Philosopher king

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When the present is in such a mess, the task of envisioning the future becomes next only to impossible. While this truism must be acknowledged, what needs also to be taken cognizance of is the other fact that the challenge of taking on both the onerous responsibilities –  that of setting the present in order as well as envisioning a future – is the only formula for the survival of any society under pressure. It goes without saying that at this very juncture, the prospect for Manipur’s future hinges on its ability to outlive a similar baptism by fire. This is all the more reason why the state needs a strong leadership class who possesses all the multiple qualities associated with true leadership, including the ability to be tough with the tough and soft with the soft, and at the same time to be visionaries of the future. In other words, the “Philosopher Kings” which the great Greek thinker of the classical period, Plato, described in his work of profound influence even on contemporary scholarship – The Republic. Plato even prescribed systematically breeding this class of leaders through a regimented schooling system, where promising children are identified young and then kept in residential institutes where they are trained to be leaders – a notion which sounds draconian and militaristic, but nonetheless one which undoubtedly must have had plenty of articulation in the concept of the British Public Schools, where children are taught to relish the spirit of adventure and innovation, be good fighters and scholars, all at the same time, so much so that another great warrior, Lord Wellington, the admiral who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo was said to have reflected on the idea of the British public schools, and comment in retrospect that the Battle of Waterloo was actually won on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow, the two famous public schools in Britain, where many of India’s own leaders, including its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru acquired some of their mettles in public leadership.

It must also be said that Plato’s “Philosopher King” is present in the Hindu casteist scheme of things well articulated and advocated by Hindu thinkers like Chanakya, also known as Kautilya. Chanayka’s famous treatise on administration, war, commerce and on successfully running so many other vital organs of the state, is also based on a segregation of people by their “racial” inclinations preordained and transfixed by destiny. Arthasashtra is also in this sense very much about keeping the blood lines of the Philosopher King pure and uncontaminated by genes of lesser races. Though similar, Chanayka and Plato differ in that Plato’s Philosopher King is born of nurture and breeding, Chanayka’s is determined by caste (race). Plato’s ruling class therefore is temporal, while Chanakya’s is further split between two castes. Although in a different context and as a support for a totally different argument, a towering Indian intellectual, Sudhir Kakar in his celebrated book, Indian Identity (Penguin) describes these two characteristics of the Indian ruling class as the “historical” Kshitriyas and the “a-historical” Brahmins who occupy the realm between divinity and temporal. The rest of the caste varna may roughly coincide with the plebeians of the Platonic order of citizenry, who Plato, and indeed the Hindu caste system, give little importance in matters of statecraft. In the days of democracy, the equations have altered dramatically and no section of the society can be justifiably sidelined anymore. But the principle of the Philosopher King should still apply, although the entire population and not just its upper echelons would now form the base from which the king material can emerge. Plato’s definition of the ideal ruler, in the Indian lexicon, thereby would be a person in whom is combined the qualities of the Kshitriya, the warrior-administrator, and the Brahmin, the seer-thinker.

Contemporary Manipur’s tragedy, as much as those of any other immature democracy, has been in the nature of an acute shortfall of men with these acknowledged qualities of a ruler.  Or rather, the story is more about the society’s abject inability to groom and project men and women possessing these qualities as its rulers. In their place we have leaders, a majority of whom retain their position of leadership almost solely on the strength of the wealth they have amassed in their previous avatars as dishonest contractors, bureaucrats, power-brokers, or else offered themselves as proxies of unlawful shadow governments. It should hardly come as a surprise to anybody that by and large, qualities such as courage, bravery, spirit of sacrifice etc., not to speak of the finer attributes of a leader such as statesmanship, political acumen, vision, are extremely rare to see in the state’s corridors of power. Instead, these corridors have been tirelessly witness to ravenous scrambles for official booty, and with it, the inevitable surrender of moral authority to rule. The consequences are the misery heaped endlessly on the entire people.

IFP Editorial

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