Essays in Life and Eternity
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 17: The Process of History

The Greek philosopher, Plato, classified political rule into the systems of monarchy, aristocracy, plutocracy, democracy and tyranny, which he stated in a descending order of importance. Plato held the opinion that only philosophers can be kings and kings should be philosophers. The danger of investing all power in a single individual is so obvious that this fear can be mellowed down, if not obliterated sometimes, by requiring the ruling head to be educated in the philosophy of life. It is only the philosopher that can have real consideration for the welfare of others, because he alone can have the Vision of the Good as operating in all things. The king is a repository of power, and knowing that 'power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely', the institution of monarchy, which was the earliest conception in human history of the highest ruling power, was simultaneously and cautiously blended with the highest form of education in the art of living, which required the makers of law to constitute a programme of education for true enlightenment which alone can prevent abuse of power and chalk out channels of its proper use in the interest of people. The monarchial system of government prevailed as the earliest institution of political leadership, and the king was worshipped as a veritable god, because his knowledge as well as power excelled those of others in his jurisdiction. The Manu-Smriti, which is the original code of law respected as a great authority in India, has detailed prescriptions for the conduct of the king, his education, his duties as well as restraints.

That even the king may have to be restrained by a conditioning law would only be proof enough of the fact that no one who is human can be invested with absolute power. The education of the ruler in the science of the highest realities of life may not always transform him into the embodiment of superhuman goodness and ability, though the intention behind the instituting of this process of rigorous philosophical education is to raise the status of the ruling head above the frailties and ambitions of the common man. As time passes, the general observation is that there has been a decadence of the human understanding leading to conduct, which contravenes the expectations from efficiency and responsibility.

In some kinds of national set-up the difficulty and even the impossibility of getting on with the monarchial system of government was deeply felt and the only solution that could then be envisaged was to transfer authority from a single person to a body of select representatives of the intelligentsia of the land. That is, a group of persons regarded by common consensus of opinion as being really cultured, good in nature and mature in experience was held as a proper substitute for a single man's kingship. The idea behind this proposal is that a large number of persons thinking and working together is less likely to commit mistakes than a single person invested with every responsibility and authority. The term aristocracy, though it suggests the rule of the well-to-do or the rich, is actually expected to connote a body of ruling force which consists of a collaboration of the highest intelligences of the country. Rarely has this system of administration seen to function except in a very few countries or states, and that too not for a long time. The general difficulty that the aristocracy is likely to face is in the employing of methods by which the administration can keep close contact with the general public. In ancient times really able and good monarchs used to have a widespread system of maintaining a living relationship with their subjects, often the king himself moving out of his palace to know the minds and the needs of the people, sometimes even disguising himse1f to obtain correct information. The body of persons in aristocracy cannot easily resolve this unintelligible relation between the body and the public. They cannot choose any one of them as their leader, because, then, that chosen person is likely to behave as a king. There is, however, a great and appreciable point behind the institution of aristocracy as the proper form of government, since it is supposed to represent the most capable intellectuals of the country. But, here, apart from the difficulties stated, there is also the other delicate issue of choosing the best of people in the land. Who would make this choice and what is the standard applied in the choice of a suitable member of the aristocracy?

The system of plutocracy does not fare better, where we have a body of the economically wealthy, though not of the intelligent and the wise, necessarily. The difference between insight and money power is too obvious to need comment, though it is true that intelligence has to go hand in hand with economic power in a state of harmony. While sheer knowledge without power is not of much utility, power without knowledge can be mischievous and fearful. The philosophers of political science have wavered between monarchy and democracy as the best form of government.

Democracy is considered as the government of the people, by the people and for the people. The idea is that every citizen in the country is made to feel a responsibility in regard to the well-being of the nation, and everyone has the choice and the right to choose the best among themselves for the purpose of being placed at the helm of affairs. Democracy has been regarded latterly as the most suitable form of government, since it deprives a single person or even a group of people of the authority to lord over others, and the authority is invested with the citizens as a whole. It is a government of common consensus of the public in general, so that no one can complain as to the nature and the form of the working of the governmental machinery. However, Plato considers democracy as the worst form of government, because it invests the mob with power and treats the wise and the fool on equal terms. In the system of voting, democracy has one vote for a genius and one vote for the illiterate and the ignorant. The quantitative assessment of the value of administration does not pay attention to the quality that is necessary for managing the affairs of the State. For instance, the person chosen by ten great masters of understanding and experience may be defeated in election by a person chosen by several hundreds of the common masses, who are empowered by the system of democracy with an equal value as that which one would associate with men of true knowledge and experience. Further, the democratic system has no foolproof method of avoiding such forms of corruption in election as coercion, intimidation and even purchase, when the voters are not always people who are properly educated in the meaning of democracy and a democratic organisation of government. Democracy, perhaps, expects almost impossible qualities from the general public as the wisdom to know what is right and wrong, as if everyone equally is capable of that kind of achievement. Else, the quality of efficiency would be sacrificed at the altar of a chaotic mass of the quantity in the form of a mere counting of heads. Plato feels that one day or the other people are likely to get fed up with the system of democratic government, for, in this system, people are made to feel that they have the power of choice, while, in fact, they have no such power, for reasons already mentioned earlier. Above all this, there is the well-nigh possibility of the person chosen democratically as the leader turning a despot and a veritable king by himself. Wherever we turn, we seem to be striking our head against the unavoidability of someone being there as the centre of authority, which is just the meaning of monarchy, though the head of the State may not wear a crown, or be seated on a throne. The centring of all authority in one person is the principle of monarchy, and this fearsome possibility seems to be insinuating itself into every form of the political set-up, since, in the end, it is difficult to conceive two persons having equal authority.

Being tired of the diluted and essence-less system of a nebulous democracy of people – and everyone's responsibility can turn into no one's responsibility – the people may choose to have, again, a single person as the ruling power, as the last alternative, but this time the ruler being a likely tyrant. It goes without saying that tyranny is the darkest phase into which the administrative system can descend, wherein the ruling authority has the least concern over the feelings of others and is mindful only of the meticulous discharge of his own will, whim and fancy. As truth is said to triumph finally, and concentration of power in some corner exclusively is not the policy of Nature, despotism, autocracy or tyranny have their fall not very far from the date of their rising to the surface of the political field. All told, it may follow that, for whatever reason, the present-day humanity cannot choose any other form of government than a well-constituted democracy, since, while it may have certain characteristics which are bad, the other systems have characteristics which are worse.