Quaker Universalist Conversations

In Praise Of Gandhi: Technology And The Ordering Of Human Relations

This essay, like two previous pieces by Mulford Q. Sibley that have been published as QUF pamphlets, is a lecture left among his papers. As stated more fully in the introduction to Quaker Mysticism: Its Context and Implications (QUF. June, 2000) Sibley was among the founding members of the Twin Cities Friends Meeting and a long-time and greatly revered teacher at the University of Minnesota.

He delivered this paper before the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association at Chicago in 1976. Since he never revised it for publication, I have abridged it somewhat, taking out passages that were clearly intended for oral presentation to an academic audience. Not having access to all the sources he used, I have simply given the citations as he left them. During the 20th century, Friends were deeply influenced by Gandhi’s concept of nonviolent resistance as a tool for social and political change. They have been less sympathetic to his ideas on technology, although as Sibley makes clear, those ideas were rooted in Gandhi’s religious beliefs and in a testimony of simplicity not unlike that of traditional Quakers.

Today, nearly thirty years after Sibley wrote this piece and more than seventy years after Gandhi put his arguments forward, they seem more relevant than ever. Since Gandhi’s ideas were never implemented in India or elsewhere, one cannot say that history has upheld them, but the contrasting views of Nehru and other advocates of modern industrialism have been thrown into deep question by the devastating effects of industrial technology on agricultural and village economies worldwide. And as Quaker Earthcare Witness and other environmental groups are telling Friends, Gandhi’s urging that we restrain consumption, live more simply, and make greater use of plentiful human labor as a source of energy is worth a fresh look.— Rhoda R. Gilman

In Praise Of Gandhi Technology And The Ordering Of Human Relations

The debate about technology, economy, and politics was already an old one in the West when Mohandas Gandhi was born in 1869. In the Bible, for example, two major attitudes stand out: In the one, there is a tremendous awe of humankind’s possible achievements, and this is reflected in the divine command to the first man to have dominion over all living things.1 Great admiration for cities, the mythological technology associated with Tubal Cain, the powers exemplified in the construction of the Tower of Babel, and Egyptian technological achievements stud the pages of the Old Testament. Humans, it was assumed on this side of the Biblical tradition, were placed on this earth to subdue it and to go beyond, indeed to conquer, nature.2

But, as in most things, the Bible also reveals a contrasting attitude which is just as important. Human beings have a tendency, it maintains, to grow so enamored of their own capacity for techne, art or skill, that they leave the worship of Nature only to substitute for it the worship of technique, whether mechanical or social. Thus they attempt to reach heaven with the tower of Babel, only to be punished by a jealous God. Or they establish cities that become the seed-beds of crime. Complex economic and technological orders engage so much human energy that the purpose of life is forgotten and people become slaves to their own creations.3

In the classical Greek and Roman traditions, too, the debate reflects the two sides of technology and politics. There is tremendous admiration of such technological achievements as the Seven Wonders of the World and those celebrated in the myth of the semi-divine Prometheus. At the same time, as in the Hebraic tradition, technological progress is seen as filled with danger, for it casts a kind of spell on human beings and thus leads them to become the prey of forces that they cannot control. The fearsome punishment of Prometheus may be seen to symbolize the gods’ wrath at the tendency of humans to overreach themselves technologically. The classical view was echoed throughout much of the history of Western political philosophy down to the 17th century. With the development of the idea of progress, however, particularly after the time of Francis Bacon, cautions in the classical view of technology tended to fade and it came to be assumed very widely that technological progress meant progress in all realms of human existence.4

There were voices of dissent that included Jonathan Swift, many of the 19th-century Utopian socialists, Mary Shelley, and Samuel Butler; but in such predominant political philosophies as those of liberalism and Marxism, it seemed to be assumed that complex technology, while perhaps creating havoc in its earliest industrial phase would ultimately be reconciled with a just social order, either, as with liberalism, through a kind of automatic adjustment process, or, as with Marxism, through the inevitable development of socialism and then of communism. It is against this background of Western thought that we turn to Mohandas Gandhi’s reflections on technology and politics. He stands half-way between Western and Eastern traditions, drawing heavily on both for his ideas, yet in some respects being atypical of the predominant tendencies that led to the Indian independence movement. He has been known chiefly for his notions of satyagraha and ahimsa and many in the West have supported his argument for nonviolence in politics. But there was always a side of his teaching which led many in both East and West to deplore its co-existence with the conceptions of satyagraha and ahimsa. This side had to do with his economic, technological, and sexual views.

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