Book Review: The Essential Gandhi by Louis Fischer

I read The Essential Gandhi by Louis Fischer a few months ago.  But until a 10-day work trip to Africa and the Middle East, I didn’t have time to write down all the passages I had underlined.  They are many.  I had a hard time delineating his ideas into categories because they are so (not to be cliché) transcendent.


This book and the ideas of this man have greatly changed my personal point of view.  He was a significant force in the thinking of the 20th Century.  But, like Christ and many other great teachers, many of his ideas are ignored or ridiculed simply because they are too darn hard for us “modern” people to implement.  We justify this to ourselves by calling them quaint and outdated, but really we’re just too lazy to act on them.


Below are some of my favorite quotes (believe me; I could have made it longer).

Personal Goodness and Betterment

“[M]orality is the basis of things and . . . truth is the substance of all morality”


“[I]t went against the grain with me to do a thing in secret that I would not do in public.”


“My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words. I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. And I can now give myself the certificate that a thoughtless word hardly ever escapes my tongue or pen. I do not recollect ever having had to regret anything in my speech or writing. I have thus been spared many a mishap and waste of time. . . .  Proneness to exaggerate, to suppress or modify the truth, wittingly or unwittingly, is a natural weakness of man, and silence is necessary in order to surmount it. A man of few words will rarely be thoughtless in his speech; he will measure every word.”


“I think it is wrong to expect certainties in this world where all else but God that is Truth is an uncertainty. . . .”


“To conquer the subtle passions seems to me to be harder far than the physical conquest of the world by the force of arms.”


“[F]orgiveness is more manly than punishment. . . .”


“[S]trength does not come from physical capacity.  It comes from an indomitable will. . . .”


“The tacit contributor is not exempt from the retribution which must fall . . . , for evil is wrought by want of thought, and all who help in the working must partake of its harvest.”


“True sacrifice lies in deriving the greatest pleasure from the deed, no matter what the risk may be.”


“The slightest deviation from the straight and narrow path mapped out here would bring us down the precipice, not because the cause is at all unjust or weak, but because the opposition set up against us is overwhelming.”


“In trying to realize the false dignity of a false education, we have forgotten the true dignity of manual labor. . . .”


“[K]nowledge which stops at the head and does not penetrate into the heart is of but little use. . . .”


“Even a single lamp dispels the deepest darkness. . . .”


“The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me.  And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority.”


“Strength of numbers is the delight of the timid mind.  The valiant of spirit glory in fighting alone. . . .”

 “Constant development is the law of life, and a man who always tries to maintain his dogmas in order to appear consistent drives himself into a false position.  That is why Emerson said that foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of little minds. . . . 

“[A] devotee of Truth may not do anything in deference to convention.  He must always hold himself open to correction, and whenever he discovers himself to be wrong, he must confess it at all costs and atone for it.”


“I have never made a fetish of consistency.  I am a votary of Truth and I must say what I feel and think at a given moment on the question without regard to what I may have said before on it. . . .  As my vision gets clearer, my views must grow clearer with daily practice. . . .”


 “True morality consists not in following the beaten track, but in finding out the true path for ourselves and fearlessly following it.”


“We perish through our perishable bodies if, instead of using them as temporary instruments, we indentify ourselves with them.”


“The modern or Western insatiableness arises really from want of a living faith in a future [resurrected or reincarnated] state, and therefore also in Divinity.”


“[S]ometimes we have to pay too dearly for [compliments].”

Responsibility to our Fellow Man

“It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow-beings.”


“[S]ervice can have no meaning unless one takes pleasure in it. When it is done for show or for fear of public opinion, it stunts the man and crushes his spirit. Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.”


“My experience has shown me that we win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”


“How heavy is the toll of sins and wrongs that wealth, power and prestige exact from man!”


“Happiness, the goal to which we all are striving, is reached by endeavoring to make the lives of others happy, and if by renouncing the luxuries of life we can lighten the burdens of others . . . surely the simplification of our wants is a thing greatly to be desired!”


“Loyalty to human institutions has its well-defined limits.  To be loyal to an organization must not mean subordination one’s settled convictions.  Parties may fall and parties may rise; if we are to attain freedom our deep convictions must remain unaffected by such passing changes.”


“I am loyal to an institution so long as that institution conduces to my growth, to the growth of the nation.  Immediately I find that the institution, instead of conducing to [this] growth, impedes it, I hold it my bounden duty to be disloyal to it. . . .”


“[Whilst] we may attack measures and systems, we may not, must not, attack men.  Imperfect ourselves, we must be tender toward others and be slow to impute motives.”


“[Self-rule] is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.”


“Those whom we regard as wicked, as a rule, return the compliment.”


“[D]o we not arrogate to ourselves infallibility when we seek to punish our adversaries?”


“I cannot picture to myself a time when no man shall be richer than another.  But I do picture to myself a time when the rich will spurn to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor, and the poor will cease to envy the rich.”


“The only real, dignified, human doctrine is the greatest good of all, and this can be achieved only by uttermost self-sacrifice.”

War and Force vs. Non-Violence

“Was not so much valor worthy of a better cause?”


“Brute force will avail against brute force only when it is proved that darkness can dispel darkness.”

“[P]hysical force is wrongly considered to be used to protect the weak. As a matter of fact, it still further weakens the weak, it makes them dependent upon their so-called defenders or protectors. . . .”

 “[All] terrorism is bad whether put up in a good cause or bad. [Every] cause is good in the estimation of its champion.”


“[As soon as] the subject ceases to fear the despotic force, the power is gone.”


“I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary, the evil it does is permanent. . . .”


“History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul.”


“A friend says that non-violence cannot be attained by the masses of people.  And yet, we find the general work of mankind is being carried on from day to day by the mass of people acting as if by instinct.  If they were instinctively violent the world would end in no time.  They remain peaceful. . . .  It is when the mass mind is unnaturally influenced by wicked men that the mass of mankind commit violence.  But they forget it as quickly as they commit it because they return to their peaceful nature immediately the evil influence of the directing mind has been removed.”


“The science of war leads one to dictatorship, pure and simple.  The science of non- violence alone can lead one to pure democracy. . . .”


“War with all its glorification of brute force is essentially a degrading thing. It demoralizes those who are trained for it. It brutalizes men of naturally gentle character. It outrages every beautiful canon of morality. Its path of glory is foul with the passions of lust, and red with the blood of murder. This is not the pathway to our goal. The grandest aid to development of strong, pure, beautiful character which is our aim, is the endurance of suffering. Self-restraint, unselfishness, patience, gentleness, these are the flowers which spring beneath the feet of those who accept but refuse to impose suffering. . . .”


“[H]uman nature will find itself only when it fully realizes that to be human it has to cease to be beastly or brutal. . . .”


“To Britain and the Allies [of WWII], . . . it is a marvel to me that you do not see that ruthless warfare is nobody’s monopoly.  If not the Allies, some other power will certainly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon.  Even if you win, you will leave no legacy to your people of which they would feel proud.  They cannot take pride in a recital of cruel deeds, however skillfully achieved.

“Even if you win, it will not prove that you were in the right; it will prove only that your power of destruction was greater. . . .”


“It is folly to suppose that aggressors can ever be benefactors.”


Means and Ends

“[P]ure motives can never justify impure or violent action. . . .”


“Means and ends are convertible terms in my philosophy of life.”


“They say ‘means are after all [only] means.’  I would say ‘means are after all everything.’  As the means, so the end.”


“If we take care of the means, we are bound to reach the end sooner or later. . . .”


“[T]he means to me are just as important as the goal, and in a sense more important in that we have some control over them, whereas we have none over the goal if we lose control over the means.”


“[O]ur concern is the act itself, not the result of the action. . . .”


“[One] man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in any other department.  Life is one indivisible whole.”

Politics and Government

“Facts we would always place before our readers whether they be palatable or not, and it is by placing them constantly before the public in their nakedness that the misunderstanding now existing between the two communities in South Africa [or anywhere else] can be removed.”


“It rests with both [parties] to recognize that differences are not necessarily synonymous with superiority or inferiority and to patiently cultivate that spirit of self-restraint and toleration which . . . will . . . destroy the senseless rind of misunderstanding. . . .”


“It does not require much thinking to know that, under the operation of the brute law of force, the modern world is pressed down with the weight of misery and affliction, in spite of the vast system of organized Government and mechanical contrivances to make men happy. . . .”


“I should expect rulers to rule according to my wish, otherwise I cease to help them to rule me. . . .”


“[O]urs will only then be a truly spiritual nation when we shall show more truth than gold, greater fearlessness than pomp of power and wealth, greater charity than love of self. If we will but clean our houses, our palaces and temples of the attributes of wealth, and show in them the attributes of morality, one can offer battle to any combination of hostile forces without having to carry the burden of a heavy militia. . . .”


“It is as amazing as it is humiliating that less than one hundred-thousand white men should be able to rule three hundred and fifteen million Indians. They do so somewhat undoubtedly by force, but more by securing our cooperation in a thousand ways and making us more and more helpless and dependent on them as time goes forward.”


[The Viceroy, Lord Reading’s] religious and moral views are admirable and indeed are on a remarkably high altitude, though I must confess that I find it difficult to understand his practice of them in politics. . . .”


“There is no conflict between private and political law.”


“Submission to the state law is the price a citizen pays for his personal liberty. Submission, therefore, to a state wholly or largely unjust is an immoral barter for liberty.”


“[W]e must refuse to purchase freedom at the price of our cherished convictions.”


“[A] government that is evil has no room for good men and women except in its prisons.”


“[A] government that is ideal governs the least.  It is no self-government that leaves nothing for the people to do. . . .”


“[T]hat nation will be blotted out of the face of the earth which pins its faith to injustice, untruth or violence.”


“[P]olitics bereft of religion are absolute dirt. . . .”


“[N]o special legislation without a change of heart can possibly bring about organic unity.  And when there is a change of heart, no such legislation can possibly be necessary. . . .”


“[Man] cannot be made good by law. . . .”


“Governments cannot afford to lead in matters of reform.  By their very nature governments are but interpreters and executors of the expressed will of the people whom they govern. . . .”


“I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.”


“[D]emocracy and violence can go ill together.  The States that are today nominally democratic have either to become frankly totalitarian or, if they are to become truly democratic, they must become courageously non-violent.”

One Reply to “Book Review: The Essential Gandhi by Louis Fischer”

  1. Wonderful quotes! So many to comment on. Perhaps we should run a thread about specific ones?

    I especially like the two or three about democracy and violence being incongruent. I think Gandhi is absolutely right. There is very limited freedom when violence is an option.

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