The lesson of the last century, a lesson obtained through the ashes of millions of lives lost, was to not let the light of free thought be snuffed out ever again in the name of anything, be it race, nation, territory, language, religion.
The enduring figures – or the eternal forms – of humanity are made up of free thought and free thinkers. The eternal forms are not things stolen from a divine world, the way the myth of Prometheus would tell us. Instead, even the idea of stealing from a divine world, of making a divine domain for ourselves through the fiction of a theft, is one that we have ourselves forged. Thought takes time as it makes new forms and gives them endurance; for example, Darwin’s revolution has endured over a hundred years. Those who think freely and speak freely give history and form to this human world. The thinker relays what she made in the moment allotted to her to those who will come after her; this relaying of free thinking accumulates over time and adds up to a body of thought which encompasses our sciences, philosophies, arts. This relaying – that creates ideas and gives them endurance – is the very body of humanity.
The logic of thought
The figures might be the name of ideas – reason, geometry, constitutional democracy, computation, cubism – or the names of people – Aristotle, Einstein, Darwin, Al Gharizmi, B. R. Ambedkar. What are we, the people of this ominous moment in the subcontinent today, going to relay to those who will come after us? Which are the names and figures that we will hand over to those unborn, whose gaze we can feel on the skin of our thought, full of dread, and whose footsteps we can hear on the tympanum of our ideas, retreating from us? The weight of this question, even as it crushes us, tells us that we have no greater responsibility than keeping freedom (Azadi, Freiheit, Viduthalai, Liberté) alight, a lighthouse, an orienting star for those unborn who are coming towards us.
The lesson of the last century, a lesson obtained through the ashes of millions of lives lost in the wars and the holocaust, was to not let this light be snuffed out ever again in the name of anything, be it race, nation, territory, language, religion.
The declaration of human rights asserts that the species we strive to be through our institutions is the animal that thinks freely, the animal that thinks freedom, the animal that needs freedom to think in order to be. When compared to the primate that walked out of Africa several millennia ago, our species, defined by this freedom, is rather fragile. The institutions of humanity – the constitution, parliament, the courts, the university, the book shops – exist as shelter for this fragile animal, for thinking freedom. Other than that, there is no legitimacy for human institutions.
The lesson since 1945 has been that those who destroy this fragile animal will be punished. Their crimes are not protected by national boundaries, for those are crimes against humanity itself, against this fragile, free-thinking animal. The concentration camp guard who stands on trial today, toothless in his 90s, unforgotten and unforgiven, is a reminder of this stern lesson. Unquestioning obedience to superior orders – “Befehl ist Befehl” – will not absolve anyone from the guilt of seeking the destruction of this fragile animal whose protection is the sole raison d’etre of any institution.
The logic of action
In the early 1930s, Martin Heidegger, “the last universally recognizable philosopher” according to Alain Badiou, turned into a Nazi sympathiser and sought to spiritualise National Socialism. He tried to ground Nazism metaphysically on ‘resolve and action’ as against the paralysis of too much thinking. In his view, ‘Europe lies in the pincers between’ the alarming non-spiritualism of the communist Russia and the equally non-spiritual capitalism of America. Germany was to take a ‘great stand’ in this ‘darkening of the world’ or ‘the emasculation of the spirit’, in such a way that it could create spiritual awakening through a resolute German people who would act. Action-without-thought was the proffered solution.
This ‘solution’ became the savagery and destruction of the Second World War; the concentration and extermination camps were the finality of this unfolding solution. In an interview to Der Spiegel in 1966, Heidegger put forward an evasive apologetics for his ‘judgement: insofar as I could judge things’, but this was no better than the sympathy for ‘a puppy run over by a car‘ and was in no way an apology. He suggested that the prevailing mood of pessimism called for total mobilisation, and the politicisation of the sciences called for casting out traditional academic freedom; only once in a private exchange is he said to have admitted this as ‘the biggest stupidity of his life’, which is as bad as ‘the saddest day of my life’. In a similar TV interview in 1969 he shifted the discussion very cunningly onto Marx’s call to action in the 11th thesis on Feuerbach –philosophers have merely interpreted the world in different ways; now the task is to change it – from which he now distanced himself. He found that there was, and is, too little thinking in the world and that that is the root of the problem: an undertaking to change the world must be preceded by thinking; indeed, one must first understand this present world, and then also think and explain the meaning of the new world that one seeks to actualise.
Heidegger’s crime was not that he was not thinking but that his actions contributed to the taking away of the right to think freely from millions of humans on the basis of their race and religion. These humans, reduced from the free thinking animal to labouring animals, were further reduced in the concentration camps into wood for the Aryan fire. As we can see today, in the subcontinent too, our Aryans are envious of the arrival of a gathering of thoughtful and free young people (or ‘children’). Given their Aryan style of thinking, they can recognise these children only through their “immediate identity”. It should trouble us a lot, since the distance from being reduced to “immediate identity” to becoming ashes is not very much. That is the other lesson of the Holocaust.
The call to action that we hear around us is contrasted with democracy. That is, democracy is held to be too encumbered since it gives freedom equally to everyone to think; since it shares and relays thinking so that “immediate identities” break down; since it thinks too much and thinking leads to paralysis. This style of action-against-thinking characterised the birth of fascism. There is a minority of power hungry people around the world speaking in this form today – action-against-thinking – in Europe and the Americas, all the way from the stock markets to the war machinery. It is a good moment for the world to pause and think.
Further, the big lie is the mark of all totalitarian systems: to ‘repeat long enough the lie’ that we are in a state of danger and that thinking is a luxury that can be poisonous. The right to think freely alone can give us a conscience worthy of the free thinking animal. In the subcontinent, we are familiar with the tale of a man who stopped to think in the battlefield when faced with the task of killing his kinsmen. He thought freely, beyond the bounds of his caste rules and capabilities, and the weight of conscience which increases with thought made him put his weapons down and step off his chariot. The rest of the tale is about the removal of thought-driven paralysis so that there can be caste based action, bringing death and destruction. Gandhi was never happy with this reality of the tale of a man who silences his conscience and goes on to kill. So, Gandhi insisted that this ‘action’ did not take place, that the war was a fiction inside the tale.
Action and reaction
The ‘Aryan doctrine’ of the subcontinent is a very clever business. Freedom is not a matter of this world, of these mortal moments. The notion of having and needing the freedom to think is an illusion, we are always told. Instead, we are to have faith in the freedom that awaits us after death – mukti, moksha, nirvana. This post mortem freedom that cannot be experienced in these mortal moments is believed to accrue to us in proportion to our obedience to caste laws. So, the argument today appears to be the same as it ever was: Our ‘notional body’ is sick, its infection is nearly complete; it needs the critical care of the defence system and desperate remedies; do not go about feeding it whisky and beef. Or, when the only thing that matters is the physical existence of the national body, all of us should be nothing other than a hymn singing corps for military men. Language is only good for hymns and slogans now.
The word “action” has a limited and idiotic meaning in these instances. It means that humanity is only worth the repetition of its meals and ablutions. We should also remember that those who ask us to stop thinking and only act, do not believe that all actions are equal. They will never concede the following to be worthy of being called action: the letters written by a Dalit scholar who killed himself; the struggles of the students of the subcontinent to think freely and act freely; the labour of the kindergarten worker; the labour of the woman who stitched clothes to send her son to the university; the toil of the peasant.
The would-be Aryans are ignorant about action too. Let us note that only the free thinking animal acts and the other animal only ‘reacts’ with hurt sentiments. They proudly admit to this fact that they cannot catch that interval of time between stimulus and response in which one thinks freely and generates action. Is it not a fact that only the free thinking animal who acts is getting enmeshed in the legal systems of the subcontinent today? Is that perhaps why the criminals who vandalised court premises and assaulted journalists have not been found fit for trial so far? What is being called the acting animal today is a species of the reacting animal, created by each wave of fascism, one that is predatory and feeds like a parasite on those who think freely.
Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi are philosophers based in the subcontinent
Authors’ Note: We have borrowed the title of this article from Rohith Vemula’s suicide note. This essay is a scholium to two recent lectures delivered by Prof. Alok Rai, one in Allahabad on “The City and Culture” in November 2015, and the other in Delhi on “The Republic of Reasons” in February 2016.