English Writings of D V Gundappa - 8

This article is part 8 of 12 in the series English Writings of D V Gundappa

Volume Five (1949–1952) [1]

DVG was an ardent devotee of literature. He laid great emphasis on the study of classics. After founding the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, he formed a weekly study circle to promote the study of classics in various genres and disciplines such as poetry, culture, history, economics, political science, and philosophy. Plato’s Dialogues was among the first batch of such classics. Socrates and Plato had an enduring influence on DVG. He firmly believed in Lowes Dickinson’s observation that “to read Plato … is to discuss our own problems without the exasperation caused when we are, as it were, embedded in them.”[2]

            In his introduction to the study of Dialogues, DVG presented an analytical abstract of the Socratic method:

Each [dialogue] opens with a question and carries forward the argument up to a point, but does not conclude it. Various points of view are stated and relevant considerations are indicated; but the positive outcome of the discussion is generally the recognition of the difficulty of the question and the need for a re-examination of the answers current. The re-examination leads to a modification of the position first taken and there is a further examination of the new position. This attitude is the heart of the Socratic method. There is a constant remembrance of the fallibility of man’s knowledge and reasoning and the consequent need for a fresh search and a fresh verification … Avoidance of fanaticism and openness of the mind to new light are the distinguishing marks of the man who in his soul is anxious to see the truth of the matter in question and find his way to the right by the light of that truth. (p. 7)

Speaking of the work cut out for a philosopher, he explained the nature of truth and goodness in a tenor consistent with the greatest teachings of Indian philosophy:

The good can never be viewed as apart from the true. A thing that appears good just for a minute or an hour or a day is no good at all. It may turn bad in another second. What is felt as good in one part of our life may come to be counted an evil in another part. What is good to the tongue may be harmful to the teeth. Good and bad being such evanescent things and so mixed up in this world, can there at all be a good which is unmixed and enduring and incorruptible and unchangeable? Is there some good which, being co-existent with truth, can last for all times? It is significant that Sanskrit has the same word for the truly good as well as for the truly existent. That word is Sat. Sat is both eternal being and indestructible good. The supremely true is the supremely good. (pp. 9–10)

DVG invariably tinges his writings on various subjects with the historical perspective owed to them. This, he believed, places the issues in their native coordinates and gives us the correct metric to appraise their worth. Guided by this vision, he outlined the dynamics of the time when Plato wrote his treatise:

Plato came into the world with a sensitive, keen and vigorous mind; and it was a world full of stimuli for a mind so endowed. There were in particular three circumstances in it which could not but rouse and vex a heart and conscience so susceptive to environment as Plato’s: (1) after-war demoralization of the public, (2) vogue of the Sophists, (3) pervertible laws and polity. (p. 12)

               Altogether, the time of Plato’s youth was a time of great tribulation of spirit for the people of Athens. Their faith in their old institutions had broken down. But no new faith was there to take its place. The collapse of tradition is for a people like the collapse of the long-accustomed ancestral dwelling-house for a family. They feel cut off from the world. They are like strangers where they once were native inhabitants. They are like people stranded on a desert island of which they had never heard. Such was the world that Plato saw around him. (pp. 14–15)

This approach to the study and exposition of a subject drove DVG to describe the early history of America in one of the essays (p. 66). He intended this as a backdrop to the analysis of the American constitution.

            Why did Plato record his memories and impressions of Socrates in the form of dialogues? What does the form have to do with the content? DVG answers these questions by listing the advantages of the dialogue as a literary form:

First, the dialogue form makes the argument interesting as though it were a clash between two living personalities. It creates a stirring human atmosphere around the subject. Each question is met by an answer; and there come in objections and new points to revive attention when the talk tends to become tiresome or boring. All this gives an air of actuality to the dialogue. Secondly, the dialogue shows a point as looked at from a number of angles. It is as though an idea were put into a glass bottle and shaken and turned this way and that and looked at now from this side and now from that. As there are a number of interrogators, each of them attacks the idea from his own point of view so that, in the result, all possible aspects of the idea are brought under examination (p. 20) …  That is the medium adopted by our ancients in India. We see it in some of the Upanishads, notably in the Brhadaranyaka and the Chandogya and the Taittiriya. We see it also in the great samvada episodes in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata. Remember the great Bhagavadgita itself. It is a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. So, where the thought is abstract and involved and a constant reviewing and revising of it is called for, the dialogue form is preferred. Its disadvantage is that it does not furnish you with conclusive definitions and maps of topic sequence. (p. 21)

DVG’s profound understanding of philosophy enabled him to make a distinction between ‘defining’ and ‘understanding.’ While he understood well the need for definitions, he recognized the necessity of common sense in supplementing and substantiating them:

We must be content with such definitions as the dictionaries furnish, and for the rest depend upon our common sense and our familiarity with the established idiom of the language. We may not be able to give a self-sufficient definition of the word “man.” But we all recognize a man readily when we see one. That is the way with understanding. And understanding is any day much more important than defining. Plato’s purpose is to help us to understand. (pp. 21–22)

Explaining Plato’s conception of the State as an ‘organized community,’ DVG underlines its role in securing the collective good, in reinforcing the nobler impulses of people:

A State requires the commingling of lives for their common objects and therefore the commingling of qualities of a number of people. Then, as a result of that mixture, social good or the good which the State aims at is not a simple element, but a compound of many elements. It is no one man’s good. It is for each man a fraction of what is (or is taken to be) for the good of the whole people. Each man’s notions of the good are merged in and modified by the similar notions of the other people. Similarly, the good that the State can do to us is a good not conceived of or contributed by any single individual, but one determined by the entire citizen-body, hundreds and thousands of people each contributing his best to the good of all, possessing varieties of merit and varieties of excellence. (p. 24)

Speaking of the famous treatise Representative Government, DVG summarizes John Stuart Mill’s position on the role of traditional practices in determining the success of a constitution:   

It would be a great mistake in any legislator not to shape his measures so as to take advantage of … pre-existing habits and feelings, when available. On the other hand, it is an error to elevate these mere aids and facilities into necessary conditions. People are more easily induced to do, and had more easily, what they are already used to; but people also learn to do things new to them. Familiarity is a great help; but much dwelling on an idea will make it familiar, even when strange at first. (p. 28)

DVG had the impeccable knack for reconciling seemingly divergent ideas such as tradition and modernity, order and progress, precept and practice. This empowered him to maintain a cheerful glow and plough on even in the face of the grimmest of circumstances. His explanation of order and progress as mutually complementary concepts is eternally relevant:

Order is a settled arrangement. It is a body of rules of conduct which all accept and carry out normally and which, when violated by anyone, all are agreed in submitting the violator to the judgment of an appointed authority. In other words, order consists in a system of obedience to a generally recognized authority and well-established rules of conduct. This makes for social stability and security for the individual … Progress may be defined as a continuous search and striving after a better state of affairs than that we find ourselves in at any given moment. It is a continuous process of becoming something better than we are … If we aim at improvement, we must first feel sure that what good such as we already possess is preserved. To speak in the banker’s language, progress or new improvement is in the nature of an interest or dividend secured on the basis of the principal made up of the conditions of order. For progress, thus, order is a prerequisite. (pp. 32–33)

Because DVG held his thumb over the pulse of a wide range of subjects, he could correctly assess the potential of a field of study even in its fledgling stage. Speaking of Jeremy Bentham’s conception of utilitarianism, he implores us not to be hasty in jettisoning a concept:

A doctrine takes time to grow and evolve; and we would misjudge it if we focussed attention on its first articulation. We should rather look at its general drift and tenor if we would be fair to it. (p. 35)   

DVG was never tired of reiterating, clarifying, and reaffirming certain fundamental tenets. He was fond of expounding on philosophy as a ‘study of values,’ much in the same way as Prof. M. Hiriyanna. In one of the essays, he explains the ineluctable role that a point of reference – mainly, the ultimate point of reference – plays in analyzing philosophical questions. There is an urgent need for us to understand this, because today reckless efforts are being made to abandon and ridicule all standards of reference:

It [philosophy] is a study of the rationale of arrangements; and rationale involves an appreciation of the relative values of the things concerned. Appreciation involves a grading of things as higher and lower and as enduring and ephemeral; and this discrimination implies a standard or measurement of value. The standard can be formulated only if there is a fixed, definite and generally accepted point of reference. What is the ultimate point of reference in questions of the good and the bad among the things desirable for life? What is the principle by which we should judge of a kind of relationship or a pattern of behaviour as to its rightness or wrongness? Such are the questions which a philosophy has to answer. (p. 38)

[1] The fifth volume of Selected Writings of D. V. Gundappa contains an essay that gives an overview of the first four volumes of the series. The present essay is in continuation to it and introduces the material published in volumes five and six.

[2] Plato and his Dialogues (p. ix)

Nadoja S R Ramaswamy introduced me to the nuances of editing and provided incredible insights into the personality and works of D V Gundappa. Shatavadhani R Ganesh breathes life into all my activities. Sandeep Balakrishna patiently polished my prose and offered valuable suggestions to shore up the observations in this essay. I owe an immense debt of gratitude to all of them.

To be continued.




Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature and philosophy.

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