Barack Obama on Nelson Mandela: The Power of Ideas

Posted on December 12th, 2013 by

President Barack Obama delivered a powerful eulogy for South African anti-apartheid leader, first democratically elected president and first Black president, Nelson Mandela. Among the things he said in praise of Mandela, this one stood out to the philosopher:

Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion, but also his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.

This paragraph was sandwiched between paragraphs describing the importance Mandela ascribed to action (including taking actions for which he was willing to die), to law and institution (including the new South African constitution), and to “ties that bind the human spirit (the recognition that “we are all bound together”).

Ideas, reason, argument, the study of those with whom you disagree: when philosophy operates at its best, these are the tools with which we do our work. They are not always put to uses so noble as the liberation of a people, and they are only rarely employed by persons of the brilliance, courage and commitment of a Mandela.




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