Friday, December 1, 2006

The value of dreaming

The value of dreaming
By Narendra Luther

While most of us accept the given order of things, some of us dream about changing that. Most of those dreamers keep on dreaming or venting their ire in cocktail parties or other small gatherings. Only a handful has the courage and tenacity to go out in the field and fight for improving the ‘sorry scheme of things’ around them. They make history. Some do so by taking up the pen and writing about issues and exhorting people to action. They thus mobilize public opinion. Others, either in tandem with such people or through direct action, proceed to change them by going to the public. They suffer no doubt in their fight against the ‘vested interest’ – people who believe in the rightness of the given system and are often its beneficiaries. Some of those who try to change the landscape fail. Some of them die before they can succeed. But their struggle does not go in vain. Others rise after them, stand on their shoulders and build up further. And one day things change.

Field of action

It has happened in the world of ideas, in social and political institutions, in the field of physical knowledge and in the realm of faith. The last phenomenon gave rise to various religions and sects and this process is not yet over. Every new idea begins as a heresy and ends up as an orthodoxy. The revolutionaries of yesterday become the reactionaries of today. Rebels against oppression of yesterday are the perpetrators of oppression of today or tomorrow. So the cycle starts again. The German philosopher Hegel believed that reality unfolds itself through ‘dialectical idealism’. According to that, an idea or a movement can be considered a thesis. Since it does not contain the whole truth, it gives rise to its opposite – antithesis. Out of this clash of two opposing ideas, a ‘synthesis’ emerges. In due course this synthesis itself becomes a thesis and the old cycle starts. But that is an upward moving cycle or a spiral. That is how all progress takes place. Karl Marx ‘applied the concept to the material world and called it ‘dialectical materialism’. Alongside, he propounded the concept of class struggle. Out of that was born the theory of communism. That is a state of society in which every one would work according to his capacity and get according to his need. It was a beautiful promise which changed the politics of the whole world and various practical suggestions made by Marx were tried out in a large number of countries in the last 150 years. Yet, the system built upon the thesis and its diluted versions collapsed within seven decades.

The elements of his philosophy however, still continue to inspire people all over the world. Marx also denounced private property and religion. Two millennia before that Plato the Greek philosopher had outlined the contours of his ideal ‘Republic’ in which even private family was abolished. There have been other philosophers in different times and climes who adumbrated a variety of ideas affecting social organizations and established modes of thought and worship. At one time slavery was an accepted part of social set up. Nero wanted to abolish it because he was in love with one, but could not. Eighteen centuries later Abraham Lincoln unleashed a civil war and accomplished that in the U.S. Yet segregation against blacks was removed only about a century later because of the courage of Martin Luther-King and the physical force of the federal government under a progressive President. Nero could not suppress the rising tide of Christianity. Mahatma Gandhi was not the first or the only one to campaign against untouchability. Different philosophers and social activists raised their voices against the evil practice since times immemorial. He succeeded in the case of leprosy but only partially in the case of untouchability. Thanks to the campaign of another thinker and activist, Ambedkar, its abolition got enshrined in the fundamental rights in the Constitution of free India. Yet it persists, as does the practice of child marriage and sati. Some ‘evils’ take time to be rooted out but a beginning is important and gives hope. The British philosopher and politician Edmund Burke warned people that for evil to succeed it is enough if good men do nothing. Yet on every issue you will find people not only sharply divided in two opposing camps but also those who are neutral or just don’t do or say anything out of discretion or inertia. Burke made that observation in the context of the French Revolution of 1789. That was born out of the oppression of the ancient regime and the writings of philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau. The slogan of the revolution was ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. Yet within a decade it ended up in anarchy and the rise of Napoleon who became the emperor of France and launched a series of wars to deprive the people of other countries of Europe of their life and liberty – the values which the Revolution enunciated.

A human trait

Examples of ideas and those who propounded or held them can be multiplied. The point I wish to make is that it is good to be idealistic – that is to have some anchor in some idea and a society based on ideals. The mission may never be completed in one’s lifetime, but a legacy will be left behind for others to cherish and to follow. That is the one distinguishing mark between humans and animals. Human can think and they should do so to try to find whether the existing situation can be improved. As sentient humans we need to look at the nature of things and conditions and to decide whether we are condemned to live with them or we can discard some and devise other, better ways, other mechanisms and institutions. Only such inquisitive and restless minds have led to new inventions and discoveries. They have the potential of liberating us from the daily drudgery of mechanical repetition of soulless tasks and providing the possibility of the development of our mental and spiritual life. Whether we do it or not is another matter. Plato described those human beings who did not indulge in the luxury of ideas as ‘happy pigs in a sty’. But if some one’s happiness lies in putting his snout in a sty, should we force him to be better?

Ideas are discomforting. They disturb social equipoise. They threaten the given order of things. They expose their host to unforeseen consequences. They rouse the status quoists to the defense of their cherished heritage of orthodoxy which, as George Orwell put it, is ‘not thinking’. It is comfortable. That is one way of living a safe life in which you don’t leave any fingerprints or footprints. You will never be pursued or caught, never cursed or blessed, crowned or crucified. You will ‘pass gentle into the good night’.

The choice is yours.


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