Most readers will be able to recall at least the general tone of public opinion during the period when Gandhi's activities first became a serious menace to the welfare of the British people. And if they do recall it, they will agree, I think, that in most quarters Gandhi was subjected to almost unqualified vilification. So far as that vox populi the Press was concerned, almost no language was deemed too strong for the denunciation of this 'Criminal lunatic' - to use one of the more charitable epithets in currency. The 'content' of the ideal (for that Gandhi was honestly following his ideal was seldom seriously questioned) was obviously treated at the period as of prime importance in moral appraisement. The fact that Gandhi's ideal was stupidly misguided (as was sincerely enough believed by most people) not merely detracted from his moral worth, but seemed sufficient, in the prevailing state of opinion, to brand him as a miscreant.
But what a transformation in the years which followed Gandhi's withdrawal (temporary, as it now appears) from the crusade which spelt so much inconvenience to British interests! Before many years had passed, that profound sense which abides in the common heart of man, though so often obscured by the clouds of passion, that profound sense of the imperishable worth of a life that spends itself in the quest of the ideal, manifested itself in numberless ways. A great Gandhi literature rapidly arose, almost wholly flattering. Studies of 'Gandhi the Man' appeared and multiplied, each vying with the other in doing honour to the Mahatma's nobility of spirit. Gandhi the Arch-villain was now Gandhi the Saint. Even the 'man in the street,' insensitive as he is to the less obvious, less external evidences of spiritual worth, shared in the general reassessment of the man who but a few years back had been the subject of his most extravagant flights of vituperative eloquence. And what, one asks, is to be inferred from this but that when the fetters of prejudice are loosened, and the moral consciousness is permitted to function in its purity, misguidedness of content is deemed as of no moment whatever? The travail of the spirit in striving after its ideal is, for the unperverted moral consciousness, the sole thing that matters.1
Let us take one other illustration, scarcely less striking - the contrast in the attitudes of the British public towards the individual German soldier during and after the War respectively. During the War it was more than enough for most people that the German was fighting for a bad cause. The fact that he honestly believed the 'bad cause' to be the best of all causes was tacitly accepted as irrelevant to moral valuation: if, indeed, it did not give a keener edge to the common reprobation, on account of the greater 'power for evil' which the 'idealisation' of the cause would create. Anyone who at this period ventured to suggest that, after all, the German soldier was only doing what he thought to be his duty, ran a serious risk of being suspected of 'pro-German' sympathies. But peace had not long been declared, the German soldiery had not long ceased to endanger British interests, before a markedly different public attitude set in. Free now to make a dispassionate estimate, our people speedily began to realise that spiritual values were not confined to the side of the Allied forces, that indeed the individual German who sacrificed himself on the altar of his ideal was no less worthy of honour than his British counterpart. The ideal was misguided: so it was still, at least commonly, believed. But any reproach that arose from that fact was now directed against the 'Prussian system,' not against the ordinary individual citizen who, inoculated with the 'Prussian virus' almost from birth, could do no other than believe in the supreme value of this 'misguided' ideal. In a word, 'content' was now accepted as immaterial for moral valuation, and anyone who still employed it as his standard was regarded - very rightly - as a Philistine and a Jingo.
1 It will be noticed that the point of the present illustration receives confirmation from the swing back of the pendulum of public opinion which has now taken place, following upon Gandhi's renewed interest in 'twisting the lion's tail'.
Of course there were honourable exceptions, both in the case of Gandhi and in the case of the German troops, to the common execration called forth by their 'misguided' activities. And it seems to me, when we look at it closely, a somewhat significant fact that perhaps the most notorious exception in the latter case was the combatant soldier. As a rule our soldiers went overseas burning with moral indignation against the 'Hun.' But, save with the coarser spirits, this attitude of personal hatred and condemnation was seldom able to survive - even though conviction remained that the opponent's 'cause' or 'content' was misguided. Examples of signal devotion to their cause within the enemy ranks called forth honour and respect almost precisely as did similar examples within our own ranks. 'Devotion to ideal' was everything, the concrete content of the ideal counted for nothing. I say the fact is significant because, although there were minor contributing influences, by far the profoundest reason for this attitude was just, I believe, that the conditions prevailing in the line were uniquely favourable to the unperverted functioning of the moral consciousness. Doubtless, indeed, these men had more to lose than anyone else from the 'misguided content' of the enemy's ideal. But the bias which this might otherwise engender would be far more than compensated by another circumstance. When men are living from day to day on the very brink of Eternity, not only are they forced back upon ultimate spiritual issues, but, further, their thoughts are little likely to be coloured by the comfortable self-deceptions and hypocrisies of ordinary 'civilised' life. It is Truth, and Truth only, that can avail them now. Against the background of Eternity the paltry passions of a day dwindle into insignificance, and become impotent to warp the vision and distort the judgment. Men look upon the stark elemental realities of human existence with eyes unscaled. And it is, I think, just because the circumstances of the man in the line were in this way favourable to an intenser and more penetrating spiritual insight, to a more than usually pure functioning of the moral consciousness, that 'concrete content' was, in his judgment, of no account as against 'devotion'
The two illustrations I have offered are, as it were, historic. But everyone can furnish a host of other instances from the stock of his own experience, all pointing to the same conclusion. In our most sober and dispassionate judgments, where it is reasonable to assume that the moral consciousness functions in its purest integrity, it is, I submit, the inner heart of conduct, the spiritual striving, that is our sole concern.
And I would remind the reader of a consideration to which passing allusion has already been made. Upon what principle does a man pass moral judgment upon himself, upon the one person whose conduct is known to him in any accurate and complete manner? Does he ever censure himself for what he may now see to have been 'misguided' ideals animating past conduct? Only, surely, where he is clear that these ideals would have been more intelligent if he had not been insufficiently earnest in his moral thinking. Is it really doubtful that the one thing, in the last resort, that he feels to be shameful in him and deserving of moral censure, is failure to act up to his ideal, in at least a reasonable approximation? And, correspondingly, that the one thing which he values in himself, which exalts him in his self-respect, is the effort, the energising, whereby he has overcome the 'path of least resistance' beloved of the natural man in him, and drawn nearer to the man he feels he ought to be? And if this be the criterion we use for ourselves, as it surely is in all self-searching that is honest and serious of purpose, why should we suppose a different criterion to be applicable to others?