Philosophy of Rationalism from Socrates to Periyar

S Rajaratnam

What is rationalism?

Rationalism is a philosophy which regards reasons to be the chief source and test of knowledge. Rationalists believe that every human problem can be solved in the best possible manner by rationalistic approach. It has historical origin  in scientific approach,  rational choice in decision-making, secularism and irreligion. It is anti-traditionalist and anti-theistic.

History of rationalist philosophy

Greek philosopher Socrates, the father of dialectic approach to rationalism,  was a stone mason with hardly any formal education, but questioned, what proud Athenians believed to be their supremacy over their neighbour, Sparta and the rest of the world, exhorting the Athenians to follow the path of truth.

There is an amazing similarity between Socrates and Periyar E.V.Ramasamy, who too did not have formal  education, but had adopted the technique of  questioning every belief to arrive at the truth. Socrates  believed that blind faith in supernatural powers as governing his destiny had inhibited action in every walk of life.

He debunked the claim of the “twice-born” as heavenly ordained topmost caste and other dogmas.  He regretted that the reform advocated by him would have been realized sooner, if they had responded to his call for joining the movement. Both lived and died for philosophy of rationalism, teaching and practising  it .

Rationalism as a science has its origin in Western philosophy even with Herodotus, the historian or Pythagoras, the mathematician. But it was Socrates, who made it  popular  followed by Roman era to languish thereafter into theology, which brought out  a long period of darkness continued by the Christian revelation in the 13th century.

It is only in the  16th century, Rene Descartes brought the Western philosophy back to reason. He declared that truth could be attained only by reason  by a deductive process. His famous dictum was cogito ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am”. In other words, man exists for thinking and doubting what he believes, so that he can learn from his experience.

According to him, rationalism is the mother of all forms of knowledge. There were other philosophers thereafter like Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, Leibniz and Immanuel Kant. None of these philosophers was ever pre-occupied with either  the existence of God or the alleged immortality of human soul.

In the  19th century, rapid strides were made by following the path of reason by the three great men, who changed the life for better by expanding knowledge. Darwin with his theory of evolution, Marx with his economic theory of capital and social development and Freud with his theories of mind, cleared the cobwebs of superstitions by  paving the way for human development.

Hegel applied these theories of the new break-through in knowledge as to its impact on human evolution. Nietzsche prophesized a generation of supermen as different from today’s men as from monkeys from which this generation evolved. He did not expect revelation from God to do it. He tells the story of some mendicants who were climbing a mountain.

They met some who were coming down the mountain, greeted them and said that they too were going to meet the gods in their abode. Those who came down said they did not see any god, because they have all died. They were asked “How did they die”. “They died laughing because there were still some, who believed that the gods really existed” was the answer.

This story illustrates the contempt the intellectuals of the day had for blind faith bereft of reason. His philosophy of supermen was twisted by Hitler by proclaiming himself as belonging to the race of supermen, the German Aryans and was responsible for the holocaust.

India and China, who had hoary civilizations had relapsed into the dark ages. China was described as a slumbering giant with India too torn by internal strife and superstitions languishing in ignorance. Communism made some change in China, while British rule made similar difference in India.

Socrates and Periyar

The method adopted by Socrates was a dialectic one based on enquiry by putting series of questions on any subject and elicit what could be the best possible answer from the youth of the country in his peripatetic discourses in the roads of Athens with the youth who followed  him  hearing  him questioning those he met to draw out the truth and often exposing their  ignorance much to the amusement of the youth.

Socrates enabled the youth in its town to question their parents and those in power to expose their weaknesses.  The Athenian pride in their supremacy was demolished in the process.

His method was so successful that Aristophanes, a contemporary of his time, wrote a play satirizing its   method as one cunningly clever, in which Socrates by a series of questions to a money lender confuses him and makes  him concede that the money he lent to him cannot lawfully  be recovered!.

Periyar similarly questioned the old order, its value system and the manner in which people were kept in ignorance contributing to the inhuman hierarchical caste system. He travelled extensively propagating his philosophy questioning aggressively every belief. He started a weekly “Kudiarasu” (Government of the People) and a daily Viduthalai” (Independence) both exclusively devoted to his cause. Viduthalai, which is the only daily devoted to his philosophy of  rationalism runs to this day with the  same spirit and devotion of its founder.

Socrates had Plato to propagate his philosophy and Aristotle to institutionalize it, while Periyar has a host of devoted followers with Mr. K.Veeramani  both propagating and institutionalizing his philosophy.

More about Socrates and Periyar

Life of Socrates, as we know from writings of Plato has amazing similarity with that of Periyar fully justifying the description of Periyar as Socrates of the East.  A classic is Plato’s record of trial of Socrates, where he was tried by 500 lay judges with 220 in his favour and 280 against him.  The State asked for death sentence for Socrates for corrupting the youth of the country to disrespect the values of Athenian democracy and to undermine it.

Escape from Athens was suggested to him but he rejected it with contempt. Request for pardon and self-extradition were suggested by the judges themselves, which were similarly rejected by him with the argument that he did not do anything, which required him to ask for pardon.

In fact, he said that he had been telling the citizens to obey the law, so that he should be given a salary or pension for his service to the State instead of having to face a trial.  When he was told that he could avoid death sentence by opting to leave Athens or promising to reform himself, he said, “I have lived in poverty but without fear.

I will not do anything out of fear of death.” He advised the judges to follow his example. He derided their offer of life as he was even otherwise not much longer to live because of his age. He said that no one knows whether there is a life after death. While he did not expect an after life, he had  no reason to fear it, as he had led a good life.

He advised the judges that they too must not think of wealth as it would not give them happiness. He added, if any one lives for wealth alone as his only goal, they should punish him and even if he were his own son.  The judges felt that his provocative speech was extremely arrogant and sentenced him to death by being  poisoned.

Socrates faced death with equanimity talking to his numerous disciples. He regretted in his life that he was only missing learning music, which he wanted to learn. When the poison benumbed his feet, he could not walk steadily. He sat down asking the women to leave. When his men friends began to weep, he told them that it was only to avoid such scene, he sent away the women. He asked them to allow him to die in peace.

Then he went for a bath, saying that it would spare the women from washing his body after his death (apparently referring to a ceremonial practice).  Even as he was dying, he did not lose his sense of  humour. He said, that his wife had promised to sacrifice a cock to a deity, if his  illness (probably asthma) was cured.  Now that it would be “cured” by his death, he said that the sacrifice of a cock might be made to the deity for answering her  prayer.

He died peacefully.  The trial and the dialogues, where he chided both the tyranny as well as irresponsible democracy in equal measure, had made his philosophy popular.

Periyar on his part led a busy life looking after his ancestral business, then public service as Chairman of a municipality and a trustee of a temple, joined political movement carrying shoulder-load of hand-made cloth (khadi) by way of resistance to the British rulers for killing Indian textile industry  thereby following Mahatma Gandhi, but later had difference with the  political leaders of the day, because they would not speak against the caste system nor subscribe to his appeal for reservation of jobs in Government services for the underprivileged.

He formed a party without, however, any political agenda, since he believed in awareness of self-respect and belief in reason to eradicate superstitions, caste system and all other ills in society. He has been sent to jail more than once for disturbing  peace  by his irreligious speeches and writings for showing disrespect to the Constitution of India for its endorsement of irrational law in the name of religion, but willingly invited punishment as he would still abide by law, same as Socrates did when he accepted death sentence.

His iconoclastic approach questioned all the traditions and beliefs, while all the time he proclaimed that he did not want any one to take his words for truth, but to think for himself.  When someone referring to his atheistic belief asked “what would you do, if the God comes before you?” he immediately responded that “he would then accept him, if he does come” is a classic example of open mind, which is a true illustration of his  philosophy of rationalism.

His role in promoting education, formation of policies for reservation of jobs for the under-privileged and women’s empowerment has been phenomenal.  He achieved something more than Socrates even during his life time in making a perceptible change in removing discrimination to a significant extent and bringing some relief to the suppressed classes with this message now spreading all over India with faith in reason as a solution for many of the ills of the country with wider support from persons like  Amartya Sen (Nobel Laureate) playing a major role for promoting secularism and social justice. Indian Constitution has in Article 51A now provides for promotion of scientific temper, the cultivation of which the rationalist philosophy has played a major role.

He travelled incessantly practising  his philosophy and speaking and writing voluminously till his last when he was 94. He had active life, organized protest meeting, led a protest (satyagraha) successfully at Vaikom (Kerala) to remove  untouchability.  He declared that he had no attachment or hatred towards any particular country, people or language and that he was guided solely by the  love of humanity and the need to serve.  His life is his message of rationalism to humanity.


Society is evolving itself into an egalitarian community without any distinction as between race, religion, caste,  colour  or gender and to avail the benefit of scientific research, but the progress had been tardy.  It has been a long journey from Socrates to Periyar, but hopefully the journey from here for evolution of  human kind  will not be that long.

Courtesy: Modern Rationalist