The Worst but for All the Rest

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The Economic Times, September 10, 2011

The ancient Greeks were fully alive to the many flaws of democracy; the point, however, is to ringfence them

Discontent with democratic processes, including corruption of public institutions, and a yearning for incorruptible guardians of public interest is not a recent quest. During the generation-long Peloponnesian war (430-400 BC) in which Sparta finally defeated Athens, the Athenian oligarchic party led by Critias demanded abandonment of democracy in favour of aristocracy because of its inefficiency and corruption. And as Socrates demurred, what could be more ridiculous than a mob-led, passion-ridden democracy, a government by a debating society and a choice of farmers and tradesmen as members of the supreme court It would be interesting to see how Socrates defined this chaotic state of governance and what the Platonic prescription to eradicate this evil is in the context of the current debate on similar issues.

Socrates says that governments, including the courts, are necessary because all men do not see clearly their interests, display farsightedness and channel their chaotic desires into a purposive and creative harmony. But if the government itself is chaotic, how can we persuade the individual, in such a state, to obey laws and confine his self-seeking How can one trust a state that distrusts ability and respects number more than knowledge Is it not universally seen that men in crowds are more foolish and more violent than men as individuals Is it not a shame that men should be ruled by brazen orators How can a society be saved, or be strong, except if it be led by its wisest men?

Socrates was, of course, sentenced to death for expounding such undemocratic thoughts. But his pupil Plato took the argument forward and built a theoretical construct relevant to the present-day debate. Democracy, according to Plato, ruins itself by excess of democracy. Its basic principle is equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy. Commendable at first, it fast becomes disastrous because the people are not equipped by education to select the best and the wisest rulers. As to the people, they have no understanding, and only respect what their rulers are pleased to tell them. The upshot of such democracy is tyranny. The crowd is so hungry for flattery that, at last, the wiliest and the most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the protector of the people, rises to supreme power.

The more Plato thinks of it, the more astounded he is at the folly of leaving to mob caprice and gullibility the selection of political officials. The answer to this evil is the rule of guardians. Forces of knowledge, science and philosophy would be nourished and protected and they would rule, he says. People need the guidance of philosophers, for statesmanship is a science and an art; one must have lived for it and had been long prepared. Till philosophers are kings, or kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and wisdom and political leadership meet in the same man cities will never cease from ill, nor the human race.” Human behaviour flows from desire, emotion and knowledge. But then, as man by nature is acquisitive, jealous, combative and erotic, how would one find those few who would subordinate desire and emotion fully to knowledge Would the guardians not be corrupted soon enough To answer this fundamental question, Plato creates the most comprehensive theoretical utopia. All inhabitants of the city who are 10 years or older should be sent to the countryside and possession of all children taken over,to protect them from the habits of their parents. Every child should be given full equality of educational opportunity without any other consideration. For the first 10 years, education would predominantly be physical to determine varying degrees of physical strength and endurance and bodily balance. But to provide harmony to the soul, the next part of education would include music. Music moulds character. And to that, religion and ethics should be added.

By the age of 20,the first ruthless weeding would take place. Those who pass the test would receive 10 more years of education and training in body, mind and character. They would then face the second round of elimination. Those who remain would still need more training! They would be taught philosophy, which simply means to think clearly (metaphysics) and to rule wisely (politics) for five more years. But the training would not end here. For the next 15 years, they would be allowed to undertake different vocations in society to get practical training, at the end of which they would face a final round of elimination. Those who survive would be 50 years old, wise and experienced, untouched by the corruption of human nature and ready to rule.

Public officials would be chosen not by votes or secret cliques but by their own ability demonstrated over decades. And so, setting aside every other business, the guardians will dedicate themselves wholly to the maintenance of freedom in the state, making this their craft and engaging in no work which does not bear upon this end. They will be legislature, executive and judiciary in one. The state would provide for all their needs and their only reward would be honour and a sense of service to the group, freed of egoism. But what about the wives, he is asked, would they not need more The guardians would not be permitted to have families; there would be communism of wives. Aristotle, pupil and critic of Plato, while accepting the Platonic model to be ideal, rejected it on grounds of practicality. In his classification of constitutions, he put the rule by the philosopher king as the best form of ideal government and democracy as the worst form. However, he also concluded that ideal was not practicable. Therefore, in humanly possible forms of government, he put democracy with all its weaknesses as the best, oligarchy second best, and autocracy as the worst form of government.

Today, two-and-a-half millennia after Plato and Aristotle, it would seem that human concerns about public service, the possible remedies and the practical difficulties in attaining the ideal solution remain much the same.

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