Few lessons from Plato’s ‘Republic’

By Yuvraj Sinha

(15/11/2020 15:30IST)

At the time when democracy across the globe is facing some serious challenges to its very existence, posed by ‘abstract authoritarianism’, we as the citizens of a democracy, need to revisit those writings which led to the establishment of the very basis of the democracy we enjoy today or used to enjoy at some point of time in our pasts, or may enjoy in the future. We need to revisit the ideas of those philosophers and political thinkers who enabled us to fight and speak up for the establishment of a ‘true democracy’. Those writings have a lot to offer to us as well as our “rulers”, and can empower us to guard the concept of ‘the people’s rule’. If we would not do it right now, be assured, our upcoming generations will not forgive us. They would curse us for our laziness for not guarding the ideas of freedom, justice and equality. The opposing forces have gained consequential momentum in recent times and things may backslide very quickly.

‘The Republic’, a more than 300 pages long Socratic dialogue, written by ancient Athenian philosopher Plato, has enough lessons for the democratic citizens to teach. Those lessons would help us, we the people, to guard our existence as citizens rather than being turned into subjects. If we don’t want to witness the emergence of banana republics all across the globe, we need to learn and take these lessons seriously.

As is the norm in Socratic dialogue, here too, Socrates is the main speaker who engages in dialogue with other Athenians on the idea of justice. The center question that Plato addresses is “What is justice?” both at the individual and political levels. He supplements his ethical question with the secondary question “What is the relation of justice to happiness?” The book has many lessons to teach us as citizens but we shall be fundamentally discussing about few highly significant ones like:

In the book (chapter) one, when Polemarchus (An ancient Athenian philosopher from the Piraeus. Plato's Republic is set at Polemarchus' house in the Piraeus.) invited Socrates and Glaucon (student of Socrates and the elder brother of Plato) to visit his house and Socrates refused, he said:

Well, do you see what a large body we are?

Socrates replied, “Certainly I do.”

“Then either prove yourselves the stronger party; or else stay where you are.” Polemarchus said.

Socrates replied, “No, there is still an alternative: suppose we persuade you that you ought a let us go.”

“Could you possibly persuade us, if we refused to listen?” Polemarchus asked.

“Certainly not.” Glaucon said.

The very first lesson that we can draw from this small conversation, especially from its last three lines, is that no one can persuade you unless you don’t want to get persuaded. Now you may think that what this conversation has to do with guarding of democracy and stuff? But it has to do. It means that no politician with an ill-will can persuade you to get mobilized on the basis of caste, race, colour, religion, ethnicity etc. until and unless you too would not have an ill-will to go in that direction and to cause unnecessary harm to others, whom you see as your enemies (which they may not be), for those whom you see as friends (which they may not be). It’s all your subconscious will which drives you. And using hateful and mobilizing narratives, such leaders (abstract authoritarians) try to implant that ‘will to act’ for them in your subconscious. So next time, whenever you find such people, promoting extremism and mobilization on various lines, just walk away before they make space in your subconscious.

Then, when Polemarchus and Socrates started discussing over the question of “What is justice?”, Socrates asked him about his individual idea of justice.

“Doing good to our friends and harm to enemies.” Polemarchus replied.

After a long discussion, Socrates asked Polemarchus about his definition of friends.

“That a friend is one who seems to be an honest man.” Polemarchus replied Socrates.

“Should you describe a man’s friends as those who seem to him to be, or those who really are, honest men, though they may not seem so? And do you define a man’s enemies on the same principle?” Socrates asked him in response.

“I should certainly expect a man to love all whom he thinks honest, and hate all whom he thinks wicked.” Polemarchus said.

“But don’t people make mistake in this matter, and fancy many persons to be honest who are not really honest, and many wicked?” Socrates asked him again.

“They do.” Polemarchus said.

“Then such persons the good are enemies, and the bad are friends, are they not?” Socrates asked.

“Certainly they are.” Polemarchus agreed.

“And, notwithstanding this, it is just for such persons at such times to help the wicked, and injure the good.” Socrates said.

“Apparently it is.” Polemarchus said.

Later, after some more discussion, Socrates made Polemarchus to agree to the new definition of friends and enemies that was, “That a friend is one who not only seems to be, but really is, an honest man; whereas the man who seems to be, but is not honest, is not really a friend, but only seems one….” Further, Socrates made him understand that an enemy is not one who seems to be the one, but the only one who really causes any harm to you and your property. He further stressed upon the idea of even not hurting the enemy as it is not an act of a good, a just, man.

The lesson that we can draw from the whole dialogue and related text stated above that, we should not trust our leaders only on the basis of “they seem to be good and honest”, rather we need to be skeptical of them always because who may seem to be our friends may be our biggest enemies. They may foment hatred on communal lines, ethnic line, and even nationalistic line among various communities living on the same land, sharing resources for ages by acting as the biggest well-wishers of the majority or minority community. But it may be the biggest lie. If someday, the masks of honesty, would be removed from the faces of big politicians and media houses, you would not ever again want to see their real faces. Their faces are gruesome. So always be skeptical of your leaders and their motives. Because that is what democracy is all about. And do never hate your neighbor only on the basis of flashy headlines coming out of fiery graphics on television channels and social media posts. Democracy exists when you trust your fellow citizens, not the leader. When you start blindly trusting your leader and distrust your fellow citizens, on that very day democracy dies. Otherwise, you would soon lose what we call or aspire to call a ‘true democracy’.

Further, when Thrasymachus (a sophist of ancient Greece, he was in the room while the discussion) strongly disagreed with the idea of justice as described by Socrates and countered it by saying “justice is nothing but what serves the interest of the strongest (ruler)”. After a long heated debate between Socrates and Thraymachus, Socrates made him understand that the interest of the strongest (the ruler) is to serve the interests of the people whom he serves, not his individual interests of luxury and of guarding his throne. He explained this idea by giving an example of medical science that the interest of the art of healing or curing disease is to heal the body, to serve the interests of the body, not to serve itself to prove its superiority as a science. “No science investigates or enjoins the interests of the stronger, but that of the weaker, its subjects.” He said. Thus, the art of governance has a single interest, that is to serve the interests of the people, not that of the ruler. And we as citizens need to understand this. If a political party’s leader has made his/her job a machine of satisfying his/her desires, if he/she has made politics a family business, or something to “protect” future of his/her children, then be cautioned of him/her. Such people don’t have anything to do with you or your interests, your family and your meal in the plate, but are here only to retain power to serve their personal interests. Such people would turn democracies into oligarchies.

Socrates while speaking on retaining of power by a real good man said that a good man needs to be either rewarded or punished, so that he could be motivated to retain the power. And the greatest punishment for a good man for not entering the game of throne is being ruled by a bad man, with ill-will and zero interests in the interests of his subjects (here citizens).

The idea of ‘punishment’ to a good man for not entering the politics is quite intelligent in my opinion. The problem with most of the good people is that they think that politics is a game of “giants” and never try to enter into the ring to play the game, rather they choose to applause from out of the ring. If we want to see the change, we have to be the change. Do not expect any miracle from “inherent” politicians as if they would have to do something really good, their forefathers would have done it much earlier. Now it’s your turn to jump into the ring to play the game. It’s now citizen’s chance. Tweeting and sharing posts to show your frustration against the rulers and your situation will not fix things at all. You would have to come in and play. Otherwise, you would also be punished as Plato told through the character of Socrates.

I believe that these few lessons are enough for us to realize our potential and job as citizens to guard democracy from the demon of ‘abstract authoritarianism’.

About Authors.

Yuvraj Sinha

Managing Editor

References.

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