Governance has been at the core of philosophies since times immemorial. And philosophies served as guiding principles for polity, economy and society — the three founding pillars of modern civilization. For years, philosophers worldwide opposed religious institutions and autocratic kingdoms, and propagated the ideas of a democratic society with free thinking. The freedom to think, reason, express and even dissent was probably the early trigger for philosophers; but soon, the establishment of a welfare state through public participation in governance took the center stage.
The quest for democracy has been a phenomenon since 500BC, and its tenets have evolved over centuries, weathering social, religious, political and institutional challenges. The struggle continued through generations and did not yield much success until the 17th Century, when the world witnessed several civil wars and revolutions across USA, UK, France and Russia, driven by the philosophies of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx.
Knowledge has been the sole criterion for the ruling elite or “philosopher kings”, as described by Plato. Socrates, the father of western philosophy, believed in the power of knowledge and advocated that the ruler shall have the greatest knowledge and wisdom to understand human desires and offer practical solutions for the well-being of society. Having watched the government sentence Socrates to death, Plato proposed an “ideal state”, wherein philosophers should acquire political power and only people having the knowledge of philosophy should be allowed to rule. He further went on to divide the society in three classes, wherein the economy shall be the responsibility of merchants, security of warriors, and political governance of “philosopher kings”.
Aristotle advocated even more strongly that the government should be in the hands of the best and the most competent. In fact, he considered “good monarchy” better than democracy. Chanakya, an Indian philosopher, practiced the philosophy of knowledge and welfare. He led a revolution and installed a strong, progressive and welfare state. Knowledge, integrity, and service to the nation were defined as the fundamental prerequisites for rulers. And the debate around a knowledge-driven democracy versus a popular republic or aristocracy continued. In fact, even Rousseau, through his philosophy of “The Social Contract”, portrayed the responsibility of the sovereign to ensure its citizen to be “forced to be free” — so that an individual enjoys freedom till his/her actions do not harm others, as society is based on interdependent individuals.
Today, once again we are standing at the crossroads. On the one hand we have practicing autocracies flourishing in different forms, and on the other hand we have popular democracies led by individuals having paucity of knowledge, integrity and the competence to serve the humanity and nature. At a time when the world needed a collective approach to address existential problems posed by a host of social, economic and environmental challenges, there were no statesmen to look up to. On top of that, we have been witnessing an upsurge of arrogant Right-Wing leadership both amongst democratic and dictatorial regimes, which is clearly in contrast to the philosophy of knowledge-led dispensations. It’s ironical that in an age where knowledge rules economy, arrogance is ruling polity. We aren’t short of knowledge, but we are definitely missing a philosopher!