The man who never alters his opinions is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind
- William Blake, poet
If a large crowd, allegedly a majority, can aid and abet a counter-revolutionary military coup in the name of democracy – meaning, if a large percentage of a people could act against democracy yet in its name, a pure self-contradiction – then this implies something very sinister: people should not hold ultimate power, contrary to what we are raised to believe, but people, not just the individuals but even the unified whole, are themselves subject to a higher principle: an immutable law. This law governs all further legislation, all subsequent policy. But who are to be trusted with drafting this law?
I don’t wish to answer this question, but I want to advise caution to those who use the problematic nature of that question to return to the erroneous notion that power belongs to the people. Instead, I think it should be admitted that some political principles are, due to their rationality, sacrosanct. No matter how many people question them or argue against, they cannot be revised.
If anyone should be reluctant to admit this, then they are saying that either some individual, group or the whole people are above any principle. But, I put it to them, do you still maintain this whatever they decide to do? If not, then you have relied on a principle which governs and, at times, overrides the people. But if you do still maintain that some individual, group or the whole people are above any principle, however they choose to exercise their sovereignty, even if it is evil, then are you not maintaining that one ought to allow evil – meaning, it is good to allow evil – rather than disallow it by means of a higher law? Is this not self-contradictory?
The discerning individual will see clearly how the concept of ‘power to the people’, even the whole people, leads inevitably to self-contradiction. The way to escape self-contradiction is to refuse to empower any bundle of self-interested passions, not one nor many, but to empower reason and fairness. Power belongs ultimately to true principles.
Simplistic democracy, therefore, is irrational. This is why nations have national constitutions. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ says the US Constitution. What does it mean, ‘self-evident’? Doesn’t it mean ‘beyond reasonable doubt’? Doesn’t it mean ‘sacrosanct’? Doesn’t it mean that even if the white elite of the fifties had wished to modify the Constitution to dehumanise the blacks, even if legislation discriminated against them, it had no higher legitimacy?
One lesson today’s Egypt should give us is this: that people are not free to choose what they wish, even if it were unanimous, but that reason dictates. I use the word ‘dictate’ deliberately. We are rightfully averse to have Man dictate to Man, but who but the Irrational fear to subject themselves to the uncompromising rules of reason?
If you have followed me so far, nodding vigorously or tentatively, then you may wish to know which next step we should take. Agreed, that there is a higher law rooted in reason, to which we must submit; but what of the law? What’s in it?
I’m not certain. But let’s ask a simpler question, perchance it will shed light on our enigma: What’s not in it?
I cannot give a comprehensive answer. But this much is clear: no self-contradictory notions, no matter how beautiful a ring they have to them, can be part of this higher law rooted in reason. Politics should not be about materialising any inconsistent and irrational demands, even if it enjoys the unanimous support of the whole world. It may be Herculean to state what Politics should be about, but let us begin, not by picking the nutritious fruit, but by eliminating the weeds. What is not irrational is rational, and by purging our overgrown belief gardens from the rotten, there’s hope that we’ll end up with the good. As a symbolic first move, in liaison with the tragicomedy we see in Egypt, I put aside the self-contradictory notion that large numbers dictate what is right and what is wrong, what grants legitimacy and what cannot. I may not know what does dictate, but I know at least one thing that does not.
This is only possible by probing deep within one’s soul, and the contemplation of ideas. No one who has yet to chart the untrodden paths of his or her soul can claim to know the most important thing there is to know: the knowledge of good and evil. Without it, we are morally lost, our humanity in doubt.
Things would have been much easier if people knew how dire the moral situation is. But, apart from philosophers in their study, generally, people are confident in their received lifestyles. They already claim to possess moral truths. Go to the root of every human heart, and there you will find hard, immovable ideals. These constitute the framework in which they think, evaluate, decide. And yet, it is not so simple. It’s a fact that human ideals clash, not only within the same soul, but across the species. From this, social tension, sectarianism or factionalism emerge. There are points in history when the tension boils, then erupts, as in today’s Egypt. The situation is awful. It demands remedy. But as the illness began in the heart of the individual, so the medicine is in the same.
Socrates taught us, over two millennia ago, that Ignorance was the cause of all evil. By giving value to what appears to be but actually isn’t a valuable concept, we do injustice, for we either unnecessarily stifle what is permissible or allow what ought to be constrained. The only way out of Ignorance is to rationally reflect on the concepts themselves, and brutally reject any self-contradictory belief.
Shouldn’t I dig into myself to locate my deepest values and convictions? And then analyse them painstakingly, and bravely discharge my self-contradictory beliefs? Retuning to the opening quote, I ask: Should we not cause ripples in ourselves more often?
I believe the answer is ‘yes’ throughout. And this letter was a brief attempt of mine at living up to Socrates’ maxim: The unexamined life is not worth living.