A Gandhi reader argues that to be free means we must be critical and speak back to power when necessary
In Sophocles’ powerful eponymous play, Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus defies the edict of King Creon of Thebes that her brother’s corpse should be left on the streets for birds and vultures to feast on. When Creon charges her with disobedience of the law, Antigone replies. “Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict: not such are the laws set among me by the Justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that the decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.”
The importance of dissent
This act of disobedience, which ultimately cost Antigone as well as other characters in the play their lives, could not have been a random or an impulsive decision. She must have carefully reflected on the limits on the power of victorious monarchs. She must have dwelt on what we owe the dead, even if they are considered traitors by the ruling dispensation. She must have scrupulously judged Creon’s decision to dishonour her brother’s body as unworthy of obedience. She must have thought through the consequence of disobedience; certain death.
An entire host of processes are involved in the act of disobedience, which according to Ramin Jahanbegloo is a significant act. It establishes the supremacy of a thinking, reflective, critical human being who dares to speak back to power, over the arbitrary acts of tyrants. This is what democracy is about, writes the author of this deeply reflective and stimulating little book. There is need to reiterate the right to disobey in the current climate of populism, which promotes mediocrity and thoughtlessness.
According to Jahanbegloo, populism encourages unthinking conformity and facilitates manipulation. Voltaire had famously said that those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities, promote murder and mass killings.
There is, however, more to disobedience. It is closely connected to freedom. Freedom is meaningless without the power of disobeying the unjust, the unthought and the unfree. The course of thinking and questioning is a necessary part of freedom. And sometimes, if not always, the imperative to disobey represents the acme of freedom.
Question of autonomy
When the individual realises her freedom through reflection and critique of power, writes the author, she exercises autonomy. Autonomy for modern political philosophers is the higher stage of freedom.
Freedom can be construed as negative liberty or the absence of impediment to action. We are autonomous when we scrutinise and reshape our thoughts and actions in the light of moral considerations. Gandhi called such procedures of contemplative action, Swaraj. Jahanbegloo is an admirer of Gandhi and draws upon his thought to sustain the argument. For Gandhi, truth is the basis of non-violent civil disobedience. But we can never know what the truth is. We can only seek the truth along with others. This shared search for truth brings us together; it inaugurates a collective of autonomous minds. Autonomy is an individual attribute, but it can only be realised in and through dialogue with fellow-beings in the space of the political.
We become autonomous beings only when we think, reflect, critique and act together. But the space of the political has to be autonomous of institutionalised power. Autonomy is both an individual as well as a social attribute. The individual cannot turn away from the chaos of the world and the tragedy of history without denying the very principle of disobedience. The point at which we transit from individual criticism, to political engagement with institutionalised power defines the political. It also defines freedom as the art of becoming, not only the art of being. We create ourselves.
The author treads a wary but creative path between Kantian autonomy and the communitarianism of G.W.F Hegel.
I have some problem with Jahanbegloo’s distinction between politics as organised power and the political as the shared space of questioning, but this is a relatively minor issue. On a more serious note, we should remember that critique defies both political power and social conventions.
The quintessentially disobedient Indian, Gandhi, fought British colonialism and exposed it as fundamentally unjust and undeserving of obedience. But he also challenged unjust practices in society. Today his critique of caste discrimination might seem inadequate, but it was a brave act then. The truly disobedient individual must be disruptive, and she often pays for it though social ostracism and hate messages, or even with her life.
Fellow Athenians forced Socrates to drink hemlock because he dared reveal the pitiful absurdities and the limits of extant knowledge. Gandhi was killed by a fellow Hindu because he had indomitable courage to question prejudice and discrimination. The relationship between the individual, the social, and the political is not as seamless as Jahanbegloo assumes. It is marked by disjunctures, disruptions and fractures. The questioning individual has to be prepared to live a life of isolation in a cave as Antigone did, and ultimately die, because she disturbed complacency and challenged the contemptible mediocrities of power.