Gandhi v Nietzsche
Gandhi v. Nietzsche
It is difficult to think of two more disparate thinkers of the modern age than Mohandas Gandhi and Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is known for his contributions to the philosophy of morality — or rather, of amorality, claiming that the self-denial and forbearance that is considered moral now is only one way to view things, and by another viewpoint taking that which you have the strength to take would be considered more moral. Gandhi, on the other hand, is known for his extreme forbearance in the fight for India’s freedom from British imperialism. Ultimately, Gandhi’s passive resistance won out, and India became a free nation. This does not disprove the Nietzschean model of morality, however; it simply reaffirms that his assessment of morality as it operates today is correct. Gandhi’s continued civil disobedience eventually became, in the eyes of their oppressors and the world at large, evidence of the morality of his cause simply because this matched the slave morality that Nietzsche described.
Morality and action are not, however, the only two areas in which these to thinkers differ. The very notion of truth is something that the two of them saw differently on, as well. Nietzsche did not believe in absolute truth as such, but rather that were many viewpoints from which the truth could be perceived. Gandhi also saw the value in understanding other viewpoints, but it is clear the he believed there was real and unadulterated truth in the world. Obviously, these concepts of truth had profound effects on the way these two men perceived reality and humanity’s place in it, if any. Such perceptions in turn colored their beliefs in all other areas of life, including morality and religious feeling. An examination of their works — specifically, of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals and Gandhi’s The Story of my Experiments with the Truth — reveals another difference that arises from their very different basic conceptions.
The issue of the ascetic ideal is addressed by both in these two works, though — as might be expected — in vastly different ways. Nietzsche addresses this very human phenomenon, which can be seen as a natural outgrowth of the so-called “slave morality” that Nietzsche asserts so dominates modern man’s life, much more explicitly than does Gandhi, addressing the last of the three essays in Of the Genealogy of Morals specifically to determining the meaning of ascetic ideals. He uses Richard Wagner as an entrance to this topic; specifically, Nietzsche is intrigued by the composers late-life chastity, and muses on its possible causes and/or meanings. After an involved discussion first of the non-existence of some of the oppositions we take for granted, such as that between chastity and sensuality, he goes on to say that even if such opposition did exist that choosing only one side of things (especially chastity) would be boring — it is the opposition that makes life interesting (Nietzsche, sec. 2).
For Nietzsche, then, ascetic ideals is essentially meaningless: “in the case of an artist, … [they mean] absolutely nothing!…Or they means so many things, that they amount to nothing at all!” (Nietzsche, sec. 5). His major problem with the logic of the ascetic ideal seems to be that it rejects everything outside the body as unimportant, but then places a major emphasis on refraining from these unimportant things. Nietzsche sees ascetic ideals as a way for the power structure to continue to control people, and to have the people think that it is good without even realizing that they are being controlled. Furthermore, he suggests that ascetic ideals are also nihilistic (Nietzsche, sec. 26). Though his rhetoric is often as emotional as it is logical — and sometimes more so — Nietzsche finds a way to dismantle any concept of ascetics as moral.
Gandhi, on the other hand, does a great deal to restore (or at least to attempt to restore) a sense of morality to the ascetic ideal. This begins in the very first chapter of The Story of my Experiments with the Truth. His description of his mother is that of the extreme ascetic: “To keep two or three consecutive fasts was nothing to her. Living on one meal a day during Chaturmas was a habit with her. Not content with that she fasted every alternate day during one Chaturmas” (Gandhi Part I, Chapter 1). The cheerfulness with which she undertook these fasts, her continued performance of all duties, and an opening statement regarding her “saintliness” all show quite clearly that Gandhi felt very strongly in favor of the ascetic ideal that his mother displayed.
Indeed, the ascetic ideal is something th Gandhi felt driving him throughout his life. In part three of his book, in the chapter entitle “The Spirit of Service,” Gandhi opens by saying “My profession progressed satisfactorily, but that was far from satisfying me. The Question of further simplifying my life and of doing some concrete act of service to my fellowmen had been constantly agitating me” (Gandhi, III Chapter 6). Clearly, he saw enormous benefit in freeing himself from the distractions of the material and sensual world. Nietzsche did not consider these things to be distractions, but rather simply things like anything else, with no real objective value or purpose. Doubtless these two men were influenced by their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, in Nietzsche’s case, but it is the differing philosophies that grew out of these religious views — or perhaps that caused or enhanced the religious views — that are of enduring interest to mankind. The answer might lie somewhere in the middle, with an enjoyment of the things that life has to offer without abandoning morality all together.
Gandhi, Mohandas. The Story of my Experiments with the Truth. Accessed 15 April 2009. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/An_Autobiography_or_The_Story_of_my_Experiments_with_Truth
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Accessed 15 April 2009. http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/nietzsche/genealogy3.htm
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