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The Role of Anytus

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Anytus was the unsavoury character in Greek philosophy who took Socrates to court because he "speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause". It is the last charge against Socrates making the worse appear the better cause that is of particular interest to us today.

But first let us dispose of Anytus. After the Peloponnesian war ended in the victory of Sparta, the victors installed thirty tyrants to run Athens. Among them was Critias, quondam pupil of Socrates. Further, during the war, the author of the disastrous expedition to Sicily, Alcibiades, indulged in acts of sacrilege, and Alcibiades, too, had been Socrates' pupil. Socrates, was, therefore, guilty of associating with nay, teaching evil men.

No more moving passage in literature can be discovered than the trial and death of Socrates. He is magnificent in his tribulation and his martyrdom. And who cannot but feel the strongest antipathy for Anytus? He has become a symbol of the enemy of free thought and inquiry. (Pro tem, we shall gloss over the fact that he was a stout defender of democracy, and that it was democracy which killed Socrates.) But it seems to me that posterity has been unkind to Anytus. Or, if not unkind, at least not balanced in its verdict.

Socrates was not the first philosopher, but certainly the first philosopher to be put on trial. We could say that it was the first trial of philosophy. And it certainly has been the last. The view that philosophy should be tried has gone out of fashion in the last two thousand five hundred years. The effects of philosophy in the last one hundred years should, in my opinion, make it de rigueur to take philosophy to court whenever possible. I have had occasion earlier in my writing to observe the evil wrought by ideas. The authors of such evil were, of course, the philosophers.

Take Plato, for instance. He was the first totalitarian. Hegel and Marx were merely his successors. It is with Plato that the conflict between totalitarianism and democracy becomes explicit in western thought. The world has never rested since then from this terrible neurosis of western civilisation. As for making the worse appear the better cause, none has surpassed Hegel, who 'proved' that war was good. Hegel, like Heraclitus, believed in conflict, albeit for different reasons. For Hegel, the whole of human history was headed towards the realisation of the Absolute, through theses-antitheses-syntheses. If to you and me war appears vile, well that's because you and I are myopic.

Karl Marx made the worse appear the better cause in somewhat different fashion, but with worse effects. He falsified or ignored every fact that did not support his philosophy, which was based on a narrow reading of western history, then universalised to cover the whole world. Meanwhile, the English libertarians made the worse appear the better cause in their own way. While the Europeans were glorifying war and revolution, the English libertarians, from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, were glorifying commerce and profit. Harmless enough, one should think, and preferable to the continental dish; but the commerce was to be in human freedom and the profits to be made from slavery. All very Greek, and all emerging from a trial held in Athens.

I do not believe that the English language has the word 'eidophobia'; well, here's an opportunity to introduce it. I, for one, suffer from eidophobia. And, of course, one immediately notices the similarity with the Platonic eidos, idea. If the Platonic ideas had been inert and laid up in heaven, the non-Platonic sort are far more potent and have been let loose form hell. Every ism one can think of nationalism, socialism, communism, Nazism that has wrought havoc on earth has its roots in that Greek love of ideas and of philosophy. Thus, Anytus appears here, not as the villain, but as a kind of qualified hero. There are too few Anytuses around; ideas and their proponents have completely won the day.

And these ideas are passing strange, for they seldom bear any resemblance to real things, and are totally out of sync with common sense. Take the views of Professor Amartya Sen. In a recent address to Indian journalists, he reiterated his view that newspapers and democracy are some of the best things to have around. Never mind that newspapers and democracy were responsible for two world wars, and the death of 25 million people in one of them alone, and that too only in Europe.

More proximate events surely make a mockery of the Professor's claim. Assume, for argument's sake, a nuclear holocaust in the subcontinent brought on by the once-ruling party's appetite for votes (it was felt that exploding five nuclear devices would garner more of those pieces of paper for the party). Then the two statements "Indian democracy destroyed India" and "There was never a famine in democratic India" would be equally true. But the first statement makes a mockery of the second. While the Indian peasant may have voted himself a full belly, he stands in dire danger of voting himself out of existence. (Apparently, the malnourished Indian peasant is freer than the Singaporean urbanite because the latter has only one political party to choose from! Really!)

Sen and the neo-cons, who share his obsession with democracy as well as his evangelism in spreading the faith assumes that language has only one function: to inform. Yet, surely, language has two other equally legitimate functions: to persuade, and to command. And the persuasion of the western European youth took some highfalutin form, such as the famous lines by Tennyson: "Ours not to reason why/Ours but to do or die"; or the memorable opening line by that handsome young war hero, Rupert Brooke: "If I should die, think only this of me:/There is a corner of some foreign land/That is forever England..." (I quote from memory, but I don't think I'm too wide of the mark).

If such eloquent jingoism is drilled into you from high school as we saw it done in All Quiet On The Western Front then kids will grow up to murder and be murdered in their millions. The demagogue has been a persistent feature of democracy since Thucydides wrote his trenchant criticism; he uses language to persuade and command. And if we all though that the species had died out, George Bush and Tony Blair have certainly given him a new lease of life.

Or take that convenient and often fictitious entity, "civil society" (anthropologists Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz have convincingly argued that civil society in Africa, in the guise of NGOs, is purely donor-driven. The situation is identical in Bangladesh.). A students' union, for example, is supposed to come under that rubric. I do not know of a single students' union in Bangladesh that has not been politicised by the parties, and turned into criminal and uncivil societies. Indeed, every association in Bangladesh is quickly absorbed by a political party, or retained by foreign donors.

And all things good supposedly come under "civil society" and all things evil fall outside it yet the Ku Klux Klan, the Cuban-American lobby, the Israel lobby, the farm lobby...are as much civil society as the RSPCA. The western farm lobby quietly chokes the life out of the world's majority poor farmers; and two million women in Bangladesh have found jobs in the export-driven garments sector in Bangladesh largely because civil society the western garments lobby had been hogtied by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). And today the Israel lobby and the Christian fundamentalists threaten us with a nuclear 'end of days': Amartya Sen (if he's still around after the holocaust) will have to scare the goodness of democracy with the absence of human beings, and all other living things.

Sen also observes that the absence of civil society causes disaster, such as in Communist countries and in Nazi Germany. Yet the Atlantic slave trade was inaugurated and conducted mostly by civil society the Roman Catholic Church initiating, then the Protestant Churches prolonging that miserable episode in humanity.

Indeed, the service rendered to mankind by those two institutions the Church and the churches have been documented in detail by the anthropologist, Vittorio Lanternari, in his classic, The Religions of the Oppressed. He observes: "When a people is unable to repel the intruders who have seized its land as in the case of the Plains Indians in North America or the Maoris in New Zealand, almost invariably a new religious cult springs into being which inspires the natives to express opposition to foreign rule.

Thus, by making a display of their religious independence, the people strive to fight the racial segregation, forced acculturation, or destruction of tribal life imposed both by missionaries and by the colonial administrators." In the preface, he notes: "The anti-Western attitude which emerges from this study is not the personal attitude of the author but that of the native peoples expressed through their own ideas and, often, in their own words. Their feeling toward the missions is only one facet of their general stand in regard to the white man."

Ideas are to intellectuals what pots are to potters a source of livelihood. And while potters make no claim to fame, thinkers do. Furthermore, potters must sell pots that are useful, or they'll starve; thinkers merely have to please each other, so they are free to manufacture fantasies and chimeras to "make the worse appear the better cause".

And that's when we need Anytus.

 

http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
 

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