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The Intellectual Evolution of Nonviolence: A Tentative List of Notable Figures

Nonviolence has a long history, both as a spiritual principle for our way of living, and as a form of resistance to oppression. "All religions discuss the power of nonviolence and the evil of violence," Mark Kurlansky states in the introduction to his book Nonviolence: The history of a dangerous idea. Nonetheless, he shows, most religions take a somewhat ambiguous stance toward nonviolence. Kurlansky discusses the place of nonviolence in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism, Judaism, and other religions. Common to all of these religions is the view of nonviolence as the perfection humans must strive toward, as a more evolved stage of human existence. For Gandhi, it is this "perfect stage" of nonviolence toward which "all mankind moves naturally, though unconsciously." [1]

Nonviolence has never been apolitical. Jesus rebelled against the violent norms of his society, as have all those before and after him who have stood up for nonviolence in practice and in living, and not only in word. The following is the beginnings of a list of notable figures in the intellectual evolution of nonviolence, including secular thinkers, spiritual figures, and those, such as Gandhi or King, who embrace both the deeply spiritual aspects of nonviolence and the social and political aspects of nonviolence as a tactic in achieving collective change. Please add to this list through the forum about the intellectual evolution of nonviolence. Post information, quotes, and references to other people and ideas that have shaped the trajectory of nonviolent thought and practice.

"Hinduism and Gandhi insist that nonviolence must never come from weakness but from strength, and only the strongest and most disciplined people can hope to achieve it." [2]

A Note: It is important to bear in mind that ideas are forged through action. Ideas are products of a context: the society, the social movements and events of a given time give rise to certain intellectual trends which individual thinkers and writers reflect. This list identifies certain individuals (and indeed, hundreds more names could be added to this list), rather than movements, only in order to share useful excerpts from their writings as a starting point for learning about the development of nonviolent thought.

Check out a timeline of nonviolent movements around the globe in the 20th century here.

Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563)
Boétie was a French judge, writer, and political philosopher. His most valuable contribution to the intellectual development of nonviolence was his elucidation that power necessarily depends upon popular consent. "Resolve to serve no more," he wrote, "and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces." [3]

Gandhi developed the line of thinking expressed by Boétie to an understanding that all oppression and exploitation is based on the cooperation of the exploited. Thereby, everyone can choose to not cooperate with their own oppression. Similarly, King understood that it is through non-cooperation that the system will bend. As Mary King, author of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.: the Power of Nonviolent Action, writes, both Gandhi and King's approach to the wisdom Boétie expressed imply a fundamental shift in how power is understood. In their conception, power belongs not only to the oppressor. Rather, power can be wielded by any and all, for the cooperation of all is necessary for any system to run. When one group chooses to withdraw their cooperation, the system cannot continue as it is. Their power is felt.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King were deeply influenced by Thoreau, an American poet, abolitionist, and philosopher, and especially by his essay Civil Disobedience. In this piece, Thoreau makes an argument for individual resistance to civil government that is immoral or unjust through refusing to cooperate.

From Civil Disobedience: "If [the legal system] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn." [4]

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Tolstoy on nonviolence (he often uses the words love and truth, which he understood to be synonymous with nonviolence) and its history among many religions. From "Letter to a Hindu":

"Amid this life based on coercion, one and the same thought constantly emerged among different nations, namely, that in every individual a spiritual element is manifested that gives life to all that exists, and that this spiritual element strives to unite with everything of a like nature to itself, and attains this aim through love. This thought appeared in most various forms at different times and places, with varying completeness and clarity. It found expression in Brahmanism, Judaism, Mazdaism (the teachings of Zoroaster), in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and in the writings of the Greek and Roman sages, as well as in Christianity and Mohammedanism. The mere fact that this thought has sprung up among different nations and at different times indicates that it is inherent in human nature and contains the truth. But this truth was made known to people who considered that a community could only be kept together if some of them restrained others, and so it appeared quite irreconcilable with the existing order of society. Moreover it was at first expressed only fragmentarily, and so obscurely that though people admitted its theoretic truth they could not entirely accept it as guidance for their conduct. Then, too, the dissemination of the truth in a society based on coercion was always hindered in one and the same manner, namely, those in power, feeling that the recognition of this truth would undermine their position, consciously or sometimes unconsciously perverted it by explanations and additions quite foreign to it, and also opposed it by open violence. Thus the truth--that his life should be directed by the spiritual element which is its basis, which manifests itself as love, and which is so natural to man--this truth, in order to force a way to man's consciousness, had to struggle not merely against the obscurity with which it was expressed and the intentional and unintentional distortions surrounding it, but also against deliberate violence, which by means of persecutions and punishments sought to compel men to accept religious laws authorized by the rulers and conflicting with the truth. Such a hindrance and misrepresentation of the truth--which had not yet achieved complete clarity--occurred everywhere: in Confucianism and Taoism, in Buddhism and in Christianity, in Mohammedanism and in your Brahmanism." [5]

Shrimad Rajchandra (born as Raychandbhai Ravajibhai Mehta) (1867-1901)
A dear friend of Gandhi's, Rajchandra was a Jainist philosopher who spent most of his life in meditation and wrote extensively on self-realization. Gandhi names him as one of the most influential figures in his life and thinking.

An excerpt from his most famous writing, Atma Siddhi, a Gujarati poem: "[The ever-existing soul] is always separate from all states or conditions. Manifest consciousness is its permanent characteristic." [6]

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948)
For Gandhi, as for Tolstoy and King, nonviolence could not be separated from God and spiritual growth.

"Ahimsa [non-violence] and Truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like the two sides of a coin, or rather a smooth unstamped metallic disc. Who can say, which is the obverse, and which the reverse? Nevertheless, ahimsa is the means; Truth the end. Means to be means must always be within reach, and so ahimsa is our supreme duty. If we take care of the means, we are bound to reach the end sooner or later. When once we have grasped this point, final victory is beyond question. Whatever difficulties we encounter, whatever apparent reverses we sustain, we may not give up the quest for Truth which alone is, being God himself." [7]

"Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence. Violence does not mean emancipation from fear; but discovering the means of combating the cause of fear. Non-violence, on the other hand, has no cause for fear. The votary of non-violence has to cultivate the capacity for sacrifice of the highest type in order to be free from fear. He recks not if he should lose his land, his wealth, his life. He who has not overcome all fear cannot practice ahimsa [non-violence] to perfection. The votary of ahimsa has only one fear, that is of God." [8]

"Man and his deed are two distinct things. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself. For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world. [9]


"The Rishis [sages in ancient India to whom the Vedas were originally revealed through states of higher consciousness] who discovered the Law of Non-violence in the midst of violence were greater geniuses than Newton. They were themselves greater warriors than Wellington. Having themselves known the use of arms they realized their uselessness, and taught a weary world that its salvation lay not through violence but through non-violence." [10]

"What was the 'larger symbiosis' that Buddha and Christ preached? Buddha fearlessly carried the war into the enemy’s camp and brought down on its knees an arrogant priesthood. Christ drove out the money-changers from the temple of Jerusalem and drew down curses from the Heavens upon the hypocrites and the Pharisees. Both were for intensely direct action. But even as the Buddha and Christ chastised, they showed unmistakable gentleness and love behind every act of theirs. They would not raise a finger against their enemies, but they would gladly surrender themselves rather than the truth for which they lived." [11]

In addition to the central influence of ancient Indian yogic tradition, contemporary Indians such as Shrimad Rajchandra, and historic religious figures like Buddha and Jesus, Gandhi was also inspired by Western examples and ideas.

In Gandhi's own words: "You have given me a teacher in Thoreau, who furnished me through his essay on the 'Duty of Civil Disobedience' scientific confirmation of what I was doing in South Africa. Great Britain gave me Ruskin, whose Unto This Last transformed me overnight from a lawyer and city dweller into a rustic living away from Durban on a farm, three miles from the nearest railway station; and Russia gave me in Tolstoy a teacher who furnished a reasoned basis for my non-violence. Tolstoy blessed my movement in South Africa when it was still in its infancy and of whose wonderful possibilities I had yet to learn. It was he who had prophesied in his letter to me that I was leading a movement which was destined to bring a message of hope to the downtrodden people of the earth." [12]

Other western influences upon Gandhi, as Denis Dalton writes in his book, Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power In Action, include the "precept of the Prophet of Nazareth, 'resist not evil,'" and the example of the …. British suffragettes." [13] Gandhi’s weekly issues of Indian Opinion during the beginnings of his nonviolent activism and organizing in South Africa "recount and extol the lives of Mazzini, Lincoln, Washington, and Lord Nelson as supreme examples of selfless sacrifice in service of their countries." [14]

Richard Gregg (1885-1974)
An American social philosopher, Gregg was "the first American to develop a substantial theory of nonviolent resistance." [15] He spent several years in India in the 1920's, studying the Indian Independence movement. From this starting point, he developed a theory of nonviolence. According to professor of American studies at George Washington University Joseph Kip Kosek, "Gregg taught American pacifists and social reformers that nonviolence was more than an ethical or religious principle; it was also a self-conscious method of social action with its own logic and strategy." [16]

Gregg saw nonviolence as a weapon and the practice of it as akin to that of war. "Though war uses violence, the effect it aims at is psychological. Non-violent resistance also aims at and secures psychological effects, though by different means." [17] Thus he believed nonviolence ought to draw on the "truths and virtues of militarism." [18]

"Undoubtedly, the sight of another person voluntarily undergoing suffering for a belief or ideal moves the assailant and beholders alike and tends to change their hearts and make them all feel kinship with the sufferer." [19] This was both physiological and psychological, he argued. "Hence the sight of suffering, in all probability, causes an involuntary sympathetic response in the nervous system of the beholder, especially in the autonomic nervous system." [20] In addition to the physiological response that nonviolent resistance creates in the onlooker and the opponent, there is a psychological effect as well: "we [the onlooker or opponent] wonder if we could do so well, and perhaps we even unconsciously identify ourselves with him [the nonviolent resister]," because "everyone wants, in his heart, to be strong and brave." [21]

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
King, like Gandhi, was clear that it is only through our cooperation with it that an institution of power is able to exercise control over people. Thus liberation lies entirely within our own ability to recognize this relationship and consciously change our interaction with these institutions.

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." [22]

"Five points can be made concerning nonviolence as a method in bringing about better racial conditions. First, this is not a method for cowards; it does resist. The nonviolent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests as is the person who uses violence. His method is passive or nonaggressive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent. But his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken…. A second point is that nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding… A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces. It is evil we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil… A fourth point that must be brought out concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns….Finally, the method of nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. It is this deep faith in the future that causes the nonviolent resister to accept suffering without retaliation." [23]

"Admittedly, nonviolence in the truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient at the moment; nonviolence is ultimately a way of life that men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim. But even granting this, the willingness to use nonviolence as a technique is a step forward. For he who goes this far is more likely to adopt nonviolence later as a way of life." [24]

"Nonviolence is like a sword in that it strikes with power at hatred and evil, both inside a person and society. It heals not by deliberately injuring another, but by stimulating and challenging conscience and morality. It thus heals in two ways.

In the first place, it heals personally. That is: like a sword, nonviolence confronts a man with the decision to face himself honestly. Many of my friends today have discovered that being nonviolent has dried up their internal anxieties; renewed them in their sense of life and purpose; changed their bitterness into forgiveness towards others and replaced their vindictiveness with active good will. There is a redemptive power in non-violence which blesses the devotee with a new sense of freedom and love.

In the second place, nonviolence acts as a sword that HEALS in our society. Today many achievements for the betterment of our nation have come because our society saw nonviolent resistance stand with dignity against racial hatred in Mississippi, Birmingham, and Selma. In 1960 only a few Americans considered the plight of the average Negro caught in prejudice and segregation. In 1965 justice and opportunity for all Americans, including the Negro, have become the primary domestic matter. And most Americans now feel that minority groups, including the poor, must be given a better chance. The nonviolent movement struck with the cutting edge of a sword and caused the emergence of a new more sensitive dimension of social conscience." [25]

"In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards." [26]


King spoke often of Gandhi's influence and example. "It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negros to protest with the creative weapon of love. As the days unfolded, however, the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi began to exert its influence. I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom." [27]

"When I was in the theological school I thought the only way we could solve our problem of segregation was an armed revolt. I felt that the Christian ethics of love were confined to individual relationships, I could not see how it could work in social conflicts. Then I read Gandhi's ethics of love as revealed in Jesus but raised to a social strategy for social transformation. This Gandhi helped us to understand and for this we are grateful a decade after his death." [28]

King said of Thoreau: "I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice." [29]

Frances Fox Piven (1932-Present)
Piven is a contemporary scholar whose helpful contribution has been her articulation of situations of oppression as interdependent relationships, an evolution of the principle voiced by Boétie, Gandhi, and King that oppression happens with the cooperation and consent of the oppressed. In her most recent book, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, she shows how people may act upon the power they already have in relation to their "oppressors." She uses examples from American history to show how people have mobilized change through using their collective power to disrupt the flow of "business as usual."

"Piven begins [her book, Challenging Authority] by defining interdependent relationships (capitalist and worker, the traditional husband and wife, civilian and government, etc.) and the power balances within them. Generally we perceive certain sides of these relationships to carry more power because of cultural interpretations about the importance of the roles differing sides play (for example the capitalist is perceived as having more at stake in a company and therefore deservedly more control than the laborers). Disruptive power is used when the underrepresented, oppressed side refuses to cooperate. A strike is a generic example. Such an action forces the capitalist to recognize its dependence on the workers and address their concerns." [30]


[1] Kurlansky, Mark. Nonviolence: the History of a Dangerous Idea. New York: Modern Library, 2008. 7.

[2] Kurlansky. Nonviolence. 8.

[3] La Boétie, Étienne de, and Paul Bonnefon. The Politics of Obedience and Étienne De La Boétie. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2007. 50-53.

[4] Thoreau, Henry David. "Thoreau's Civil Disobedience - 2." The Thoreau Reader. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. < >.

[5] Tolstoy, Leo. "Letter to a Hindu." Letter to Tarak Nath Das. 1908. Project Gutenberg. 6 Apr. 2009. Web. < >.

[6] Rajchandra, Shrimad. "Atma Siddhi." Amtech Infosys, 1998. Web. 05 May 2011. < >.

[7] Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. From Yeravda Mandir – Ashram Observances. Translated by Valji Govindji Desai (Ahmedabad: Jivanji Desai, 1935). 13. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 281.

[8] Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. Published in Harijan. September 1, 1940. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 232.

[9] Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. An Autobiography. 337. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 232.

[10] Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. Published in Young India. August 11, 1920. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 232.

[11] Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. Published in Young India. May 12, 1920. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 255.

[12] Tendulkar, Dinanath Gopal Mahatma. Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Bombay, India: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1960.

[13] Dalton, Dennis. Mahatma Gandhi : Nonviolent Power In Action. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Joseph Kip Kosek. "Richard Gregg, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Strategy of Nonviolence." The Journal of American History (2005) 91(4): 1318-1348 < >.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Gregg, Richard Bartlett. Psychology and Strategy of Gandhi's Non-Violent Resistance. S. Ganesan, 1929. 95.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Gregg, Richard Bartlett. The Power of Non-violence. Rev. ed. London: G. Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1936. 57–58.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Gregg, Gandhiji's Satyagraha, 50-51.

[22] King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Letter from a Birmingham City Jail." April 16, 1963. In Washington (ed.), A Testament of Hope. 292. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 279.

[23] King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Non-violence and Racial Justice." Christian Century. February 6, 1957. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 248.

[24] King, Martin Luther, Jr. Manuscript in Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 249.

[25] King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Row, 1958. pp. 84-5. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 211.

[26] King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Paul's Letter to American Christians." Sermon delivered in Montgomery, Alabama. November 4, 1956. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 211.

[27] King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Row, 1958. 84-5. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 211.

[28] King, Martin Luther, Jr. "His Influence Speaks to World Conscience." Hindustan Times. 30 January, 1958. Quoted in King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 211.

[29] King, Martin Luther. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Intellectual Properties Management in Association with Warner, 1998. Print. 14.

[30] Esbenshade, Shara. "Book Review: 'Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America'" World Prout Assembly. 14 June 2007. Web. 25 Mar. 2011. < >.

Last updated by Shara Lili Esbenshade May 6, 2011.


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