A couple of weeks ago, I decided that I was bored of reading about Plato, electoral systems and the Cold War in the Middle East, so I made a snap decision to buy a new (well, second-hand, to be precise) book. As I browsed through the shelf of second-hand books in Waterstones, an epic title caught my eye — Gandhi & Churchill by Arthur Herman. What a gem for an aspiring history buff! The Singaporean inside of me couldn’t resist the “two-in-one” deal, so I bought it immediately.
I haven’t finished this fascinating double-biography yet, but so far, it’s been an enthralling account of the two men’s lives, framed in the style of a “David and Goliath” duel. Throughout the book, Herman makes astute comparisons between the two titans. Their upbringing, family background, culture, personal convictions, temperament and other aspects of their lives were diametrically opposed to each other, but similar in more ways than we think. I like how Herman’s account appeals to our innate fascination with dramatic face-offs.
But as different as Gandhi and Churchill were from each other, one undeniable similarity is that they were both controversial figures. That shouldn’t be surprising — anyone who decides to swim against the tide of popular opinion and culture is bound to have both followers and naysayers. Both men were unwavering in their resolve, and they were simultaneously praised and excoriated for that. Both men risked their lives (and the lives of others), and they reaped rewards and suffered losses at the same time. You can’t reach that level of greatness without becoming divisive.
It’s easy to forget that greatness is born in the throes of hardship and sacrifice. Or rather, I choose to forget this inconvenient truth about greatness, because my human nature wants to reach the peak without scaling the mountain. (Now that’s achieving the impossible.) But needless to say, this is wishful thinking. I think Herman’s account of Gandhi’s and Churchill’s struggles is a good lesson about two aspects of greatness that we often overlook.
The Cost of Greatness
We are told that pride comes before a fall. But allow me to add to that — many falls come before pride. I realise I’m using “pride” in a different way — what I mean is that an individual can only lay claim to great achievements after he has shown that he can recover repeatedly from failure. That is exactly what Gandhi and Churchill demonstrated consistently throughout their lives. At certain points in time, they were two of the biggest failures in the world. At least they must have felt that way.
Gandhi’s civil activism in South Africa began in response to the prejudice against Indians that he observed and personally encountered. In 1906, he organised demonstrations of civil disobedience, or satyagraha (soul force) campaigns, in response to a law that required all Indians to register with the government (a law that he called the Black Act). For seven years, thousands of Indians were jailed and flogged for refusing to register. Gandhi was thrown into jail several times. In the face of such of such a heavy-handed response from the South African government, Gandhi appealed to his comrades to stand firm, but many of his supporters backed down. Still, Gandhi organised 3 satyagraha campaigns in total, even though no one would have blamed him if he had given up after the first one.
Alas, Gandhi’s efforts achieved very little. After all that effort, the Black Act wasn’t repealed, and after negotiations with the government, Gandhi decided to register after all. Of course, he attempted to dodge accusations of hypocrisy by claiming that he registered voluntarily, not because he was expected to. Nonetheless, many of his supporters called him a cop-out, and one of them even attacked him on his way to the registration office. He soon became one of the most hated men in South Africa.
The weight of guilt and failure was probably enough to crush a man’s soul. But not Gandhi’s. In the face of condemnation, he was convinced that his method of satyagraha would eventually conquer all injustice (as idealistic as that sounds). He continued leading campaigns of civil disobedience in India, without allowing past failures to hinder future success. He continued his interminable pursuit of Truth, and rallied millions of people to fight (non-violently) for their freedom.
Gandhi was not the only one to bear the burden of his cause. His wife, Kasturbai, saw him bruised and beaten many times and often suffered great humiliation. His sons, Harilal and Manilal, were never given a formal education. The life of the Gandhi family is a solemn reminder that greatness can never come without a cost.
The Greyness of Greatness
With great power comes great controversy. Gandhi and Churchill somehow managed to unite their nations despite dividing them at the same time.
For example, not everyone was convinced that Gandhi’s method of non-violence would help Indians achieve the freedom and justice that they wanted. There were other nationalists who taught that the only way to achieve freedom was to fight for it, which must have seemed like a reasonable proposition since repression is usually countered with force. Gandhi also conducted many “experiments” to strengthen his soul by curbing his passions and swallowing his human pride. One of his most controversial experiments was to sleep with naked girls to test his commitment to his vow of brahmacharya or celibacy. I’m sure I’m not the only one with raised eyebrows.
How about Winston Churchill? To most people, he was a war-time hero, a national saviour, one of the greatest Prime Ministers ever to lead Britain — in other words, a demi-god. But this is a highly embellished account.
Although Churchill was brilliant, decisive, unrelenting, and fearless, he was also arrogant, narcissistic, ruthless, and obstinate. As a young soldier, he yearned to be on the front-lines for the thrill of fighting in a war. He took pride in violence — after the Boer War, he proudly told his mother that he had shot at least 5 people. When it came to war, the stability of the British Empire was more important than the sanctity of human life. He was obsessed with war.
He was also a white supremacist who believed that Indians would never be capable of self-rule and independence. He once declared that the lives of 300 million people rested in the hands of the British. Of course, this was common at that time. But most people would balk at such a notion today. Moreover, as the Home Secretary in 1911, he demonstrated his Social Darwinian convictions in drafting a bill that involved involuntary sterilisation of individuals with mental disabilities. Fortunately, this bill wasn’t passed.
(Interestingly, Arthur Herman writes in a footnote that Churchill’s Trade Boards Law of 1909 was “eugenics-inspired”, because the national minimum wage that the law introduced was not a gift to the poor but a policy that aimed to push less productive workers out of the labour market. Sidney Webb, founder of the LSE, was an advocate of this: he said that the minimum wage was necessary to push “the sick and crippled, the incorrigibly idle, deficient in strength, speed, and skill” and other “parasites” out of the labour market, thus clearing the way for organised labour.)
Don’t get me wrong — the flaws that Gandhi and Churchill possessed certainly do not disqualify them from being revered as heroes of our age. It is not my intention to pass negative judgement on these two men, but to point out that greatness always falls within a grey area. Greatness polarises opinion — it is very difficult to conclude that Gandhi and Churchill were “good” or “bad” men, or that their actions were “right” or “wrong”.
The Cost of Greatness and the Greyness of Greatness. I think we all harbour thoughts of greatness. But it all comes with a cost and tremendous uncertainty. How willing are we to shoulder the burden of our beliefs in the face of opposition? And more importantly, how willing are we to constantly re-evaluate the rightness of our beliefs? Food for thought 🙂