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Principles of Good Governance Advocated By Ancient Philosophers

by Lakshman Indranath Keerthisinghe, The Sunday Leader, Colombo, October 23, 2011

In his early days a tyrant has a smile and a kind word for everyone, he says he is no tyrant, makes large promises, public and private, frees debtors; distributes land to the people and to his own followers and puts on a generally mild and kind air. When he has disposed of his enemies by agreements or destruction, and has no more to fear from them, he will in the first place stir up war in order that the people may continue to need a leader and the high level of war taxation will also enable him to reduce the people to poverty and force them to attend to earning their daily bread rather than to plotting against him.

A king with a depleted treasury eats into the very vitality of the citizens and the country

In the happiness of his subjects lies the king’s happiness; in their welfare his welfare. He shall not consider as good only that which pleases him but treat as beneficial to him whatever pleases his subjects
(1.19.34 Kautilya – The Arthashastra – Penguin Classics p.x.)

At a time when there is much conflict of opinion as to the principles of democracy and the travails of autocracy or dictatorship, it is relevant to note the advice given by ancient philosophers regarding such matters.

There is a saying that history repeats itself and another to the effect that one should learn from the experiences of past history.

Some thoughts on good governance and related topics advocated by three great ancient philosophers, which appear to be relevant at the present time are considered herein. One of the said philosophers is Kautilya (also known as Chanakya and Vishnugupta), who lived in India around 150AD.

The others are the two great Greek philosophers Plato (427-347BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC), who stand with Socrates as the shapers of the whole intellectual tradition of the West. The thoughts are extracted from that detailed manual of state-craft and the science of living known as the Arthashastra written by one of classical India’s greatest minds Kautilya, Plato’s great work known as ‘The Republic’ and Aristotle’s treatise titled ‘The Politics”.

The King

Kautilya in his Arthashastra speaking of the King or the ruler expressed the following thoughts: ‘a king with a depleted treasury eats into the very vitality of the citizens and the country’ (1.1.16). At the same time ‘a king, who impoverishes his own people or angers them by unjust exactions will also lose their loyalty’ (7.5.27).

Kautilya further states ‘impoverishment, greed and dissatisfaction are engendered among the subjects, when the king:

(i)     ignores the good people and favours the wicked;
(ii)     causes harm by new unrighteous practices;
(iii)    neglects the observation of proper and righteous practices;
(iv)    suppresses dharma and propagates adharma;
(v)    does what ought not to be done and fails to do what ought to be done;
(vi)    fails to give what ought to be given and exacts what he cannot rightly take;
(vii)    does not punish those who ought to be punished but punishes those who do not deserve to be;
(viii)    arrests those who should not be arrested but fails to arrest those who should be seized;
(ix)    indulges in wasteful expenditures and destroys profitable undertakings;
(x)    fails to protect the people from thieves and robs them himself;
(xi)    does not do what he ought to do and reviles the work done by others;
(xii)    causes harm to the leaders of the people and insults those worthy of honour;
(xiii)    antagonizes the wise (elders) by lying and mischief;
(xiv)    does not recompense service done to him;
(xv)    does not carryout his part of what has been agreed upon and
(xvi)    by his indolence and negligence destroys the welfare of his people’ (7.7.19-26).

Kautilya further stated ‘The king should hear at once all urgent matters and not postpone them, for postponement makes them more difficult and sometimes even impossible to settle.’

‘The king shall be ever active in the management of the economy. The root of wealth is economic activity and lack of it brings material distress. In the absence of a fruitful economic activity, both current prosperity and future growth will be destroyed. A king can achieve the desired objective and abundance of riches by undertaking productive economic activity.’

The Ministers

Explaining the need of a Cabinet of Ministers Kautilya states,

'because the work of the government is diversified and is carried on simultaneously in many different places, the king cannot do it all himself; he, therefore, has to appoint ministers who will implement such work at the right time and place’. Regarding the appointment of Ministers it is said: Every man shall be judged according to his ability to perform a given task.

The king shall appoint as Ministers all those judged to be fit to hold ministerial office and divide the work of the government among them, taking into account each one’s ability and the nature of the work assigned to him (1.8.28-29).

Before appointment as a Minister the king shall investigate the qualities of such candidate. The candidate’s knowledge of the various arts shall be tested by experts in their respective fields. Intelligence, perseverance and dexterity shall be evaluated by examining his past performance, while eloquence, boldness and presence of mind shall be ascertained by interviewing him personally.

Watching how he deals with others will show his energy, endurance, forbearance, integrity, loyalty and friendliness; the king shall find out about his strength, health and character (whether lazy or energetic, fickle or steady). The candidate’s amiability and love of mankind (absence of a tendency to hate) shall be ascertained by personal observations (1.9.3). ‘The ministers shall constantly think of all that concerns the king as well as those of the enemy. They shall start doing all that has not yet been done, continue implementing that which has been started, improve on works completed and in general ensure strict compliance with orders. (1.15.51-52)

The king shall test the integrity of his ministers by a variety of secret tests. Four kinds of tests are based on dharma, artha, kama and fear. These tests are designed to entice a person to defect by appeals to his religious sentiments or piety, by promise of financial reward, by temptation of the flesh or by playing on fear.’ (1.10.1)

Joint agreements and treaties

Regarding joint agreements Kautilya states:-

‘The choice of the joint activity partner being made on the basis of relative strength a king should terminate prudently such arrangement, in such a manner that he preserves his independence and power’ (7.5.45-49).

Speaking of treaties Kautilya states

‘An equal treaty (or agreement) is one in which the stronger king gets a greater share, and equally powerful king an equal share and a weak king a smaller share, while an unequal treaty (or agreement) is one in which, a strong, equal or weak king does not get a share according to his power.

An exceptionally unequal treaty (or agreement) is one in which the signatories get a disproportionately large share. When the benefit accruing to kings under a treaty, irrespective of their status as weaker, equal or stronger party, is fair to each one, peace by agreement shall be the preferred course of action, but if the benefits are to be distributed unfairly war is preferable’ (7.8.34).

‘A king may enter into an equal treaty with another of equal strength for the loan of forces, (i) expert in fighting the kind of forces which the enemy, the enemy’s ally or jungle tribes might use, (ii) conversant with the unfavourable terrain of the enemy’s country or (iii) protect his base or rear. A neighbour thus approached may agree to the loan of troops if he is convinced of the honourable intentions of the proposer; otherwise the proposer shall be considered hostile,’ (7.7.1617)

Tyrannical Character

Plato in his work ‘The Republic’ describes a tyrant as follows:

In his early days a tyrant has a smile and a kind word for everyone, he says he is no tyrant, makes large promises, public and private, frees debtors; distributes land to the people and to his own followers and puts on a generally mild and kind air. When he has disposed of his enemies by agreements or destruction, and has no more to fear from them, he will in the first place stir up war in order that the people may continue to need a leader and the high level of war taxation will also enable him to reduce the people to poverty and force them to attend to earning their daily bread rather than to plotting against him.

If he suspects anyone of having ideas of freedom and not submitting to his rule he can find an excuse to get rid of them by handing them over to the enemy. For all those reasons a tyrant must always be provoking war. If some of the bolder characters among those who helped him to power and now hold positions of influence begin to speak freely to him and to each other and blame him for what is happening then if he is to retain power he must root them out, all of them, till there is not a man of any consequence left whether friend or foe.

A tyrant must keep a sharp eye for men of courage or vision or intelligence or wealth for whether he likes it or not it is his happy fate to be their constant enemy and to intrigue until he has purged them from the state.

The doctor purges the poison and leaves the healthy elements in the body whereas a tyrant does the opposite. He is compelled to make the happy choice between a life with companions most of whom are worthless and all of whom hate him and an inevitable death.

The greater the unpopularity of his policy the larger and more trustworthy must his bodyguard be. He calls tyranny god-like and praises it in many other ways. Such tyrants will make a tour of other states where they will hire actors, with their fine persuasive voices, to play their work to large audiences and sway them over to tyranny or democracy. The tyrant will use violence against the people who fathered him and raise his hand against them if they oppose him when he has disarmed them.

The tyrant will keep a gang collected partly from evil company and partly from impulses within himself which these same evil practices have freed from restraint. In times of complete peace they stay at home and commit a lot of minor crimes.
Men of this kind behave in the same sort of way in private life before they have gained power. Their companions are parasites in every way subservient to them and they are themselves always prepared to give way and put on the most extravagant act of friendship if it suits their purpose, though once their purpose is achieved their tune changes.

Tyrannical characters pass their lives without a friend in the world; they are always either master or slave and taste true friendship or freedom. They are faithless men. When a natural tyrant gets absolute power, the longer he holds it truer he runs to type.’ Plato-The Republic translated by Desmond Lee second Edition revised – pp327-336 Penguin Classics For the sake of brevity the above description has been condensed from a dialogue contained in the aforesaid pages.)

The State

Aristotle in his treatise ‘The Politics’ describes a state as an association and states thus:

‘Among all men, then, there is a natural impulse towards this kind of association and the first man to construct a state deserves credit for conferring very good benefits. For as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, as he is worst of all when divorced from law and justice.
Injustice armed is hardest to deal with and though man is born with weapons, which he can use in the service of practical wisdom and virtue but is all too easy for him to use them for the opposite purposes. Hence a man without virtue is the most savage, the most unrighteous and the worst in regard to sexual license and gluttony.

The virtue of justice is a feature of a state; for justice is the arrangement of the political association and a sense of justice decides what is just.’ (Aristotle – ‘The Politics’ translated by T. A. Sinclair -Penguin Classics at p.61)

The relevance of the above thoughts by the above-mentioned great philosophers who lived many centuries ago in the context of the present political situation in the world and in our land in particular is left to the reader to decide upon.