• Thomas Jefferson – Light and Liberty – and notes on Gandhi

    by  • September 23, 2008 • Personal, Trivia and Media • 11 Comments

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    Last week, I attended a splendid talk by Eric Peterson, editor of “Light and Liberty – reflections on the pursuit of happiness” on Jefferson and his ways. I recorded the talk, and you can download the audio here. Quality is pretty good, the room was well set up.

    Thanks to Svanur for the picture!

    As you know, I’m a big fan of Jefferson and his perspective on life. I’ve often said that if I had to choose between Jefferson and Gandhi I’d take Jefferson, and this is true for four reasons.

    Firstly, there is the matter of the rifle and genocide. I’m entirely unconvinced that Gandhian passive resistance would have worked in the Ukranian Famine or similar cases – when the intent of the opponent is to exterminate, not to dominate, I do not believe that passive resistance can work.

    Secondly, there is the matter of consciousness. Gandhi’s approach elevated ordinary people to a sublime plane where the spiritual truths that he had discovered were now visible to them. He inspired people beyond their human limits. But when Gandhi was gone, who could carry the mandate and keep people at that elevated level of consciousness? Judging by India’s subsequent history, nobody was up to it and without a continuous presence of such beings, how can a system which depends on that kind of elevated spiritual insight persist?

    Thirdly, there is the hard question of law. Suppose Gandhi had lived until 80 and effectively governed India, regardless of who was theoretically in power. What then would have become of the law? It would have been his law, because in the minds of the people there was no higher authority, and any law of which he did not approve would have been ignored until resources for its enforcement collapsed. Is this the government of law rather than men?

    Finally, there is the question of democracy and self-determination. Human solidarity is a beautiful thing, but what of the outliers, the people who will follow their own drum? An approach which is rooted in the inviolate rights of the individual, and greatly limits the power of the collective to influence their behavior or apply compulsion, matters. Nonviolent resistance relies on the ability of the many to overwhelm the few – of the oppressed to crush the oppressor one refusal-to-comply at a time, but what of the individual who wants things to be different, but cannot muster group support? Protection of the rights of the individual, and group solidarity behind the protection of those rights, is a subtly separate process from groups fighting for freedom in unity.

    So, all regards to Jefferson. I think that Gandhi saw truth more clearly, but Jefferson and the boys acted on what he saw in a more sustainable way – I believe that Jefferson can be implemented here and now. I’m not so sure about Gandhi, although there is no superior political strategist when it comes to the freeing of the oppressed.

    Had Gandhi operated in pre-Civil War America, rather than South Africa and India, I believe we’d have seen a spectacular interaction of ideals. There would be a novel in that.

    Enjoy the talk!


    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


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