Plato’s Republic… of Nigeria

Simply Amazing! that Plato guy… Another amazing thing, how people get away with absurd claims with contradictions unchecked. It is worth paying attention when these claims turn into beliefs and then into a way of life. Plato (or Socrates) could easily be attributed with the gift of foresight (clairvoyance) because this guy has predicted so many things; well, not by prophecies but by creating literature works where our fundamental issues of today are explored. Isn’t that the role of a Philosopher to investigate our most fundamental concepts? Or could it be that history is simply repeating itself? In any case, I have heard Plato being commended for his insight but only now have I heard him talking about my Nigeria. Didn’t I say he is amazing? Reading The Republic Book 1 could be read as Plato diagnosing the attitude of Nigerians to questionable/corrupt leaders…

Plato looking a little African

In The Republic Book 1, Socrates (the main character) investigates what Justice is. He takes three perspectives: Older Generation, Midlife Generation and Sophists. Our interest is on the Sophists. Who are the Sophists? Sophists were people in ancient Greece who claimed to know what it means to succeed in life but nevertheless had little or no concrete idea of what success means. This is not a problem for Sophists because to a Sophist, having concrete ideas is not important, however making an idea look concrete is very important. One could say they don’t even teach success, but they teach one how to appear to be successful, and how to convince oneself that one is successful. Today, the closest examples to Sophists are those motivational speakers that sell the formulas to success in life. There are religious Sophists as well. Caution, I am not saying these people are all sophists, I am saying that if there are Sophists today, they would blend in right within these groups perfectly not because of any fault of these groups, but because of the way other people consume information that comes from these groups uncritically! In The Republic, Socrates engages Thrasymachus who is a sophist (at least in training) concerning the definition of Justice and Injustice. By Justice they don’t mean it in the sense of reprimand to balance an injustice committed, but in the sense of what is good, and what is not.

Thrasymachus thinks good guys finish last and that justice is simply to finish first with the most personal advantage. What?! He thinks any other way of looking at it is just naive/idealistic. Doesn’t that ring a Nigerian bell? This is what he says to Socrates:

… You must look at the matter, my extraordinarily simple-minded friend, in the following way: the just man is always a loser compared to the unjust man. First, he loses when it comes to private contracts: when a just man has an unjust partner, and the partnership is at an end, you will find that the unjust man walks away with more and the just man gets less. Second, in dealings with the state: when it’s time to pay taxes, the just man pays more and the unjust man less on estates of equal value. Likewise, when there is anything to be gotten the one gains nothing, the other much. Look also at what happens when it comes to serving in public office: apart from any other loss, the just man can count on his personal affairs suffering from his neglect, while he, because of his justice, makes no profit from the state. To make matters still worse, he is hated by his friends and associates because he refuses to help them bend and break the law. Reason & Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato – John Holbo and Belle Waring

How typically Nigerian is that? The exception is that Thrasymachus is actually bold about this position. Many others behave consistent with this idea but are not bold enough to say it.

It has always appalled me how Nigerians talk about questionable/corrupt leaders as heroes! Many (traditional) musicians even make loads of praise songs on them; of course they get well compensated even if no royalties. A melodic sycophancy. This extends to their staffs, family and friends who basically make them believe that they are heroes for getting rich at the expense of the people they serve, as long as family and friends “benefit”. This is all sycophancy and opportunism. On the other hand there is the average person who does not fall under the circles of family and friends of these corrupt leaders, yet they sing the praises of the leaders. This group has nothing to gain (at least immediately), they appear to believe at a fundamental level that what the leaders do is justified. Sometimes they out-rightly praise the scheming abilities of these leaders with an eye towards emulating them if they were to be in that position. Other times they justify the bad of the leaders as necessary evil to be in a position to do good; good sometimes meaning personally doing a fraction of what they ought to be doing officially; e.g. they loot part of a budget for social amenities, then go back to their communities and personally erect structures.

Yet Nigerians are very sensitive to crimes, very sensitive. Nigerians are quick to carry out jungle justice on petty criminals like petty thieves, while celebrating the big-time criminals. This is exactly what Thrasymachus, our sophist, says to defend his claim. Thrasymachus continues:

… But the tables are turned in the case of the unjust man. I am speaking, as I have been from the very start, of the man with the power to commit excesses on a massive scale. Consider such a man, then, if you wish to judge can judge for yourself how much more he personally profits by being unjust, rather than just. You’ll see what I mean most easily if we turn to that highest form of injustice—the case in which the criminal is the happiest man on earth, and his victims, and those who refuse to commit crimes are the most miserable. In a word, I speak of tyranny, when, by force or fraud, property is stolen from its owners not little by little but wholesale. Everything goes into one bag: sacred things as well as profane—private and public. Were someone to commit these acts on a petty scale and fail to get away with it, he would be severely punished and regarded with the worst kind of contempt. Those who commit such partial forms of injustice are called temple robbers, kidnappers, burglars, conmen and thieves. But if men will go to the additional trouble of relieving their victims of their freedom as well as their property—enslaving the citizens—why, then, far from being called these insulting names they are deemed happy and blessed, not only by their fellow-citizens, but by all who hear that they have ascended to the very pinnacle of perfect injustice. For it is not the fear of doing wrong, but of being a victim of it, that calls forth people’s denunciations of injustice. Thus, Socrates, injustice, committed on a grand scale, is a stronger, freer, more masterful thing than justice, and—as I declared from the very start—justice is the advantage of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest. Reason & Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato – John Holbo and Belle Waring

This claim is disturbing to the average person. And trust me this argument is not as easy to dismantle as it appears. It is relief to know that Socrates succeeded in arguing that justice is actually NOT the advantage of the stronger, to which Thrasymachus eventually concedes, reluctantly. Plato’s The Republic is basically a blueprint to a Utopia; the ideal human society. By dealing with Justice in Book 1, Plato underlies the centrality of Justice in a good society. Also, by attempting to clear wrong ideas about Justice, Plato is showing how there can’t be a good society built on a bad conception of Justice. Thrasymachus gave Plato a tough time in Book 1, which means it may be a little difficult to deal with those that think along Thrasymachus’ ideas. What does it mean when you have many Thrasymachus leading you, and even among the followers? You have Nigeria as it is!

Certainly these issues are not limited to Nigeria but it is interesting to see it through the Nigerian lens. The word “Republic” may have originated from the latin translation of The Republic. Isn’t it ironic that Nigeria, which is a “Republic” represents what is wrong with the idea of a Republic?


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