Socrates, Technocracy, and Islamic Governance
Socrates is regarded as the first moral philosopher of the Western tradition. Hellenic thought became influential for many centuries in both Europe and the Near East, and its influence on the sciences, metaphysics, and moral philosophy was widespread. This work will not entertain the debate on whether Socrates was a prophet of Islam or not – even though some of his claims regarding the gods and his daemon are interesting and peculiar. Rather, I plan on engaging with the political thought attributed to Socrates and making modern inferences. Socrates gained a following in his lifetime and a legacy thereafter, despite no extant evidence that he actually intended on founding an academy. He authored no texts, and everything known about him is posthumous. He was charged with corrupting the youth and failing to accept the official deities; he was subsequently found guilty and executed.
At a glance, it is easy to draw comparisons between the Christian Jesus and Socrates: both were artisans and teachers who made enemies of their respective establishments. Both had disciples that were imbued with ideas that challenged the status quo. Both were tried in court for their alleged blasphemy and sedition. Both bequeathed an institutional legacy. One significant difference is that Socrates came with questions, while Jesus came with answers. Socrates has the aura of a provocateur, even a troll, who asks penetrating questions in order to arrive at moral truths. As Carl Jung wrote, “[The trickster] is a forerunner of the saviour.” It is unclear if Socrates came to many firm conclusions, because in the event of a Hereafter, he says in Plato’s Apology that he would continue to do what he does best: “I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions!”
It is this adventurous and curious spirit that caused Socrates to meet his fateful end. For all intents and purposes, he was an upstanding citizen and veteran – the Apology says that he had not been taken to court up until that point in time, at the age of seventy. However, as somewhat of a rogue that confronted politicians, poets, and artisans alike, the tide of Athenian society had turned against Socrates. Socrates was accused of making “the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.” In a word, his prosecutors had pegged him as a Sophist. The Sophists were a class of polymathic teachers in the fifth century BC who, disreputably, became known for employing rhetoric designed to persuade others. The Sophists gained a reputation for using their skills to impress and entertain others, while speculating on matters they did not fully understand. They were characterized as relativists, and the mood was turning against them.
Socrates was no Sophist, and Plato and Aristotle opposed the Sophists, but one can understand how the average Athenian could mistake Socrates for one. He was so eloquent that, according to the Apology, the prosecution had to even warn the jurors to beware the “force of [his] eloquence.” Prior to the trial, there was even a Greek comedic play – “The Clouds”, by Aristophanes – that satirized Socrates as a natural philosopher who “[talks] a great deal of nonsense.” This contributed to the animus against the great philosopher.
In the Apology, Socrates addresses the two charges made against him: (1) first, how could he be the main (or only) corrupter of the youth; and how could practically the rest of Athens be “improvers” of the youth? Socrates makes an analogy: only specialized horse-trainers have a positive influence on horses, whereas most others would have a negative impact on them. The allegory of the cave in The Republic also implies that most people are deceived by a world of shadows – at least until they are taken out of the cave and made to look directly at the Sun. One can understand how such statements could be taken as indictments of the people and the system of Athens – and perhaps this contributed to the verdict – but we must unpack this point delicately.
Socrates’ trial occurred in a politically-tense climate: the Athenians had just rid their state of an oligarchy installed by Sparta. Socrates was not a supporter of the Thirty Tyrants, but he was not exactly a democrat either. At least according to Plato’s Republic, Socrates proposes a polity of guardians, auxiliaries, and craftsmen. Each group specializes in their respective area; and the guardians are the philosopher-kings who are groomed for enlightened leadership. He also displays his skepticism toward democracy in his conversation with Adeimantus. Socrates compares society to a ship: those who steer the ship should be educated in the rules and demands of seafaring; and likewise, those who run society should be prepared, and not simply basing their votes or their judgments on the intuition or whims of the masses.
Technocracy is a proposed system of government where decision-makers are selected on the basis of their expertise in a certain discipline. While a technocracy does not represent the full scope of Socrates’ political project, Socrates’ proposed society of divided powers and trained rulers resembles a sort of ancient technocracy. His blueprint lacks both direct democracy and representative democracy. It also lacks a hereditary monarchy and nobility. The philosopher-kings are selected for their merit, just as a technocrat is hired for his expertise. While Socrates was certainly a champion of some liberal ideals, when one puts together Socrates’ allegory of the cave, his horse analogy, and his societal blueprint, the image of a philosopher that is skeptical of democracy is clear.
So, according to Islamic primary sources, how astute are his observations? For Socrates, humans are largely foolish (as per his examination of the politicians, poets, and artisans) corrupters (as per his horse analogy). When the Pythian oracle said that none was wiser than Socrates, Socrates interpreted this in his characteristic way: “I neither know nor think that I know.” His admission to his own ignorance was, apparently, the very source of his wisdom. The default person was unwise because they subscribed to preconceived ideas without proper deliberation. The Islamic tradition holds that natural disposition (fitra) of the human being is good. Every created thing is a Muslim, until it is either conditioned out of Islam or it chooses another way. However, societies can collectively deteriorate into a state of foolhardy ignorance (jahiliyya). The Prophet Muhammad (s) brought his people out of this state by reminding them of their accountability on the Day of Judgment.
To further Socrates’ horse analogy, it is worth looking at the Arabic word for politics, which is siyasa. Its root word is s-w-s, which means “to tend, to manage.” It is etymologically connected to the Semitic word “sus”, which means “horse”, and the word was originally used in Bedouin society to refer to the tending and training of beasts. Hence, a sa’is was a manager or trainer of horses and camels. The Prophet Muhammad (s) said, “The Children of Israel were led (tasusuhum, same word as siyasa) by prophets: Whenever a prophet died, another would take over his place.” So, the literal purpose of politics (siyasa) is to civilize people and to train them from acting on their lower animal instincts. A righteous leader makes us better humans and helps us to realize our natural disposition, which is rooted in goodness. The prophets and the saints sought to make citizens out of their nations. It is only disorder and oppression that brings evil out of us.
The Quran does not offer a democratic model of governance. In the cases of the prophets and even the kings, the Quran posits divine designation (nass) and merit (assessed via knowledge and piety) as the main qualifiers for leadership. This can be seen in 39:9:
“Is he who is devoutly obedient during the hours of the night, prostrating and standing [in prayer], fearing the Hereafter and hoping for the mercy of his Lord, [equal to one who is not]? Say: ‘Are those who know equal to those who do not know?’ Only people of understanding will take heed.” (39:9)
This verse indicates that there is a hierarchy of ethics and knowledge. This hierarchy is made manifest in several Quranic examples. For instance, when the Israelites asked God to appoint a king over them, He selected Saul (2:247). They protested, saying that Saul had not been blessed with vast riches, and was not deserving of leadership. God retorted, saying that He designated Saul and blessed him with knowledge and stature. Thus, the divine appointment of God (ja`l ilahi) reigns supreme, but a superiority in knowledge remains an outward sign for one’s place in social hierarchy. If we rewind to the story of Adam, we see a similar precedent. God appoints Adam to be His vicegerent (2:30), and his leadership is demonstrated to the angels through his knowledge of the names (2:31-34).
Direct and representative democracy are absent in the Quran. God appoints the prophets and kings, granting them sacred knowledge and miraculous signs. Yes, there is a recommendation for mutual consultation (shura, 42:38) in matters that are not covered by divine decrees. But there is no insistence that these counselors be elected representatives – they may simply be ministers, viziers, clerics, military strategists, or arbiters.
A hierarchy of knowledge sounds much like a technocracy. Is this what God and His Messenger called for? Let us examine this question through the example of the Caliph ʿAlī, who was, by Sunni and Shia consensus, the most rightful person to rule during his reign. His mastery of the Quran, Islamic law, the Arabic language, diplomacy, and the battlefield made him the most obvious candidate to rule. His legitimacy was further bolstered by his kinship to the Messenger, his status as the first male member of the Umma, and the countless praises he received from the Messenger. ʿAlī immediately enacted economic reforms aimed at eliminating bureaucratic corruption and aiding the poor.
Despite this impressive resumé, there are few moments in Islamic history that were rifer with discord than the tenure of ʿAlī. In just five years, three civil wars broke out between the early Muslims, killing tens of thousands of people and fragmenting the Muslim world for years to come. This occurred despite the leadership of a man that may as well be regarded as a supreme philosopher-king.
Philosopher-kings or technocrats are not the only necessary ingredients to the ideal polis. A society needs moral development at the grassroots level. Otherwise, the right ruler could be eaten alive by rivals, traitors, and insurrectionists. ʿAlī is reported to have said, “The possessor of authority is like a rider on a lion: he is envied for his position, but he knows better.” The lion is more than capable of devouring its owner, even if the owner is trained and informed. Without a God-centric worldview, ingrained in a civilization that values good morals, self-restraint, forbearance, and duty, the right ruler cannot take society where it needs to go. Even in the case of King Saul, mentioned earlier, many of the Israelites rejected his command at the river (2:249). Socrates did not just root his political philosophy in a style of government, but in the governance of the soul. He believed that, in a just man, his appetitive nature and his spirited (zealous) nature had to be governed by reason. Similarly, ʿAlī noted that angels had intellect (ʿaql) and no desire (shahwa), and beasts had desire and no intellect, while humans had both. “Thus, he whose intellect overcomes his desire shall be greater than the angels, and he whose desire overcomes his intellect shall be worse than beasts.” Hence, society is not just governed on a macrocosmic level, but on the microcosmic level – that is, in each human being. Otherwise, it will quickly degenerate.
In 2012, after Egypt’s revolution, Egyptians elected Mohamed Morsi, who had no shortage of accolades. Beyond being elected democratically, he earned his PhD at the University of Southern California, served in the Egyptian army, and served the Egyptian parliament. But after just one year, amid energy crises, the mood had turned against Morsi, and tens of millions of Egyptians rallied to call for his overthrowal. This led the EU-backed Egyptian military to forcibly remove Morsi and install Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as Egypt’s dictator.
In January 2020, Lebanon formed a “technocratic” cabinet to tackle the country’s economic crisis – which, ironically, only worsened after the effects of COVID, the Beirut explosion, the fuel crisis, the water shortage, and the ongoing war in Syria.
Today, while many executive bodies in developed countries still consist of elected representatives, these governments are largely made up of bureaucracies that remain regardless of who wins elections. The bureaucracy can consist of millions of hired employees working in public service, departments, ministries, agencies, commissions, committees, councils, and security. They work hand in glove with large corporations, who also hire employees based on their merit. Conceptually, a meritocracy sounds ideal; and many religious institutions and hierarchies are built on degrees of scholarship. The world is gradually inclining more toward a technocratic model, especially after the spread of COVID-19, where scientists (especially virologists and healthcare professionals) have become the “experts” that are to be “trusted”. After all, an elected official is not always an expert in healthcare; and so, their COVID-related policy decisions have largely relied on expert opinion rather than public opinion.
We are told that the words of experts are to be trusted, or else Big Tech may censor you, and legacy media may mischaracterize you. Dr. Anthony Fauci himself famously said, “Attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science.” But Fauci has also admitted to engaging in noble lies throughout the pandemic regarding herd immunity and masks; and he has made palpably false statements on the vaccine’s efficacy.  Ian Miller’s research on COVID mandates highlights the failure of bureaucracy to predict trends and identify causal factors. Mistakes are definitely inevitable in governance, but the silencing and mischaracterizing of critics can engender distrust in authority and push both free discourse and misinformation echo chambers underground.
The point is that a technocracy is not a magic wand that solves the world’s problems when it is waved. Technocracies come with a few inbuilt concerns. They exclude the vast majority of any population from decision-making; including decisions that pertain to one’s body, one’s mobility, one’s associations, and one’s business life. The power to make and enforce final decisions is given to a fallible group of experts that fit within an institutionally approved scientific consensus. Experts that fall outside of this consensus are, at any given time, stripped of their legitimacy. The consensus-experts form their own echo chamber, which ironically limits the critical thinking and debating needed prior to policy-making. Furthermore, expertise and virtue are not always the same: one may be an expert in their discipline, but still have immoral motivations and influences. Expertise can be misused by an elite few for self-serving purposes. Experts also specialize in very defined areas and may lack a holistic vision on where to take society – our educational system does not train polymaths, and ethics is a tertiary concern in STEM programs.
Without proper governance of the soul, we will not be able to redress our condition. This means that our society, our education systems, our economies, and our media should all be geared towards elevating the human being and cultivating his intellect (ʿaql) and heart (qalb). This is not mere sophistry – instead of undergirding our institutions with liberalist utilitarianism, which is limited to analyzing matters between the two poles of freedom and harm, they should be undergirded with civilizational values. “Is this good for politics?” is a fundamentally different question than “is this good for civilization?”, and both will reap different answers. The legalization of recreational drugs, for example, may be good for politics, but they are forces of stagnation and degeneration.
In many cases, the real sociocultural movers and shakers are education, multimedia, and business. Democratic governments often act on what societies find culturally palatable. Thus, curricula and media programming must be developed that focus not just on “is”, but “ought”; not just on “how”, but “why”. Otherwise, corrupt ideologies and appetitive natures will continue to rule aimlessly, until a society goes through cycles of overthrowals and collapses. A social framework that is rooted in the right metaphysics, ethics, and praxis (or as Muhammad said, a firm sign, a just obligation, and an established tradition) at every level will be our best chance at having an informed and moral society.
The world will always be imperfect, and selfish motivations will always exist. Politics is incredibly complex, and malevolence and manipulation are practical constants in life. Imperfect hands cannot build a complete utopia. But Socrates envisioned a balanced soul that acts as a building block for a civilization. Our political project must start with the self, because God says, “God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11). Simply empowering the right person is not enough. The gears need to turn on an individual, family, business, school, environmental, ecclesiastical, technological, and bureaucratic level. It is time we get to work.
 Nahj al-Balagha, Volume 2, Saying 263.
 `Ilal al-Shara’i`, Volume 1, Chapter 6, Hadith 1)