From Socrates to Nietzsche, ‘rule of the people’ has few intellectual takers
The seeds of doubt were sown by Socrates, one of the most revered of all philosophers, when he attacked democracy in its heyday in Athens. His argument? How can a government by majority be just and virtuous when in any society those having knowledge and intelligence are always a minority?
The then powers that be were irate. Socrates was given a choice, either stop his attacks on democracy or drink the hemlock and die. Socrates choose the latter and became eternal.
His pupil, Plato, banished democracy — the assassin of his teacher Socrates — from hisRepublic, the dreamer of Philosopher-King loathed it so much that he proposed that education should be inculcated in such a manner as to prevent it. Aristotle, once bereft of the bells and tinkers of constitutionalism and ethical behaviour, settles for a state where democracy and oligarchy are thrown together in a mix. The great ancient, while differentiating firms of government, labelled ‘democracy’ as mob rule and juxtaposed it with ‘polity’ which he called moderate rule of many.
The Greeks made way for Romans and after it the Dark Age dawned upon Europe. It took a good couple of centuries for countless poets, philosophers, painters, and dramatists to bring Europe back from its clergy-kingship induced stasis. After the renaissance the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ life of man was in for an overhaul. Man had to land in a contract with a leviathan to ensure his safety and self-preservation that was precarious in the state of nature. Enter Thomas Hobbes, the sage of Malmesbury, argues that democracy is inferior to monarchy as it fans disagreement and conflict among the masses and those who practice it alike.
The enfant terrible of philosophy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ruled out democracy as impossible for all practical purposes and wrote that ‘a nation of Gods’ is where it is to be practiced.
Hegel — the man who always had a thesis, strived for an anti-thesis, in his bid to bag a synthesis — was so preoccupied with mightier things like Idea, tide of time, and history, that he deemed elections ‘unnecessary’ and valued the leaders who knew the fickleness of public opinion and dared to go against it.
The industrial revolution of late 18th and 19th century jolted the human society to its core. The emergence and ascendance of machine coupled with indifference of capitalist class, it felt to many, will end up man in eternal slavery and drudgery. The world prayed for a saviour. It didn’t take long to find one in the shape and person of Karl Marx, the man who was to preach the gospel of a classless utopia of abundance, equality and peace to those blighted by hunger, poverty and disbelief. The script he had sounded perfect. It had proletariat as heroes, bourgeoisie and capitalism as twin villains, dialectical materialism as driving force, dictatorship of proletariat as climax and an eternal happy ever after imagined as a classless society.
World’s latest messiah loathed democracy (as our world has it) with all his might, main and mind terming it part of a capitalist superstructure while also considering it as a road to socialism.
Nietzsche, the preacher of Ubermensch, who wanted man to rise above and beyond good and evil, considered democracy a hurdle in man’s ultimate progress, referred to democracy as ‘this mania for counting noses’. What he preferred? An aristocracy. Three decades after his death in 1900, Fuhrer Adolf Hitler rose to power with an aim to turn Germany into a nation of Ubermenschen — the overmen.
During last century, the lofty ideals of democracy were under siege by Fascism, Nazisim and Communism all over the world. The democracy backed by capitalist block prevailed while the fascists and Nazis crashed and burned during Second World War. USSR too went the way of dinosaurs half a century later.
The world is once again reeling on the cusp of dissatisfaction and looking for a deliverer who can usher in freedom, wealth and prosperity for the downtrodden and the precarious lot of the world.
The whole edifice of democracy, with all its bells and minarets, its glory and grandeur, stands crippled beyond repair or redemption. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that democracy as the form of government is undergoing its worst existential crisis ever. In the past, it was the singular object of derision of few philosophers and thinkers. Today, majority of the masses have turned either indifferent or downright contemptuous of it.
All the lofty ideas, the tall claims, the hymns about all things nice and good which democracy promised have dashed. The dominos have started to fall, the question is how many are willing to drink the hemlock this time around.
PS: While writing this column, I’ve consulted ‘The Politics Book’ by DK Publishers, ‘Political Thought’ by Judd Harmon and ‘The Story of Philosophy’ by Will Durant for references, insights and summations.