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Unexamined Lives, Unchanging Opinions, Unknowing Wisdom!
Who was Socrates?

30 December   |   2019   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher who has been credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy. He is also viewed as being the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought. And since he did not write down any of his work or teachings, he remains a somewhat enigmatic figure and what modern-day scholars know about his views comes mostly from his students Plato and Xenophon.

When I was studying for my Baccalaureate in France quite a few moons ago, I had to wade through a couple of years of philosophy, and Socrates was of course one of the compulsory topics. Riffling through the pages of my assignments (we used to call them travaux-dirigés in those days), I learnt for instance that Socrates wanted to establish an ethical system that would be based on human reason. He strongly believed that the greatest leaders are the ones who possessed knowledge, virtue and a complete understanding of themselves. Perhaps this is why one of his quotations, that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, sounds quite banal in our digital age but was nonetheless fundamental to Socrates’ convictions.

But why am I suddenly writing about Socrates on the pages of a website that has largely been dedicated to the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions? The answer lies broadly in the conversations that Socrates held with Adeimantus and Glaucon, two of Plato’s affluent brothers who were part of his inner circle. In his conversations with Adeimantus for instance, as reported by Plato in his Republic, Socrates suggested that a boat in choppy seas could well sink if it is navigated without a competent and wise captain, and went on to draw an analogy between democracy without wisdom and demagoguery.

So do democracy and wisdom have to go hand-in-hand? Was he right for his era? And can I somehow transpose his thoughts to the MENA and Gulf regions in our contemporary times - at least from 2010 onwards when the hints of a first Arab uprising began to make themselves felt across many Arab countries? Can one say that the protests, hiraks or revolutions (the name is irrelevant for me) that started with Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria and then volleyed into Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon were wrong or ill-fated events led by a population that has neither the competence nor the wisdom to captain its democratic rights?

Let me start by averring that democracy could lead to demagoguery. I only need to look at the USA, Australia and even parts of Europe today (but not only today, mind you) to realise how some leaders appeal to the masses through their unfettered and jaw-dropping populism. Their raw words and deeds often have little to do with democracy, wisdom or competence let alone truth but a lot with self-promotion. So how much different is that in the MENA & Gulf regions? Can I rebut this link between competence or wisdom and democracy?

Arab countries (I omit here non-Arab countries in the same geography such as Turkey or Iran) do not enjoy free systems. This is not a revelation but a truism. The closest they come to democracy is benevolent dictatorship which is the example of a few monarchies. But most of the systems in the majority of countries are autocracies that control ordinary men and women in their every decision - be that through oppression, suppression, confessional and sectarian affiliation or even political hypnosis. There is no proper rule of law, no equality in front of the law and hardly any accountability. There is ipso facto no value to the concept of citizenry. Self-centred rulers (almost inevitably males) are disinterested in ordinary ‘citizens’ and treat them merely as objects not expected to utter opinions or become involved in public office. Inevitably, corruption sets in. This is why most Arab countries are run with an iron fist in an endorsement of the colloquial saying that ‘it is my way or the highway’. Many of those rulers are alas deeply steeped in corruption. So how can one instil wisdom in those ruling classes and call them competent in the first place?

The protests in many Arab streets are clamouring for freedom, justice, dignity and all those gifts that distinguish us as a thinking species. But do the protestors have a roadmap that points the way forward? In other words, do they have the competence and wisdom to undertake the task of running a country? Conversely, many rulers do not have the competence and wisdom either for the public good when they are swayed by unimaginable corruption, greed and often a large touch of narcissism. So Socrates’ theory falters because it is difficult to define competence that is married with wisdom and then ensure that it is durable. This is why democracy is not necessarily secured by the masses in the streets nor by the elites in their ivory towers, but rather by the institutions that alone safeguard our rights and correct any excesses by rulers and masses alike.

During the 19 years that I have penned my pieces in the epektasis web-site, and as I have witnessed the highs and lows of politics, I have consistently advocated for justice and dignity let alone accountability as a way out of the morass that we witness in many countries. And today, as I write my last opinion piece before hanging up my pen, all I can add in terms of both hindsight as well as foresight is that the young Arab generations will go through the teething problems of changing the systems in their countries and installing a sense of governance that is democratic, transparent and inclusive (in the sense of participatory and open for all), wise, and above all untethered. It will happen not only when corrupt politicians are swept away, but more critically when we establish and firewall institutions that defend the rule of law and the common wealth.

This will take time, sacrifice, resilience and education, but the tenacious hold on power by the elites must be undone with patient courage. Otherwise, the accusation levelled often at the 22 members of the Arab League that they collectively are fatuous and achieve nothing cannot vanish simply because of some fancy PR campaigns in the Western capitals, or financial largesse let alone - yes, you guessed it - demagoguery.

At various chapters in the history of the Levant, there has been a moment when a genie has come free from its lamp and has soared for a while. It has then been captured by those who fear free thought and so put back in its claustrophobic enclosure. However, another genie escaped the bottle in 2010 and this genie has eluded captivity despite the mammoth efforts of those in power. The time for change might well be tantalisingly close for the men and women of the Levant to find their voices and speak out against injustice, corruption and the muzzling of citizens who are left to drift whilst rulers - captains of ships - are happy with their loots.

For many years, I did not believe that I would witness this light of hope because the creativity of ordinary men and women was manacled by a potent blend of power, money and retribution. But I have slowly changed my mind over the past decade because there is an impulse in the new Arab generations - women and men alike - who are no longer willing to succumb to the humiliation of being put down, ignored or subdued and muzzled forever and who are defying serfdom with their pens, their education as much as their voices. As Socrates also said once, “It is better to change an opinion than to persist in a wrong one.” But the journey is harsh and it will be as bumpy and uncertain as Socrates’ image of a ship minus a skipper that finds itself on choppy waters.

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Finally, and as I close another chapter in my life that has lasted 19 years and move onto other avenues of soul-searching and other challenges of expression, I thank all readers who have been my friends, advisors and lodestars. And I recall the wonderful GK Chesterton who wrote in The House of Christmas that “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered”!

I wish you all a happy 2020: may the light of hope outshine the darkness of structural or physical violence, and may the candle flicker untamed in yours hearts and minds. After all, what is at stake is your future.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2019   |   30 December


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