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Our Greek tragedy

In 399 BC, Socrates stood before a jury of 500 Athenians his peers accused of “refusing to recognise the gods recognised by the state” and “corrupting the youth.” The penalty was to be death. After hearing the arguments of 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.

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 for 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 till 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, the tears came in floods, so that 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 lived nearly 2400 years ago during the time of Athens transition from the heights of glory to 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 offenses 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 last years of Socrates’ life saw Athens experience constant political and economic upheaval. The Thirty Tyrants – a junta who overthrew democracy – ruled for about a year before the return to democracy came about. At this point it declared a status quo-driven ‘amnesty’ for all recent events.

This was like the NRO of today and Socrates challenged it. Rather than accepting what he perceived as opportunistic power-based immorality within his state, Socrates spoke out against the very popular notion of ‘might makes right’. 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 for him and are now turning to the same wise man for help. 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 Tahirul Qadri is 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. Qadri too irritated the men and perhaps a few heavily coated and painted women of status quo in Pakistan. He 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.

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 like a death knell to the country’s deeply-entrenched status-quo-driven feudal, tribal and elitist power structure.

He spoke the truth, calling for 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 hardship and misery. 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 the very antithesis 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 the politicians their true face in the mirror. No wonder, there was so much political rumpus. How dare he challenge the domain to which nobody, not even successive military dictators, could ever bring change? Qadri’s crime was no different from that of Socrates. He had to be punished.

No sooner did Qadri give his last ultimatum, sending heartbeats and pulse rates shooting, the ‘jury’ arrived. The curtains of 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. There couldn’t be a more comic end to our ‘Greek tragedy.’

The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: shamshad1941@yahoo.com

Shamshad Ahmad, "Our Greek tragedy," The News. 2013-01-25.