A Cautionary Tale for Americans

William Pfaff
William Pfaff; drawing by David Levine

In the early 1920s, during the first of his long spells in prison, Mohandas Gandhi read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Many of his British friends had recommended it to him; they probably thought it a useful book for Gandhi to read while confronting a powerful empire. But Gandhi was only partly impressed by Gibbon. He admired Gibbon’s marshaling of “vast masses of facts.” But, as he put it, “facts are after all opinions.” He claimed that his Indian ancestors had done well to ignore history and seek philosophical wisdom in the Mahabharata, the account of a terrible war that apparently occurred in India in the first century BC. For, as he wrote, “that which is permanent and therefore necessary eludes the historian of events. Truth transcends history.”1

What was this permanent and necessary truth of the Mahabharata? Certainly it had little to do with affirming the greatness of extinct empires and civilizations or even with historical facts—the epic, as Gandhi emphasized, was full of supernatural events. The truth lay in the Mahabharata’s portrait of the elemental human forces of greed and hatred: how they disguise themselves as self-righteousness and lead to a destructive war in which there are no victors, only survivors inheriting an immense wasteland.

As Gandhi saw it, there was no clear-cut good or evil fighting for supremacy in the Mahabharata. The epic depicted a world full of ambiguities, where the battle between good and evil actually went on within individual souls, and where human beings had to make their own moral choices and strive for virtue. Though unconcerned with facts, the Mahabharata taught the importance of an ethical life based upon individual self-examination. History, Gandhi claimed, couldn’t do this, certainly not “history” as it is understood today, “as an aid to the evolution of our race.”

Gandhi was right to suspect that history in the twentieth century meant something more than how the first great historians Herodotus and Thucydides had seen it: as a record of events worth remembering or commemorating.2 Many people in Western Europe, which had known a period of extraordinary dynamism in the nineteenth century, had concluded that history described humanity’s progress to a higher state of evolution—a rational process whose specific laws could be known and mastered just as accurately as processes in the natural sciences, and which backward natives in colonized societies could be persuaded or forced to duplicate.

The notion that history is a meaningful narrative of progress shaped by human beings existed in no major traditions of Asia or Africa. As William Pfaff pointed out almost four decades ago, modern Western culture had first “practiced the belief that the physical and social environment of man is subject to rational manipulation and that history is subject to the will and action of man.” It was the faith in rational manipulation that had powered the…

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