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Gandhi And Rousseau as Critics of Modern Civilization: A Comparative Perspective

By K. P. Mishra

The aim of this research paper is to compare the views of Rousseau and Gandhi keeping the deterioration in human life as result of vast mechanization, in mind.

Modern Civilization

During the past two decades post-modernism has become an important subject of debate among intellectuals. Modern civilization has, of course provided enormous material comforts but it has also created some important problems like multiplicity of wants, growing violence, lack of community feeling, throat cutting competition and denial of human capacity to intervene in the social process.


Gandhi and Rousseau

Despite different perspectives, background, and theoretical frame works, Rousseau and Gandhi have striking similarities in their diagnosis of the evils of modern "immoral society" and they plead for the same solution. Gandhi has an advantage over Rousseau considering the fact that he could experience the dark side of the advanced modern civilization, being a citizen of a colonised nation.


Encounter with modern civilization

Both political philosophers had the background of the exploitative treatment of modern capitalist system in different manners. Both can be regarded as revolutionaries as Rousseau inspired French revolution and Gandhi being the driving force behind the Indian freedom struggle.


Technological Progress: A Bane of Humanity

Modern civilization begins with scientific discoveries and technological progress. Gandhi correctly argues that the modern civilization is centered on the development of body and man's moral potentialities remain undermined. He writes: "Modern civilization's, true test lies in the fact that people living in it make bodily welfare the object of life."1 Machinery, "the chief symbol of the modern civilization," writes Gandhi, "represents a great sin."2

Rousseau is also critical of technological progress that ruins virtues. He aptly remarks: "It was iron and corn which first civilised men and ruined humanity."3 He laments on the extreme idleness of some and the excessive labour of others on which capitalist economy rests. The idleness as a result of mechanization corrupts morals and Rousseau clearly points out, "the dissolution of morals, the necessary consequence of luxury brings within its turn the corruption of taste."4  

For Rousseau and Gandhi,scientific/technological developments aim at increasing bodily comforts and neglects mind or mental peace. They come to the same conclusion, that scientific progress corrupts human minds and it hinders man's moral progress. In their criticisms, Rousseau and Gandhi argue that scientific progress is contradictory to nature.


Failure of the Liberal Democratic System

Rousseau and Gandhi agree with the principle that only democratic government can ensure individual liberty. Both Rousseau and Gandhi counter the existing assumption of liberty and are critical of representative democracy in which effective public participation is not possible. Both realise that the democracy based on the rule of majority is not appropriate. For the realisation of the goals of democracy "active citizenship" is an essential ingredient.


Union of Ethics and Politics

For Rousseau and Gandhi, politics is far from being a means for the fulfilment of one's self-interest. It is a means for the service of the community in which man works for the betterment of the whole community. The operating principle of the community of Rousseau is moral and a man in his moral pursuit works in the interest of fellow citizens. Gandhi, too, applies moral approach and he also pleads for politics guided by morals. He writes: "I have always derived my politics from ethics. It is because I swear by ethics that I find myself in politics. A person who is a lover of his country is bound to take a lively interest in politics."5

(K. P. Mishra is Assistant Professor of Political Science, S. G. S. College, Sidhi, Madhya Pradesh. He has just completed his PhD. thesis on French Marxism.)


Notes and References:

1.M K Gandhi, Hind Swaraj: Collect Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi; Publication Division), Vol.10, p.18.

2.Ibid., p.58.

3. J. J Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourse, p. 83.

4.Ibid p.18

5.Harijan,3 October 1936.

Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 4, No-2, July-Sept 2002