Gentle Persuasion

by William J. Jackson

Taoist compassion artwork; courtesy

The gently persuasive way—not beating others into submission, not bludgeoning, not eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth vengeance, but turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving more than is asked, killing the others’ “foeness” with kindness—is an ancient approach. It includes longsuffering, even self-sacrifice, loving your enemy, praying for those who persecute you. This is a Christian teaching, and is also ancient Taoist wisdom philosophy.

The Taoist classic text Tao Te Ching includes a number of lines about humility and not lording it over others, observations of patterns already recognized as very old wisdom 2500 years ago. TTC Chapter 68 is about the virtue of not contending; it speaks of “intelligent non-aggressiveness” and the “virtue of non-contention.” In Taoist philosophy one who accepts the “left tally, the debtor’s tally” (a symbol of inferiority in an agreement, getting the short end of the stick), humbly accepts the less prestigious position, which in the long run is the appearance the victor should have. To flaunt one’s victory sets a tone that brings resentment and reprisals. “Those who dispute are not skilled in Tao.” (TTC Chapter 81) Water flows downhill, and does not fight gravity. (1)

The Tao Te Ching (TTC Chapter 30) concedes that “Force recoils / But / The time comes when there is nothing to do / Except act consciously / With courage.” When conflict is inevitable, it is not arrogance but humility that is the Taoist approach. “When opposing forces meet in battle, he who feels the pity of it assuredly conquers.” (TTC Chapter 69.) “He whose courage is expressed in daring will soon meet death. He whose courage is shown in self-restraint will be preserved.” (TTC Chapter 73) Going out of your way to “make nice” or be agreeable, can change the dynamic. It involves ego-sacrifice. Thinking of the whole situation, and not just one’s own bias, is wisdom. (2)

There are degrees of this spirit of self-giving, sublimating, offering up your own creature comforts and suffering. Taoism suggests we keep in mind the wisdom of giving the advantage to the other now to help make a better tomorrow, cooperating with others in hopes of making a better future. Every “Mission Accomplished” boast and swaggering military celebration of arrogance and domination may lead to more terrorist recruits and brutal attacks by enemies. Gandhi saw that “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to defeat, for it is momentary.”

The Chinese word tz’u, means “motherly love” and it is one of the three treasures in Taoist philosophy. The other two are frugality (not wasting resources) and being humble, not daring to be at the world’s front, above and ahead of all others, vulnerable to destructive forces of the cosmos. These behaviors are traits of the psyche which radiate the wisdom of ahimsa. (3)

Observing the patterns around one in reality is a useful ability, and experimenting is important, as Gandhi’s life shows. Without such learning, who healthily grows? Human beings need to use their intelligence to figure out alternatives to situations which are crises of injustice, as Gandhi spent a lifetime doing. We need to get smarter. Polar opposites, opponents with many differences, even enemies in wartime, are not ants one can bludgeon out of existence. They must be faced, dealt with, negotiated with, or otherwise reconciled, if possible. Of course, if they are engaged in random slaughter, rape, slavery, or other atrocities, their crimes must be punished by authorities. Gandhi wrote that, “We can only win over the opponent by love, never by hate. Hate is the subtlest form of violence. Hatred injures the hater, never the hated.” Gandhi was a realist. He asserted that, “When a woman is assaulted, she may not stop to think in terms of himsa or ahimsa. Her primary duty is self-protection. She is at liberty to employ every method or means that comes to mind, in order to defend her honor.” (4)

Whenever the claim about the power of ahimsa is made, it is a statement about the psyche. The instinct to love and care about others is inborn, in the view of the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius. He said humans are born with jen, human-heartedness. This respect and reverence for the life of others can be either nurtured, like watering a plant, or harmed and destroyed by brutality.

Ahimsa is “a force more powerful” than bludgeoning and bashing; its peaceful resistance skillfully works with levers of intelligent pressure like acupuncture, making differences without leaving scars of hatred and resentment. It is also like music, having subtle effects in our nervous system, our brain waves, and emotional wellbeing. There is an effect on the psyche, when humans with conscience witness a pure act of ahimsa, such as when sufferers forgive the violent offender—for example, the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa, or the Amish who forgive an offender who has harmed them, or the families who forgave the killer of nine African-Americans in an Atlanta church in 2015. It is transformative, an action like the process of Tao, the way water patiently wears away hard stone in time, always returning, taking the humble course.

Moments of bitter strife and conflicts between groups, and terrorist attacks sprung on unsuspecting innocents appear to cause a big sensation, with media coverage for hours, days or weeks. Politicians may exploit news stories to heighten fears to advance their own careers, spreading panic. But that violent commotion is not persuasive in the long run. Paul Krugman reminds us that all the terrorists have is murder, mayhem, and scare tactics. Krugman reminds us that if someone says ISIS has made an “attempt to destroy Western Civilizations” that assessment makes the terrorists seem more powerful than they actually are, and helps the jihadists’ cause. Buying into it, being afraid of bloodthirsty vandals, deluded by a show of force, seems to buy into the idea that force alone is strong. The response needs to be wise, taking the long term view, not fearful and confused. (5) “On 9/11 Donald Rumsfeld told his aides: ‘Sweep it up. Related and not,’ and immediately suggested using the attack as an excuse to invade Iraq. The result was a disastrous war that actually empowered terrorists, and set the stage for the rise of ISIS.” (6)

Again, the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear. “Sweeping it up” is a ham-handed approach to a complex crisis. Arrogant psyches feel they can create reality by deciding it, and proclaiming it, an attitude that is a sure loser in any situation where responsible action is needed. “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out,” was a bumper sticker seen sometimes during the Persian Gulf War. America is better than that, and leaders should be wiser.

Call it opposition, conflict, or whatever, the endless presence of strife is a great dynamic in the affairs of the world—“War is the father of all” as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it. But ahimsa—loving-kindness—like t’zu, the nurturing qualities associated with the motherly side of human nature—is the nourisher and protector of all.

Using technology to delete lives out of existence may seem clean and precise, simple and neat, when seen from a distance of many miles and being tickled by wishful thinking. But the effects are not as simple as the results of a successful surgery. They make unexpected messes; they can cause a mushrooming of recruits for the opposition every time innocent lives are randomly taken. That is the opposite of the desired effect on psyches, which is to resolve conflicts, to show the beauty of peace. The expanding Roman empire caused barbarians to want to share in civilization, to become part of an age of better life. The inspiring and transforming of psyches happens through acts of selfless generosity and the seeking of justice, sharing the good things in life, pursuing better outcomes for all concerned.

Examples of Gentle Strength

The idea that only violence “works,” and that nonviolence doesn’t work, is a mistaken notion. Violence creates bad blood, the desire for revenge. Who would want to live in a Hobbesian Hunger Games society of “all against all” where the underlying principle is survival of the fiercest?

The power of ahimsa is experienced in the psyche. We observe it and marvel at it especially in extraordinary transformations, when the richness of the psyche comes into play in momentous occasions when individuals actually change, as, for example, a change of heart, and change of mind, becoming disillusioned with striking a belligerent stance. Gandhi reminds us that in his view, “Nonviolence is a quality not of the body but of the soul.” (7)

Soul power is not limited to the dimensions of a five or six foot tall person, or to usual material limits. The psyche is more than that. With deeper links and bonds, it goes deep, exceeds our grasp and understanding. This makes Gandhi’s nuanced view of nonviolence as a quality of the soul something that takes time and effort and care to comprehend. A living example of courageous nonviolence can sometimes reach through layers of cynicism and find our buried highest vision of what life can be.

Karim Wasfi is an Iraqi musician and the conductor of the Iraqi National Orchestra. He goes to the streets in Iraq to play the cello after acts of violence have destroyed lives there, and he speaks of the importance of “respect for life” as opposed to the forces representing ugly new ways of killing and destroying—the forces of crude brutality. “Respect for life” is a reverence, an attitude of caring which is like ahimsa. It is a sense of the sacredness of life which manifests itself in causing one to care for the wellbeing of others, and in veneration for the soul of life, the spirit in matter.

Asked why he went to play music on an Iraqi street after a car bomb exploded there, Mr. Wasfi said: “It’s partially the belief that civility and refinement should be the lifestyle that people should be consuming and, in order to achieve that, I think arts in general, and music in particular, is a great way to convey such a message. It was an action to try to equalize things, to reach the equilibrium between ugliness, insanity and grotesque, indecent acts of terror—to equalize it, or to overcome it, by acts of beauty, creativity and refinement.” When an interviewer asked why Wasfi considers culture and music to be a basic human need, just as food and water are, Wasfi answered, “Because it refines and cultivates. Because it inspires people. Because it develops better brains. Because it helps you with maths and physics. Because it helps you with fine arts and painting. Because it makes kids well-behaved. Because it has enough discipline to make you creative as an engineer or as a physician or as an army officer. Because it has a positive impact on the psychology of mankind. Because you can breathe better. Because you can think better and clearer. Because you can find more talent within yourself. And, before all that, it’s an international language of mutual understanding. It’s everything.” (8) Wasfi’s eloquent street music speaks for itself. Solemn, mournful musical notes can awaken strong caring feelings of ahimsa in the psyche. A sense of caring is a kind of shield. “When Heaven would save a people, it guards them with motherly love.” (TTC Chapter 67) Or as another translator put it, “Nature predisposes to gentleness those most suited for survival.” (9)

Respect and Reverence for Human Life

The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, in a chapter entitled “From Force to Persuasion” in his book Adventure of Ideas, writes that the gentler modes of human relations have always been in existence, and suggests that historically speaking, ferocity might be a later development which grew from an increase in brain-power when applied to self-interest. He speculates that at that time this ferocity could have started as a strain of character which was necessary for preservation which then grew into an overgrowth which checked “upward evolution beyond a low level of life.” (10)

Whitehead speaks of a “bond of sympathy” which exists and is greater than family affection, or intellectual curiosity or enjoyment of exchanging ideas and engaging in commerce. “This bond is the growth of reverence for that power in virtue of which nature harbors ideal ends, and produces individual beings capable of conscious discrimination of such ends.” To go beyond those abstract words let’s say the individual beings he refers to are the honored leaders and teachers, such as Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and others who inspire the best in people.

Whitehead goes on to say that “This reverence is the foundation of the respect for man as man. [Meaning respect for humans as humans, respect for people as members of humanity’s family.] It thereby secures that liberty of thought and action, required for the upward adventure of life on this Earth.” (11) Gandhi’s freedom of experimentation, as the case is with all scientists experimenting, was done to explore and learn. His adventures in experimenting with truth were his own explorations. Of course, the fact that he undertook them doesn’t mean every human can and will be able to take that path.

But we can celebrate and learn from the experiments Gandhi and others made to the extent that we are able. If you believe effective nonviolent persuasion is impossible then you probably will not turn enemies to friends. But if you believe as Gandhi did that “no man is a crocodile” you may find that those who opposed you will someday become your allies, thanks to the alchemy of ahimsa.

Everyone involved in the war on terror, including those who wage the war militarily, seems to agree that it is impossible to win that war by killing alone. All admit that “We can’t kill our way to victory.” Even those waging the war say that since 9/11 there have been two victories: 1. America’s victory in destroying the core of al Qaeda who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, and 2. the victory of the jihadis in spreading their extremist ideology to other parts of the world, including the Levant and East Africa. Violence can leave even the violent cold, because as the maxim puts it, violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. (12)

Gandhi’s life and the examples of ways he contributed to solutions show us that activists like him have developed a better alternative to conflict and injustice than violence. They use intelligence and learn to be persuasive by winning hearts and minds with a humanitarian spirit and respect for life. Evolution in humanity’s life-supportive culture is seen in individuals who change conditions in the world, helping each other, cooperating as a network of friends diverse and talented, facing new challenges.  Each government regime which faces a clash of cultures is an experiment—there are no simple solutions; even earnest attempts may sound to others like a beginner learning to play the violin in public. We are at the mercy of our own psyches’ limits and our abilities to demonstrate magnanimity. We are limited by our inherited traits, which include the unlived life of parents and ancestors. Jung pointed out that this legacy lives in our blood, whether we are aware of it or not. (13)

Do you believe in the power of ahimsa, the virtue of persuasion? Gandhi is supposed to have said that to believe in something and not to live it is dishonest. Is there an alchemy when the soul power of nonviolence is practiced? Peaceful revolutions would seem to testify that ahimsa is not a toothless part of a well-meaning creed. It has mysterious vitality and dynamism. As the poet Wordsworth wrote in his poem “Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey” in 1798, “that best portion of a good man’s life [is] / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.” In the face of brutal attacks and ruthless bloodshed can we continue to realize how that sensibility is an enduring truth? Considering this kind-hearted side of humanity’s past can help us remember and engage the soul’s capacity to be humane and loving. It is good to remind ourselves that “A propensity for violence, even if it is innate, has been more than matched throughout our existence by a preference for peace.” (14)

We may fail to appreciate fully the power of ahimsa because it is a dynamic of the psyche, and the psyche is elusive, invisibly active in the background. Jung wrote that “The nature of the psyche reaches into obscurities far beyond the scope of our understanding. It contains as many riddles as the universe with its galactic systems, before whose majestic configurations only a mind lacking in imagination can fail to admit its own insufficiency.” (15) Nurturing the urges for ahimsa in our psyches is a practice we neglect at our own risk, and at humanity’s peril. As Nigerian writer Chris Abani said, “…the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion.” (16)

Endnotes: (WJJ)

(1) The quotes from the Tao Te Ching are from more that one translation. The phrase “intelligent non-aggression” is from Archie Bahm’s translation, Tao Teh King, by Lao-Tzu, accessible at “The virtue of non-contention” is used by Ellen M. Chen in The Tao Te Ching, a New Translation with Commentary, New York: Paragon House, 1989, p. 211. The line from TTC Chapter 81 is from Walter Gorn Old, tr., The Simple Way, Lao Tze, London: Rider and Co., 1929, p. 179.

(2) The TTC Chapter 30 quote beginning “Force recoils” is from Timothy Leary’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, entitled Psychedelic Prayers, Hyde Park (NY): University Books, 1966, VI.13. TTC 69 is by Walter Gorn Old, p. 155. The line from TTC Chapter 73 is also translated by Walter Gorn Old.

(3) The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 17, May 1, 1919 – September 28, 1919, p. 5. Satyagraha Leaflet No. 13, May 3, 1919. GandhiServe Foundation,, accessed Feb. 14, 2016.

(4) Gandhi, (no editor’s name is given) Bombay: Impact India Foundation, no date, p. 14 and p. 139.

(5) Paul Krugman, “Fearing Fear Itself,” The New York Times, Nov. 16, 2015,, accessed Feb. 13, 2016.

(6) Ibid.

(7) These sentences by Gandhi are found in Arun Gandhi, M.K. Gandhi’s Wit and Wisdom, Gandhi Institute Publication, no publication date, pp. 5, 8, 7.

(8) “Interview: Why I played the cello at a Baghdad bombsite,” Al Jazeera, May 28, 2015,, accessed Feb. 13, 2016. See YouTube video at “Karim Wasfi defeats terror with music in Baghdad”, accessed Feb. 14, 2016.

(9) The first translation of the line from Chapter 67 is by Ellen M. Chen; the second  is by Archie Bahm.

(10) Alfred North Whitehead, Adventure of Ideas, Toronto: Macmillan Canada, 1967, pp. 69-86.

(11) Ibid.

(12) Isaac Asimov, Foundation, Gnome Press.

(13) C.G. Jung, Psychological Reflections, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 131.

(14) Editorial Board, New York Times, “Is Warfare in Our Bones?” Jan. 25, 2016.

(15) C. G. Jung, Psychological Reflections, 1978, p. 16.

(16) Chris Abani, TED Africa Conference, 2008,, accessed Feb. 13, 2016.

EDITOR’S NOTE: William J. Jackson is our Literary Editor and a regular contributor.  He is professor emeritus of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, and was the first Lake Scholar (2005-2008) at the Lake Family Institute on Faith and Giving, Philanthropic Studies Center, Indiana-Purdue University. Please consult his Author’s page for links to all 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