A great Australian recently said: ‘we’re a helpless audience watching an awesome spectacle, powerless to act because we haven’t produced leadership with the courage to match the precipitous nature of the hour.’ The Rev. Ted Noffs got most things right. When his own church charged him with heresy, it proved the old axiom that a good deed never goes unpunished. Unfortunately, it’s the daily reality of our political system.
We like to say you can’t keep a good man down, but human society organises itself to do just that. The effect on public order and quality of human life is catastrophic. Men like Ted Noffs are our equivalent of coal miners’ canaries. The difference is that the miners took the dead bird seriously. Plato warned: ‘One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.’ Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame went one better: ‘We’re in the process of creating what deserves to be called the idiot culture. Not an idiot sub-culture, which every society has bubbling beneath the surface and which can provide harmless fun, but the culture itself. For the first time, the weird and the stupid and the course are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal.’
And this at a time when humanity is perched on the brink of planetary degradation and extinction of all life. In an idiot culture, loss by profuse bleeding of public integrity is part of the tabloid entertainment the public laps up, as Aldous Huxley predicted. My theme here is ‘can we keep good men up?’ With no modern Socrates, the old one will do since his universal truths still apply. He called rulers who love the sight of truth ‘philosopher kings’. He used the analogy of a captain and his ship or a doctor and his medicine to show that those skills are uncommon. He urged education systems to cultivate these philosopher kings. France took him seriously, with high officials being judiciously chosen from the grand academies. We make a gesture for all professions except politics, where anarchy and public crimes are deemed inevitable and beyond remedy, given public apathy and the mediocrity of political candidates and professional politicians.
Socrates devised an image to illuminate the state of one’s soul—where will-reason-desires combine in the embodied human entity. It showed a rightly ordered human, indicating the different types of humans that can be observed—from lovers of base pleasure and money to lovers of ideas and ideals. As usual, the philosopher king image was used by many since Socrates’ time to justify their un-Socratic political agenda. The philosophic soul according to Socrates has a reason, will and desires united in virtuous harmony. A philosopher has the moderate love for wisdom and the courage to act according to wisdom. Genuine wisdom is knowledge of the Good or the right relations between all that exists. This has to be the essence of a political system unpolluted by money, sectional interest, influence, secret crimes and treason against the general populace.
Socrates asked which is worse—a fake democracy (of the sort we know, with hidden-hand manipulators and rule by grand theft, deceit and lies), or a society ruled by a tyrant? He preferred rule by a tyrant because it meant that if one individual is a crook—the boss cocky—he’s easier to remedy than a secretive amorphous multitude of them of the sort we have. Tyrant rule makes quality control possible, if necessary by applying Voltaire’s Law—the best government is a benevolent tyranny tempered by an occasional assassination. Isn’t keeping our leaders honest more vital to the public interest than officials keeping our discretion uninformed?
Socrates used the analogy of a mutiny on board a ship. The ship’s crew embody the democratic rule of many with the captain as the tyrant. Bligh-type ship mutinies are rare, because everyone knows the game being played. It works efficiently and justly. It’s a parallel of democracy within the state at a higher level. If it can work on a ship, it can work in that larger ship called society. Good captains don’t invite mutiny; bad ones bring it on. As Lincoln reminded us, it’s not just a right to mutiny against bad government: it’s a duty. It’s a duty Australians have been and are still conditioned to shirk. The crisis in democracy worldwide was anticipated by Justice Learned Hand: ‘Liberty lies in the hearts of men. When it dies there, no Constitution, no law, no court can save it. No Constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.’
Australians never heard this warning by Jefferson: ‘I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the only remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.’ By not teaching discretion, we deprived them of it. Where French school kids get their discretion rigorously informed in schools, our kids are spared the trouble so they can focus more intensely on their sport.
Jefferson revealed here two essentials of democracy. One, the public is involved; two, it’s about them exercising power—their power. An occasional vote for unknown candidates chosen by self-interested minority groups embraces neither of those two essentials. Our system of institutions makes for an anarchic schoolyard society where, by default—in the moral vacuum—the least fit freely take authority and control. They can’t believe their luck. We “choose” them from the wrong end of the spectrum of human types. It’s a habit we have to abandon at all costs—or go the full distance toward a police state.
Greg Hamilton is a former architect and academic, now a novelist, social critic and strong advocate for a new Australian Constitution written by and for an independent Australia.