“What Do You Think of Western Civilization?” “I Think It Would Be a Good Idea”

Mohandas Gandhi? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mahatma Gandhi is credited with a brilliantly acerbic remark made in response to a question from a self-satisfied journalist:

Journalist: What do you think of Western civilization?
Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any solid citations for this sharp exchange. The best I have located is second-hand information in the 1970s. Is there any good support for this quote?

Quote Investigator: Mohandas Gandhi died in 1948, and the earliest evidence QI has located appeared many years later in January 1967. The Seattle Times newspaper stated that the exchange was mentioned in a television documentary on a major U.S. network. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1967 January 23, Seattle Times, “Ad Paid Off For Swedish Beauty” by C. J. Skreen, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

Quote of the week from the superb C.B.S. documentary, “The Italians”: Mahatma Gandhi, on being asked, “What do you think of Western civilization?,” was reported to have answered, “I think it would be a good idea”.

According to the website of the Paley Center for Media the documentary “The Italians” was broadcast as a CBS News Special on January 17, 1967. The program was adapted from a book, and the author acted as the host:[ref] The Paley Center for Media website, Webpage on documentary: CBS News Special: The Italians (TV), Broadcast Date: January 17, 1967 Tuesday 10:00 PM, Running Time: 1:00:00, Color/B&W: Color, Executive Producer: Perry Wolff, Producer: Bernard Birnbaum, Adapted by: Luigi Barzini. (Accessed paleycenter.org on April 23, 2013) link [/ref]

A documentary freely adapted from Luigi Barzini’s book “The Italians.” Barzini presides over a selective tour of Italy, discussing the Italian people, their culture, customs, and history.

In September 1967 the dialog was disseminated in the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest. The words were once again connected to a documentary on CBS:[ref] 1967 September, Reader’s Digest, Answer Men, (Set of five miscellaneous quotations), Page 52, Volume 91, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm) [/ref]

MOHANDAS GANDHI was once asked: “What do you think of Western civilization?” “I think it would be a good idea,” he replied.
— CBS News Special, “The Italians”

Here are additional selected citations and commentary.

In 1968 a collection containing the article “A Definition of Folklore” by Francis Lee Utley was published, and the author offered a slight variant of the quote ascribed to Gandhi:[ref] 1968, Our Living Traditions: An Introduction to American Folklore, Edited by Tristram Potter Coffin, “A Definition of Folklore” by Francis Lee Utley, Start Page 3, Quote Page 4, Basic Books, New York. (Questia) [/ref]

They say that when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied that he thought it might be a good idea.

Also in 1968 a collection of essays was published that included “America Revisited: Radicalism and Alienation” by William Jovanovich. The following instance of the quote was presented by the author. This citation is listed in the key reference The Yale Book of Quotations:[ref] 1968, America Now, Edited by John G. Kirk, “America Revisited: Radicalism and Alienation” by William Jovanovich, Start Page 257, Quote Page 275, Atheneum, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref][ref] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi, Quote Page 299, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Someone once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. “I think it would be a good idea,” he said.

In 1969 the journal Continuum from St. Xavier College released a special issue about the religious thinker Thomas Merton, and the author W. H. Ferry mentioned the famous exchange:[ref] 1969 Summer, Continuum, The Difference He Made by W. H. Ferry, Start Page 319, Quote Page 322, St. Xavier College, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm) [/ref]

Like my favorite story about Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” “I think it would be a good idea.”

In 1970 the dialog appeared in an issue of The Journal of Geography as an epigraph, and the source was listed as Luigi Barzini. As noted above, Barzini wrote the book titled “The Italians” and hosted the CBS documentary:[ref] 1970 May, The Journal of Geography, Volume 69, Number 5, “Nationalism in Early American Geographies: 1784-1845” by Michael F. Antonelli, Start Page 301, Quote Page 301, National Council for Geographic Education, Chicago Illinois. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Interviewer: Mr. Gandhi, what do you think about Western civilization?
Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.
—Quoted by Luigi Barzini

In 1971 a columnist in the Christian Science Monitor stated the exchange had entered the realm of graffiti:[ref] 1971 August 24, Christian Science Monitor, Focus on writing on the wall by Gil Scott, Quote Page 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) [/ref]

The words were written neatly in white paint on a wall:
Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of western civilization?
I think it would be a good idea.

This is the kind of thought-provoking graffito, or wall scrawl, that one can find in myriad locales throughout the world.

In 1979 a variant of the quotation was given in a book by the prominent economic thinker E. F. Schumacher. The phrase “modern civilization” was used instead of “Western civilization” in the statement attributed to Gandhi. Schumacher stated that he saw the dialog on film, but researchers have so far been unable to locate this film footage:[ref] 1985, Good Work by E. F. Schumacher, Quote Page 62, Harper Torchbooks, New York. (Reprint of edition from Harper & Row, New York copyrighted 1979) (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Recently I saw a film of Gandhi when he came to England in 1930. He disembarked in Southampton and on the gangway he was already overwhelmed by journalists asking questions. One of them asked, “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of modern civilization?” And Mr. Gandhi said, “That would be a good idea.” I think now the time has come when we can implement this good idea.

Quotation expert Ralph Keyes has noted discrepancies in the account of Schumacher:[ref] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 75, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Gandhi did not visit England in 1930. He did attend a roundtable conference on India’s future in London the following year. Standard biographies of Gandhi do not report his making any such quip as he disembarked.

As an aside, many years before the saying under examination appeared there were already to two thematically similar remarks in circulation. In 1923 the humor magazine “Life” printed the following anonymous filler item:[ref] 1923 March 29, Life, Volume 81, Issue 2108, (Filler item), Quote Page 33, Column 1, Life Publishing Company, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals) [/ref]

“What’s your opinion of civilization?”
“It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.”

The above joke has continued to appear in periodicals up to the present day, and it may have evolved to produce the quip attributed to Gandhi. A separate QI article about this dialog is located here.

The second thematically similar remark appeared in “The Baltimore Sun” of Maryland in 1925 within a column titled “Sunbeams”. A separate QI article about this jest is available here:

The question is not where civilization began, but when will it.

In conclusion, the current evidence supporting the quotation’s attribution to Mohandas Gandhi is weak. The earliest known appearance of the exchange is almost twenty years after the death of Gandhi. The words apparently can be traced back to a television documentary, and the article in the Seattle Times about the program employed the equivocal phrase: “was reported to have answered”. Also, the later claim made by Schumacher is flawed.

Perhaps future evidence will strengthen the case, but for now, QI would say that the quote is not well-supported and may be apocryphal.

Image Notes: Ancient ruins from LoggaWiggler at Pixabay. Image has been resized, retouched, and cropped.

Update History: The conclusion was changed to read “almost twenty years”. Thanks to George Mannes for suggesting this emendation. Any errors are the responsibility of QI. On December 1, 2018 and January 6, 2019 the two thematically similar remarks in 1923 and 1925 were added together with links to two separate QI articles.

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