9/11: Socrates, Machiavelli, Christ and Gandhi

By Anjum Altaf

A year ago, a post (September Eleven) on this blog used the story of Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, to argue that humiliation and injustice were powerful motivators for vengeance that can border on insanity. The post triggered an extended conversation that extracted the following central observation for further discussion:

It is not enough to give historical/sociological/political explanations for vengeful responses to acts of humiliation. These are important but one also has to ask simple questions like: If A insults B, is the best course of action for B to insult A or simply to kill A? What leads B to make a choice? In other words, one has to be analytic and moral as well.

I wish to explore this proposition in this post. My starting point is to assert that in an ideal world, the best course for B in response to an insult by A is neither to insult nor to kill A. Rather, the ideal response is to ignore A. The ideal response has a very old history and a very distinguished pedigree. Before his execution in Athens in 399 BC, Socrates is reported to have spoken as follows to Crito: “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.”

The reason why we don’t see the ideal response more often, or ever, is best given by Machiavelli:

“The gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation. The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”

This suggests that the simple question posed in the observation is too simple. It is too simple because it ignores the context in which the action and the reaction are supposed to take place. What happens when A insults B? What happens when B ignores the insult by A? Is A held accountable in the first case? Is B insulted even more in the second?

Almost everything depends on the nature of the context. And this is perhaps the reason that two seemingly contradictory sayings attributed to Christ both find a place in the Bible: ‘turning the other cheek’ and ‘an eye for an eye.’

‘An eye for an eye’ does not imply that B should insult A if A has insulted B. On the contrary, it points to a principle of retributive or compensatory justice. It suggests that if A insults B, he/she should be held accountable and liable to compensation equivalent to the damage inflicted by the insult. If the context enshrines such a principle of justice, then B can afford to ‘turn the other cheek.’ If the context does not enshrine such a principle, then ‘turning the other cheek’ would only leave B open to further humiliation.

The key inference is that one needs to ensure a context in which personal vengeance is unnecessary and therefore not tolerated. B needs neither to insult nor kill A because a system of justice, not B as an individual, would deal with A’s provocation. When Gandhi warned, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” it was a warning against a situation in which personal vengeance became the rule because an impersonal and fair system of justice was not there to protect the aggrieved.

The conclusion of this analysis is that morality without justice is not enough. This was Doctorow’s message when he showed how Coalhouse Walker exhausted all means of obtaining justice within the system before he snapped and entered the “mirror universe, with laws of logic and principles of reason the opposite of civilization’s.” A fair hearing at any point in his tortured journey would have averted the 9/11 of the fictional account.

We can concretize this with reference to a very familiar phenomenon, the schoolyard bully.  No parents would advise their child to turn the other cheek to the bully. Either the school would need to take care of the situation or the bully would need to be stopped by other means. Giving in to a school bully is often a stop on the way to a breakdown or a suicide.

Morality without justice is a recipe for the weak and the powerless to be stripped of their most fundamental possession – their dignity – as happened to Coalhouse Walker. This is a sacrifice that can be asked of no human being. Nor should it ever be.  Recourse to personal vengeance is wrong but it will be eliminated only when it is made unnecessary.


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 21:07h, 14 September Reply

    “If A insults B, is the best course of action for B to insult A or simply to kill A? What leads B to make a choice? In other words, one has to be analytic and moral as well.”

    What has been offered is a moral examination of the question rather than an analytic and moral examination. Certain assumptions regarding context have been made and then the moral analysis seems to follow. However, a more accurate analytic model of action and choice of action leads to quite different conclusions.

    I would urge you to explain first broadly how people make choices in any setting, not one of insults. Then one can apply the model to insults. It would take too long for me to go into its details, but broadly there is a set of choices available to the agent. This choice set comes partly from the external environment but is also constrained by one’s beliefs. If one believes one cannot do something, then even if it might have been externally possible, the agent will not consider it. Then there are various desires or wants or needs the agent has which enables him to rank the choices. For example, an agent may prefer a choice of chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream. If both choices are available and there are no other considerations, he will choose chocolate ice cream. Another element that is missing in much analytic work on choice is the perception of actions. When A acts in a certain way towards B, is it always clear that A’s action was really an insult and intended as such? The answer is not always clear. There are so many times we feel someone has insulted us but when the matter is clarified, we learn that the intentions were quite different.

    My main point is that in situations of insults and humiliation, the usual choice is not between ignoring it and retaliating or having recourse to justice. If the agent’s beliefs permit it, then there are usually many other choices available. In the case of the bully, one may try to team up with others so the bully cannot do his bullying any more; or one can try to get some strength by some constructive action like body-building so the bully is discouraged; or one can try to befriend the bully by offering to help with something he needs – e.g. his homework; and so on.

    Often, there are many choices available in the context. The context is partly limited by one’s beliefs. Usually, in life one can avoid the choice of retaliation by opening one’s mind to other possibilities of action.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:48h, 15 September Reply

      Arun, what happens if the perceived insulting behaviour continues after all other choices are exhausted? I think SA’s analysis is about that point of no-return.

      Are you saying that there is no such point? That there are always choices other than retaliation?

      I think that there is such a point after which vengeance is the only way out. There may be the exceptional individual who will see other options. But we’re talking about group behaviour here and as a group we don’t do that well. Our group morals are much lower than our individual morals can get.

      Take the case of Maoists and their recourse to violence. I suppose you’ve fully read the piece that SA linked to. Do you think that after all that has happened the tribals have a non-violent option with the Indian State? I think it’s rather easy for us to say yes, while we sit where we sit.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:56h, 16 September Reply

      Arun: Your final comment on the previous post in this series seemed to say that the argument was analytic but not moral. This comment seems to say that the argument is moral but not analytic. Could you elaborate on the difference between an analytic and a moral argument.

      I don’t disagree with you that the belief system of an individual has a bearing on his or her perceptions of the available choice set – that has to be taken as a given. But one would need to step back and ask what determines the belief system itself. And if one is oppressed to the point of having a very limited belief in the fairness of the context (imagine the situation of a slave or a poor person in search of redress in South Asia) would we start with protecting the individual or with building up his/her belief system?

      • Vinod
        Posted at 15:35h, 16 September Reply

        SA, I think you make a very good point here. The beliefs of an individual are not made apriori to the context. They are made in concert with the context. By context, I mean a prolonged state of affairs subjected on the individual. At the same time I don’t want to slide into complete relativism on the construction of beliefs either. I don’t know where to draw the line.

        • SouthAsian
          Posted at 13:41h, 18 September Reply

          Vinod: It is quite a coincidence that the latest (October) issue of Harper’s Magazine that arrived on the stands yesterday has some answers to your questions and is pertinent to our discussion. These are part of a review (Reappraisals) by Terry Eagleton of books by Tony Judt (Ill Fares the Land) and Martha Nussbaum (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities). We have discussed all three – Eagleton, Judt and Nussbaum – on this blog so I am also going to archive this review in The Best from Elsewhere section for continuity and easy access.

          We can continue the discussion once you have read the review. Focus on the following excerpts in particular:

          Like most liberals, Nussbaum has excessive faith in education, whatever the ills by which it is currently afflicted. She is more for changing attitudes than for changing institutions. But attitudes are rooted in material conditions, which is why treating children as uniquely valuable individuals in a society where they are destined to become unemployed or interchangeable wage slaves is not enough.

          Education should teach us the kind of inward sympathy with others that might stop us from regarding them as inferior, inhuman, or stupid enough to have their oil stolen with impunity. Yet conflict and oppression are not primarily about the breakdown of the imagination.

          The real clash of civilizations, Nussbaum insists, is one “within the individual soul, as greed and narcissism contend against respect and love.”  This is to reduce political issues to moral ones, and political questions to individual psychology.

        • Vinod
          Posted at 03:00h, 20 September Reply

          SA, I’d like to know how you see this review connecting with my question. My question is about people’s beliefs. The review too has something about people’s beliefs about ways of civilizational progression and the mention of the fact of its change since the 1970s. But it didn’t quite get into the dynamics of that. Perhaps that requires reading Tony Judt’s work?

          • SouthAsian
            Posted at 21:10h, 20 September

            Vinod: you can ignore the review of Tony Judt’s book. The relevant sections are contained in Eagleton’s comments on Nussbaum. You had asked where beliefs come from. Eagleton’s position is quite clear – they are rooted in material conditions. Therefore he is critical of attempts to change beliefs rather than institutions when dealing with conflicts. Also he is critical of reducing issues of politics to issues of morality.

          • Vinod
            Posted at 01:07h, 21 September

            Ah! Now I see. Thanks for clarifying. But Eagleton’s position is also a premise on which faith is placed similar to Nussbaum’s. The question is why is Eagleton’s position a better starting point to place faith on than Nussbaum’s.

          • SouthAsian
            Posted at 21:40h, 21 September

            Vinod: That is a valid question. I guess one way would be to think through and see which starting point accords better with your experience and observations. Do you recall the article by Latika Gupta (I am Hindu, You are Muslim)? It can provide a good starting point for the thinking.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 13:43h, 15 September Reply


    Often, all other possibilities are not exhausted by the individual or the group. Perhaps that happened for Coalhouse Walker – I haven’t read the novel and do not now remember the film – but in real life individuals and groups turn to violence without exhausting the possibilities. In the same situation, Bose turned to violence whereas Gandhi turned to nonviolent resistance and created a great alternative that has been emulated everywhere. We also have the examples of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

    It is easy to say that all other options have been tried but when the lives of innocent people are at stake one has to have tremendous responsibility in searching imaginatively for options to act nonviolently. In my view, Individuals and groups do not do this enough so it becomes easy to point to external factors like bullies and humiliation. This is also what has happened in the case of various school massacres like the Columbine massacre which was also a case of humiliation.

    I agree that group morals are lower than the morals of some individuals but it is also the case that group behavior is often driven by leaders of the group and these leaders are individuals like Gandhi and Bose. The group often follows the leader.

    I have read the entire piece by Roy. I have said many things about it earlier so there is no point in saying more. It was very wrong for the Indian government to kill Azad. The way it happened is a bit of a mystery. But Roy also concludes her piece by wanting to be a revolutionary and asking for some alternative to both capitalism and communism that is free of consumerist impulses. She is free to do so of course but it is again her beliefs that limits her imagination. She is unable to see any solution within the existing order and so criticizes everything in her sight.

    I agree that it is easy for me to preach nonviolence from the comfort of my environment but isn’t this what revolutionaries have always accused people like me of doing? In my view, the Maoist problem at heart is that the tribals do not have good and imaginative leaders. I cannot emphasize how important that is to solutions in politics.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 15:40h, 16 September Reply

      Arun, groups generate multiple leaders who posit multiple options for the group. It is only exceptional that an oppressed group generates one leader who preaches a purely non-violent way. As a group, muslims today have also generated the whole spectrum of leadership. The Maoist struggle too is only part of a spectrum. The ongoing peaceful struggles of the adivasis barely get any press.

      How long should a groups and individuals keep trying to look for such an option after which a recourse to indiscrimnate violence cannot be seen as a moral failure? A decade, two decades, 10 decades? I don’t know. I may very reluctantly still hold it as a moral failure but my sympathies will continue to be with this group that is fighting for its dignity.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:38h, 16 September Reply

      Arun: There is a certain loss that occurs when we cross domains. We started from Ragtime with a focus on individual response to humiliation and injustice, something that is squarely in the domain of psychology. When we talk of freedom struggles we are in the domain of politics where the considerations are quite different.

      In politics groups and not individuals make considered decisions about strategy, e.g., to resort to armed resistance or peaceful non-cooperation. These can be good or bad, right or wrong, but they are considered and calculated decisions. Many problems inhere to their ex-post evaluation. How would we judge if Bose had succeeded and Gandhi had failed? Mandela took up armed resistance but his ultimate success turned him into an icon. In what time frame do we make our judgement? Many contemporaries warned that Gandhi’s injection of agitation and religion into the freedom struggle would lead to a disaster. How do we assess that claim? We can also not examine the various strands of a struggle independently of each other. Did the spectre of Malcom X make Martin Luther King an acceptable alternative? We have gone over this ground extensively in one of the posts about Arundhati Roy.

      We are also dealing with cases of extreme and repeated humiliations without redress likening them to the straws that break the camel’s back. Obviously, the reaction would be different if one were in doubt if an insult was really intended or not. Life is a repeated game and people can make these judgments reasonably well.

      Individual humiliation, real, imagined or manufactured, can also get channeled into group violence. Bin Laden is the obvious example of how this works. Roy is not in the same category. She is not manufacturing the resistance. She is describing it and drawing attention to it. We can legitimately argue that both her analysis and her recommendations are flawed but that only points to the fact that the underlying situation that is real demands a better analysis.

      I am not convinced that the Maoist problem stems from the fact that the tribals do not have good and imaginative leaders. If every leader that emerges to represent them gets picked off in mysterious circumstances, I fail to see where the good and imaginative leaders are going to come from.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:29h, 16 September Reply

    South Asian,

    There is no universal agreement on what is analytic or moral as far as I know. My view is that an analytic argument is one in which the key elements that make up a situation are abstracted from the larger context and then these elements are assembled in a model and then analyzed to gain insight into the original context. This is a back and forth process. A good example is something like studying projectile motion in physics. Initially, one abstracts everything but a couple of things like gravity and mass and initial velocity and applies the laws of motion to see what happens. Later one may include air resistance etc. to enlarge the scope of the analysis.

    In my view, a moral argument is one in which one argues from some premisses and initial moral principles by applying them to some situation and then concludes with a judgment about whether some action or situation is moral or not, acceptable or not. The two types of arguments need not be mutually exclusive.

    By raising the issue of whether the beliefs are themselves affected by the context, you are engaging in the back and forth process between abstraction and context. In some contexts, the beliefs will be prior to the situation, in others they will be entirely formed by the context, and in general it will be a mixed affair. It depends on what one is modeling.

    Take the example of a tribal or poor person. In such a case, many of the beliefs may come from the context through the experience of oppression. For example, a Dalit may not have access to education because of poverty and so does not get a chance to form a richer set of beliefs. And so his choice set will necessarily be limited.

    However, I was referring to the kind of situation where people like Arundhati Roy and other middle class people with access to education and ideology have taken up a Maoist belief system. They are the leaders of the group of adivasis but are not themselves oppressed. However, they are using their limited Maoist beliefs to guide the adivasis to take certain types of actions. The goal of Roy and the Maoists is to overthrow the Indian state in some 50 years. This is utopian and extreme in my view. The previous statement is a moral conclusion without a supporting argument.

    Likewise, the state has also adopted a certain kind of belief system that is highly repressive in retaliation against this uprising. So both sides are approaching this with blinkers. This makes a political solution very difficult. The killing of Azad was a real blow.

    In my view, the whole purpose of this blog is precisely to enable readers to reflect on their beliefs and broaden them to become more rational and wise in their approach to various problems in the world by becoming exposed to different viewpoints that are expressed freely and in a friendly spirit. We are all basically enlarging our choice sets. I have myself learned a great deal by reading your posts and those of others and engaging in conversations with especially you and Vinod. I wish the Maoists and Roy and the Indian state were also to read your blog! They may learn a thing or two.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:39h, 17 September Reply


      Are all leaders of the Maoist movements outsiders?

      Roy does make the argument that outsiders do not just walk in and take over the leadership of the Maoists. The tribals are very capable of reasoning and making judgments themselves. The middle class outsiders do not automatically become leaders. I believe they actually facilitate the expression of exasperation in the adivasis through their knowledge of ways to fight the State.

      But this is a deviation from the subject of this post.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 15:37h, 17 September Reply

    South Asian and Vinod,

    I think it is best to leave the discussion at this level as the different aspects of this issue have been well highlighted. More of the same will not serve any purpose. I am partially sympathetic to what you are both saying though I feel it is extremely important to search for nonviolent options as I believe they are usually available especially to groups. Much of the very sad loss of lives could be stemmed.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:33h, 20 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I read Eagleton’s review but was disappointed. I feel he is making the same mistake all orthodox Marxists make: ignoring ideas and ideologies and focusing only on external structural explanation. Maybe Nussbaum is guilty of the inverse problem and focuses only on culture. I have said that both external and internal factors need to be considered and the context will determine what is external and what is internal.

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