Recently, in a post, I included a quotation from George Orwell’s essay, Reflections on Gandhi. The essay is absolutely fascinating, on a number of levels, and also quite controversial; I found myself thinking about a different section of it today, in another context. Note: I’m quoting it because I think it’s worth thinking about, not because I necessarily agree with every point Orwell is making here (or ever made in his whole career).
One of Orwell’s main arguments is that Gandhi’s saintliness makes him inhuman:
But one should, I think, realize that Gandhi’s teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from. It is worth considering the disciplines which Gandhi imposed on himself and which…he considered indispensable if one wanted to serve either God or humanity. First of all, no meat-eating, and if possible no animal food in any form. And finally– this is the cardinal point–for the seeker after goodness there must be no close friendships and no exclusive loves whatever.
Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because “friends react on one another” and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one’s preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children,
but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which–I think–most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid…it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. It is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible.
This issue arose in St. Therese’s life. When Therese entered the Carmelite convent at the age of sixteen, she was joining two of her biological sisters, with whom she was extremely close. But Therese allowed herself to show no special interest for these sisters or to seek out their company, although this hurt their feelings very much. Interestingly, though, when she was dying, the Mother Superior arranged things so she could see more of her sisters, and Therese did permit that of herself in that circumstance (though maybe she saw it as an aspect of obedience). Throughout her spiritual memoir, we see Therese discussing this challenge of preference.
In the August 2, 2004, issue of the New Yorker, in the profile “The Gift,” Ian Parker wrote about Zell Kravinsky, a real-estate developer with a compulsive desire to give things away, such as most of his $45 million fortune to charity, and one of his kidneys to a stranger, both against the wishes of his family. Is his action saintly or pathological? It’s hard to decide.
Kravinsky said, “The sacrosanct comitment to the family is the rationalization for all manner of greed and selfishness,” and following this precept, he makes it clear that he tried not to favor his own children above unknown children. When I read this, I had a hard time figuring out why I found that morally shocking. On what basis did I think it right to love and favor your own children more than other people’s children? Or why, in the case of Therese, would it seem shocking if she didn’t want to have her own beloved biological sisters with her as she died, in preference to the other nuns? Orwell explains why. There are two systems of values.
On a much more trivial scale, prompted by Orwell’s observation, I thought about goals that I’d rejected because I assumed they were too difficult, without questioning whether they were actually worthy goals for me, or whether I’d actually be happier if I adhered to them: being a vegetarian, giving up TV, never eating any refined flour or sugar.
Or more to the point, waking up early to work. I’ve always thought it would be a huge advantage if I could get up at 4:40 or 5:00 am to work, before my family wakes up.
Anthony Trollope, who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, attributed his productivity to his habit of starting his day at 5:30 a.m. In his Autobiography, he notes, “An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid 5 pounds extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy.” Which suggests that it’s not easy to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. — especially if you don’t have an old groom on hand to shake you awake.
As it happens, for the last week, and as I write this right now, I spontaneously woke up around 5:00 am, and I got up to work. So I have to decide whether I want to stick to this plan, and MAKE myself get up at that time every day, or go back to 6:45 am.
Well, it turns out that waking up at 5:00 am, while good for my work life, has its drawbacks. It means that I have to go to sleep around 9:30 or 10:00 pm (getting enough sleep is a TOP happiness priority). And that means giving up my time with the Big Man, after our children are in bed. It seems a bit bleak to be going to bed by myself while he’s up having fun.
I’d always assumed that if I really had the right stuff, I’d be getting up before dawn to write. Now I’m not so sure.
If you violently disagree with Orwell’s points, please read the entire essay. This quotation doesn’t capture the complexity of Orwell’s argument or his views on Gandhi.
Check out my new one-minute internet movie, Secrets of Adulthood.