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The Love-Hate Relationship of Democracy and Socrates

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Democracy is often hailed as the ‘perfect’ government system. However, in a political system which rests heavily on its questioning nature, it is rather rare that we see questions being put up on the democratic system itself. However, this was not the case with Socrates, what was his criticisms? Read ahead to find out.

Ancient Greece is hailed for two of its prime contribution to the humankind, on being the system of Democracy and the other being Greek Philosophy. While Socrates is regarded as the father of Greek Philosophy, he did not have the same regard towards his civilisation’s other great social invention, Democracy. His problems with democracy are stated in Plato’s ‘Republic of Plato’.

Plato regarded Socrates as a pessimistic person and hence in Book Six of ‘Republic of Plato’. Plato describes Socrates falling in a conversation with an imaginary character, Adiemantus, trying to get him to see the fallacies of democracy. If you were heading out on a journey by sea, asks Socrates, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country? Thereby Socrates emphasises on the fact that voting is a skill and not an intuition.

He further states that citizens should be taught the ‘art of voting’. According to him, letting citizens vote without any teaching is as catastrophic as letting random people in charge of a ship heading straight into a storm. Another example, given by Socrates, is that of two contesting candidates. wherein one was a doctor while the other was a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner in his arguments accuses that the doctor is evil, he gives everyone bitter potions and refrains people from eating everything. While the sweet shop owner himself, says, that he on the contrary never stops anyone from eating anything and moreover gives people delicious sweets. It is not difficult to think that the doctor can’t defeat the sweet shop owner with just the argument that whatever he does is for the benefit of the people itself. And therefore, we see so many sweet shop owners and not doctors in parliaments all over the world.

Socrates never attacked on the ideals of democracy, however, he had problems with the system which we today know as Universal Adult Franchise. Moreover, Socrates advocated for the democracy which we today know as ‘intellectual’ democracy rather than democracy ‘by birth’. He warned us that this indiscriminate granting of voting rights to people without proper education would lead to Demagoguery or the practice to getting votes by appealing to the desires and prejudices of the voters rather than using rational arguments. We can clearly see today, as to why Socrates was concerned for democracy.

Taking the example of India itself, we as voters have been swayed by political parties for a long time by issues that only appealed to our prejudices and not to our needs. Be it reservation or agricultural loan waivers, political parties often use these issues to gain votes. On the other hand, the public also has become so familiar with this form of appeasement that elections are used as pressure points on various parties by the people wanting to get their job done.

Moreover, the voters also vote for leaders who provide short term lucrative solutions rather than the ones who implement long term measures. It is this political illiteracy because of which our parliament houses a total 43% Ministers of Parliament (MPs) with a criminal background. Be it the Indian National Congress MP from Idukki, Dean Kuriakose who has over 204 criminal charges like homicide, robbery, etc. or Bhartiya Janata Party’s MP Pragya Singh Thakur who is the prime suspect of Malegaon Serial Blasts or Bahujan Samaj Party’s MP Atul Singh who has charges of murder on him.

Faizan Salik, a student of Jamia Milia Islamia, said, “In my opinion, teaching fundamental rights and duties of Liberal Democracy at primary level doesn’t help, as most just study it for the sake of studying they fail to understand things, which is really problematic, teaching of essential politics is as essential as basic banking, else wise things can go in dungeon”.

An alumna of Delhi University, Mrinalika Chauhan, said, “We as voters have to understand that it is not in our favour to vote for leaders who aren’t rational enough. Yes, it will take time but we have start at the grassroots level. Each and every person in India is interested in politics, whatever their leaning maybe. What needs to be changed is that people vote based on their understanding of politics, instead of sticking to their traditional party.”

The question which arises is that whether we can change this setting or not? And here also it is Socrates’s thoughts which can help us, “Struggle is like a steep hill which looks just impossible to scale at once but when you reach the top, you don’t think about the climb but the triumph.”
Featured Image Credits: Flickr
Aniket Singh Chauhan [email protected] 


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