[The Death of Socrates]

The recent mob lynchings that have been taking place in India, whether the cause be communal hatred or rumors of child lifting, may be an offshoot of democracy or mob rule, something that the Greeks had foreseen and feared.

When we think of ancient Greece; among several of its great contributions, we are reminded of Democracy and Greek philosophy. In this respect it becomes essential to recognize the skepticism that Socrates (and subsequently Plato) had about democracy. The cynicism that Socrates had against the conventional democratic system is raised by Plato in his book, the Republic. Socrates tries to make his point by using a ship as a representation of a society. Would you rather have a person who has experience of controlling a vessel sail the ship, or would you randomly have any person in a crowd do the same?

Just like sailing, governance requires a set of skills, and electing a government to power is a major part of governance itself. If uneducated, untrained, unskilled and random citizens of a society are engaged in such an important process of governance, the ship is almost bound to sink.

Perhaps, to his contentment, the death of Socrates contributes as an illustration to his argument against democracy. In 399 BC the much celebrated philosopher was tried for ‘corrupting the youth’ of Athens by a jury of 500 Athenians and was sentenced to death.

To avoid any misunderstanding of his stance, it is important for one to understand that his stance was not for traditional forms of government such as monarchy (by dynastic succession) or dictatorship. His only insistence was that voting for a candidate requires skill and only those who are good at it should be given such a right (or rather, responsibility). He drew a line between an intellectual democracy and demagoguery (mob rule).

To be a leader in a democratic setup it is almost essential to be a good orator. In accordance with the ideas of Professor Jordan Peterson who teaches psychology at the University of Toronto, a good orator would always want to say things that the people want to hear. His thoughts on Hitler reiterate this assertion. According to Peterson, Hitler wasn’t a self-made dictator. He invites us to do a thought experiment. Imagine a politician who has faced similar struggles that the crowd has faced (in Hitler’s case, the struggle being the aftertaste of World War I and the crowd being the Germans),  and decides to articulate the same. Some of the things he says do not fetch a good response from the crowd, so he being a good orator, notices such response and ceases to say such things. However, there are other things that he says that really gets the crowd lauding and roaring (perhaps, remarks on superiority of the Aryan race), so he decides to focus on saying more of such things. Hence, his popularity starts rising drastically, and he starts saying such things to an ever increasing audience. Therefore, Hitler becomes the Hitler with the help of the people (or rather the “mob”) and obviously, his oratory skills. Without the “mob”, rise of a Hitler is impossible, and what conventional democracy does is, that it gives power to the “mob”.

This sentiment is further echoed by the much celebrated diary of Anne Frank. On May 3, 1944, she wrote: “I don’t believe that war is simply the work of politicians and capitalists. Oh no, the common man is every bit as guilty; otherwise, people and nations would have rebelled long ago! There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!”

Therefore, authoritarian leaders come to power by exploiting the dark sentiments of the crowd, for example, the rising hatred for Muslims and immigrants merely needed a voice which could articulate this sentiment in America. These are things that nobody would have the courage to say in the open but only require a leader to come out and sponsor them and validate them by saying them out loud, and in consequence, unite a large group of such like-minded individuals. In the case of the United States, this voice was of President Donald Trump.

In India, even though the current BJP government did not come to power based on communal appeasement, it is a well-known fact that since 2014 there has been rise in hate crimes against minorities. In a report sponsored by US Commission on International Religious Freedom it has been established that the religious minority communities and Dalits face discrimination and persecution in India where hate crimes, social boycotts and forced conversion have escalated dramatically since 2014. “In particular, since 2014, hate crimes, social boycotts, assaults, and forced conversion have escalated dramatically”, said the report. It further remarks: “Since the BJP assumed power, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by BJP politicians and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by affiliated Hindu nationalist groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad.”

Despite communal public statements by several of its leaders, and its affiliation with the RSS (Bajrang Dal and VHP being its other sister organisations that have engaged in criminal activity to ensure communal disharmony) the people of India have continued to vote for the BJP in legislative assembly elections since 2014. In 2014, when the Modi government came to power the BJP merely ruled 7 of the 29 states, however, in 2018 this number has reached 20 out of 29.

Perhaps, the phenomenon of demagoguery as warned about by Socrates is showing its effects in India, as it is showing its effects in America, and as it took over Germany in the 1930s and 40s.

The question however remains unaffected by international borders, is the right enshrined under Article 21(1) and (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which gives a right to participation directly or through representatives and mandates that the “will of the people” shall be the basis for authority of the government respectively) really necessary for the development and prosperity of the humankind?

Authored by: Paranjay Tripathi (Fourth Year Learner, Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA)


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