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Our ‘Greek Tragedy’

The situation in Pakistan is no different. We too witnessed the Athenian scene being enacted in our capital with a lot of political ferment and frenzy.

On a day in 399 BC, philosopher Socrates stood before a jury of 500 of his fellow-Athenians accused of ‘refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state’ and of ‘corrupting the youth’. If found guilty; his penalty could be death. The trial took place in the heart of the city with the jurors seated on wooden benches surrounded by a crowd of spectators. After hearing the arguments by both Socrates and his accusers, instead of deliberating on the merits of the case — as was required under the Athenian law — the jury by a vote of 280 to 220 promptly gave a ‘guilty’ verdict and sentenced him to death.

The Athenian law prescribed death by drinking a cup of poison. Socrates who was 70 years old and well-respected by Athenians as their benefactor was to be his own executioner. He was taken to the nearby jail where his sentence was to be carried out. Plato, the most famous student of Socrates, was not present at his mentor’s death but knew those who were there. He describes the scene through the narrative voice of a fictional character, Phaedo. The dialogue takes place in Socrates’ prison cell where he awaits his execution.

Socrates is visited there by his friend Crito who had made arrangements to smuggle him out of prison to the safety of exile. But Socrates declined Crito’s offer to escape. The man who was to administer the poison brought the cup full of hemlock mix to him and asked him to drink it. Phaedo’s account goes on: ‘Up to this moment most of us were able with some decency to hold back our tears, but when we saw him drinking the poison to the last drop, we could restrain ourselves no longer.

‘In spite of myself, tears came in floods so I covered my face and wept — not for him but at my own misfortune at losing such a man as my friend. Crito, even before me rose and went out when he could check his tears no longer. Apollodorus was already steadily weeping, and by drying his eyes, crying again and sobbing. He affected everyone present except for Socrates himself who said, ‘you are strange fellows; what is wrong with you?’ These words made us ashamed, and we stopped crying.’

As the chill sensation got to his waist, Socrates uncovered his head and said his last words: ‘Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.’ Of course, said Crito. ‘Do you want to say anything else? There was no reply to this question, but after a while he gave a slight stir, and the attendant uncovered him and examined his eyes. Then Crito saw that he was dead, he closed his mouth and eyelids. This was the end of our friend, the best, wisest and most upright man of any that I have ever known.’

Socrates who joined eternity lived nearly 2,400 years ago during the time of Athenian transition from the height of glory to its abject decline after its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. While democratic Athens, the strongest city-state in Greece prior to the war’s beginning, found itself devastated and reduced to complete subservience and anarchy, oligarchic Sparta emerged as the leading power of Greece. The economic costs of the war were felt all across Greece; poverty became widespread in the Peloponnese and Athens never regained its pre-war prosperity.

The Athenian public was totally disillusioned with the then prevailing ‘democracy’ with gross inadequacies of governance, morality and law and order. They were fed up with their corrupt rulers. Socrates understood their pain and anguish. Claiming loyalty to his state, he challenged the course of Athenian politics and society. He praised better governed Sparta, the archrival to Athens, and blamed his own state’s corrupt politics in various dialogues. One of Socrates’ purported offences to the ruling hierarchy was his position as a social and moral critic. He spoke out against them and against their corrupt practices in the name of ‘democracy’.

 The economic costs of the war were felt all across Greece; poverty became widespread in the Peloponnese and Athens never regained its pre-war prosperity.
 During the last years of Socrates’ life, Athens was in continual flux due to political and economic upheaval. Democracy was overthrown by a junta known as the Thirty Tyrants who ruled for about a year before the Athenian democracy returned to power at which point it declared a status quo-driven ‘amnesty’ for all recent events. It was the then NRO that Socrates challenged. Rather than accepting what he perceived as opportunistic power-based immorality within his state, Socrates questioned the collective notion of ‘might makes right’ that was so rampant in his state. He believed the state was more important than the rotten Athenian politics. He spoke the truth and challenged the status quo.

More than two millennia after his death, Socrates is as relevant as ever. The Greeks are already nostalgic of him. They have come to despise their present leaders, mistrust their media and resent the stern teachings of Brussels bureaucrats. Now they are turning to the same wise man for help: the same Athenian who doled out self-help tips while railing against the hypocrisies of society and the state’ and whose lessons live on more than 2,400 years after his death.

The situation in Pakistan is no different. We too witnessed the Athenian scene being enacted in our capital with a lot of political ferment and frenzy.

Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri was no Socrates. But, like Socrates, he behaved as what Plato had described his esteemed mentor a ‘gadfly’ of the state who irritated the Athenian men of status quo by invoking issues of justice, law and goodness. Dr Qadri too irritated the men and perhaps a few heavily-coated and painted women of status quo in Pakistan. He had challenged the rotten system in which the same feudalised and elitist oligarchy consisting of different men at different times under different political flags had kept the nation hostage with or without military collusion since independence.

 Rather than accepting what he perceived as opportunistic power-based immorality within his state, Socrates questioned the collective notion of ‘might makes right’ that was so rampant in his state.
 Whatever his personal motives or political ambitions, he did storm Pakistan’s citadel of political ‘power and greed’ giving a loud wake-up call to the people that sounded death knell to the country’s deeply-entrenched status-quo-driven feudal, tribal and elitist power structure. He spoke the truth calling for a change that the people had been waiting for too long. They joined him in throngs because they were sick and tired of the system that had given them nothing but hardships and miseries. They trusted him because he did not belong to the exclusive club of Pakistan’s privileged political ‘fraternity.’

To be part of this ‘fraternity’, one must be very ante-thesis of the criteria laid down in Articles 62 and 63 that Qadri had demanded to be implemented in letter and spirit. He rattled the political ranks by showing to the politicians their true face in the mirror. No wonder, there was so much of political rumpus. How dared he challenge the domain to which nobody, not even the successive military dictators, could ever bring about a change? Qadri’s crime was no different from that of Socrates. He had to be punished.

No sooner did Qadri give his last ultimatum shooting heartbeats and pulse rates up, the ‘jury’ arrived. Curtains in Qadri’s bulletproof ‘container’ were drawn and the trial lasted just for a couple of hours. The verdict was unanimous. Qadri shall be admitted into the ignominious ‘fraternity’ that he had vowed to topple. He willingly accepted to be his own executioner and joined the exclusive club, forging a new configuration of political power. Unlike the real Greek tragedy, all in the ‘container’ were seen happy, gleefully embracing each other. The hostage crowd returned home with no change in sight. There could not be a more comic end to our ‘Greek tragedy.’

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