Natural World

The Arne Naess Project

by the Editors

With the permission and cooperation of Mrs. Arne Naess, we are posting here Arne Naess’s Gandhian writings. We will also be posting critical writings about Naess’s Gandhian theories. See, for example, Alan Drengson’s biographical and critical article already posted.

The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009) is one of the foremost environmental thinkers of the twentieth century, often referred to as “the father of deep ecology”. Less well known is that he was also a major theorist of Gandhian nonviolence, or more specifically of active nonviolent resistance, satyagraha. His two Gandhian volumes were published in small editions as Gandhi and Group Conflict: An Exploration of Satyagraha, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1974,  and Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, Totowa (New Jersey): Bedminster Press, 1965. Most of Group Conflict has been reissued as Volume V of the ten volume set, Selected Works of Arne Naess, Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 2007, but most of Nuclear Age has until now been unavailable.

Naess’s primary philosophical work was in the area of linguistic analysis, that is, the application of mathematical set theory to the problem of interpreting language and statements we make to each other. Every statement can have several interpretations, or sets and subsets. How do we evaluate these? He was concerned with words, and with creating a new language for his environmental thinking; he coined the term ecosophy, from the Greek words for environment and wisdom, to describe his belief that every living being, whether plant, animal, or person, has the right to live and blossom, to self-realization. Gandhi had coined the word satyagraha. Naess felt an immediate affinity.

Naess was highly critical of environmentalists who did not seek to address the institutional or systemic causes of environmental destruction, or seek to change this. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) made a deep impact on him, and soon after reading it he undertook a thorough study of Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent active resistance, seeing in satyagraha a possible strategy for effectively confronting the system. Naess’s insight was that Gandhian nonviolent active resistance could be synthesized with deep ecology. This Gandhian side of Naess’s thinking, while acknowledged, is not well enough known or debated. He was a major interpreter and theoretician of satyagraha, on a par with Joan Bondurant and Krishnalal Shridharani. His reinterpretation of the meaning of Gandhian strategies in the various essays we present here is among the most trenchant discussions of Gandhi’s activist nonviolent philosophy.

Gandhian Principles for Today’s Conflicts

by Arne Naess

If the emphasis of Gandhian nonviolence had been on Indian independence, was there then in an India, which in 1947 had gained its political freedom, a place for Gandhi to act as a politician? In fact, his prevailing influence became even greater than it had been before. He exerted a powerful influence on Nehru and the other Congress Party leaders, and his religious influence in Indian culture was immeasurable. One should be careful, however, not to attribute, either to Gandhi or to his influence, actual political decisions and policies such as those, for instance, that led to tensions in Kashmir and conflicts with Pakistan.

Gandhi still seemed, in 1945-46, to entertain some hope that India’s politics would be conducted in the spirit of nonviolence. That he was mistaken would not itself be a point of much relevance here, were it not for the widespread misconception that Indian politics is a direct expression of Gandhian ideas. (1) There are very good reasons for rejecting such a notion.

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The Catholic Worker Orchard at Tivoli

by Joseph Geraci

Vincent van Gogh, “The Flowering Orchard”; 1888; Metropolitan Museum, New York; courtesy of

There is a sense of satisfaction in planting a tree. Usually it will be around far longer than the planter. The oak that Shelley planted as a child at his family home became a memorial. People still collect leaves from trees near Tolstoy’s grave, trees that shaded him on his walks through Yasnaya Polyana. There are good reasons for planting trees. Even a Tolstoy had to be reminded of life’s brevity. Planting a tree that will shelter our grandchildren, and theirs, can silence us before a vast and timeless nature, so still, so much more in touch with the timeless than busy people.

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Restoring Our Future

by Winin Pereira and Jeremy Seabrook

The other day there was a report in the news about a little girl in Bombay who had never seen a live butterfly. There must be something drastically wrong with the way we have organised our lives, or the way it is organised for us, to have resulted in our exchanging the beauty of butterflies on the wing for a handful of hi-tech trinkets. The relationship between our internal environment, (human appetites) and the external one (the planet) has to be reconstructed around a less damaging and ruinous relationship.

Traditional Respect for the Earth

The ancient sages discerned a principle of harmony pervading the entire universe. Each individual forms part of all other life and non-life, one with the earth. This concept requires respect for all that surrounds us, since the individual self merges with the rest of creation. Such a perception can form the basis for a just, sustainable society.

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Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part One: One Basic Principle and Six Fundamental Hypotheses

by Arne Naess

Gandhi did not claim that the methods he used could be adopted as general models for all people and in all sit­uations. He claimed they had no special significance or validity as methods independent of the personality and attitude of those who employed them. By this Gandhi did not mean to imply that everyone who adopts them must share his religion and basic attitude; but he did mean that nonviolent methods can only be used in har­mony with views of life characterized by certain com­mon features. It would be beside the point to conjecture what philosophical views these would be; the best we can do is to study Gandhi’s own position, especially in so far as it directly concerns group conflict. In what fol­lows, therefore, we shall try to sketch a picture of Gan­dhi’s political morality in terms of its principles and of its description of the world and man.

However, before proceeding, a possible misunder­standing must be reckoned with. We cannot assume, just because we can now construct a system based on our study of him, that Gandhi himself was systematic. It would be particularly wrong to assume that he arrived at his plans of action by applying a definite set of hypotheses and principles. This assumption would be es­pecially unfortunate if it led us to judge Gandhi’s actions solely in terms of his “system.” For even if we were to reject one or more of the principles or hypotheses of that “system” we would still have to accept the fact that there was considerable value in the courses of action he initiated and himself undertook.

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Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Two: Avoid Violence, but Do Not Avoid the Conflict

by Arne Naess

Gandhi always gravitated toward the center of a conflict. Belonging as he did to a small group of wise men called karmayogi, his deeds accorded well with this designa­tion, for karmayogi is the name for a yogi who seeks the highest end through action. A karmayogi does not iso­late himself from a struggle; he remains at the very heart of it, immersed in the conflicts of his fellow men as one among them. From the center of the struggle he tries to bring about a general reduction of violence, instead of avoiding it himself. It is not enough to put oneself hors de combat; hence the principle, “Act in group struggle, and act, moreover, in a way conducive to the long-term, universal reduction of violence.”

Two statements by Gandhi are particularly important here. The first is from his Autobiography: “To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face one must be able to love the meanest of crea­tion as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life. That is why my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of pol­itics. ”(p. 504)

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Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Three: Constructive Programs

by Arne Naess

When making optimistic forecasts about the outcome of the struggle for freedom in India, Gandhi used to say that success depended on increasing the constructive programs. But since these always fell short of what Gandhi required, his forecasts were not wrong, but simply ren­dered invulnerable to criticism. If the main effort of the nationalist movement was expended on opposing the British, according to Gandhi, nothing good would come of it. But his advice to concentrate upon constructive planning, rather than upon fighting the British, was not taken seriously by the politicians who were ostensibly his followers. Naturally, such advice had little appeal; it de­manded discipline and self-sacrifice.

Perhaps Gandhi failed to repeat his great warning often enough. We should at least remind ourselves of this possibility when judging his sensational prediction in 1920 that India could free herself from Britain within a year. Naturally enough, this statement earned him both criticism and ridicule. (1) But Gandhi himself wrote: “Much laughter has been indulged in at my expense for having told the Congress audience at Calcutta that if there was sufficient response to my programme, of non-cooperation, swaraj [freedom] would be attained in one year.” (2) He had appealed to his countrymen to support his constructive efforts and called on them to form their own unofficial institutions and their own economy, in addition to their campaign to break away from British institutions and reliance on British imports. In other words, Gandhi could only envisage swaraj on the as­sumption that his positive demands were to be taken up and acted upon. But relatively few people did act upon them. “The conditions I had set for the fulfillment of the formula, ’swaraj in a year’, were forgotten.” (3)

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Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Four: The Psychology of Trust

by Arne Naess

Many of Gandhi’s actions were, on the face of it, demon­strations of sheer lunacy. For instance, in 1931 he went unguarded into the textile manufacturing areas of England, though told that he would certainly be killed if he did so. The terrible unemployment of that year had hit the textile workers especially hard. Indians were no longer buying textiles to the extent that they had done before. Moreover, the campaign for home industries, which Gandhi had organized in India, had had a power­ful effect, and the British Press was not slow to blame Gandhi for the sufferings of the workers. In fact the newspapers, eager to find a scapegoat for the dreadful privation and suffering of their public, greatly exagger­ated and distorted his role.

In spite of all warnings, Gandhi went to the workers, defenseless and trusting. And it was not just to show sympathy with the textile industry’s view of the crisis that he went. On seeing the textile workers’ actual living conditions, he pointed out to them how fantastically rich they were, compared with the poor of India, and he fol­lowed up this surprising statement by saying that the economic aims of the textile industry were unrealistic; they had not been formulated, he said, with any under­standing of the European crisis as a whole. One would expect such words to have provoked bitter reaction, but Gandhi’s manner, marked by humor, trust, respect, and compassion, made it extremely difficult to oppose him. The workers gave him time to present his views, and they managed ultimately to divert their hatred from indi­vidual persons. They ceased to be his enemies and be­came his potential fellow-workers.

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Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Five: Gandhi and Militant Atheism

by Arne Naess

Gandhi’s attitude toward atheists and atheism has seemed to many people both paradoxical and incon­sistent. What are we to say of his oft-repeated assertion that atheism could be part of the truth, so long as the atheist was as committed to his atheism as the theist to his theism? This from a man who not only regarded himself as an orthodox Hindu but also professed Godlessness to be nothing less than an abomination? It is of vital importance to be clear on this matter, since Gan­dhi’s attitude toward atheism can provide a key to our understanding of his position on theoretical issues in general.

We can gain a sense of this position partly in his tran­sition from one to the other of the affirmations, “God is Truth” and “Truth is God,” partly in his attitude to other religions, and partly in the great weight he put on individual religiosity. His own statements indicate just how embracing his views of religion were, and these views enable us also to understand how it was that he could work together with atheists; for he conceived the aggressive morality of atheism as a genuinely religious attitude. Gandhi wrote in one of his more obscure sources, Yeravada Mandir, in a passage, which goes far to explain as well as demonstrate Gandhi’s tolerance for other religions: “As a tree has a single trunk, but many branches and leaves, so there is one true and perfect Religion, but it becomes many, as it passes through the human medium. The one Religion is beyond all speech. Imperfect men put it into such language as they command, and their words are interpreted by other men equally imperfect.”

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Gandhi’s Political Ethics. Part Six: A Program of Action

by Arne Naess

How did Gandhi set about realizing his principle: “The essence of nonviolent technique is that it seeks to liquidate antagonisms but not the antagonists”?

It has long been the custom to speak of nonviolent as contrasted to military methods and techniques. But it should be noted that the distinguishing feature of a method or technique, as such, is that it is a mere instrument; the goal or aim toward which it works is something else. It is not necessary that the method or technique should have more than an instrumental value, only that it be employed unflinchingly toward the end in question. The kind of conduct Gandhi employed in group-conflict can, to some extent, be made into an organized system, but only to some extent. If the aspect of method is overstressed, we find ourselves interpreting Gandhi’s teaching as a kind of cookbook doctrine. One forgets his maxim: “Means and ends are convertible terms in my philosophy of life.”

In any campaign, according to Gandhi, moral principles must be observed. Such principles concern a man’s purity of intention, his respect for other individuals, and the absence in him of any tendency to look upon his fellow beings as means to an end. During campaigns, therefore, virtuous actions are to be performed, in part, because it is one’s duty to perform them, not merely because of advantages one hopes to reap from performing them.

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“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