October Discussion Review

October 27, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In most cases, letter writing became fashionable only after the establishment of a postal service. However, state business has been conducted via the written letter since the beginning of formal governments. Our most recent Quarterly Discussion focused on six different letters from the likes of Seneca all the way up to George H. W. Bush. We looked at Leonardo da Vinci's job application in the form of a letter to the Duke of Milan. We discussed Gandhi's letter to Hitler. We wondered about Plutarch's letter to his wife upon the loss of their child. These letters are rich with details about time periods, but also about the human condition. I am so grateful to the people who dedicated time out of their day to chat with me about the curiosities and random features of these letters.

"Man Writing a Letter" by Gabriël Metsu - National Gallery of Ireland, Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.

"Man Writing a Letter" by Gabriël Metsu - National Gallery of Ireland, Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.


The discussion hit upon many fascinating ideas that are still relevant and resonant. For example, Seneca's letter XLVII is often described as his letter regarding “Masters and Slaves”. There is much more to this letter, however, which addresses friendship in general. He asks that we care for others rather than expect something from them. His insistence that fortune changes often and without warning is a universal message, affecting everyone from emperors to slaves. In this letter, he asks that we value character, not utility. Plutarch, likewise, places importance on virtue. In his letter to his wife, he admonishes societies that seek pleasure rather than virtue. His idea of happiness has nothing to do with temporal or momentary enjoyment. Instead, he writes, “For you have often heard that felicity depends on correct reasoning in a stable habit, and that the changes due to fortune occasion no serious departure from it and do not bring with them a falling away that destroys the character of our lives.” A “stable habit” ensures that reason and virtue weigh all actions.

And these two ideas – virtue universally applied coupled with Plutarch's warnings – bring me to the Gandhi's letter to Hitler. In 1940, Gandhi proposed a path of non-violence to one of the world's the most violent men. I find it striking, but also completely appropriate, that Gandhi should write a direct appeal to Hitler. Gandhi claims that violence is “nobody's monopoly”. He further explains that violence always tries to outdo itself, so someone will get a bigger, better system, regardless of all of your preparations. In other words, these means come to a fruitless end. Gandhi proposes non-violence instead, which he claims is a force that, “if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all of the most violent forces in the world.” One of the participants in our discussion noted the amazing complexity of the following argument. Gandhi proposes non-violence, but also says that he will not use non-violence to fight the British rule in India. He suspends all non-violent efforts. He claims that the British have overextended themselves and does not want to detract them from war efforts. It is astounding to think that, after a lifetime of protest and at a time particularly suited to his success, he would set aside political differences. He must, of course, make it clear to Hitler that he will not be a tool in Hitler's destructive agenda. In other words, Hitler's community will never include India, despite the fact that Gandhi desperately wants his country's freedom. The fact that he sets aside his entire life's agenda makes me believe that Gandhi understood the stakes.

However, some participants also questioned Gandhi's naiveté. And this question plagues me. Is Gandhi naïve in addressing Hitler? Or is it exactly to his point? I think that Gandhi's modus operandi seeks to always address others with respect and humility. He achieves this tone -even!- in his letter to Hitler. Two things that I wonder. First, is the divide between complete pacifist and one bent upon destruction too great? Are they simply incompatible notions, so much so, that a mind devoted entirely to one of those principles will not be able to identify with or understand the principles of the other? Also, non-violence has never been tested against something as drastic as total annihilation. Would a non-violent solution have worked quickly enough to counter something like the Holocaust? It seems that talking about colonization, while problematic, divisive and destructive, is not the same thing as talking about Hitler's vision of purity. Are we talking about different degrees of the same thing, or entirely separate things altogether? In other words, I wonder if Gandhi was indeed a bit naïve in the sense that he simply could not imagine destruction on the pace and scale that Hitler imagined. Of course, this question remains unanswerable. I find it important, however, that this letter is available for the historical record, if for no other reason than it demonstrates a great generosity and the willingness to communicate. He writes, “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness.” Gandhi separates the man from his actions, which creates space for reversal or change. Unfortunately, Hitler disregarded the appeal.

If history is to offer us any roadmap for the future, it is well worth our time to step into letters from the past. Many thanks to those who spent time opening my eyes to the layers hidden within these letters.

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