it is ineffective. For to say that man finds himself in ‘The Event’, as, for instance, in war, in revolution, in the concentration camp, is tantamount to say that he can only find himself in exceptional situations, which in relation to our civilization are very demanding, and, indeed, only to the extent in which he escapes from our civilization. But this attempt does not reach the heart of the problem, because it springs, necessarily, from a sphere which is temporary, limited, and changing. This physical or spiritual adventure, which is so necessary if communication is to become possible once more, is only itself the expression of this communication already realized. It is impossible to recreate what has been broken from the outside. It is impossible to re-discover man artificially and in the exceptional element of life. Our whole civilization needs to be examined, and by each person, on the plane of his individual destiny, which may not be heroic, but which is certainly a human destiny, and cannot exist without genuine communication with the human beings by whom he is surrounded.
Here we also come upon one of the characteristics of our day: the ‘will-to-death,’ one of the forms of universal suicide towards which Satan is gradually leading man. Satan makes people gradually get used to this idea of suicide: suicide in enjoyment or in despair, intellectual or moral suicide which is slowly preparing, and will involve the whole world, body and soul.
It is our duty to react against this habit of suicide in all its forms: the form of non-communication is particularly pernicious, particularly invisible, for the men of our day, when they want to meet one another, put their trust in the post office, the railway or the newspaper–that is to say, precisely in that which breaks and kills the very power of finding each other as human beings, in the reality of flesh and blood.
*We do not intend here to touch the philosophical problem of ‘appearance’ and ‘reality.’ We do not aspire to know whether matter has reality, or whether all the visible world is simply an illusion to our senses if man can grasp a reality or if the myth is a reality, etc. We are on a much more elementary level, and the object of this inquiry will come out clearly as we go on.
“There’s something comforting in the patterns of ou lives. That is the one great advantages of the lunar calendar’s festivals, observations and even it’s foods. Each detail is easy to follow, and the accumulation of those details forms a pattern that is comforting to return to each year. When all is change, the regularity of cycles can be reassuring.
We live in times marked by self consciousness, self analysis, and worship of the ironic. We are afraid to be seen as mere repetitions of what has comee before. We want to be new! Revolutionary! Unprecedented!
Yet we ask what to do when it’s time to marry. We search for the right action whenever a family member dies. We may have turned away from the last generations rites, but we need rites nonetheless.
The lunar calendar’s current state reflects many revisions over the years. The turnover of dynasties alone have tested it. What emerges millenia later is a pattern born of consensus. The practices have changed but the have changed slowly enough that each generation can take comfort in them. And our generation will continue to modify the calendar, and that is how it should be.
Even so, we don’t need to reinvent everything. In observing the changing of the seasons, the divisions between cold and warm weather, the shifting of the sun, and the need to strengthen family ties, there is a reassuring ease. In organizing our spiritual inquiries and efforts into the lunar calendar’s time and space, there is a freedom to give our full energy, knowing that our efforts fit into a greater whole… “
For the past twelve months, the subject in this excerpt has been the single largest idea on my mind, occupying my thoughts and experienced by my body.
Every passing day further convinces me that we have missed something extremely fundamental and important when we hitched certain notions of ‘evolution’ to mercantile capitalism and its attendant industrial revolution.
I find the whole concept far too complex and resistant to inquiry through a modern lens to just blab about it without having yet discerned the common thread that weaves it all together. This piece it seems, may in fact be a good starting point.
I have also come to the point that it is necessary to recognize some ideas and stories are not cut and dried. Nor are they possible to be explained in a few short well placed words or reference.
I am copying the entire text for you to read yourself as I believe it to be fundamental and important in it’s own right regardless of what I might have to draw from it.
It’s likely to be that I will resort to this more often in the coming months. In part because of the severity of the current crisis facing our species. In part because the unexamined life is not worth living.
We are under threat. Mostly by ourselves. And we don’t possess even a reasonable understanding and admission of who and what we are. This makes grappling with our potential nigh impossible.
Please stay safe. Please actively participate in your future. Please take part in all this life has to offer
Orion Magazine | How to Be Animal
By Melanie Challenger 12-16 minutes
The following is an excerpt from How to Be Animal (Penguin Random House, March 2021).
THE IDEA IS THAT we were not human and then we became human. And when we became fully human, we could no longer be understood as animals. This idea gained popularity in the decades after the publication of On the Origin of Species. As evidence of our early ancestors was found, thinkers and scientists started to focus their energies on defining the moment when we became human as we understand it today. The desire was for unique biological characteristics that could be dated after the emergence of our species.
By the early twentieth century it was widely considered among scholars that around 40,000 years ago, in an era referred to as the Upper Paleolithic, a cognitive leap occurred whereby groups of Homo sapiens in Western Europe began acting and behaving in a way that marked them out as human. The “Human Revolution,” as it became known, was talked about as an almost miraculous span of time in which a suite of skills such as abstract thinking, sophisticated tool use, language, and symbolic image-making arose among men and women, transforming people in an extraordinarily short timescale from an ape to a superbeing. If God hadn’t brought forth humans in a state of completeness, at least evolution had very nearly done so. But this source of reassurance soon hit difficulties.
If it was biological proofs of difference that mattered, how could we separate out biology from cultural behavior? In an age of smartphones, it is obvious to most of us now that cultural innovations can accumulate suddenly without any physical change to the people inventing them. It’s perfectly plausible that there was no human revolution, only some phases of rapid evolution and many phases of slow evolution. It’s also possible that the underlying cognitive abilities that gave rise to the cultural manifestations we’ve since labelled as “human modernity” were present tens of thousands of years before the speciation of Homo sapiens, let alone the arrival of the Neolithic era. As American archaeologist Sally McBrearty has since said: “The search for revolutions in Western thought has been, in part, a search for the soul, for the inventive spark that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.”
Alfred Wallace, who arrived at his own theories of evolution at more or less the same time as Darwin, understood the advantages of this for human psychological wellbeing. To revive our hopes for salvation, we could explain away the body as a natural event, but single out some essence that is the source of “a higher intelligence.” It is because of notions like this that modern secular individuals don’t need a unique soul. It is enough to believe that our elaborate cognition sets the boundary. The boundary in this sense is not between an immortal being and its physical body but consists of the superior qualities of human rationality. Human mental life consists of a range of capabilities that lift us out of nature.
This was particularly appealing to those who had inherited humanist ideas, sometimes of deeply compassionate intent, to place the interests of human persons at the center of judgement. According to secular humanism, perhaps other animals are sentient, even conscious by some measures, but they lack a sense of self, any knowledge of right or wrong. They lack a soulful mind. Experiences like pleasure were to be given intrinsic value, so that we could point to the duties that arise from this. In practice, all this did was to isolate human things and then use this to argue we only have duties to humans. It was a neat trick. Humanists had carved our statue and hidden the chisels with which it was made. While Enlightenment humanism did much to argue for science as the true expression of human power, science in its pursuit of minutiae has refused to toe the line. The evidence from science has continued to tell us that there’s no such thing as a human in this sense. The traits and appearances that define animals come about through processes. They’re neither an end point nor a scale. Most of the capacities we prize evolved gradually and would have been at least partially present in ancestors that today we would consider as without any special status whatsoever.
Ian Tattersall, a veteran taxonomist and curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, is acutely aware that “biology doesn’t permit neat boundaries.” Yet history has proven many of us to be “reluctant to admit diversity.” It is more than possible that biological architecture can come before the behavior kicks in. Take language, for instance. For humanists, language is often held up as one aspect of the unique essence that makes us more than animal. Yet there’s great disagreement about the origins of language. Some of this comes down to how we define language. Among language specialists, Derek Bickerton sees true language as something that only emerged in Homo sapiens and as a “catastrophic event.” Tim Crow argues it was a speciation event, and Richard Klein that it may have come even later. But American linguist Ray Jackendoff is among a group of scholars that believe language developed incrementally, beginning around two million years ago at the onset of the Homo evolutionary branch.
For a long time, it was also presumed that other hominin species like Neanderthals died out because they didn’t possess skills like human language. Yet in I983 a hyoid bone was discovered among Neanderthal remains. The hyoid bone is a funny little horseshoe-shaped bit of our anatomy believed to be essential for complex speech. Some have argued that the bone might have come in handy for singing rather than speaking. But others believe the evidence points to speech. If possessing language is that which justifies our special status, then we must at least acknowledge it now looks likely that this wasn’t a Homo sapiens thing but a hominin thing. This is much more confusing. It may place the evolution of language back to a common ancestor. Recent analysis on dental specimens suggests that the two species diverged at least 800,000 years ago. Although gene flow continued between the two species, it muddies the waters if we hope for a pure source of exception. If we were to travel back in time to observe the first of our ancestors chatting together around a fire, we might see a bunch of hairy, heavily browed animals.
And there would probably be more humanlike animals than historians have cared to admit. In 20I9, a complete hominin cranium was recovered from Woranso-Mille in Ethiopia by African anthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie. It caused upset because, up to this point, it had been assumed that modern humans evolved in a direct line from Australopithecus anamensis and then Australopithecus afarensis. Yet the specimen revealed the likelihood that these two intelligent, upright primates overlapped with each other as separate species. Human evolution appears to be highly branched, not a straight arrow of descent. Haile-Selassie and others see this as evidence that our ancestors belonged to more general evolutionary trends to adapt to changes in climate and shortages of food. The same year, Russell Ciochon’s team successfully dated skeletal remains of Homo erectus in Ngandong in Java to around I08–II7,000 years ago. A human ancestor once thought to be a direct ancestor now looks to have overlapped with our own species too.
Nobody knows the full story yet, but the idea of revolutions softens a reality that is strange and disturbing to us. If language, as argued by someone like prehistorian Robert Bednarik, evolved gradually throughout the Pleistocene period, when did we suddenly cross some unbreachable line between us and other animals? Most of what we can see in the fossil record points to the slow stages that have led to everything we esteem in ourselves. The controversial jasperite cobble is a small piece of rock that looks like a human face. What makes it of interest is that it was found with the bones of an Australopithecus africanus individual in a cave in South Africa. It isn’t evidence for art, and we can’t prove it was deliberately in this animal’s possession. But how else did it get there? Jasperite isn’t found anywhere near this region. What if it was noticed by a being that wasn’t in the Homo branch of primates, and what if it was an object that meant something to this creature: a treasure?
This piece of jasperite is millions of years old. But by at least 800,000 years ago, it looks like hominins were discriminating between ordinary items and more exciting ones, like crystals. At this time, there are also possible signs of the symbolic use of pigment. Another compelling but uncertain object is the Tan Tan figurine from around half a million years ago. This seems to exploit visual ambiguity. A semi-weathered bit of a stone, it looks like a voluptuous woman. The shape is natural, but those who have studied it believe there’s evidence that the grooves that give it a human form were artificially exaggerated.
Photo: Ekkehart Malotki
The least controversial of such early indications of a more assertive consciousness comes from the creation of cupules around the world in the Lower Paleolithic. These are depressions in a rock surface, as if a small bowl has been set into it. They are made deliberately by percussion, using a hard object. Some specimens in the Kalahari Desert date from more than 400,000 years ago. Some may be even earlier. They are widely regarded by specialists in rock art as among the first efforts made by animals to express themselves symbolically. Often there are hundreds of them grouped together, like a close-up of the skin of a strawberry. A single cupule might require thousands of blows to make on hard rock. Pounding on stone takes time and energy. Why on earth did these beings do it?
Art historian Ellen Dissanayake believes these ritual marks stimulated the opioids in the brain that produce feelings of trust and security among small groups of individuals. Did the hammering sound like thunder or the hooves of a stampede? Did our ancestors sing along with the rhythm? Nobody knows. But these creatures would not only have been powerful predators themselves; they would also have been prey. Although they were not modern humans, whatever kind of mind they had was supple enough to begin ritual.
These glimmers of a complex truth matter. They matter because they show us that we are part of a gradual metamorphic act of life. The search for revolutions or for natural traits that belong exclusively to Homo sapiens is certainly of interest. But it is also a compulsion among those who need a solution to Darwinism. Gradualism makes morality less absolute, weakening the confident basis of our exclusive moral status. That the generations after Darwin hunted for signal markers so assiduously only exposes a deeper psychological basis to the search.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t answer to the specific capacities of humans as we are today. In whatever way it was that we evolved, humans are remarkable and it seems right that we should respond to our particular needs. But why doesn’t it follow for the needs of other species too? How often do we dismiss the culture or language in other species as diverse as scrub jays and bottlenose dolphins? The work of evolutionary biologists like Andrew Whiten has revealed the extent to which other animals use social learning to mitigate nutritional stress. Chimpanzees, who have been known to use over thirty different kinds of tools, exploit natural hammer materials when their fruit diet is depleted in the dry season. Orangutans use a look-and-learn method between mothers and their children to pass along important survival tools, like using stems for getting at termites. Chimpanzees also fish for termites and have been seen donating tools to teach less able youths in their group, at a cost to themselves.
Photo: Mark Higgins
This is worth bearing in mind given that more than 60 per cent of primates are endangered because of our behavior. Since the I960s, populations of chimpanzees have dropped by a half. In the end, we do little to halt these losses because we believe in an absolute border between us and them. Their deaths are but a candle snuffed out. We forget that the recent ancestors to whom we owe our life would be dismissed by the same measures today.
Melanie Challenger works as a researcher on the history of humanity and the natural world, and on environmental philosophy. She is the author of On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature(Counterpoint). She received a Darwin Now Award for her research among Canadian Inuit and the Arts Council International Fellowship with the British Antarctic Survey for her work on the history of whaling. She lives with her family in England.
I am going to just jump in midstream as I begin to re-establish this blog. Long explanations aside, a few things caught my eye over the past year that bear another look and I will be catching up as I restore this blog and continue ahead.
Mahatma Ghandhi and John Ruskin have underpinned much of my attitude towards life for nearly half a century now. Reading this is as fresh an experience as the first time I came across it in 1997.
This essay first appeared in ‘Gandhi and the Contemporary World’, edited by Antony Copley and George Paxton, published by the Indo-British Historical Society in 1997.
Gandhi wrote only one book, strictly speaking: Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule. He wanted to clarify what he meant by swaraj, a word that had come to mean a number of different things in the Indian political scene of that time (1909). Was it ‘self-rule’ in the sense that the Irish were then seeking it, a take-over of political power? Or was it something more profound and personal?
Gandhi approached these questions by asking another, what was it that Indians specifically needed to be liberated from? He came to the conclusion that it was not British rule as such, but something deeper and more pervasive. It was modern civilization. This was a relatively new and somewhat shocking idea in an Indian context, and Gandhi clearly needed to justify it. But his justification of the claim was, if anything, more shocking than the claim itself. He argued that modern civilization, as presented in the West and more specifically in Britain, was an evil force that was entirely opposed to the true interests of human beings, thus
‘The tendency of… the western civilization is to propagate immorality’(1)
The very things it boasts of, its medicine, its legal system, its parliamentary democracy, are in fact destructive and degrading: far from establishing health and justice, they perpetuate immoral practice and deprive people of the self-knowledge and self-sufficiency to cope with the problems that face them.
‘Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin’ (2) lawyers have ‘enslaved India’ (3) ‘That which you consider to be the Mother of Parliaments is like a sterile woman and a prostitute’ (4)
And so with every practice and institution that can claim to be modern.
This wholescale condemnation dismayed many of his friends and admirers. His own political guru, Ghokale, according to Mahadev Desai, ‘thought it so crude and hastily conceived that he prophesied that Gandhiji himself would destroy it after spending a year in India’ (5) But Gandhiji didn’t. On the contrary, he publicly reaffirmed its ideas on many occasions afterwards, even as late as 1945, 36 years on, when he said,
‘I withdraw nothing except one word of it, and that in deference to a lady friend’ (6)
the friend in question being Annie Besant.
What was going on? Why this vehement attack? And what exactly was he trying to say? Gandhi was not normally given to such vehement condemnation. He was usually balanced, judicious, ready to see the good in those things which he opposed. And in this particular case we may think he had particular reason to appreciate the civilization in which he himself had trained as a lawyer, learned to think through his philosophy (with the aid of such thinkers as Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau) and discovered the power of organized campaigns for achieving justice (from such as Bradlaugh and Besant). Was he being entirely honest? Or had he taken on more than he could properly comprehend?
It could easily be argued that Gandhi had two lines of thought which are essentially quite different, and only tenuously related. There is the shrewd thinking of the lawyer and politician on the one hand, and the idealistic and faddish thinking of the religious seeker on the other. Both appear in Hind Swaraj, it could be said, which explains its muddle and extremism. He is shrewd about tactics and PR, but hopelessly idealistic and simplistic about history and civilization, where unfortunately he allows his religious and moral intensity to colour his judgments about the condition of the world.
But this won’t do. it helps us to dispose of (what for us in the west may be) the difficult side of Gandhi, but it fails to come to terms with Gandhi’s own account of his intention. It may be that the dualism of our own (modern western) thinking prevents us from seeing how politics and spirituality, analysis and morality can be woven into a whole.
Look at the context to start with. He was returning from London on a leisurely sea trip with two disappointments on his mind: the failure to win support from the British government for the Indian cause in South Africa, and the new threat of violence in the Indian Home Rule movement. He wrote a letter the following year (1910) to a Mr Wybergh of the Transvaal Legislative Assembly to explain why he had written the book in the way he had.
‘The choice lay between allowing the readers of Indian Opinion (for whom it was originally intended), anxious though they were for guidance, to drift away in the matter of the insane violence that is now going on in India, or giving them, no matter how humble, a lead that they were asking for. The only way I saw of mitigating violence was the one sketched in the pamphlet”. (7)
He knew that violence would not have achieved what these youthful anarchists had in mind and which Gandhi largely had in mind too. The British were too powerful to be removed in this way, as Gandhi had been learning from his contacts in London with the Irish Home Rule movement. But how could Indians be persuaded to struggle without the violence that would surely let them down? And what precisely would they have to be struggling for? India was not South Africa with its very obvious injustice. It is evident that in setting himself to write such a book Gandhi had a difficult and sensitive task in hand.
Gandhi contrived his book as a dialogue between himself as ‘editor’ (of Indian Opinion) and the youthful but misguided revolutionary as ‘reader’, reflecting, he later claimed, the actual conversations he had in London that year (9). He pointed out to his anarchist partner, among other things, the contradiction in using the weapons of the British to eject the British. Means and ends were not so easily separable. It was also naive to suppose that in getting rid of the British they would have got rid of the problems that had dogged them for 300 years.
The oppression was not simply political: it was also, and more fundamentally, economic and ideological. If these youthful nationalists wanted to serve the true interests of India they should first identify her real enemy, which was not the British rule in India, but the civilization that the British had brought with them and had begun to impose on the nation. He wrote some two months later in Indian Opinion:
‘We saw in Hind Swaraj, that it is not so much from British rule that we have to save ourselves as from Western civilization.’ (10)
This might at first appear to to have increased what was already a near impossible task, but as Gandhi presented it the task was made easier. For Indians already had their own economic order, morality and culture — their own civilization in fact. So to oppose western civilization quite vigorously, as Gandhi did here, was, at the very least, tactically prudent.
It was also therapeutic, given the despondency and weakness of the Indian masses. This is evident from the continual emphasis in the book on the need for Indians to recover their moral strength and to find Swaraj for themselves. It is clarified by a letter he wrote to his friend and co-worker, Henry Polak, just before writing the book:
‘If you agree with me, it will be your duty to tell the revolutionaries and everybody else that the freedom they want, or they think they want, is not to be obtained by killing people or doing violence, but by setting themselves right, and by becoming and remaining truly Indian. Then the British rulers will be servants and not masters. They will be trustees and not tyrants, and they will live in perfect peace with the whole of the inhabitants of India. The future, therefore, lies not with the British race, but with the Indians themselves, and if they have sufficient self-abnegation and abstemiousness, they can make themselves free this very moment’ (11)
If we think of Hind Swaraj in these therapeutic terms, as helping Indians to ‘set themselves right’, we can see it as an psychological exercise in confidence building: it would be aimed, negatively, at liberating his fellow countrymen from paranoia (in relation to the British), a collective inferiority complex, and over-dependency; and it would be aimed, positively, at enhancing their self-confidence, maturity of outlook and freedom of thought and action. Swaraj could be defined precisely as personal freedom and maturity.
‘We can see that if we become free, India is free. And in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. It is, therefore, in the palm of our hands’ (12)
In that respect Gandhi’s therapy is very close to Freud’s, which was being developed at the same time. But Gandhi’s depended on a polarisation of good and bad that would have given Freud some qualms. Indian civilization was not only better than the English, it was ‘far superior to yours’, he tells the English (13) it is ‘unquestionably the best’ (14) ‘not to be beaten in the world’ (15) and, indeed, ‘has nothing to learn from anybody else’ (16).The polarization is sharpened in his preface to the English translation of 1910:
‘The British government in India constitutes a struggle between the Modern Civilization, which is the Kingdom of Satan, and the Ancient Civilization, which is the Kingdom of God. The one is the God of War, the other is the God of Love’ (17)
Is this delusion of grandeur, a compensation for a sense of powerlessness? Again,
‘Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy” ( 18 )
Freud has cited ‘the withering glance’ as an example of a self-deception designed to make up for feelings of weakness. But perhaps in the context of Gandhi’s concern the compensation was part of the process of therapy that would end in a well-grounded self-confidence which was capable also of appreciating others. Gandhi gives a hint of this longer-term goal in his address to the English:
‘Only on condition of our demands being fully satisfied may you remain in India; and if you remain under those conditions, we shall learn several things from you and you will learn many from us. So doing we shall benefit each other and the world’ (19)
Polarization of good and bad also helped the actual struggle against the British, since it gave motivation to fight and at the same time gave some justification for the use of the very unorthodox weapons Gandhi had tried and tested in South Africa. Nonviolent resistance needed to be seen as worthy and powerful if it was to be effective in practice: it could not be a mere technique.
At this point the politics and the spirituality coincide exactly: the effectiveness of the political movement for Indian independence, relying on those resources that were peculiar to India and in which India had an advantage, depended precisely on spiritual values which enabled them to look beyond the politically expedient. For Gandhi himself, after all, Swaraj was always more than a political objective, though, as he admitted himself, he had little success in persuading others about this. He wrote of the book in 1921:
‘I would warn the reader against thinking that I am today aiming at the swaraj described therein. I know that India is not ripe for it. It may seem an impertinence to say so. But such is my conviction. I am individually working for the self-rule pictured therein. But today my corporate activity is undoubtedly devoted to the attainment of parliamentary Swaraj in accordance with the wishes of the people of India’ (20)
The commitment to both personal self-rule and political independence was not a conflict for Gandhi, however, since the two belonged together, and the one grew out of the other. Struggling for political freedom with nonviolent means would develop spiritual aspirations as well. His problem was only that India was not yet ‘ripe’.
Part of the intention of Hind Swaraj, then, was to develop the spiritual awareness of his Indian readers so that they would not judge their situation in narrowly pragmatic or material terms. This in turn required a further criticism of the West since, on his understanding, it had rejected spiritual values in everything but matters of private life, Its tendency was all the other way, towards purely material welfare, and even then with the very crude notion that more material things meant greater human welfare. As he summarizes his view elsewhere,
‘Western civilization is material, frankly material. It assures progress by the progress of matter – railways, conquest of disease, conquest of the air. These are the triumphs of civilization according to Western measure. No one says, “Now the people are more truthful or more humble” (21)
In addition to the politician, therapist and tactician in Hind Swaraj we also hear the prophet. He is outraged by what modernity has done to the world, in unemployment, tedium and war. It has a rhetoric of justice and equality, and some individuals who live up to these deals, but its basic dynamic ensures that these things cannot be achieved. On the contrary, its primary commitment to money through control of the market (‘Money is their God’(22)) ensures that large numbers of people are kept in poverty. Its primary relation to India is also precisely that. The English
‘hold whatever dominions they have for the sake of their commerce…. They wish to convert the whole world into a vast market for their goods,’ (23)
This perspective helps us to see more precisely what he understands by modern civilization. He is thinking of the way of life that came into being with capitalism and the industrial revolution. He is not thinking of the culture of the west in general, much of which of course he admired and even drew upon in the elaboration of his critique. It is modernity as such that worries him. And it worries him because of its devastating effect on human beings. This welcome refinement of the argument was made clearer in a speech of 1925:
‘Do not for one moment consider that I condemn all that is Western. For the time being I am dealing with the predominant character of modern civilization, do not call it Western civilization, and the predominant character of modern civilization is the exploitation of the weaker races of the earth’ (24)
He therefore wants to ask moral questions of it. ‘Is the world any the better for those quick instruments of locomotion?’, for example. ‘How do these instruments advance man’s spiritual progress? ‘Do they not in the last resort hamper it? And is there any limit to man’s ambition?… And what is all this worry and fateful hurry for? To what end?’ (25) It is therefore on moral criteria that he finally condemns it. ‘The key to understanding Hind Swaraj’, he wrote in the 1914 preface, ‘lies in the idea that worldy pursuits should give way to ethical living’ (26). He demands that ethics be given the first consideration in public life, not the last. In this he followed some western critics, like Tolstoy, Ruskin and Emerson (27).
There was also an Indian ingredient to the critique: the idea that ‘commitment to material progress was an intoxication, a moha (as in Arjuna’s account of Krishna’s state of mind in the Gita (28)), or an illusion, maya. This in fact seems to provide the backbone to his reasoning. Note the crucial passage in the section on ‘Civilization’:
‘Those who are intoxicated by modern civilization are not likely to write against it. Their care will be to find out facts and arguments in support of it, and this they do unconsciously, believing it to be true. A man, while he is dreaming, believes in his dream; he is undeceived only when he is awakened from his sleep’ (29)
Perhaps some of the vehemence of Gandhi’s language was intended to shake people out of a sleep, out of a state of intoxication. For only by seeing the truth, behind the glamorous illusion, would they be able to resist its hold on them. Gandhi wrote to Maganlal at about this time,
‘Modern tyranny is a trap of temptation and therefore does greater mischief’ (30)
Gandhi’s talk, like that of a guru, was to help his disciples to wake up. When they did so they would naturally do the right thing. Part of the (potential) subtlety of this analysis is that it saved Gandhi from writing off the English as morally despicable. His attitude is rather that of sadness and pity.
‘They rather deserve our sympathy. They are a shrewd nation and I therefore believe that they will cast off the evil. They are enterprising and industrious, and their mode of thought is not inherently immoral. Neither are they bad at heart. I therefore respect them’ (31)
The polarization is aimed at civilization, not people, which provides another important reason for not resorting to violence. It also provides the basis of Gandhi’s boundless optimism, which can envisage not only the liberation of India from the illusions of this world, but also, through India, the liberation of the world!
However, it was not so important for Gandhi that this vision would ever be real ized. It seemed to he enough that it was possible, for it then motivated the struggle to realize it and set the horizon for one’s individual quest for liberation.
Even so, we might still wish to conclude, after considering this rationale of Gandhi, that he was caught in the trap of his own utopianism (32). He can oppose modern civilization so totally only because he can seriously believe that its idealistic alternative is possible and feasible. But, it might be said, since the alternative is constructed on the basis of a purely spiritual understanding of the human and historical situation it cannot even begin to be feasible. (Gandhi’s jibe about ‘merely material’ civilization might he redirected to him as ‘merely spiritual’).
Further, because he judged western civilization on the basis of its worst effects he was bound to judge it a total failure. In a revealing comment towards the end of Hind Swaraj he said: ‘I cannot recall a single good point in connection with machinery’ (p.96), not even the ship he was sailing on at the time, or the glasses he was wearing when he wrote those words.
This is an example of the psychological polarization I spoke of earlier, which was as much a part of his personal mind-set as it was of the political and cultural struggle he led in India. In its original context of struggle, as I hope I have shown, it was justifiable and relevant (33). Away from that context it is less secure: we need to introduce again categories of ambiguity and compromise which recognize that our ideals for society cannot be embodied in the world in a pure and unsullied form. But I am aware, in suggesting this, that I am reintroducing categories of analysis which are distinctly western, which admit of a tension, if not an opposition, between the worldly and the spiritual, the political and the personal. Our thinking in the west has undoubtedly been chastened by the modern experience of both astonishing success and appalling failure.
The question remains, however, whether the society Gandhi envisaged was, and is, ultimately possible, and whether modern society as he knew it was, and is, unsustainable. If the answer to both is affirmative, then it would make sense after all to oppose modern society in the name of something that can genuinely transcend it.
Notes and References
1. Hind Swaraj (hereafter HS), Navajivan Press, Ahmeclabad, rev.ed. 1939, p. 63. 2. HS, p.59 3. HS, p.54 4. HS, p.31 5. Desai’ s preface to HS, p.14 6. HS, p.14 7. Letter to Mr. Wybergh, May 10, 1910, in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, (hereafter Writings) ed. Raghavan Iyer, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986, vol I, pp.297f. 8. See the discussion of this background in Chandran Devanesan, The Making of the Mahatma, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, 1969, pp.364-376 9. HS, p.18 10. Writings, I, p.333 11. Writings, I, p.295 12. HS, p.65 13. HS, p.99 14. HS, p.64 15. HS, p.60 16. HS, p.61 17. Writings, I, p.272 18. HS, p.82 19. HS, pp. 100f. 20. Writings, I, p.279 21. In an interview for The Friend, 11 December 1931, reprinted in Writings, 1, 328. 22. HS, p.40 23. HS, p.40f 24. Speech to Meccano Club, Calcutta, 1925, in Writings, I, p345. On the later ‘refinement’ of his thinking on civilization see Madhuri Wadwa, Gandhi between Tradition and Modernity, Deep and Deep Publications, New Delhi, 1991, pp.65f. 89f. 25. An interview of 1926, in Writings, I, pp.281f. 26. Writings, I, p.27 27. Cf. the 1910 preface in Writings, I, pp.271f. 28. I owe this insight to Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy, Macmillan, London, 1989, pp.16f. 29. HS,p.34. 30. A letter to Maganlal Gandhi, 2 April 1910, in Writings, T, P.3,17. Cf. the Calcutta speech referred to: ‘The glamour of European civilization does not dazzle us. Scratch beneath the surface and you will find there very little to choose’, Writings, I, p.345. 31. HS, p.38 32. Cf. Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope, Yale UP, Newhaven and London, 1989. 33. Cf. Chandran Devanesan, The Making of the Mahatma, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, 1969, ch 6.