Monday, November 11, 2013


Richard Sorabji, Gandhi and the Stoics: Modern Experiments on Ancient Values. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xiii, 224. ISBN 9780226768823. $35.00.

Reviewed by William O. Stephens, Creighton University (

Version at BMCR home site


The Stoics have exerted a tremendous influence on a wide range of philosophers in the Western tradition, from Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Boethius, Simplicius of Cilicia, Peter Abelard, and Aquinas to Pascal, Descartes, Spinoza, Joseph Butler, Leibniz, Kant, Anthony Ashley Cooper (the third Earl of Shaftesbury), Adam Smith, and Mathew Arnold. In this book Sorabji argues that, although Gandhi was not directly influenced by the Stoics, few have noticed Gandhi's much more indirect relation to them (1). While the book offers what appear to be new insights on Gandhi's philosophy, less about the Stoics is novel.

Sorabji makes a persuasive case that a number of Stoic values converged with Gandhi's. These include the practice of emotional detachment yielding a certain kind of freedom, engagement in politics, the extension of love to all humans, emphasis on duties rather than rights, and duties being significantly dictated by adherence to one's own individual persona (2). Moreover, Sorabji contends, both Gandhi and the Stoics were suspicious of universal rules of conduct, each was ready to accept poverty, and each sought to square ideals of perfection with imperfect people (3). So, the reason to compare them is not that Gandhi read at most one book about a few Stoics when he was in jail (3), but because "both Gandhi and the Stoics were accused of having impractical and bizarre ethical ideals," and while the Stoics failed to achieve their ideals, Sorabji believes that to a surprising extent Gandhi succeeded in achieving his (4). Consequently, comparing the two illuminates both. The Stoics could have made a more consistent philosopher of Gandhi, and Gandhi "could have shown the Stoics how far and in what ways some of their ideals would look practical and attractive, when realized" (4).

The book contains an introduction and eleven chapters. In the introduction, Sorabji explains that Gandhi's biggest direct inspirations were John Ruskin's Unto this Last (1862), Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), Christ's Sermon on the Mount, and Plato's Apology of Socrates which portrays Socrates as a soldier of truth fearlessly accepting death. We learn that Gandhi believed that there is no one true religion, because God is indescribable, and so every attempt to describe God is impossible (10), that Gandhi thought of God "as a force or law and a pure consciousness" (17), and that he thought that of reason as fallible and faith as infallible (13). Sorabji notes how Gandhi reinterpreted the treatment of violence in the Gita and the concept of moksha, believed in reincarnation, and was drawn to celibacy by the Indian tradition of brahmacharya. Sorabji observes that Gandhi rejected hatred and deplored his own anger, but in passing comments that "anger is surely sometimes appropriate" (7). This remark jars, because it is a very anti-Stoic claim that receives neither elaboration nor argument. In pictures of Monsiau's Alexander and Diogenes (1818) depicting the idealized Cynic, living in his wine jar and refusing a gift from Alexander the Great, the Stoic Chrysippus, and a photograph of Gandhi, Sorabji sees symbolism and commonality in their attire. All three wear only scanty cloaks and exude austerity and indifference to cold. Moreover, both Diogenes and Gandhi, in his homespun cloth, created profound shock (21-2).

Chapter One addresses how Gandhi and the Stoics can square emotional detachment with family love or universal love. At times Sorabji seems to assume the role of apologist for Gandhi. We learn that Gandhi urged a trusted helper who had volunteered to assist Gandhi in trying to calm religious riots, to bring along her baby daughter, who was not yet two years old, into the most dangerous part of Bengal (39). Gandhi was impressed by a play about a man who, in fidelity to a vow, raised his hand to behead his wife, not out of an attitude of violence, but with compassion in his heart (15). Sorabji thinks that Gandhi achieved a detached kind of love for all, but this assessment is not supported by these and several other disturbing details of Gandhi's biography. Sorabji suggests that Stoic universal love can never become hate, and so could provide support for Gandhi's commitment to emotionally detached love for all (44). Yet the absence of hatred is not enough for love. We can imagine a mother's decision to endanger her child's life or a man's decision to kill his wife motivated not out of hate but from an attitude of indifference, as when we casually kill weeds by pulling them from the ground without a trace of antipathy toward them. The remark that "Stoicism would not approve Gandhi's actually disfavoring or sacrificing close friends or kin" (44-5) understates the divergence between Gandhi and the Stoics on what counts as loving acts toward family members.

In the nine pages of Chapter Two, Sorabji investigates how emotional detachment squares with politics in the Stoics and Gandhi. He concludes with the remark that Gandhi's attitude to politics may have been like that of the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and he references Meditations 6.12. Much more could have been said about this comparison. It is disappointing that no effort is made either to elaborate on Marcus' political views or to engage with scholarship on those views.

In Chapter Three, the concepts of freedom in Isaiah Berlin, Diogenes the Cynic, Zeno (the founder of the Stoa), Epictetus, Tolstoy, and Gandhi are compared. Against Berlin, Sorabji argues that "Stoic and Gandhian freedom of the individual was a genuine freedom of a sort that is sometimes needed in adverse circumstances" (66). In treating Admiral Jim Stockdale and Epictetus, Sorabji cites only his own work, not that of others.

Chapter Four is on Gandhi's acceptance of Tolstoy on universal love and nonviolence and their divergence on pacifism and nationalism. Sorabji explains that for Gandhi nonviolence was an attitude involving motive, and so he endorsed killing sixty rabid, stray dogs, since allowing the spread of rabies to other dogs and humans would have resulted in even greater violence (85).

Sorabji explains in Chapter Five how the Stoics connected the idea of universal affection for other people with universal justice for all, whereas Gandhi connected it with nonviolence (99). Both Gandhi and the Stoics affirmed human duties and eschewed the idea of human rights. Both the Stoics and Gandhi, Sorabji argues in Chapter Six, believed in the idea that each of one's individual roles in life determines a particular duty one has. Moreover, both expressed doubts, for somewhat different reasons, about universal rules of conduct.

Stoic and Gandhian doubts about universal ethical rules are further developed in Chapter Seven. A duty might apply only to one person because of his unique history, so a rule may fail to apply to all individuals. A rule may also fail to apply to all circumstances. So, Gandhi often appealed to moral conscience rather than moral rules. A nice discussion is presented of Stoic views on the virtuous performance of duties, natural law, and precepts versus formulas. Sorabji reports that "Gandhi said that the fallibility of our judgment is a reason for not practicing violence, and for sacrificing only oneself, not others" (129). But it is hard to see how this view is consistent with Gandhi welcoming a mother to endanger her life and the life of her baby and his approval of a husband's readiness to sacrifice his wife's head to preserve a vow.

A wide-ranging discussion of moral conscience occupies the first half of Chapter Eight. Sorabji traces the history of the concept from the fifth-century BCE Greek playwrights to Plato, Epicurus, Philodemus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, St Paul, Origen, Lactantius, Plato's Socrates, Xenophon's Socrates, Albinus, Plutarch, and Calcidius. This section seems out of place. It evidently belongs in another book Sorabji is in the process of writing, which he cites. In the second half of the chapter, Sorabji does not quite succeed in showing that Gandhi's views on conscience and its infallibility, faith and its infallibility, and the voice of God or Inner Voice overriding intellect and reason are coherent.

Chapter Nine is on various restrictions on private property. Gandhi compared his restrictions with those of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Sorabji compares them to restrictions on property discussed in the Republics of Plato, Diogenes the Cynic, and Zeno, and Chrysippus' On Republic. The contrasting views of Diogenes of Babylon, Antipater, Panaetius, Hecato, Seneca, Epictetus, and Hierocles on property, and a brief discussion of Chrysippus, Epictetus, and Seneca on slavery, complete the chapter.

In Chapter Ten, Sorabji argues against Berlin's view that both political theory and politics itself were abandoned by the Stoics, who stressed the individual and his inner life. Sorabji disagrees with Berlin's ascription to the Stoics of a particular kind of individualism. He convincingly argues that the Stoics' morality was not so much personal or private, but public inasmuch as their theory of oikeiosis, though not a political idea in a conventional sense, expands to embrace all of humanity and involves concern for all human beings. Sorabji concludes that the two most important themes uniting the Stoics and Gandhi are indifference and the special place of the individual, which led to caution about universal rules of conduct (195).

In the last chapter, Sorabji judges that Gandhi was first and foremost a spiritual and moral leader, second a philosopher, and third a politician. Gandhi thought it important to explain in philosophical terms, and not just pronounce, his spiritual and moral views. Sorabji identifies eight philosophical features of Gandhi's work: (a) the exceptional subjection of his ideas to criticism, (b) the appeal to philosophical reasons, (c) the appropriateness to philosophy of the topics, (d) the quality of the discussion, (e) providing a viewpoint that makes you see things in a different way, (f) organization of the viewpoints, (g) the interconnectedness within ethics of different topics, and (h) the interconnection of issues across the whole of philosophy (198-9).

Throughout the book Sorabji frequently cites his own earlier publications and is sparing in citing other scholarship on Stoicism.1 This habit leaves the impression that much of what Sorabji says about the Stoics in this book repeats what he has written elsewhere rather than offering new insights. Sorabji has written many fine books. This one is not among his best.2


1.   Just one example: Margaret R. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion, The University of Chicago Press, 2007, deserved to be cited on pages 12 and 26.
2.   I found only a handful of errors in the second copy of the book I received: periods omitted on 26, 28, and 143; "be" dropped from note 8 on 75 and from a sentence on 107; an extraneous "that" on 89; an awkwardly written sentence on 97 that implies that Margaret Bourke-White assassinated Gandhi; a comma instead of a period on 128. However, the first copy I was sent had blank pages for the title page, the table of contents (page vii), and pages x, xi, xii, xiv, 1, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13, 16, and 17. Such sloppy printing ought to embarrass the University of Chicago Press.

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