Certainly Effervescent

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Orwell on Gandhi: Food For Thought

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Apropos of that last post about humanity being “stuck with virtue”, I posted this to my Tumblr feed way back when I thought that that platform would work with long-ish text posts. The fact that you are reading this on a WordPress-themed blog should tell you that no, Tumblr doesn’t work for text-based blogging. For awesome photos and feeding my “Glee” obsession though, it’s top-notch.


I’m going to get my thoughts out real quick, then get out of the way. First off, this is from George Orwell’s Reflections on Gandhi, which now might be my favorite thing he’s ever written. Just an amazing piece with lines that make you laugh and lines that make you cry and lines that make you think.

Secondly, having made a weirdish transition to a “post-Christian”, vegetarian, sorta HinduTaoistBuddhist approach to life (I know, I know, very Boulder of me)…this piece is devastating to several presuppositions. I’m keeping my thoughts short because stumbling upon this earlier today has led to serious contemplation. I’m going to (after the jump) excerpt the killing-est, devastating-est blurb from the essay, but the whole thing is worth reading.

Suffice it to say, there was a bit of idealism in my new theology, some form of an aspiring saint, but this part just slammed me in the stomach. It’s one of those paragraphs where I could italicize or bold any and each sentence for emphasis.

Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because “friends react on one another” and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true.  Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one’s preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable.

To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children, but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. It is true that the threatened death never actually occurred, and also that Gandhi—with, one gathers, a good deal of moral pressure in the opposite direction—always gave the patient the choice of staying alive at the price of committing a sin: still, if the decision had been solely his own, he  would have forbidden the animal food, whatever the risks might be. There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth.

This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which—I think—most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that  “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.


“Sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid” was powerful enough to put me in a contemplative funk for about a week.


Written by C.S. Stieber

January 27, 2010 at 11:00 pm

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