Intellectuals in politics

Kayode Fayemi


From generation to generation, a segment of the society has always concerned itself with the business of public debate and advancement of specific position on topical issues.


This segment of the society is known for its analytical and deeply persuasive agglutination of problems and prescription of solutions to contemporary concerns. In most cases than not, they have often served as springboards for radical social changes with enduring implications.


Most times, they serve as social change agenda-setters through vigorous pursuit of a new cause and an agitation to reinvent and innovate from an unworkable experience. Where they are not professional academics themselves, they help to kick-start academic conversation around issues they seek to put in the front burner for public discourse.


Historically, dating back to the Classical Age, Socrates and his students, especially Plato who was reputed for his rigorous appraisal of public concern in a deeply philosophical and academic manner, were deeply concerned with public affairs as intellectuals. Plato’s

The Republic clearly attested to the role of a public intellectual in a polity. One of the favourite quotations that is often associated with Plato in The Republic is his riposte that: “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils – no, nor the human race, as I believe, – and then only will our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day – Plato (427-347 B.C.)”


There is no doubt that Socrates was a thought-leader, a public intellectual and a philosopher who had a tremendous influence on his contemporary society and beyond. Plato, his student who helped to record most of what is known of Socrates devoted much of his attention to the challenge of intellectual content in the administration of Athens. In fact, the word


“Academy” came to be known as we know it today, because of the Academy he founded in the olive grove of Acamemus where he propagated the Pythagorean ideology he came about in Sicily. Aristotle who served his tutelage under Plato went on to further expound the many subjects of enquiry which had engaged the attention of his academic forebears.


He is remembered for giving academic definitions and distinctions to many of the enduring field of academic studies as we know them today. The two of them are mostly celebrated for their influence on western thought and philosophy which are the pillars upon which western systems are erected.


Even though Plato was deeply interested in the politics of his time, especially the circumstances that led to the execution of Socrates, he vigorously spoke against democracy but advocated a system of government which he propagated in his book, Plato’s Communism, where he argued that only the well informed in the society should be involved in the affairs of State.


In other words, Plato believed only the well-educated and public-spirited intellectuals should be in charge of the governance of the people. While this is definitely inconsistent with the universal suffrage and popular representation that we have today, it only headlines the importance that was attached to public intellect in the society. In other clime and during another epoch, intellectuals have not only served as moral compass and conscience, they have played pre-eminent roles in the political life of their country. In Great Britain, for instance, John Donne (1571-1631) a celebrated metaphysical poet, lawyer, theologian, priest and social critic was also a public intellectual in government as he served as a diplomat, Member of Parliament and Secretary of the Lord of the Keeper of the Seal in the government of the United Kingdom. John Milton was an excellent poet, public servant and more importantly, the father of freedom of speech during his time. His critics were wont of calling him an acrimonious and surly republican because of his opposition to monarchy and vehement advocacy for republican ideology. Edmund Burke (1729-1794) was another great poet and social commentator who was also a distinguished Member of Parliament. Another great example is Richard B. Sheridan (1751-1816), a playwright and politician.

He was not only a socialite, public commentator but one of the finest parliamentary debaters of his era. In the United State of America, founding fathers such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were vociferous campaigners against British government policy in the American colonies. They used the instrumentality of public intellectualism


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