How Gandhi Used Socrates

Phiroze Vasunia is Professor of Greek at University College London and the author, most recently, of  'The Classics and Colonial India' (Oxford, 2013).

Why was Gandhi compared so frequently to Socrates?  This is what Nehru said in 1953: "I remember once I was reading Plato's Dialogues and someone was describing the effect that Socrates had on him. As I read this Dialogues, I was astonished because it was almost a description of the effect that Gandhiji had on me."  

Scholars as different as Raghavan Iyer and Gilbert Murray also made the comparison between Gandhi and the ancient philosopher.  Perhaps the comparison took hold because there were some similarities between the two men.

Both were influential thinkers, both attracted political followers in their own lifetimes, and both met with violent ends.  But one of the many interesting features of the comparison is that Gandhi himself appears to have identified with Socrates and even translated a work of Plato into Gujarati.
Gandhi first began to identify with Socrates when he was living as a foreigner in South Africa and he wrote his Gujarati version of Plato's Apology in 1908.  The translation began to appear in April of that year, a few months after he adopted the term "satyagraha" and had begun to agitate against the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act.  Gandhi's speeches and rallies on behalf of the Transvaal Asians had resulted in a trial, and, in January 1908, he was sentenced to jail for two months.  It was while he was serving his prison sentence that he read the Apology in an English translation, and he prepared his own version while in jail or soon after his release. The Gujarati rendition of the Apology appeared in installments in Indian Opinion, the newspaper that he edited in South Africa.

The Apology is a text by Plato that purports to be the speech given by Socrates when he was put on trial in Athens in 399 BC.  Gandhi was drawn to Socrates' sense of duty, self-sacrifice, and moral conviction; he thought of the Athenian as a principled figure who was ready to defend (the word apologia means "defence" in classical Greek) his philosophy in all situations, and who did not back down even when faced with the death penalty.  

This was a moment when Gandhi was fighting the government over the unequal treatment of Asians and was exhorting the members of his community to persevere in their efforts against the authorities.  As Gandhi wrote in 1908, "We have much to struggle for, not only in South Africa but in India as well.  Only when we succeed in these [tasks] can India be rid of its many afflictions.  We must learn to live and die like Socrates.  He was, moreover, a great satyagrahi."  

Socrates affirmed to Gandhi the importance of self-sacrifice at a time when the latter was developing his ideas of satyagraha and Indian nationalism.

The title that Gandhi used in his serialization was Ek satyavirni katha, which can be translated as "Story of a true soldier" or "Story of a soldier of truth", the second being the form employed in the English edition of the Collected Works.  "True soldier" is arguably more martial than "soldier of truth", but in any case the association of Socrates with "soldier" in Gandhi's version suggests that he thought of Socrates as a figure who was ready to wage war for the truth.  Gandhi's Socrates was religious and pious, a man who said he believed in God, and a philosopher who had a soldier's toughness to withstand the hostility that he encountered in many quarters.  

Rather than choose words or terms that might connect Socrates simply or uniquely to a philosophical, spiritual, or religious tradition, Gandhi referred to the Athenian as a satyavir and by that expression emphasized his willingness to fight unto death for his cause.    
This dimension of Gandhi's homage to Socrates may surprise those of us who are accustomed to think of him as an advocate of non-violence.  But we might see Gandhi's reframing of the Apology as an attempt to reclaim the figure of the warrior from the sphere of violent conflict, and to redeploy the warrior in the service of ahimsa and satyagraha.  It is not only soldiers who are calm in the face of death, Gandhi appears to be saying, but also moral heroes and philosophers such as Socrates.  The militarization of the title can be interpreted as a strategy on the part of Gandhi to show that moral philosophers are no less courageous than soldiers in the face of life-threatening danger.  

This sentiment, incidentally, is not entirely alien to Plato's Apology where Socrates uses military language to describe his commitment to philosophy.  In his speech, Socrates likens himself to a soldier at his post and implies that he would not disobey God, just as a soldier would not disobey his commander.

Gandhi soon published his version of Socrates' speech as a pamphlet, and the pamphlet was sufficiently alarming to the British authorities in Bombay that they responded by banning it.  According to a notice in The Bombay Government Gazette, the translation of the Apology was seized by officers since it deployed "words which are likely to bring into hatred and contempt the Government established by law in British India and to excite disaffection to the said Government."  These expressions were formulaic and evoked the strictures of the Press Act of 1910.  Yet clearly it was not Socrates or Plato who troubled the British administration, and what was vexing to administrators was the knowledge that the author of the pamphlet was Gandhi.  

In fact, three other works were banned at the same time by the government, namely, Hind Swaraj, Sarvodaya, and a copy of a speech delivered by Mustafa Kamal Pasha, and all happened to be published by Gandhi.  Of the items on this list, Hind Swaraj (which appeared in the year after Ek satyavirni katha) is the most celebrated, and it's worth pointing out that this text, too, resembles a Platonic work and takes the form of a dialogue.
There was a particular irony to the ban placed on Gandhi's translation of Plato.  Plato had occupied a central place in the British educational system for many decades before Gandhi decided to try his hand at a version.  Benjamin Jowett used to liken his students in Oxford to the guardians of Plato's Republic and remarked that they ran the Empire if not the world.  It was in a Victorian English translation that Gandhi himself had first encountered the text of the Apology in South Africa.  In a very real sense, therefore, Gandhi's approach to Socrates in South Africa was made possible by the circulation of books in the British Empire, and by the admiration for Plato that flourished in nineteenth-century Britain.  

The irony of the ban is compounded by the circumstance that, in Gandhi's lifetime, the British administrator Frank Lugard Brayne wrote Socrates in an Indian Village and a series of related titles as part of his programme of rural development in the Punjab.  In 1931, more strikingly, Sir John Gilbert Laithwaite, a British civil servant and later private secretary to the Viceroy, wrote a pseudo-Platonic dialogue between Socrates and Gandhi, for the entertainment of another civil servant, Sir (Samuel) Findlater Stewart, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for India.  The transcript of the "dialogue" can be found in the India Office Records at the British Library in London.
Gandhi was an eclectic and insatiable reader and was influenced by a variety of texts, Indian and non-Indian, so it is not altogether surprising that he discovered Socrates, Plato, and the Apology, or even that he invoked them against colonial forces.  Socrates, of course, has had a rich and complicated afterlife in many ethical and political movements: in the nineteenth century and earlier, he was compared to Jesus Christ, another figure with whom Gandhi also has been linked.  Yet, there is something revealing in seeing the level of praise that Gandhi heaps upon Socrates and the manner in which he turns him into a soldier of truth.  

Gandhi correctly observes in his preface that it was not just outsiders and foreigners to whom Socrates directed his teachings but also, and mainly, the inhabitants of his city.  Gandhi writes, "Socrates was a great satyagrahi."  And then adds: "He adopted satyagraha against his own people."  That is the struggle which made him, in Gandhi's words, "a great soul".

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