Gandhi, Parrhesia, and Comparative Philosophy: An Afterword

by Max Cooper

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We noted in two previous essays comparing Gandhi and Foucault that our study was apparently the first specifically to compare the lives and philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and Michel Foucault, and the first to suggest Gandhi as Foucault’s wished-for modern exemplar of the Hellenistic ideals of epimeleia heautou and parrhesia. Considering the mass of scholarship relating to the work of Foucault, and indeed the vast and meticulous output of the academic enterprise generally, it seems curious that we should be the first to draw these connections. This afterword will briefly inquire as to why this should be the case. Suggesting that possible concerns with our claims (Gandhi as exemplifying epimeleia and parrhesia) are generally unfounded, we will propose that this small lacuna rather reflects a greater and more troubling chasm between Eastern and Western philosophy in contemporary academia. We hope, therefore, that further projects may span the gap between two ancient traditions of human wisdom.

We suggested in part two [“Fulfilling Foucault’s Dream”] some possible concerns theorists might have with relating Gandhi to epimeleia or parrhesia, and found them lacking in substance. To quickly review: first, while one might claim that Gandhi was a politician and statesman rather than a ‘philosopher,’ this is a superficial and flimsy point. As discussed in part one, Gandhi’s principles were certainly deeply conceived and ‘philosophical’ enough for us to count him a philosopher. A second concern could be that Gandhi was not a lone voice (as the parrhesiastes usually is) against tyranny, but spoke in chorus with his nation against their occupiers. However, we suggested Gandhi to be equally a parrhesiastes in his determination to be a lone voice whenever necessary, which often took the form of fearlessly speaking (his own) discordant truths to his own people; for this fearless parrhesia Gandhi ultimately paid with his life.

While we feel we have refuted these apparent concerns here, it seems plausible that these could have helped lead other scholars to overlook Gandhi as parrhesiastes. We hope our responses to these points may lead classicist and Foucauldian scholars to consider Gandhi in conversations about parrhesia in the modern age.

Philosophy and Lives Lived

While the above suggestions relate to the substance or definitions of the concepts themselves, we feel that the more compelling explanations relate to unfortunate tendencies or lacunae in contemporary academic research. We will propose two such gaps here. The first is the familiar chasm between academic philosophy and ‘the real world’ – between, say, studying ancient spiritual practices, and studying biographies of individuals. Professors, whether up in their ivory towers, or simply with heads in the clouds, are often thought to be far removed from the lives of real human beings; this could suggest a simple reason for Foucault and Foucauldian scholars not considering the relatively recent example of Gandhi.

However, while this problem may well be endemic to philosophers, it actually seems unfair to discuss Michel Foucault in this way. Foucault had his finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary political movements and human lives in the modern age. He was rigorous in applied research in advance of his writing, unceasingly concerned with overcoming abstraction to engage issues genuinely important to human lives. Foucault was outstanding among academics in his keen awareness of living people, history, and events.

Philosophy East and West

In Foucault’s case, we suggest that the situation expresses a second and no less pernicious chasm: the intellectual fissure between East and West. An often significant divide remains between  the study of the philosophical thought of Asia (not to mention Africa and elsewhere), and of the Western tradition. Western philosophers have been bafflingly slow to recognize the importance and relevance of leading Asian thinkers such as Gandhi. Murphy Halliburton has decried this phenomenon in the field of anthropology, a discipline which, far more than philosophy, self-consciously seeks the most inclusive cultural stance:

In anthropology, despite our fundamental effort to be deferential to alternative ways of perceiving the world, we have generally failed to engage prestigious, literate non-western philosophers and social analysts as what I call ‘authoritative sources’ in our work. . . . Anthropologists might use Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, or Lacan to understand the self or the body in India or West Africa . . . but we do not use Sankara or Gandhi to undersand such issues in India or anywhere. (1)

The situation in philosophy is often far worse; many Western philosophers have little to no knowledge of (and sometimes little respect for) leading Eastern thinkers. (2) The academic study of philosophy, even in our increasingly ‘globalised’ world, still remains distressingly parochial. We hope that more studies like this one can help motivate researchers in philosophy to make an effort to look beyond traditional boundaries, engaging seriously with thinkers from East as well as West.

Ancient Greece and Ancient India

Finally, many scholars of philosophy, even those who may be open to engaging with different philosophical traditions, might argue that Gandhi has not been described as a modern exemplar of Hellenistic principles simply because his philosophy derives primarily from ancient Indian rather than Greek sources. These scholars could claim that because Gandhi’s thought comes from a different ancient tradition, similarities are incidental or coincidental, or there is little profit in their study.

Let us first acknowledge the truth of these critics’ first premise: the foundations of Gandhian thought we have discussed are indeed sourced overwhelmingly in the Indian, not the Greek, tradition. While Gandhi was a philosophical experimenter of the highest degree, crafting a unique mélange from a diversity of sources, there is no evidence that he ever read much of Seneca, Plutarch, or the other principal philosophers Foucault discusses in relation to epimeleia heautou and parrhesia. (3) Rather, Gandhi took the relevant principles – such as the need for spiritual self-purification to realize God or Truth, and the wish to identify not with the personal self but with the totality of life – from Indian spiritual sources such as the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and his early teacher and friend Raychandbhai. (4)

However, that these correspondences between Gandhi and the Greeks source from different historical traditions, far from being taken to rule out the need for analysis or research, should be taken to emphasize the necessity of such study. These correspondences would intriguingly represent one more example of the parallelism steadily being found between the philosophies of ancient Greece and India. (5) Research continues to unearth fascinating evidence – archaeological, textual, intellectual, and otherwise – suggesting the possibilities of significant cross-fertilization between ancient Greek and Indian societies and systems of thought. This research may begin to suggest that ancient Greece and India, often thought to be the distinctive ‘cradles’ of Western and Eastern civilizations respectively, might actually be of profoundly mixed heritage in ways still not properly understood.

The field of comparative historical philosophy has been for centuries and remains today sorely neglected, often for reasons distressingly less related to the research itself than to nationalistic and political concerns, as Thomas McEvilley notes:

[T]he project of truly investigating the relationship between Indian and Greek philosophies has formidable obstacles in its way. First, there is the racist imperialist projection put upon this material by scholars from colonizing nations beginning in the eighteenth century, and the bad reputation the whole enterprise has been saddled with as a result, and second, the nationalistic and somewhat xenophobic reaction by Indian scholars in the late and postcolonial periods . . . Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the story of the relationship between Greek and Indian philosophies has remained a closed book to this day. (6)

We as researchers should do what we can to ensure that the comparative philosophical project does not, for such unsavoury political reasons, remain a closed book. There will be many points of entry for investigating connections between Greek and Indian thought, and we hope that even those as unusual as our present juxtaposition of Gandhi, Foucault, and the ancient parrhesiastes, might help to pry open this hoary tome just a little wider. Whatever story this ancient book might tell would surely be no mere triviality, but could alter our understanding of the deepest historical foundations of human thought.


(1) Halliburton, Murphy. “Gandhi or Gramsci?: The Use of Authoritative Sources in Anthropology.” 793-817. Anthropological Quarterly. Vol. 77 no. 4, Fall 2004; p. 794.

(2) As John Taber writes, “After more than a hundred years of research in Indian philosophy by Western philologists, the prevailing attitude toward Indian philosophy among Western philosophers . . . is still one of disregard. The following remarks by A. J. Ayer, though perhaps intended as off-the-record, are typical: ‘[Eastern philosophies] have some psychological interest, but nothing more than that.… For the most part they are devices for reconciling people to a perfectly dreadful earthly life. I believe there were one or two seventh century Indians who contributed a few ideas to mathematics. But that’s about all’”; John A. Taber, Transformative Philosophy: A Study of Sankara, Fichte, and Heidegger. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983; p. 32. Another well-known American philosopher, responding to a student’s stated desire to study Indian philosophy, asked simply “Is Indian philosophy worth a damn?”; Taber, p. 32.

(3) Though Gandhi is said to have been impressed by some of Plato’s works (in particular the Apology), he was generally not an avid reader of the ancient Greeks.

(4) See Gandhi’s Autobiography, Parts I and II.

(5) The most comprehensive and fascinating survey to date of these connections is Thomas McEvilley’s encyclopaedic work The Shape of Ancient Thought, the product of a lifetime of careful research; McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies. New York: Allworth Press, 2002. The most recent title we have noted (per July 2015) is Christopher I. Beckwith, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press, 2015.

(6) McEvilley, p. xxx. As McEvilley discusses further, Western intellectuals have been reluctant to imagine Indians as fathering “Western” schools of thought, whenever evidence has hinted at this. Conversely, Indian intellectuals have bristled at suggestions that their ancient Indian civilizations became sophisticated largely due to the influence of foreign invaders, whenever such suggestions have been made. The resulting intellectual climate has been one characterised more by nationalistic concerns than by academic integrity or enthusiasm.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Max Cooper writes on Indian Philosophy and Religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Comparative East-West Philosophy, American and English literature, and Gandhian studies. Much of his work can be found on his page. This paper completed: University of Delhi, July 2013. Please click on his byline to access other of his articles posted here.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi