The Authority of Detachment and Moral Force: Mohandas Gandhi

by C. E. M. Joad

In what consists the most characteristic quality of our species? Some would say, in moral virtue; some, in godliness; some, in courage; some, in the power of self-sacrifice. Aristotle found it in reason. It was by virtue of our reason that, he held, we were chiefly distinguished from the brutes. Aristotle’s answer gives, I suggest, part of the truth, but not the whole. The essence of reason lies in objectivity and detachment. It is reason’s pride to face reality, when the garment of make-believe, with which pious hands have hidden its uglier features, has been stripped away. In a word, the reasonable man is a man unafraid; unafraid to see things as they are, without weighing the scales in his own favour, allowing desire to dictate conclusion, or hope to masquerade as judgment.
The reasonable man, then, is detached: detached, that is to say, from the subject-matter which his reason investigates.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: For Gandhi’s seventieth birthday in 1939, the Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan organized a volume of commemorative essays paying tribute to Gandhi, his life, work, and philosophy. After Gandhi’s assassination, the volume was expanded to include commemorations of his death, and this revised edition is still in print. See: RADHAKRISHNAN, Sarvepalli. Mahatma Gandhi: Essays & Reflections. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing Co.; 1st Jaico edition, 1957; 19th Jaico edition, 2010.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Of all of the essays contributed to the forementioned volume, one of the most noteworthy is that by the Head of the Department of Philosophy and Psychology (Birkbeck College, University of London) Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad (1891-1953). We repost it here with the kind permission of the publisher. Joad was an odd choice for the volume. His sexual views and condescension towards women, indeed what was then termed as his “sexual misbehaviour,” caused his expulsion from the Fabian socialist movement. Upon divorcing his wife, he lived openly with his mistress, and then with a series of mistresses.  He courted disaster by bragging about his riding the English trains without a ticket, but when he was caught and fined, and it reached the right-wing press, they saw their chance to vilify the left-wing firebrand. Joad’s public reputation never quite recovered, but his achievements were considerable. His lectures on the history of philosophy became so popular that BBC radio engaged him to turn them into a series. His opposition to the English fascist Oswald Mosley had a significant impact on political debate at the time. He was a pacifist of considerable force. At the Oxford Union Society debate in 1933 he defended the question, “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” He won by a margin of 275 to 153, a remarkable margin when seen against the backdrop of the rise of Hitler. Joad was an early environmentalist, working tirelessly to defend the English countryside against the encroachment of industrialization. He might not have embraced Gandhian celibacy (brahmacharya) but he does not deserve obscurity. This essay on Gandhi is noteworthy for its lack of hagiography and sentimentality and for the clarity of its insights. It gives an exemplary picture of how Gandhi was viewed by his contemporaries.

“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