Gandhi Vs. Thoreau: Philosophies of Non-Violent Resistance and Protests
Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau are two individuals very notably known for their philosophies of non-violent resistance and protests. This paper is intended to cover a multitude of things. Initially, it will review the moral principles that govern the rationality of each philosopher and further go on to compare and contrast both of their ideologies. Then, it will examine whether or not Gandhi and Thoreau’s practices would be efficient when dealing with today’s issues that call for forms of non-violence resistance. Finally, I will argue that while Gandhi’s approach is ideal, Thoreau’s is superior because it is more practical and undemanding, and better fits the modern-day’s concept of egalitarianism.
Mahatma Gandhi is most famously known for his 1930 Dandi March, also known as the Salt March. Yet, the basis of his ideologies for non-violent civil disobedience are rooted in the lesser known policy of passive political resistance, known as satyagraha. The term satyagraha was coined by Gandhi himself and when broken down into strict definitional terms, means “appeal to truth.” In other words, it is the insistent reliance on what Gandhi calls the Truth—which is the essential unity of mankind. For a broader context, satyagraha is the theory that the Truth of our existence is that we’re all connected in this way (Ellery). This outlook can be better paraphrased in Gandhi’s arm/leg analogy. This analogy explains that similar to the limbs on our body, everyone we’re surrounded by is connected to us. It is like that of a web, where all of mankind is interdependent of one another via some link. Gandhi uses this to describe the effect we have on those around us. In the same way that the rest of our body is affected when we chop off a limb—such as an arm or a leg—when we harm another being, we’re actually harming ourselves. With this notion, Gandhi further builds the foundation of his philosophy.
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There are four cornerstones of satyagraha: (1) self-realization, (2) ahimsa, (3) vegetarianism, and (4) universal love. The first cornerstone, self-realization, is Gandhi’s belief that change starts with the individual. Gandhi truly and wholeheartedly believes that to see change in the world, you must become the change (Gandhi). Self-realization is the ultimate goal in life, the ideal of most—if not, all—pronounced religions. The concept of self-realization emphasizes and stresses that by looking into yourself and changing yourself to be loving, compassionate, and without hate, you this practice to others through the interdependent connections all of mankind has. The second cornerstone of satyagraha is ahimsa. Ahimsa, in short terms, means non-violence, further broken down to mean to remove the desire to harm or kill. There are two different areas that Gandhi believes violence must be removed from: (1) our actions and (2) our thoughts. He trusts that no matter how much difficulty your oppressor was forcing you to endure, you are under no right to hate him. According to Gandhi, this notion is even easily applied to scenarios involving slavery. No matter the length and no matter the degree, we are not allowed to hate our prosecutor. We must get rid of the hate and violence that floods our minds and actions if we want to fit Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance. Furthermore, the third cornerstone of satyagraha is vegetarianism. Gandhi himself is a vegetarian, meaning he will not consume the flesh of an animal. In order to get the flesh of an animal to eat, it has to be killed first. No matter how small we make the split-second is between the animal’s life and death—even with modern-day technology—the animal will still suffer. Therefore, the action is still violent, which goes against the previous two cornerstones of satyagraha that Gandhi lives by. In other words, eating meat is considered violent because it is the fruit of a harmful act. And finally, the last—but not least—cornerstone of satyagraha is universal love. Although it may seem self-explanatory, Gandhi strongly believes that universal love is the idea that whatever you send out into the world is what you will get back from the world. From this, it is evident that Gandhi—with this foundation for non-violent resistance—is a true and strict pacifist.
Henry David Thoreau, essayist and philosopher, has made a generous number of contributions for the foundation of non-violent protests. His most famous piece, Civil Disobedience, proceeds to influence civil-rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. With lines that read similar to, “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least,’” Thoreau is able to argue that a greater jurisdiction than a governing body is our conscience (Eshner). According to Brent Powell, Thoreau was the first American to define and utilize civil disobedience as a form of protest. In the mid nineteenth century, during a time of war, Thoreau refused to pay his taxes. Because he viewed the war as an unnecessary act of aggression, Thoreau wanted to contribute nothing to help its cause. It is because of this that he was thrown in jail. However, after unsolicitedly having his taxes paid for by a relative, Thoreau made the conclusion that he was more of a free mand behind bars than not. Thoreau’s imprisonment affected him and his outlook immensely. The philosophy that Thoreau follows can be better define by the term passive resistance, which means that you avoid violence at all costs and will only use it as a last resort. We know that Thoreau uses this type of non-violent resistance because he is pro-Civil War. However, this leads to questions such as: (1) how do you dictate when it’s time to use violence and (2) how far do you go?
When comparing the positions Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau take on forms of non-violent resistance, we produce some intriguing details. First, the most clear and prominent difference between Gandhi and Thoreau’s approach is their methods of civil disobedience. While Gandhi strictly follows satyagraha and fully expects his followers to do so as well, Thoreau does not. Instead, he acts according to passive resistance. Although this difference may seem like a term-coining mishap, it is not nearly as simple. While Gandhi believes that violence should be cleansed from all of our thoughts and actions completely, Thoreau is not so quick to agree. Satyagraha means never turning toward violence, no matter how difficult the challenge your oppressor throws your way. However, passive resistance means that violence is always a last-resort option. This in itself goes against everything that Gandhi preaches. Despite Thoreau’s efforts to avoid violence at all costs, Gandhi works and advocates to ensure violence is never present in anything he does or sermonizes. Gandhi viewed violence as nothing other than an unpardonable sin (Cage). The second way in which Gandhi and Thoreau’s philosophies differ is what they believe is their duty on civil disobedience.
Gandhi believes it to be his duty to rally the population (Ellery). He imagines that because of this responsibility, he needs to take action and focus on removing the wrong. However, Thoreau believes otherwise. Instead of removing the wrong completely, he believes it to be his obligation to not directly nor indirectly further the wrong. This is evident in his refusal to pay his taxes, as he did not wish to contribute funds to the Mexican-American war—which therefore would be indirectly furthering what he believes is wrong. The third and final way that Gandhi and Thoreau differ is by the way they lived as individuals—their ways of life. Unlike Thoreau, during his lifetime, Gandhi did not remove himself from society. He believed that it would be unnatural of himself to do so and therefore did not. Gandhi felt that it would violate the Truth if he were to live in solitude. However, Thoreau felt differently than Gandhi. During his lifetime, Thoreau actually did remove himself from society. He isolated himself by leaving to go live in the woods. He thought it was important to learn what it was that life had to teach him (Lsumner). In other words, he wanted to lead a purposeful life, one that was simple and not focused on details like he believed everyone else’s was. He even wrote a book, Walden, as a reflection of his simple living—which he thoroughly enjoyed, as evident by this excerpt:
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail (Thoreau).
However, despite these differences between Gandhi and Thoreau’s background and ways of thinking, they seem to share a number of common goals. The first way that the two philosophers are similar is that they both believe they have a duty to not obey any immoral laws. This is evident in Gandhi’s Salt March, where he refused to pay the tax on salt and marched down to the beaches to teach others how to make their own salt, and again in Thoreau’s refusal to pay any of his taxes as he did not wish to contribute to the war. Alongside this, Gandhi and Thoreau are both champion individuals who have advocated for what they believe is right and are self-reliant. Both Gandhi and Thoreau aim to change the hearts and minds of people locally and abroad. Not to mention, they both have successfully distressed the wallets of their oppressors. They accomplished doing so via work stoppage and boycotts. By contributing to the cause of mass arrests and helping to quickly fill prisons, Gandhi and Thoreau have both prevented their oppressors from running their business normally.
If we were to use Gandhi’s method of non-violent resistance, then we would encounter a multitude of issues. Although his efforts were necessary in freeing India, it would be almost impossible for today’s society to follow his philosophy of satyagraha. Firstly, the reason this would be so difficult, is because of terrorism. Today, in the 21st century, we are enduring an era of extremely controversial terrorism (Sattar). These acts of violence can be traced back to two things: (1) advanced technology and (2) lack of human relations. With how quickly we have developed new weapons, it is no wonder some individuals are able to commit acts of mass violence. The mass production of lethal weapons is inevitable in today’s age. Despite efforts, a solution for this issue is not yet in sight. However, there are some benefits to Gandhi’s form of non-violent resistance. Because the basis of satyagraha is non-violence, it is quite proper that since it works against authority, it can serve as a medium for educating popular belief. However, to rid oneself completely of violence seem nearly impossible to a majority of people. This makes it insanely difficult to gather large numbers of people to successfully follow Gandhian satyagraha.
On the other hand, if we were to use Thoreau’s form of non-violent resistance, then we would happen upon more comfort and convenience than difficulties. It is easier to follow Thoreau because he does not ask for as much. Rather than rid ourselves of violent thoughts, Thoreau would allow us to consider them. Of course, we would not go looking to cause violence and avoid it at all costs. But because Thoreau believes that violence can be used as a last resort, we are forced to ask at what point do we draw the line. When is it the last straw? Naturally, this would be left for the individual to decide, but even so, not everyone holds the same morals. The number of predicaments where our sense of morality would be questioned is definitely something to take into consideration. Then, of course, there is Thoreau’s need to live a simple lifestyle. It would be extremely difficult to ask everyone to abandon their comfortable ways of life for a life alone and secluded.
However, between both philosophies, I strongly believe that Thoreau’s perspective is the better option. Thoreau’s approach is more practical and can be easily applied to modern-day issues than Gandhi’s. It makes more than enough sense that in order to progress for a better picture, rather than focus on abolishing what is wrong, we worry about stopping it first. We should prioritize the idea of not contributing to what we believe is improper. If we follow Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha, we may never be able to fully accomplish stopping what is corrupt. Moreover, I believe that Gandhi asks for too much of his followers. While completely eradicating all violence is ideal, it seems vital to nature to possess it. As such, wild animals kill other animals for food in order to survive. Yet, when we kill an animal in a less gruesome way, it is still considered an unpardonable sin? At some point, it seems plausible animals are more prone to violence than humans but seeing as our lives are held on the same platform, it seems reasonable for our actions to as well. Overall, Thoreau’s philosophy is more likely to stick today than Gandhi’s because it’s less demanding and therefore more realistic.
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