Last time, we saw that Plato had the opportunity to live under several different kinds of regime, and that consequently he could testify from personal experience that democracies, aristocracies, and tyrannies are all alike capable of stupidity and brutality. Fortunately, he got away from his adventures with his hide intact. Safely back home in Athens, he tried to make some sense of what he’d learned. Every form of government seemed defective – yet if that were so, how could meaningful political action be made possible? Plato found a solution, and it’s unique.
Other political theorists – for example, the architects of our Constitution, James Madison, et. al. – have taken for granted that rulers, however they might be chosen, will at times be inept and/or dishonest, and that their powers therefore need to be checked and limited. Plato maintains that systems are doomed when unfit pretenders rise to the top, and the only solution is to make certain that those in charge are always upright and able, so they’ll use their powers responsibly and appropriately. Besides Plato, no one thinks this is possible, but let’s give him a hearing – it’s not like the alternative answers have delivered a perfect world.
Plato’s political ideal is generally presented in a way not calculated to be taken seriously – as the rule of philosopher-kings. Plato, of course, was a philosopher. And the phrase conjures up images of the state being governed by the kind of folks making up the philosophy departments of our great universities. Plato has been subjected to a certain degree of understandable ridicule on this score. Philosophy PhDs aren’t known for any special practical capability, and it isn’t easy to see how even the most profound understanding of epistemology or logical positivism would be useful in managing the kinds of real-world issues – taxation, national defense, social welfare policy, etc. – that the political leadership has to grapple with.
But, of course, that isn’t what Plato is suggesting.
When Plato speaks of philosophers, he always has someone specific in mind – his beloved preceptor, Socrates. Thus, for him, philosopher-kings simply are rulers who’ll do the sorts of things Socrates would’ve done, if the Athenians had been smart enough to make him their leader, instead of executing him.
What, exactly, does that entail?
Plato provides a most illuminating picture of his teacher in one of his earliest-written dialogues, the Apology, which purports to be Socrates’ speech to the jury in his trial for corrupting the youth and impiety. Notwithstanding the title, it isn’t apologetic. Socrates boasts of the practices that’ve led him into legal peril, and vows to continue his activities unabated if he’s found innocent. How could he not have been convicted? He believes he’s acting in obedience to the commandment of a God – a statement that likely offended his hearers, more than it impressed them – and he fears it would be impious to renounce his assigned task.
Socrates doesn’t claim to possess any particular sagacity, so he was surprised, he says, when the Delphic Oracle pronounced that no one was wiser than himself. He felt this couldn’t be right, so he decided to prove the Oracle wrong by consulting “one who had the reputation of wisdom.” Once he found someone clearly wiser than himself, he reasoned, he could request clarification from the God. Yet this alleged sage proved “not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself.” Other supposed savants – politicians, poets, artisans – were also found wanting. Yet Socrates himself felt no wiser. What did the Oracle signify?
Eventually, the truth dawned. Whenever Socrates detected the shortcomings of some know-it-all of great reputation, he reflected that “although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.” The God singled out Socrates as the wisest, not because he knows more than others do, but because, unlike others, he knows there’s much he has yet to learn.
So, when Plato asserts that the state should be ruled by philosophers, he means it should be ruled by persons like Socrates – curious, always inquiring of others regarding their versions of the truth; critical, demanding that these others justify their statements with good reasons; and intellectually humble, accepting that their own knowledge is as incomplete as anyone else’s, and that they, like the rest of the world, can make mistakes. What ruins states, in Plato’s opinion, is not ignorance per se – everyone is ignorant – but assertive ignorance, self-confident ignorance, ignorance so deep and impenetrable that it fancies itself wisdom, and sees no need to go beyond itself.
I’m speaking abstractly now, of course. The Goddess forbid that these words be taken to refer to anyone in authority today.
If Plato is right, and the intellectual posture of the rulers is more important than the exact balance of governmental powers, the question becomes: how can we ensure that individuals with the proper attitude are selected to be our leaders? Plato left us a blueprint for doing that – in his greatest dialogue, The Republic. Teachers try to instill a Socratic outlook in their students, and don’t always fail. Whether being like Socrates is helpful in the contest for power, is a question for another time.
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