Is Lying A Political Virtue?

This piece was originally published in Volume 1 of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College.

In her review of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Hannah Arendt claimed that “Truthfulness has never been counted among political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings.”[1] Writing in the context of the Cold War and the war in Vietnam and with an awareness of the history of totalitarianism, Arendt felt a deep ambivalence in affirming this troubling postulate of political thought and long-standing political practice — but affirm it she did. Her words capture an important idea with a long pedigree, namely, that the justification of political ends trumps truthfulness, so that lying, when it is politically warranted, becomes justified. The link between “truth and politics,” as discussed by Arendt with characteristic insight and erudition in her earlier essay with that title was as old as philosophy and politics themselves. In its original stipulation in Plato, truth’s relationship to politics was doubly compromised: first, in the philosophic claim that even in the ideal polity, truth would have to be mingled with noble lies to meet the imperatives of politics; and second, in the fact that the embodiment of truth, Socrates, could only have survived the whims of the Athenian electors by reneging on the truth. What the Athenian citizens represented was not the inescapable pressure and presence of lies in sustaining the polis, but rather a disposition for being governed by mere opinions, ignorance, and a susceptibility to images. As Arendt put it, they had a “perverse love for deception and falsehood.”[2]

In ancient political thought and with re-doubled emphasis in modern thought, the very sort of human existence that political life offered was one in which the role of truth would be, at best, secondary to that form of existence. But unlike in Plato’s Republic, in which the love of falsehood does not stem from any fear of enemies or a threat to the community, in the modern tradition it is precisely this fear and threat, along with the way they disseminate themselves into the governing norms of the domestic community and perception of those outside of it, that have served as the main ground for the latitude that political society has given to lies and, as it turns out, also to violence.

In this paper I want to do two things. First, to consider the question of what it is about political ends and the form of existence politics offers, or at least promises, that allow it to justifiably overwhelm the insistence and even the expectation of truthfulness, so that the moral and epistemic qualities of truth become secondary to that form of existence; and second, to reflect on what politics would have to be if it were the sort of activity that was constrained by the truth, rather than being in a position to always overwhelm it. The first question elaborates on Arendt’s idea that truth is not, and in her view has never been, a political virtue, the second on the conditions under which it could or might be such a virtue. I should make clear that in this context my conception of a virtue is simply as something one endorses unconditionally without regard to the harm or benefits that may stem from it. It is what Kant calls a duty. Precisely because Arendt takes the position that she does regarding the first question, she does not engage the second. This is not to say that she affirms falsehood as a positive value — she certainly does not; nor does she believe that truthfulness is of limited importance as a value in itself. For on this too she was explicit; she could countenance a world in which justice and freedom were sacrificed, but not one in which truth was.[3] Despite that, truth could not, for Arendt, be a political virtue. There was something ultimately otherworldly about it because it inhibited the human desire to act in concert, to appear in public, to do great deeds and to change the world in light of our ideals — in brief, truth went contrary to our desires to be political actors bent on changing the world and “beginning something entirely new”.[4] The agonism and flux of political life, which Arendt celebrated, existed, by her own admission, under a sky of unchanging verities. But in terms of everyday life, the rays of those verities were necessarily refracted as they entered the political domain. In this sense Arendt supported Plato in his account of the highest and transcendent ground of reality, which he associated with truth, while siding with Aristotle on the priority of the middle ground of collective human existence. This latter space, she believed, was irredeemably political, and it is here that truth could not be a virtue because it would always be trumped by a political justification.

Both of the questions I wish to consider in this paper turn on justification. That is to say, what is it about the context of politics that justifies lies, so that truth cannot be a political virtue? And second, what would justify truth being of such an order that it could trump, rather than be subservient to, political rationality? In addressing the first of these questions I offer a rather abstract account of the basis of political society and political rationality in the modern tradition of political thinking to explain the relationship of politics and lying. The account I give is abstract because it must meet a correspondingly abstract challenge that truth cannot be a political virtue. The claim, after all, is not that it cannot be a virtue in patently deceitful regimes, but rather that truth loses its justification as an absolute value in political societies as such. The challenging and worrying aspect of Arendt’s claim is precisely that it applies to the entire domain of politics and hence to the very mode of human life when lived in multitudes.

With regard to the second question I focus on Gandhi. Gandhi plainly did not accept a subsidiary status for truth. The term satyagraha, which is the caption to his various forms of activism and to the form of existence he avowed, is best translated as steadfastly holding onto the truth. It was a steadfastness that he advocated in the contexts of numerous mass public actions, within the more sequestered domain of the ashram, and to individuals who sought his counsel on matters of personal and domestic reach. Whether the forms of activism that Gandhi endorsed should be thought of as political is an issue to which I will return in the conclusion. What I wish to consider are the implications of having a steadfast conception of the truth for the familiar view we have of political society and political action.

To anticipate the argument I will make, in the modern tradition of political thinking the justificatory ground for lying and violence (and of course much else) is the professed security of the political community. This is in principal part because it is taken to be the best guarantor of the highest value, namely, human life. I say ‘professed’ because neither lying nor violence may in fact, as a general matter, serve the end of securing the political community or human life. However, to the extent that a claim can be made to that effect, they meet the challenge of justification because they can be identified as serving the highest value of life. In this broad political orientation there is no foundational value attached to truth (which is not to say that there is no value placed on it). In contrast, Gandhi places a value on truth that is entirely independent of any form of existence. He associates truth with the metaphysical form of being, with God and with sacrifice, but not with the securing or enhancing of life in a quotidian or material sense of the term. For Gandhi truth was an absolute, and hence no form of existence, whether individual or collective, could be an alibi for denying it.


From the 17th century onwards in Western political thought, one can identify at least three points of emphasis that persist into the contemporary era and which have retained their salience during the intervening three and a half centuries. They constitute the main theoretical basis of political society as well as a principal feature of the rationality that courses through its functioning, that is to say, the mode of justification that modern politics advocates and on which it relies. The first point of emphasis is the idea that political society offers the only reasonable redress to the insecurity, fear, and prospect of violence that individuals, in its absence, have good reasons to expect. Second is that political society once it is formed must itself expect to be the object of competition and potentially of violence from other societies, forces, and domestic groups, and must therefore have the resources to contend with this insecure and permanent predicament. And third is that political societies must be unified in order to best deal with this predicament and with the other exigencies of politics, and thus that there is something in the nature of a political imperative to cultivate that unity.

These three broad ideas do not of course constitute an exhaustive template of modern Western political thought. The emphases on freedom and equality, for example, which are also enduring and significant aspects of this political tradition, are not featured in any of the three points I refer to. But my purpose is not to be exhaustive, only to highlight those aspects that are relevant to the issue of truth as a political virtue and to those modes of thought that have played a foundational role in articulating the basis and functioning of political society.

The first idea that I pointed out recalls the state of nature, which Hobbes identified as a condition of extreme corporeal vulnerability and which neither moral regulation, social conventions, or individual volition could ameliorate. The decisive feature of this condition was not natural death along with the anxiety that it might engender, but rather unnatural death that was violent and painful — the product of fierce competition, scarcity, and distorted passions, and thus wholly tied to an existential and non-metaphysical or transcendent context. The subjective analog of the prospect of such a death was a condition of universal and acute fear. One of Hobbes’ many achievements was to normalize the expectation of such a death in an unregulated condition and to have correspondingly normalized the fear that was a permanent accompaniment to it. One might say that in Hobbes death ceased to be natural; instead, like its political redress, it became something artificial. It was one his achievements to have given corporeal life and its preservation a primacy and to have associated the redress of that unacceptable condition wholly with the benefits of political society. In Locke, not withstanding the existence of a moral community of humankind anchored in natural law, natural rights like private property, and social institutions such as the family, the natural state was nevertheless still liable to unsettling forms of uncertainty and “inconvenience” which would lead to insecurity and, ultimately, akin to Hobbes, to a context in which fear and violence were endemic.

The second idea that has persisted is the pervasive view that even though political society is formed as a redressing response to the violence and the insecurity of the natural state, it cannot itself, at a foundational level, forgo the use of violence because it is never freed from the predicament of insecurity for both external and domestic reasons. Moreover, it cannot forgo the use of violence because violence is an essential feature of the power through which political society secures domestic peace, administers justice, and furthers the public interest. Violence, like the fear of death that political society can only ameliorate, is hence constitutionally bound to politics as both its cause and its enduring instrument.

The third idea expresses the thought that whatever the social, ethnic, cultural, geographical, or other forms of diversity and unity that might characterize a collection of individuals, they must in addition be forged into a “people” with a distinctive political self-conception or collective identity. A central feature of that political identity — even if it involves a shared and founding allegiance to certain “inalienable rights” and abstract normative principles as the American act of “separation” did — is an awareness that the people constitute “one body” with a shared vulnerability. Even in the American Declaration of Independence, in which the appeal to normative principles was so conspicuous, the forging of a distinct political identity explicitly stipulated the need “to provide new guards for their future security” and to “have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.” The Declaration did not just indicate a desire to defect from George III’s empire; it was a document that professed the formation of something separate, singular, and unified — a people bound together in part by a shared insecurity along with the means to contend with that predicament. Hobbes signaled the significance of this metamorphosis of multiple individuals into “one body” by invoking the gravity of the biblical term ‘covenant,’ thereby associating the formation of the Commonwealth with a new communion and a radically transformed ontological condition. Locke, though his language was less dramatic, was equally explicit, stating that “it is easy to discern, who are, and who are not, in political society together.”[5] In brief, the unity and the diversity of the social, whether it be the bonds of family, religious orders, professional guilds, or territorial and functional forms of association such as towns and villages, could not serve as a substitute for the unity of the political.

This third idea concerning the importance of establishing a collective identity also anticipated a history in which the formation of modern political societies was linked, both as a cause and effect, with patriotism and the notion that each member was communally linked with every other member. The nature of this link was especially poignant because the issues of security, defense, and preservation of the corporate body of the people were always at stake. In this tradition security and self-preservation literally become obsessions; no amount of attending to them ever fully assuages the anxiety that underlies and permanently fuels them. Even with thinkers like Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel who endorsed a federative ideal, there was no relaxing on the importance of patriotism, not withstanding the civic accent they placed on it. Related to this third idea is the emphasis that political societies placed on territorial and other kinds of boundaries, which were to be rigid and not porous. Hegel was summarizing the broad orientation of modern political thought and practice when he wrote: “Individuality is awareness of one’s existence as a unit in sharp distinction from others. It manifests itself here in the state as a relation to other states, each of which is autonomous vis-a-vis the others.”[6] And finally, the third idea points to the thought that in political society there must be a central source of power, even if that power is limited or checked by contesting divisions and established norms for the transfer of power.

All three of these ideas are now commonplace. They give us, for one, an account in which the principal ground of politics is a sense of an acute physical vulnerability at both an individual and collective level. They tell us, furthermore, that the main motive for the formation of political society is fear and an overriding concern with self-preservation, again both individual and collective, and that politics can never fully assuage that fear but only manage and direct it. The fact that politics is also associated with other imperatives such as justice and enhanced material wellbeing — and, as in the democratic tradition, with the establishment of institutions that give expression to the ideas that individuals are free and equal and that the power of the state should be limited and accountable — does not undermine the claim that an important tradition of modern political thought has been guided by Hobbes’ rendering of the Latin expression salus populi suprema lex esto, in which salus no longer refers to salvation but rather to the safety of individuals and, more importantly, to the security of the political society as a whole.[7]

There are, of course, other traditions of modern political thinking in which the formation of political society is not rooted in the bellicosity of a natural condition; and there are traditions in which an imagined contractual agreement among individuals does not serve as the basis of exiting the state of nature through a contractual agreement upon the principles by which they are to be regulated thereafter. In Hegel, for example, there is neither a bellicose natural condition nor an appeal to the social contract as a regulating and constraining ideal for political society. Rather, it is the self-consciousness of freedom as the underlying destiny of human existence, not the enduring motive of fear, that spurs reason’s long tutelage in history. Similarly, J.S. Mill, in the brief remarks he makes as the relevant preconditions for the application of the Principle of Liberty, offers an account in which the struggle against despotic power has finally brought Western civilization and its public culture to the point where it can be “improved by free and equal discussion.”[8] But even in Hegel and Mill, or for that matter Rousseau and Kant, political society once it is formed is wedded to the primacy of individual and collective security. In fact, Mill’s capacious conception of individual liberty has its limit at the point where physical security is threatened. Even the contemporary emphasis on justice and rights recalls a concern with security in the ubiquity of the language of the “protection of rights.” By way of contrast, it is worth recalling that fear and corporeal security play scarcely any role in articulating the motives for both forming and sustaining political society in the political thought of Plato and Aristotle and more generally in the ancient world — and this despite the fact Greek city-states were regularly embroiled in war and conflict. Fear and security acquire their salience as markers of the political only in the modern era.

At the risk of some overstatement and historical privileging, one might say that the trauma of the English Civil War, the attendant struggles between crown, court, and country, and the decades in the 16th and 17th centuries of internecine religious conflict in much of the expanse of Europe — all of which did so much to discredit the social as the ground of identity and as a self-subsistent order, and which correspondingly raised the need for a distinctively political society to the status of an imperative, anchored and spurred by fear and an obsessive concern with security — have cast a long shadow on the past three and half centuries. The resulting primacy of the political can be assessed not merely in the common claim that everything is political, but also in the fact that the determination of the non-political falls exclusively within competence of the political. Hobbes may have been wrong to have believed that only a singular and absolute sovereign with the awesome power to tame a generalized fear in the population could hold together a political society with the appropriate level of unity. But given the salience of fear and the high value placed on unity to political society over the last three centuries, he has been substantially vindicated, and through a range of very different political regimes at that.

In this abstract and no doubt overly-simplified overview of the broad strokes of modern political thought, I have emphasized three things as characterizing both the cause and effect of political society and its rationale: fear, the concern with security, and the foundational value placed on unity. I have emphasized these because they constitute the basis for why truth has not and cannot in this tradition be a political virtue. As John Mearsheimer has emphasized in his recent book Why Leaders Lie and as Sissela Bok did in Lying: Moral Choice in Political and Private Life, the most pervasive motive for lying in politics is a professed concern with the security and unity of the polity. Mearsheimer makes the related point that lies, even though they claim as a primary justification the presence of an eminent external threat, are really directed at a domestic citizenry, in whom the fear of political insecurity has been cultivated and with whom it has taken root (whereas lying generally tends not to take place between the leaders of various countries). Not surprisingly, such lies become the warrant for other lies, as they did conspicuously in the war in Vietnam and as the emerging evidence suggests they did in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here in fact was the working of a domino effect at the expense of truth in the public realm. Where security and the unity of political society are foundational values, lies, like violence, always has a conditional justification. Within this orientation there is always some future eventuality with respect to which a lie can be politically justified. In asserting that truth had never been, and could not be, a political virtue, Arendt had in mind the sort of justification that is permissive of lies which I have outlined, a justification that is alloyed at a foundational level with the rationale of politics.


I now turn to the second question mentioned at the beginning of this paper. I want to reflect on what the implications might be if none of the three ideas with which I have associated modern politics were held to be valid or normatively creditable. I do this by considering Gandhi’s thought and writings and, to a lesser extent, his actions.[9] There are ample reasons to believe that Gandhi did not subscribe to any of the three ideas. Regarding the first idea, he did not think that corporeal vulnerability was in need of redress. Human vulnerability was an ineradicable fact of life, subject to contingency and moral response. He embraced this fact and its contingency and made it the very ground of crafting a morally meaningful response to it. The central feature of this moral response was an unconditional endorsement of truth.

Gandhi emphasized that the etymology of the word satya (truth) came from sat, which referred to absolute being, hence to God. Truth called for a kind of devotion. He certainly did not believe that the only redress to the fact of human vulnerability and the fear of death was the formation of political society, with its conditional efforts towards peace while simultaneously retaining the means to deploy violence. Instead, he accepted the fear that came with vulnerability by transmuting it into the demand for courage — courage that entailed a permanent willingness to surrender or sacrifice one’s life. In doing so he blunted the principal motive for the formation and the submission to political society, namely, fear and the prospect of security. For Gandhi, the devotion to truth had its analog in the high value he placed on both the individual and collective courage. It was a quality for which no social or political artifact could serve as a substitute. As he said, “The path of truth is for the brave alone, never for a coward.”[10]

Courage, while it blunts the motive for political society, also extends the ambit of moral action to everyday life. One must, according to Gandhi, always be prepared to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of moral action. This is why the scene of battle — be it the fratricidal war at the heart of the Mahabharata, the Boer War, the First World War, or the Jewish predicament in the Second World War — constituted for Gandhi the ideal site for moral action. He was drawn to the battlefield because it exemplified something commonplace for him. It was the model of everyday life, not an exceptional predicament against which to construct a political refuge. It could serve as such a model because the facts of violence and insecurity were themselves facts of everyday life, not things that could be quarantined or pacified by political society or anything else. The very ubiquity of violence in the natural state, which for Hobbes served as the ground for a sequestration of the social from the political and a presumption in favor of the logic of the latter, serves for Gandhi as the basis for articulating the universality of ethics, the center of which is truth. Consider Gandhi’s interpretation of Arjuna’s dilemmas on the battlefield of Kurukshestra, when Arjuna’s will to fight his kinsmen is deserting him:

Let us suppose that Arjuna flees the battlefield. Though his enemies are wicked people, are sinners, they are his relations and he cannot bring himself to kill them. If he leaves the field, what would happen to those vast numbers on his side? If Arjuna went away, leaving them behind, would the Kauravas have mercy on them? If he left the battle, the Pandava army would be simply annihilated. What, then, would be the plight of their wives and children? […] If Arjuna had left the battlefield, the very calamities which he feared would have befallen them. Their families would have been ruined, and the traditional dharma of these families and the race would have been destroyed. Arjuna, therefore, had no choice but to fight.[11]

Two points are significant here. First, Gandhi does not see Arjuna’s actions or inactions as diminishing the fact of war and violence. In either response war and violence persist. Neither non-violence as a response nor Arjuna’s necessarily violent actions in the battlefield intervene to quell or sequester the fact of violence. Second, in Gandhi’s rendering Arjuna has no choice but to fight because violence itself is written into the situation. The resolution of Arjuna’s dilemmas does not lie in the exercise of choice in the ordinary sense, where ethics stems from an amplitude of alternative possibilities governed by some metric of external consequences, but rather in the moral meaning of his actions under conditions where such amplitude is precisely absent and where the relevant consequences are not external but instead turn on a steadfast vigilance to the truth of his own being. The crucial lynchpin that connects truth and morality is the personal comportment that backs the act. It cannot rely on any alibis external to these considerations. By invoking the effect that Arjuna’s flight would have on the wives and children of the Pandavas, Gandhi associates morality not with a heroic condition but with the most commonplace facts of social life. It is striking that Gandhi should offer the mundane, almost banal social fact of Arjuna’s being a brother-in-law and an uncle as being motivationally crucial to his decision in joining such a momentous battle, which had the imprimatur of the conflict between the forces of righteousness and those of evil. The truth of the self, which Gandhi sees in Krishna’s guidance to Arjuna, is tied to these quotidian and arbitrary features of the self. They are meant to emphasis that the conditions of moral behavior reside in the mundane minutia of everyday existence.

Gandhi accepted the battlefield and the fact of violence as a quotidian thing that requires an exacting — and again quotidian — courage, while the tradition of Western politics identifies violence as an exceptional condition, but one to which it gives a permanent, albeit qualified, warrant. For Gandhi, the battlefield functions as the crystallization of a site that calls for fearlessness and courage, which for him was the essence of truthfulness and virtue. The demand for security is thus the demand of a deserter seeking to flee the battle, not prepared to sacrifice him or herself. It is important to recall that Gandhi reserved his highest admiration for sacrificial figures like King Harish Chandra, who was prepared to sacrifice his only, long sought-after son to fulfill a promise made to the God who had facilitated the son’s birth. Even the much-invoked king of Ayodhya, Rama, is celebrated as a quotidian figure, as a son, brother, father, and husband who was prepared to be banished and see his wife suffer and die in the name of duty. Gandhi seldom mentions the nature of Rama’s rule as a king or the privileged location of Ayodhya, the capital of his realm and alleged place of his birth. But he always singles out the quality of Rama’s sacrifice. As he made clear in his autobiography, Gandhi himself would have gladly assumed that role and would have allowed his own wife to die by denying the beef broth on which, according to the attending physician, her survival depended. Gandhi’s life is replete with examples of his own willingness to die. Indeed, it has often been pointed out that by spurning the police security detail that was urged upon him in the fractious months of 1948, he all but invited the death that ultimately felled him.

In Gandhi’s thought, the willingness to be sacrificed was paired with the requirement of absolute truthfulness, which Gandhi made of all satyagrahis. He stipulated that they had to be prepared to die without resorting to violence or killing. As Gandhi said in a speech on March 7, 1919:

Satyagraha was a harmless, but unfailing remedy. It presupposes a superior sort of courage in those who adopted it — not the courage of the fighter. The soldier was undoubtedly ever ready to die, but he also wanted to kill the enemy. A satyagrahi was ever ready to endure suffering and ever lays down his life to demonstrate to the world the integrity of his purpose and the justice of his demands. His weapon was faith in God and he lived and worked in faith. In his faith, there was no room for killing or violence and none for untruth.[12]

But even in this supreme demand Gandhi vouched for the ordinary. After all, the satyagrahis were ordinary folk, yet Gandhi thought them capable of the ultimate sacrifice, fearlessness, and courage that truth entailed, and that too without assuring them of even a hint of security. Hobbes in particular would have understood the full force and the contrary implications of Gandhi’s emphasis on courage. For Hobbes, courage was a passion that, because it inclined men to be indifferent to bodily wounds and violent death, also inclined them “unsettling the public peace.”[13] The virtue of courage, such as it was, was too deeply tied to the devoted integrity of the self for it to be given anything other than a disdainful authorization by a thinker for whom public order unity meant everything.

Nowhere was Gandhi’s call to sacrifice more audacious and controversial than in what he said he would do were he a Jew in Germany faced with the genocidal might of Hitler and the Nazis. Writing in November 1938 in the journal Harijan in response to letters that had sought his views on what was happening in Germany and Palestine, Gandhi responded in words that deserve to be quoted at length:

The nobler cause would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred. The Jews born in France are French in precisely the same sense that Christians born in France are French. If the Jews have no home but Palestine, will they relish the idea of being forced to leave the other parts of the world in which they are settled? Or do they want a double home where they remain at will? This cry for the national home affords a colourable justification for the German expulsion of Jews.

But the German persecution of Jews seems to have no parallel in history. The tyrants of old never went so mad as Hitler seems to have gone. And he is doing it with religious zeal. For, he is propounding a new religion of exclusive and militant nationalism in the name of which any inhumanity becomes an act of humanity to be rewarded here and hereafter. The crime of an obviously mad but intrepid youth is being visited upon this whole race with unbelievable ferocity. If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war. A discussion of the pros and cons of such a war is, therefore, outside my horizon or province…

Germany is showing to the world how efficiently violence can be worked when it is not hampered by any hypocrisy or weakness masquerading as humanitarianism. It is also showing how hideous, terrible and terrifying it looks in its nakedness. Can the Jews resist this organized and shameless persecution? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect and not to feel helpless, neglected and forlorn? I submit there is. If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German might, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance, but would have confidence that in the end the rest were bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant.[14]

Not surprisingly Gandhi’s words provoked an uproar of controversy and mainly of condemnation. But they deserve to be considered carefully. There are two broad issues that Gandhi refers to in his statement: first, that of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, and second, the German Jews response to the barbarity of Hitler. For Gandhi the two issues are linked, but I will initially consider them separately.

Regarding the second issue, i.e. the Jewish response to the Nazi racial laws, Gandhi’s suggestion was that were he a Jew born, bred, and earning his livelihood in Germany — that is to say, if he were a German in the most mundane social sense of the term — he would defy the discriminatory racial laws at the risk of being imprisoned and killed. Gandhi’s suggestion is implicit in the very question he asks. It is not how can German Jews survive in a corporeal sense, but rather how can they “preserve their self-respect and not to feel helpless, neglected and forlorn?” Gandhi would refuse to be expelled, that is he would refuse to be forcibly made into a deserter from the scene of the battle for self-respect. He would stand up to the tallest German gentile by refusing to concede that race, religion or law should define a homeland. He would act alone, but with the full confidence that his example would be followed by other Jews without his even advocating such concurrence; that is, he would refrain from transforming the singular moral act into a collective and strategic political act. He would even spurn the support of Britain, France, and America, knowing that such support would, at best, be for his security and not for the inner joy and strength that motivates and gives meaning to his action. Gandhi would act with a full measure of self-confidence knowing, as a religious man, that his God would not forsake him. And finally, as with his counsel to Arjuna, who had no choice but to fight, he would do all this without believing that his actions would leave the Jews any better or worse off with respect to the violence that would be visited on them.

Three years earlier in 1935, while writing about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Gandhi had made a similar point. He associated the strength of the Abyssinians with their deciding against armed resistance to the invasion and in making “no appeal to the League [of Nations] or any other power for armed intervention.” He went so far as to say that precisely by not offering armed resistance would the Abyssinians deny the Italians what they sought, which was not their land but their submission.

In each of these instances, Gandhi’s insistence upon self-sacrifice is free from the incalculable effects of its external implication. Self-sacrifice is literally an autonomous act (that is to say, self-legislated and indifferent to the world of appearances), though Gandhi would have resisted some of the Kantian connotations that tied it to a rationalistic absolutism. Like Arjuna, whose call to moral action was rooted in an everyday concern for the wives and children of his kinsmen, Gandhi, as a German Jew or an Abyssinian, would find his motivation for the ultimate bodily sacrifice in an inescapable and prosaic everyday reality.

There was, as George Orwell rightly noticed in his review of Gandhi’s Autobiography, something profoundly democratic in his exacting moral standards. One can easily imagine Gandhi being deeply impressed by stories of knights in shining armor performing acts of great valor and thinking that they were written for people like himself who hardly wore any clothes and came from the most middling of backgrounds. As an aside, I think Orwell placed the accent in the wrong place in characterizing Gandhi’s counsel to Jews living in Germany as a call to commit collective suicide. For Gandhi the difference between collective suicide and conscious individual self-sacrifice was nothing less than the former being a political and strategic act, while the latter was a moral act.

The other matter Gandhi refers to in his statement about the Jewish situation in pre-war Germany is the issue of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, but it captures his broader views on the sort of unity that a political homeland must evince. Gandhi was aware that in seeking a homeland in Palestine the Jews were seeking a national state anchored in the exclusive particularity of their religion. For Gandhi, those claims were similar to the Muslim League in its advocacy for Pakistan. He was confirmed in this equivalence by the frequency with which Mohammad Ali Jinnah (leader of the Muslim League and later the first Governor-General of Pakistan) and the Pakistani state invoked, without any sense of irony, Theodor Herzl’s pamphlet The Jewish State. But more relevantly, for Gandhi, the Jewish demand for their own state made the Jews analogous to Hitler and the Germans, whose ideology he identified as a form of exclusive religious nationalism. The demand for a Jewish state thus vindicated the exclusionary laws that mandated the expulsion of Jews from Germany or wherever they lived. The claim of exclusivity, when backed by a religious and national form, could not be squared with the idea of Jews being at home in many different places or wherever they happened to live. If the nation-state, with its assurance of security for its exclusive members, was the appropriate mode of existence for particular religious groups, then the demand for a Jewish state vindicated even the Nazi “inhumanity” that professed to be “an act of humanity.” If the appropriate destiny of human beings was to be organized into political nation-states, then the inhumanity visited on them to achieve this would, at a minimum, have considerable normative and political credence.

That is precisely the form of life that Gandhi wished to challenge. It is the specifically political sort of unity, the making of one people as a body politic, that Gandhi viewed with deep suspicion because he saw in it a concern with corporeality that could never resolve itself into a fearlessness that truth required; it was from the very outset concerned with the preservation of life and security and not with the conditions of moral actions. To the extent that such unity valued sacrifice, it was garnered only through a contractual relationship with a group of people specifically chosen for that purpose, such as those in the army and the police. It is worth noting that in Gandhi’s statement regarding the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine he makes no reference to the Palestinians who would be and were being displaced, though he knew this and in other contexts even wrote about it. It was not from a lack of sympathy for their plight that he did not mention them, but rather because that plight was extraneous to the main point he was making. To bring up the matter of the injustice of Palestinian displacement was itself to raise a political consideration, which the British were happy to consider in the context of the mandate in terms of some compromise or negotiated settlement. This was their preferred way of dealing with such matters, as the partition of Ireland had already proved, and as the later partitioning of India and the island of Cyprus were to confirm.

Gandhi’s point here, as elsewhere, was different. It was to draw attention to a kind of specifically political unity, which by its emphasis on the collective security of an exclusive group and the rigidity of borders and territorial markers that singled out that group, disregards the everyday conditions of truthful moral action. For Gandhi those conditions belonged to the unity and the diversity of the social, to the given conditions that people found themselves in, and to the places where they were born and where they lived and worshiped: Jews living in France or in Germany, Muslims who had Hindu neighbors with different dietary taboos, or Indians living in South Africa but who, as Gandhi said, “lived as though they were living in India” and hence in their everyday lives were indifferent to the vast distance that separated them from their native land. He associated the social rather than the political with the conditions that made truth and therefore moral action possible. Nationalism, by vouching for a different kind of community, displaced the moral imperative nestled in the contingent particularities of everyday life with an imperative in which one was to kill and die for the political community.


By way of conclusion, let me briefly return to Arendt and the question of truth and it relationship to politics, while keeping Gandhi in mind. At the end of her essay “Truth and Politics” Arendt considers what she calls the “standpoint outside of the political realm.”[15] For her that standpoint is associated with the philosopher, the scientist, the artist, the historian, the judge, the fact-finder, the witness, and the reporter. What they all shared, when described as such, was that they had no political commitment, no adherence to a political cause that involved human beings acting in concert in light of their ideals for a public purpose. Gandhi, I have been arguing, very self-consciously spurns a political orientation, but he does not on account of that recede from the public or from great public causes. Indeed, one might claim that he did more than any single individual in the 20th century, more than even Lenin and Mao, to bring the common man and woman into the fold of public life, on terms that were marked by a singular absence of hierarchy, prescriptive authority, and the condescension of political parties and elites. He did this while being deeply skeptical of the rationality that courses through modern politics — i.e. politics conceived in terms of the motive of fear and the redressing of corporeal insecurity through the medium of the unity of political power.

Just about everywhere that Arendt mentions Gandhi, she views him through the narrow lens of nationalism in its struggle with empire. In effect she politicizes Gandhi by association. In doing so, I think she misunderstands Gandhi by making him into an unusual version of something very familiar, namely a political actor — unusual only because he advocated non-violent means. Arendt was of course right in conceiving of Gandhi as a profound critic of the British Empire, but she did not understand that this was because of the form of power that the empire exercised and not because he thought there was something wrong in the British being in India or elsewhere. He did not. He made that clear. The British were welcome to stay. As late as 1943 he told the Viceroy, “This is as much your country as it mine, you live here too.” In his book The Atomic Bomb and the Future of Man, Karl Jaspers has a slightly different and more capacious take on Gandhi than Arendt. Even though Jaspers also accepts the postulate that “the essence of politics is association with force employed for self-preservation,” when faced with Gandhi’s achievement, he demurs to the interrogative form. Speaking of Gandhi he says, “He wanted the impossible: politics by non-violence. He had the greatest possible success: the liberation of India. Is the impossible possible, after all?”[16]

Nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, did Gandhi emphasize the importance of forging a unitary people obsessed with their individual and collective security. In all the ways that mattered to him the conditions for meaningful moral action were ready at hand. As he said, “The opportunity [for virtuous behavior] comes to everyone almost everyday.”[17] For Gandhi those conditions are diverse and mundane rather than exclusive, social and individual rather than national, attentive to the present rather than the future, and present in a space that is porous rather than well-defined. They involve an individual tenacity, self-awareness, truthfulness, and courage rather than idealism on behalf of a unified collectivity. Under those conditions truth can indeed be a virtue, exemplified by large numbers of individuals even while acting in concert.

Uday S. Mehta


[1] Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers,” New York Review of Books, November 18, 1971
[2] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics” in Between Past and Future (New York, Penguin, 1985) 230.
[3] Arendt, “Truth and Politics” 229.
[4] Ibid, 263.
[5] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett, 2nd ed. (London: Cambridge [Eng.] University Press, 1967), 367.
[6] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M Knox (Oxford: The Clarendon press, 1945), 208.
[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, ed. E. M. Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1994), 3.
[8] J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Introduction.
[9] I deflate the role of his actions because to understand them fully one would need to consider their surrounding historical context. That is neither appropriate to my competence nor to the specific purpose I have in mind. Gandhi deserves to be taken seriously as a thinker because that is what he was; he engaged with ideas as ideas. But since he was also a figure of great historical importance, it can be quite dissatisfying to ignore his activist and historical role. The two perspectives often pull in different directions. I think the best to way to deal with this is to acknowledge the fact or the charge and move on.
[10] Iyer, Raghavan, The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 222.
[11] M.K. Gandhi, The Bhagvadgita (New Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1980), 20.
[12] Collected Works of M.K. Gandhi, Volume 17, 324.
[13] Hobbes, Leviathan (Hackett), 489.
[14] M.K Gandhi, Non-Violence in Peace and War, (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 1942), Vol. II, 170 -172.
[15] Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” 259.
[16] Jaspers, Karl, The Atomic Bomb and the Future of Man, 35.
[17] Iyer, Raghavan, The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, op.cit, 250.

Amor Mundi

A Selection from The Hannah Arendt Center’s Weekly Newsletter

The Hannah Arendt Center

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The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt.

Amor Mundi

A Selection from The Hannah Arendt Center’s Weekly Newsletter

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