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Mill Meets Gandhi

Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill worked for the British East India Company for 35 years. Long after Mill’s death, Gandhi led India to independence. Eugene Alper imagines a meeting of these two great political thinkers.

What appears to be a park somewhere. It’s sunny, with a light breeze. John Stuart Mill is sitting on a bench dressed in his Victorian attire as Mohandas Gandhi walks in, leaning on a cane. It’s January 31, 1948 – the day after Gandhi’s assassination – and Gandhi’s white shawl still shows splashes of red.

Mill and Gandhi
Mill and Gandhi

Mill: I am sorry about what happened to you, sir.

Gandhi: Ah, it doesn’t hurt anymore. The good thing, I suppose, is that pain is no more, ever. What hurts, though, is that just when you think the British are your enemies, or the Muslims are your enemies, or Western civilization is your enemy, just then a fellow Hindu shoots you! Learn until you die – and then learn some more. May I?

Mill: Of course. [Gandhi sits.] Truth be told, Western civilization was never your enemy. A Western doctor might even have saved you yesterday.

Gandhi: I would have sent him away. Didn’t Socrates send Crito away?

Mill: Indeed.

Gandhi: So would I. When it’s time to go, go without an English lancet sticking out of your chest. Besides, for a spiritual leader it’s not bad to be martyred. It improves the resumé.

Mill: Right you are, sir, and good-natured as always. Socrates, lancets, resumés – why would you dislike a civilization that’s so much a part of you?

Gandhi: A cancer can be part of you too. Mohandas K. Gandhi at your service. And to whom do I have the pleasure…?

Mill: John Stuart Mill. The pleasure is mine.

Gandhi: Ah. You are one of those Victorians who had an unshakeable belief in progress, in Western civilization, in solving all human problems through technology.

Mill: I suppose so. [An awkward silence follows]. The weather’s nice.

Gandhi: Indeed. I heard that here it always is.

Mill: Oh, no – then it would be as humdrum as, I don’t know… Los Angeles. Here you have choices – you can choose desert, forest, mountains, tropical beach, frozen tundra, whatever you like. I prefer drizzle. It reminds me of my childhood.

Gandhi: Ha! Maybe there is a monsoon section?

Mill: Haven’t seen it, but wouldn’t be surprised. They’d know in the office.

Gandhi: To each his own climate. That’s what I call progress.

Mill: So you think progress possible, after all?

Gandhi: Only after all.

Mill: I always wondered about those bright young men who come from the colonies in Africa or Asia to study in Europe. They learn her values, they enjoy her freedom, they get her education, and then they go back, don native garb, denounce what they so voraciously imbibed, and declare war on her. Blaming their own corruption and lack of progress on Europe, as if she were somehow holding them back. Whence comes all this, I wonder? But then again, who else can they blame? Who else can a teenager blame for his immaturity and illiteracy, if not his mother? She’s the only one available.

Gandhi: A mother who is less mature than her children. I’ve always wondered whence comes Europe’s domineering patronizing – or should I say matronizing? – of other peoples. Whence her gung-ho optimism about a bright future, about history unfolding towards some shining goal, with her sons somehow always at the forefront, leading others? Why is she so self-assured?

Mill: But she is not. I agree, Europe may at times be too optimistic about human progress. I have my doubts about it, too. Yet it would be a caricature to paint Western culture as being uncritically proud of what it grew to be, or somehow methodically fulfilling some grand plan for progress, or technological achievement, or conquest. Until recently we did not know all this was possible either. We did not plan to create a strong civilization: it just happened to us. All we wanted was survival, security, maybe some prosperity… Is that so different from others? All we did was face our challenges the best we could. True, at the end we found ourselves with better tools, stronger weapons, taller buildings, and faster ships. But we did not plan it so. It was as surprising to us as it was to you.

Gandhi: Did it just happen to you that your government ruled India for ninety years?

Mill: It’s easy for you to see everything we symbolize as evil: “They’re to blame for our misery!” But that’s an easy way out. You should thank us, the strangers in your midst, for giving you a convenient target. But everyone is miserable, and so were we, except we had no one to blame for it. It is our empire where the sun never sets.

Gandhi: Accept my deepest sympathies.

Mill: I do – because we were in a worse position. You have the hope that now we’ve left, you’ll be happier. It’s an illusion, so enjoy it while you can. But no one rules us, so we have no illusions, and no hope. Who is better off?

Gandhi: Poor souls.

Mill: And what about responsibility? When a man suddenly finds himself ruling others, does he not ask himself what his responsibility is towards them? Does he not have to wonder what the right thing is for him to do? If he knows more than they, should he leave these people to their old and obsolete ways, or should he teach them what he knows?

Gandhi: Such hard choices. I say: Leave us alone!

Mill: But if we believe that improvements in human affairs are possible, and that through no special virtue of ours, but through a series of historical accidents, we have found ways to do some things better, isn’t it our moral duty to share them with others? Did you not teach your children so they would not repeat your mistakes? Did you not pass onto them your knowledge?

Gandhi: Keep your white man’s burden to yourself. We are not your children. India’s civilization is older than yours and has nothing to learn from yours. Your faith in progress, sir – in some continuous improvement of human affairs, in some evolutionary development – is nothing but that old Judeo-Christian idea of history having a direction. It’s your expectation of a Messiah and his return, only wrapped in modern, non-religious language. Darwin! Continuous improvement of the species, of technology, of human nature, of society! Eugenics, social engineering! Your faith in progress is just another faith in a better future. In India we do not have those illusions. We do not believe in mankind improving itself generation after generation. We think of history as cyclical. If anything, we look to our past for guidance.

Mill: So our faith is naïve because it’s about a Golden Age that will never be, but yours is wise because it’s about a Golden Age that has never been? At least we have something tangible to show for it. For can you deny, sir, that Western technology has made gigantic steps towards curbing human disease, reducing human poverty? –

Gandhi: Towards obliterating the planet with the atomic bomb? Your idea of progress is superficial. You see one man riding a horse and another a train, and you say the latter is more advanced. But what difference does it make if the most fundamental things about human affairs remain unchanged? The real evils of the world cannot be removed unless man changes something within himself. And this is what we are aiming at – not at hopping on a bicycle to move through the world a little faster than before. We see man as being at one with the world around him, and only when he changes within himself will he change the world around him, because he is inseparable from the rest of the world. But you in the West do not understand this. You think man is separate. You pride yourself in your individualism – this is me, and this is the rest of the world – as if a glance into your microscopes did not prove the exact opposite. Take a look: where is the border between man and his world? Where is that hard line which the flying particles of your skin dare not cross? Where is that line where man ends and the rest of the world begins? It’s a myth that man is separate from the world – a naïve Western fairy tale! Except in this one nobody lives happily ever after.

Mill: What makes man special is not the particles of which he consists, but his awareness of being somehow separate from the rest of reality.

Gandhi: But this awareness is mistaken. We come from the dust, and to the dust we return! What gives you reason to believe you are separate?

Mill: I don’t know. Maybe because no one outside me can know my thoughts? Or maybe because I can command my feet, arms, hands, face – my own body – but not anything outside of me. But it’s this awareness that makes a human different from other collections of atoms. Maybe he does want to control more than his own body, to control what’s outside of him, to bend it a bit to his needs, to make it more useful for himself. I would not deny it. But this is only because he is so vulnerable in his sensitive skin, so afraid –

Gandhi: Yes he is afraid! Oh yes, he wants control! Yes, he wants to dominate nature because he is fearful of her! He wants to bend her to his will, to put her on the rack and get answers out of her. Thank you Mr Bacon, merci Monsieur Descartes, for the exciting but false inspiration you gave humanity! How naïve it is for a mortal creature to want to do something like this. What a useless task it is to try to control nature without knowing how to control yourself, your own fear. For if you knew how to control you, you would no longer need to bend nature to your needs – you would blend with her. You would remain part of her, as you have always been meant to be, as on the day you were born, so on the day you died. Do you think Indians could not control nature if we wanted to? Do you think we could not have made engines or microscopes? We made a decision not to. Our ancestors knew that human happiness is a mental state, so they set limits to what we should do with our bodies. They discouraged us from luxuries, and we have managed with the same kind of plow that existed thousands of years ago. We live in the same shacks we lived in before; and our education remains the same as in former times –

Mill: But what if you saw someone tinkering with his plow and he told you he had an idea how to improve it? What would you say to him?

Gandhi: I’d tell him there was no need for improvement. Our ancestors managed quite well, and a new plow will not make anyone happy. It will make him happier for a short while. And then he will get used to it and be miserable again.

Mill: But that’s not the point. He had a spark of creativity in him, perhaps the most human of all things, and you’ve just killed it. You blew out the most precious and vulnerable light flickering in his soul – insight.

Gandhi: Your civilization has had many insights. So what? It has created great technological wonders. Yet the more impressive they are, the more arrogant you become, the more sure of yourself. But are you any happier? Does your machine gun make you happier?

Mill: No one is happier because of the machine gun; but no one is surprised by it either. To invent better weapons is business as usual for humanity; but to invent penicillin is not. Would you not recognize penicillin as progress in human affairs?

Gandhi: But this ‘progress’ of yours, indeed your whole so-called civilization, are by-products of war, of fear. All your improvements come from it. Your innovation is driven by fear of being hurt or enslaved by an enemy, or a presumed enemy, or an enemy you create in your own mind. A man wants to protect himself, and out of fear he builds a fence. If he did not fear, would he build the fence?

Mill: Perhaps not.

Gandhi: But once he knows how to build a fence, he uses this knowledge for other purposes, doesn’t he? Now he builds a fence to cull wild horses; now he builds a fence to keep cattle and pigs and sheep from running away; now he builds a fence to enclose his land from his neighbour’s. But it started as a measure of personal protection, did it not? It started from fear. And when he makes a stick to protect himself, he then uses this for other purposes, does he not? He now digs soil or knocks fruit off a branch with the stick, doesn’t he? Your tools – your civilization itself – is an extension of your war effort, and none of the improvements would exist if it hadn’t been for war. But in India we do not wish our civilization to be driven by war. In India, we must learn not to fear. And we do not need sticks.

Mill: But how can you avoid them? Englishmen and Indians have the same bodies, so we must have the same fears too. Was your skin not as sensitive as mine? How can an Indian not build fences and make sticks?

Gandhi: The way we fought the British: by passive resistance.

Mill: You, sir, may be strong enough to passively resist a force applied to you. But will you passively resist a murderer coming after your child or a rapist coming after your wife? You may want to be pure; but can you be pure when others suffer from your purity? How pure are you if evil is committed in front of you and you do nothing?

Gandhi: But by reacting the way you do, the murderer and the rapist have acquired power over you, sir. You wish to live the good life; but the worst of the Earth make you play by their rules. The bad have taken the good hostage! They bring you down, sir – you who fancy yourself to be good. By simply being in the world, they make you build a fence and pick up a stick. But what is the difference between the good and the bad if both are wielding sticks?

Mill: Maybe the difference is that the good think harder? Maybe they use reason more? Maybe while holding the stick they hesitate and doubt? Maybe they ponder how not to become bad, how not to overstep, how not to lose their humanity, how to use the stick only against the bad, and only when necessary?

Gandhi: But violence must be stopped by someone. Someone must drop the stick first. And who should do this, if not the good? Those who have learned to control their own fear. The good! Or do you find the conflict good?

Mill: I do not. But I did not make it so, I found it so. What can one do but face all this with courage, with maturity, with hope? Not to remain indifferent in the presence of evil – but not to stoop to its level either. Is there a recipe for how to do this well? I don’t have it. Do you?

Gandhi: I thought there would be some answers here –

Mill: I did too.

Gandhi: Did you ask at the office?

Mill: They say they don’t know. But you can always file a complaint.

Gandhi: Where did you say the monsoon section was?

Mill: Not sure. Again, I would ask at the office. [Stands.] Harriet must be wondering where I am.

Gandhi: And I must look for Kasturba. [Stands.] You know how they say: happy wife, happy afterlife. Good afternoon, sir.

Mill: Good afternoon, sir.

[Exeunt in different directions.]

© Eugene Alper 2019

Eugene Alper studies political philosophy at Claremont Graduate University and thanks Dr Sharon Snowiss, Dr Maria Gracia Inglessis, and Patrick Burge.

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