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Contesting the Decivilising Process through the Prism of Gandhi and Tagore

Mainstream Weekly
By Professor  

Everyday acts of terrorism, intolerance, civil and state violence and religious fundamentalism dismay us to the core and even prompt some of us to question the very nature of human existence. Early this year, Pankaj Mishra’s latest work somewhat aptly described our age as the “Age of Anger”. For quite some time now, scholars and philosophers began to investigate the ongoing commotion only to find its deepest seeds in the ways civilisations are essentially placed in relation to one another, their incompatible cultures and their status in the globalising age. On the one hand, Francis Fukuyama saw in the emerging times the triumph of Western civilisation (End of History) and Samuel P. Huntington viewed the ongoing or emergent tensions as Civilisational Clash particularly between the Islamic and the Western. On the other hand, Edward Said and Amartya Sen denounced the former as essentialist reductionist and propagandist, by focusing, instead, on the fluid nature and intersectionalities of civilisations. Each of these accounts takes the idea of civilisation as given and, thus, is far from engaging with the idea of civilisation per se. This is where Ramin Jahanbegloo’s latest book, The Decline of Civilisation, aims to fill the gap. Civilisations are neither essentially violent nor ideally peaceful; they are, morally speaking, what we make out of them. Ramin Jahanbegloo is an Iranian philosopher known for his works that advocate technologies with a human face.

The Decline of Civilisation is primarily a political and philosophical investigation of the idea of civilisation and as such the author doesn’t care much about what civilisation has meant at different junctures of time and space. The author, in general, raises two questions: what is the idea of civilisation constituted of, after all, and whether our age is lacking a civilisational resource. What is even more inviting for us is the book’s insightful foreword by Romila Thapar. Looking through a historian’s eye, Thapar argues that any idea of civilisation is limited and partial insofar as it takes into account only certain cultures and thought processes to the exclusion of others. It is also limited if it ignores inter-cultural exchanges between civilisations. The present time, for Thapar, seems to be carrying this partial account of civilisation that needs to be contested by historicising the missing interconnections.

Is Civilisation, Understood in Binaries, Fruitful?

The idea of civilisation, historically speaking, has always been cast into binaries, civilised in opposition to uncivilised. For instance, Greek is civilised in contrast to non-Greek with the latter termed as barbarians; the West is civilised in contrast to the non-Western civilisation, held to be opposite to Western values, and thus uncivilised. The author asks if this comparative description or dichotomy of civilised versus barbarian helps us to understand the character of civilisations especially when the perennial invocation of violence between them has proved to be useless, and when we find instances of civilised versus barbarian contrast even within single civilisations such as in the West? For Ramin, this dualism or binary has appeared in the more recent accounts including that of Huntington which—though stand challenged now—continues to have an ideological hangover in popular discourses and rhetoric. He highlights the deep history of such binaries in the Western discourses, such as in the Oriental discourse and civilising mission. If civilisations are understood in monocultural and binary terms, then, Ramin warns, the intercultural dialogues that various civilisations have, as a matter of fact, engaged in from time to time could become a fiction and clash an ever-present reality.

Paradoxes in the Idea of Civilisation

Rather than engaging with a question of whether civilisation today is essentially violent or peaceful, Ramin highlights the central paradoxes in the very idea of modern civilisation. It is pertinent to note here that this theme is discussed in the last chapter, but seems to me much helpful to introduce it at the very inception. He begins this philosophical exploration with Sigmund Freud’s remark about the ‘moral demands of civilisation’. Freud finds, in his magnum opus Civilisation and its Discontents, a perpetual and essentialfriction between the tendency of individuals to seek instinctive freedom and the repressive tendency of civilisations to ensure conformity. This moral demand finds further mention in Immanuel Kant’s Unsocial Sociability in his Idea for a Universal History. Unsocial Sociability refers to the tendency of an individual to seek his individual goals by isolating himself from the society (egoistic behaviour) but who at the same time remains inclined to the society as a whole without which one cannot feel being human. Thus, selfishness and competition together make civilisation possible. Ramin, then, refers to Rousseau to underline an even more paradoxical account of civilisation: Rousseau contended that civilisation is at once evil and social because it was the rise of civilisation that caused the corruption of the truer human nature. But the exigencies of this departure forbid us to go back and urge us to civility and its obligations through a process of social contract.

Ramin’s objective here is to address the question of the treatment of violence which necessarily forms an element of the idea of civilisation (given its paradoxical nature). Violence was, however, systematically tamed and confined to the nations as its sole monopoly through a process of disciplining, but which, for Ramin, generated the discourse of ‘Otherness’, perpetually describing civility and uncivility in contrasting terms, thereby establishing the standards of what could be called as civilisation in the true sense. It is this discourse which provided Western powers sufficient justification to colonise others in the name of the Civilising Mission. This idea was supplemented by the idea of ‘progress’ understood in material terms only, without any regard to the corresponding moral development leading to what Ramin calls decivilising process.

Essence of the Idea of Civilisation

Civilisation, in the Raminian parlance, entails the highest state of societal development as opposite to barbarianism but no civilisation has abstained from barbarian practices. Every civilisation has carried within itself ‘a fear’, fear of civilisational displacement, and has to that extent been exclusive and apprehensive of ‘others’. For Ramin, irrespective of the historical connotations of the idea of civilisation, it has been an idea that constitutes a relationship in which human beings relate to each other, and this relationship is best represented by the idea of humanity. Living together, therefore, is essentially a civilisational dynamic that allows human subjects to know themselves and others thereby helping in self-realisation. Compassion, mutuality and cooperation have been the defining principles of civilisation undergirded by a common humanity. As such, one civilisation can never advance at the expense of the other. Thus, while Huntington, Fukuyama and others accentuate the civilisational differences, Ramin is more like Said and Sen who argue for civilisational mutuality and cooperation and its underlying humanity.

The Idea of Decivilisation: Is Our Civilisation Decivilising?

For Ramin, unfortunately, our civilisation is lacking direction and meaning and is, therefore, decivilising. This requires some clarification. In Ramin’s verbalisation of civilisation, since the underlying common resource is humanity and human self-actualisation, its political culture, economics, and technology must have an overarching aim of achieving this human affirmation. In other words, civilisation must have an ethical goal, a kernel of what our future ought to be. Without this ethical goal, civilisation is meaningless and directionless and therefore decivilising. Ramin is certainly not an inventor of the term decivilisation but introduces it to mean not an absence of civilisation itself, but the thoughtlessness of a civilisation without which it simply jeopardises human life.

Now the question is: is our age an epitome of such a decivilising society? If yes, how? These questions become even more perplexing when one looks at the rapid globalisation marked by turbo/techno-capitalist culture that seems to have brought civilisations closer to each other. This capitalist culture is championed, by many, as the facilitator of a uniform culture across time and space, but which, as per the author, fails to nurture a space to sustain cultural diversities. It becomes exclusive, materialistic, and indifferent, therefore, lacking a civilisational dynamic. There is another reason that the author holds responsible for this. As long as politics entails an ethical activity in the sense that it imagines what a good life ought to be, it not only serves as a transformative activity per se but also an instrument that shapes the human civilisation. But when politics becomes nothing but an instrument that aids and abets the global capitalist culture, therefore, governed solely by today’s economic exigencies, it lacks the ethical element and becomes, like civilisation, meaningless and directionless.

Ramin is quite cognisant of the fact that civilisations have had acute differences, conflicts that often culminated in wars, which, however, have not disallowed civilisations to appreciate their common attributes and exchanges. He is, however, convinced that common humanity that reflects in the emotion of empathy has tied civilisations together because their capacity to feel pain, to share suffering with others and to reciprocate to the needs of the oppressed, have made inter-civilisation dialogue and interaction possible and sustainable. Therefore, our civilisation is decivlisisng because the universal ethical values of empathy and compassion, that have hitherto shaped civilisations, are continu-ously being replaced by utilitarian values that see everything out there in terms of cost and benefit. This businesslike approach to human civilisation is not only nauseatic but essentially hollow because it visualises no future for our current civilisation. Thus he writes: “...the real battle of civilisation has not been between civilisations but for this survival of civilisation itself.

Dialectical View of Civilization:
A Philosophical Account

Ramin finds a more nuanced account of civilisation in Western philosophical discourses, particularly in Kant and Hegel. For Ramin, particular civilisations appear and disappear, but the idea of civilisation persists. He draws heavily from Hegel’s works, especially Pheno-menology of Mind and employs his dialectical method entailing an self-actualisation of particular minds into the greater Mind or Spirit to show how the idea of civilisation carries within it an enormous heterogeneity that moves in a process of self-actualisation thereby affirming common humanity that lies at the heart of any idea of civilization. This incorporates both inter-subjectivity as well as universality. Each civilisation and culture within itself establishes its particular identity in this process of self-actualisation but retains and develops further the universal identity which is nothing but a common human identity. Thus, while the fear of the Other and the use of violence have remained a fact, their inability as a solution opens a way for empathy serving as “a key to embracement, inclusion and recognition of the otherness of the Other”. This idea of civilisation that Ramin endorses is more humane and broader than what multiculturalism offers because, as Ramin argues, even though multiculturalism supports recognition of the Otherness, it does so only as a matter of law and not empathy, and does not account for the pain and moral harm caused by misrecognition. It is this empathy and recognition that has made it possible for human beings to forget the violence contained in our histories.

Tagore’s Dialogical View of Civilisation

After expressing dismay over the definition of civilisation in binary terms, Ramin finds a dialogical approach to civilisation in the works of Gandhi and Tagore making a meaningful difference to our understanding of civilisation.

Both Gandhi and Tagore envisioned the pluralistic idea of civilisation best epitomised in the phraseology of “Unity in Diversity”. Tagore’s works, including poems, letters and stories, represent a judicious case of dialogical civilisation based on an intercultural dialogue with the Other. Rather than treating Tagore’s ideas as romantic and unreal, Ramin quite convincingly asserts their practical relevance today. This is because Tagore’s vision of civilisation is predicated on what he calls the Spirit of Hospitality and common humanity. Without this ideal, no civilisation is thinkable and no space for intercultural dialogue is feasible. Such a cosmopolitan view of the concept of belonging, as evident in Tagore, encompasses the particu-larisms (not destroys it) such as nationalism, fundamentalism, radicalism and so on. Ramin argues that Tagore’s idea of bringing proximity between particularism and universalism is remarkable because while human potentiality and autonomy form the undercurrent of Kant and Tagore’s philosophies, in Tagore, one finds a symphony between particularism and universalism rather than enforcement of each at the expanse of the other as seems to be the case in Kant.

Tagore’s real vision of civilisation cannot be articulated in terms of material and techno-logical progress in modern times, its political technologies, and economism, its fetishism with ampleness. The real advancement of civilisation is rather conceivable in terms of the nurturing of moral life that sees life as a whole and not in particular terms. Thus, for Tagore, we cannot understand the ongoing tensions between and among civilisations as conflicts between cultures but rather between human beings and their ideas of life and its telos.

Gandhian Notion of ‘Moral Civilisation’

Ramin extracts two motifs from Gandhi’s seminal political text, Hind Swaraj; his critique of modern/Western civilisation and his idea of what a civilisation ought to be. First, he shows why and how Gandhi critiques modern civilisation. Western civilisation, for Gandhi, is marked by its emphasis on reason, economic progression, and capitalism, all of which endorse a form of social and economic Darwinism and correspondingly discourage compassion, righteousness, and trust, thus paving the way to colonial domination. Its positivist and reductionist sciences are devoid of moral capacity. Against this type of hollow civilisation, Gandhi advances a very novel and pluralistic theory of civilisation based on two pillars: the first, the Gandhian notion of Swaraj which at once entails self-examination, self-rule, and self-determination; and the second that includes his idea of Sarvodaya implying welfare of all. Ramin points out that Gandhi prefers the latter conception of civilisation which is transformative and informative in character. Gandhi’s theory of civilisation, in general, assumes a Dharmic balance (where all, including human beings, are in harmony with nature, environment and so on). The Western civilisation upsets this balance by making human beings dependent on material progress and technologies, and political institutions at the cost of moral progress of human beings. By differentiating moral progress from material progress, Gandhi argues for the permanence and persistence of the former. Even if there is a conflict between them, ‘material progress must advance the latter’. Gandhi, thus, ends up at human dignity and autonomy as the criterion of judging any civilisation.

Gandhi, to Ramin, adds an ethical element to the conceptualisation of civilisation for it does not confine to the mindless material progress, but goes beyond it to find the purpose of our civilised being. Placing an unflinching faith in the autonomy of individuals and their ability to be responsible for their ‘station and its duties’, Gandhi imagines a bottom-up or a decentralised society that harmonises human beings with their environments. However, self-rule or Swaraj, Satyagraha (as the soul or truth force conducted nonviolently) and Sarvodaya must be at the centre of any civilisation in the true sense of the term. Thus, in today’s decivilised world, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj brings a fresh life to it by subjecting our thoughtless civilisation to ethical test. Gandhi once famously remarked that we are so concerned to save our time by using the fastest means of transport, but we never ask ourselves what should we be doing in the time thus saved.

The Way Forward

It is true that whenever the idea of civilisation is invoked, it has meant an endorsement of one civilisation (mostly the Western) as a fulcrum to judge other civilisations. It is this idea that Ramin contests in this book. Opening a discussion on decivilisation allows Ramin to appreciate the relationship between humanity and civilisation; that humanity should be a guiding torch of morality. Whenever any civilisation digresses from this condition of humanity and morality and relies instead on material progress, technological advancement, it is essentially decivilising, a situation that is now ongoing. He is not anti-progress or anti-technology but rather wants a human face at the centre of everything. It is for this reason of morality guiding civilisation that Ramin finds it productive to hark back to Gandhi and Tagore.

After this problematisation of our past and present condition, what is the way forward? For Ramin, dissenting thinking is the only way we can contest the decivilising process and tendency. He acknowledges the fact that one cannot rest civilisation in a vacuum by decrying our past, but we should rather filter our inherited ideas through a critical thinking to stop essentialising of any particular civilisation at the expense of others. We should preserve the humanity, human empathy and compassion that have so far preserved the common threads across civilisations despite clashes of various sorts and magnitudes.

Tagore as well as Gandhi, thus, put greater emphasis on the moral or ethical character of a civilisation, a criterion for judging the progress of civilisation. Gandhi always believed that reason itself cannot be put to use unless it is supplemented by the morality of one or the other kind. Moreover, such a critical account of civilisation also recognises the reality of our collective life that differences can never be done away with; they can only be reconciled in dialectical terms. Thus, civilisation is a process, a continuous one, rather than a stage reached. This idea apparently counters and renders Francis Fukuyama’s absurd call “end of history” as the ideological defence of the status quo. Thus, intercultural dialogue is imperative for creating new solidarities in our plural world.

The reviewer is an independent researcher and Assistant Professor (guest) at the School of Open Learning, University of Delhi.