In ‘The Republic‘, Plato addresses a very interesting aspect: the relationship between the family, society and the ruling system. Although this was not the major aspect the oeuvre was concerned with (it was concerned with justice actually), it was nonetheless a very intriguing aspect where Plato reflected on how the influence of blood ties could be abolished in order to prevent them from interfering with politics and the rulers’ aptitude to act solely in the interest of the community. He went on to suggest a system based on commununism of women and children, arguing that this will destroy affection between husbands and wives on one hand and parents and their offspring on the other. Today, it would be tempting to call Plato a controversialist, but he was a product of his time and many of his thoughts were framed by the social, cultural and political setting of his time and in particular the contrast between the political organization of Sparta (an authoritarian city which gave complete prominence to military training) and Athens (a democracy). The fall from grace of Athens in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War to the advantage of Sparta had rendered the Greek intelligentsia of the time (including Plato) increasingly discontended with democratic principles of governance. Clearly, when put in the context of Plato‘s time and place, The Republic sustains reflections on fascinating political questions and apparently, Al Khomeini based elements of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the Platonic vision of the ideal city. But in this piece, I will only consider the question of family loyalties and their potentially detrimental influence on politics.
As I said earlier, Plato‘s main concern was Justice and how to establish it. He was also passionate about Reason, Knowledge and Truth (hence his appointment of the philosopher-king as the head of state who controls the remaining of the body represented by the less knowledgeable masses). In this perspective, family (by which I mean a human grouping which produces offspring) is critical on two accounts: it is the factory of potential new philosopher-kings and it is the source of potential travesties of justice (through bloodline allegiances). But given that reproduction can take place without the need for a family, considerations pertaining to ensuring the reign of justice take precedence and the family must thus be abolished because it is emotionally charged and potentially divisive. I won’t go into the Platonic details of how this may be achieved because they are frankly quite distateful, but suffice to say that Plato identified a crucial political priniciple: that of organizing a society based on merit, all the way up to the transmission of power. In Plato‘s vision, merit equates with Knowledge, Reason and a passion for seeking the Truth. This is the ultimate manifestation of a Just system.
We do not need to resort to Plato‘s repugnant solutions or proposals to establish this principle. Modern Western democracies are impregnated with meritocratic philosophies. This is also largely the result of their realization, after centuries of dynasties ripping their countries apart over power struggles, that family shouldn’t interfere with politics. There is no perfect system to date to deal properly with the potentially disasterous influence of family over politics, but Western democracies are at least conscious of the problem and have structures in place to attempt to minimize this influence.
In Arab countries however, it is a hopeless case despite the fact that our own history is no less bloody and tumultuous than European history because of competing dynasties and divisive blood allegiances. Our problem is compounded further by the almost sacred place family occupies in our culture and collective psyche, in addition, it is very highly regarded by religion. In fact, I think that family and marriage are a fundamentally religious concept. I cannot see how any system could quite minimize the risks of nepotism in Arabo-Muslim countries, it is virtually impossible unless the entire nation undergoes severe and radical cultural reformatting. Often, these allegiances go beyond the family to include the entire tribe (eg. Algeria and Saudi Arabia). The result is a huge mess, rampant injustice and a continuous degradation of talent and merit. So no wonder the end result will be, indeed is general mediocrity. And isn’t it funny that a number of Arab countries are called republics (when in fact they’re monarchies by all standards)?! Or maybe they are meritocracies, it’s just that in Arab culture, merit equates with being a family member. Hmm, somehow, this doesn’t strike me as being a good definition of merit.