February 28, 2020
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The Right To Question

Socrates taught the world to reach beyond what appears to be to what is. What we hold as knowledge today may in future turn out to be just superstition.

The Right To Question
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AS Socrates lay dying, having drunk of hemlock, he told his faithful disciple Crito, uncovering his face for the last time, "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius—be sure to see that it is paid." The world’s debt to Socrates, in comparison with his to Asclepius, is indeed immeasurable. He taught us to develop the attitude of questioning which bespeaks clear thinking and, to make it easier for us, he introduced the idea of defining the terms of whatever we discuss. Socrates did this without putting anything in writing, exercising an influence greater than that of the printed word, unlike the other great thinker Voltaire whose literary output is reckoned to have been 15 million words. Voltaire’s contribution was in the main to rid Europe of medieval ideas and institutions. Socrates’ was more basic, more universal—to reach beyond what appears to be to what is. Socrates died a martyr to his beliefs. But the Socratic heritage lives on.

Questioning the dogmas that dominate everyday life leads to some important and radical developments that provoke a healthy distrust. Our claims to truth and knowledge, our very use of these words, need to be scrutinised. When we speak of truth or reality as an assumption, we have already taken the first step to sharpening our questioning. Established ideas need to be periodically examined for society to free itself from the fetters of tradition and dogma. Intellectually stimulating, this exercise can also prove to be emancipating. When Galileo rightly questioned the current belief that the sun went round the earth, he was accused of blasphemy and prosecuted. In one of the most controversial issues of recent times, Darwin’s long-accepted theory of evolution is being questioned. The best way to interpret evolutionary patterns over geological time is not, as Darwin believed, gradually by insensible degrees, but by sudden bursts of rapid change that "punctuate" long periods of static equilibrium. It would be well to remember that what we hold as knowledge today may in the future turn out to be just superstition.

Like science, historical interpretations and political ideologies too undergo changes, and with each new version a new world or new modes of thinking emerge. The breakup of Communism some years ago made history. Many thinkers believe Communism would never have gained the power it did if it had been properly defined. Communism would never have been able to defraud so many millions, avers Max Eastman, "if they had first subjected all its lies and its emotional ranting to the clear light of Socratic questioning". German peace activist Ekkehart Krippendorff agrees that it was "the power of truth" more than anything else that subverted the Communist regime. Democracy, on the other hand, has been more fortunate in being defined, not vaguely as being a government of, for and by the people, but more precisely in its requisites of separation of legislative and executive powers, independence of the judiciary and a free press. But democracy can never be taken for granted, not in India, and certainly not now.

Certain basic questions need to be asked if democracy is to survive. How far do elected representatives really represent us? What hand, if any, have we in selecting them? Do they devote themselves after election to the service of the people or to the pursuit of pelf and power? The fact is that our democratic values are today threatened as they never were before. The increasingly blatant use of money power and muscle power is a dangerous portent. To question how these subvert the democratic process is to be forewarned. The voters’ choice at the recent state elections narrowed down to between corruption and decadence in the name of stability, on the one side, and fanaticism and bigotry with an illusory "Ram rajya", on the other. Perhaps they chose the lesser of the two evils?

Even in this land renowned for its tolerance, more blood has been shed in the name of religion than any other cause. We need to examine our conscience—is it the high purpose of religion to distort the national agenda, vitiate the business environment, seek to suppress human rights and freedom of expression, and kill, maim and destroy? Our constitution guarantees freedom of expression. Isn’t this being violated by the way Government controls and manipulates the electronic media? Isn’t the right to question even more basic than the right to freedom of expression, making the latter truly meaningful? Isn’t this being increasingly denied? Witness how the inaugural issue of this newsmagazine was sought to be banned just because it reported—reported, not endorsed—a differing view on Kashmir. Even the right to protest is being increasingly denied—nonviolent Narmada Bachao Andolan protesters have been beaten up again and again, at Dhule and elsewhere. The dark shadow of fascism is lengthening across the country.

One man in India came closest to the Socratic concept in his experiments with truth, daring to ask inconvenient questions, and he was shot for his pains. By a macabre twist of irony, but not too surprising in a country where the corrupt are often deified, his murderer was hailed as a martyr. It would, however, be the gravest misreading of history to dismiss this as the outburst of a lunatic fringe. It is symptomatic of the growing madness of intolerance, the frenzy of throttling dissent—a fungus on the brain.

Socrates lived in simpler times. Even so, for his beliefs he had to pay with his life which, as Plato touchingly depicts in the dialogue Phaedo, he did calmly and with dignity. The formal charges against him were that he questioned the gods revered by the city and that he corrupted the young. He was found guilty by the narrow majority of 60 votes out of a total jury of 501 citizens who, alas, got the wrong answer because they didn’t ask the right questions. Characteristically, as he took the cup of hemlock to his lips, Socrates asked a last question—is there life after death? Even in that extreme hour, he talked quietly about the possibility of a future life. To question was for him the breath of life; not to do so was to die within. To differ, argue, probe and even defy may be dangerous, but it is never destructive. We may find the world as we know it collapsing about our ears like a pack of cards. But already that world has been outgrown and, who knows, a newer world is not quite powerless to be born.

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