Friday, June 27, 2008


Political Philosophy proper began with the Greeks. It may be true that that all succeeding political philosophy is a footnote to and commentary on Plato. [1]

This view could perhaps to due to the fact that, as observed by Professor Paul Carteledge of the University of Cambridge:

Much of our political terminology is Greek in etymology: aristocracy, democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, tyranny, to take just the obvious examples, besides politics itself and its derivatives…It is the ancient Greeks, though, who more typically function as our “ancestors in the political sphere, ideologically, mythologically and symbolically.”[2]

No political writer or scholar can ignore the Republic. It is a book not only on politics but also on psychology, morality, and education.
In his History of Western Philosophy (1945), Bertrand Russell sees three parts in Plato's Republic: [3]
1. Book I-V: the Utopia part, portraying the ideal community, starting from an attempt to define justice;
2. Book VI-VII: since philosophers are seen as the ideal rulers of such community, this part of the text concentrates on defining what a philosopher is;
3. Book VIII-X: discusses several practical forms of government, their pros and cons.
The Republic is also a critique of the accepted Athenian idea of all citizens participating and ruling in politics. To Plato, ruling was a distinct craft, to be exercised by trained rulers. The Republic was an ideal regime where there are distinctions drawn between the citizens of the state, not on the basis of their possession of material wealthy, but on what part of the soul was dominant in their character.

Professor Michael Curtis wrote:

“The three elements of the soul- apetitite, courage and reason- were related to class and to function in the state. If appetite or the satisfaction of physical desires dominated, the individual would be in the laboring class, if it was spirit or courage, he would be a warrior, if it was reason, or the faculty of possessing true knowledge, he would be a ruler. Constitutions were thus related to the character of a citizen body. The good state, like the good man, possessed the characteristics of temperance, courage, wisdom and justice.”[4]

The Philosopher as king in Plato’s Republic

The introduction of the idea of philosopher rulers is the greatest of all the revolutionary moments Plato has prepared for readers of the Republic[5], wrote University of Cambridge Professor Malcolm Schofield.

Plato wrote:

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, --nor the human race, as I believe, --and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day. Such was the thought, my dear Glaucon, which I would fain have uttered if it had not seemed too extravagant; for to be convinced that in no other State can there be happiness private or public is indeed a hard thing.[6]

And who are the philosophers, Plato defined them as:

Very true, he said. Whereas he who has a taste for every sort of knowledge and who is curious to learn and is never satisfied, may be justly termed a philosopher? Am I not right?
Glaucon said: If curiosity makes a philosopher, you will find many a strange being will have a title to the name. All the lovers of sights have a delight in learning, and must therefore be included. Musical amateurs, too, are a folk strangely out of place among philosophers, for they are the last persons in the world who would come to anything like a philosophical discussion, if they could help, while they run about at the Dionysiac festivals as if they had let out their ears to hear every chorus; whether the performance is in town or country --that makes no difference --they are there. Now are we to maintain that all these and any, who have similar tastes, as well as the professors of quite minor arts, are philosophers?
Certainly not, I replied; they are only an imitation. He said: Who then are the true philosophers? Those, I said, who are lovers of the vision of truth.[7]

To Plato, philosophers are never misfits or useless to the cities they belong. To illustrate this, Plato wrote a parable and said:

The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering --every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

And as to the query why philosophers are uniquely suitable to establish and then govern the ideal or near ideal city, Plato identified the following qualities of a philosopher-king:

1. Their passionate desire for truth and its workings on and in his soul;

2. While most people look below to human affairs and become filled with envy and hatred, Philosophers study and know the good. Knowledge of the good implies being good.

3. Philosophers shape the lives of others when they are placed in positions of rule.

Critique on the Philosopher as king

Much of the critique on Plato focuses on the analysis that the state regime that he philosophizes can be considered as totalitarian in some extent.

The Standford University Encyclopedia justifies this as follows:
Some of the most heated discussions of the politics of Plato's Republic have surrounded the charge of totalitarianism famously advanced by Karl Popper (in The Open Society and its Enemies). Like the other "isms" we have been considering, totalitarianism applies to the Republic only conditionally, depending on the definition of ‘totalitarianism’ offered.
First, we might define as totalitarian those regimes in which the political power is concentrated in one bloc, and the ruled have no alternative. On this definition, the ideal city of Plato's Republic is surely totalitarian. Socrates carefully argues that the ruled in his "Kallipolis" (as the ideal city is sometimes called) endorse the ruling party. When he argues that those without knowledge will concede that only the philosophers have knowledge (476d-480a), he is in effect demonstrating his confidence that the non-philosophers in Kallipolis will recognize the appropriateness of rule by philosophers. And if he is correct that in ideally ruled circumstances, even the producers who locate their good in the satisfaction of necessary appetitive attitudes will have optimally satisfied psychological attitudes, then he is justified in thinking that the ruled will find Kallipolis to be ideally ruled. So by showing concern for the consent of the governed, Socrates is painting a totalitarian state nicer than some, but he is still, by the first definition, painting a totalitarian state.
Second, we might define as totalitarian those regimes that exercise propagandistic control over the values and interests of the ruled. Again, by this definition, the ideal city of Plato's Republic will count as totalitarian. There is no doubt that the censored education in Kallipolis represent totalitarian concerns, as does Kallipolis' use of a "noble lie" to convince citizens' of their unequal standing and deep tie to the city (414b-415d). Before we assess this totalitarianism, however, we might want to evaluate its aims. Does the state or the ruling class have its own distinctive interests that are being served prior to and independent of the interests of the ruled? Or is the propaganda in the service of the interests of the ruled?
These questions bring us to the heart of the traditional dispute about totalitarianism in Plato's Republic. On one extreme view, Plato conceives of the city as a whole as an organic unity with its own interests, and he refuses to recognize the interests of individual citizens apart from that organic unity. The propaganda forces the citizens to serve the city. But this can hardly be right, as the Republic is supposed to provide a picture not just of a happy city but also of a happy individual person. Plato must have a conception of an individual's good that is independent of the city's good.
On the opposite extreme, Plato conceives of the city's good as nothing more than the aggregate good of all the citizens. On this view, citizens need to contribute to the city's happiness only because they need to contribute to the happiness of other citizens if they are to achieve their own maximal happiness. Propaganda is required only because the weakest citizens will not do what is in their interests on their own: the totalitarianism is paternalistic. Yet this view, too, seems at odds with much of what the Republic is trying to do. When Socrates says that the happiest city is a maximally unified city (462ab), or when he insists that all the citizens need to be bound together (519e-520a), he seems to be invoking a conception of the city's good that is not reducible to the aggregate good of the citizens.
So a mixed interpretation might seem to be called for. We can suppose that the good of the city and the good of the individual are independently specifiable, and that the citizens' own maximal good coincides with the maximal good of the city. Since Plato believes that this coincidence is realized only through propagandistic means in the ideal city, then the propaganda is paternalistically targeted at the citizens' own good but not exclusively at the citizens' own good. On this view, if the citizens do not see themselves as parts of the city serving the city, neither the city nor they will be maximally happy.

Such criticisms of Plato are however not the generally accepted norm on how the Republic should be read and analyzed. Some of Plato’s proposals have led theorists like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom to ask readers to consider the possibility that Socrates was creating not a blueprint for a real city, but a learning exercise for the young men in the dialogue. There are many points in the construction of the "Just-City-in-Speech" that seem contradictory, which raise the possibility Socrates is employing irony to make the men in the dialogue question for themselves the ultimate value of the proposals. In turn, Plato has immortalized this ‘learning exercise’ in The Republic.

Theorists Leo Strauss even cited Cicero's opinion that the Republic's true nature was to bring to light the nature of political things, and not to create a real city.[8]
Relevance of Plato’s Philosopher-King now

Given the framework of Plato for a regime ruled by philosophers, how should we approach this now in the context of our present political systems?

The relevance of Plato’s Republic and his philosophy for a philosopher-ruler to govern lies in the fact that, it should be seen as a model for thinking and not as a blueprint or template design for the ascension into power of a particular or privileged group only.

Plato himself pointed this out in his conclusion expressed on the last page of Book X that “we should practice it with understanding in every way we can.”

As a model for thinking however it should be emphasized that the proposals advanced by Plato contain nothing that could not strictly be achieved.

[1] Michael Curtis, “The Great Political Theories:From the Greeks to the Enlightenment,” Harper Classics, 2008, page 23.
[2] Paul Carteledge, “Greek Political Thought: The historical context,” The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, University of Cambridge, 2000, page 11
[3] Russell, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy, begin of Book I, part 2, ch. 14
[4] Curtis, ibid, page 27
[5] Malcolm Schofield, “Approaching the Republic,” The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, University of Cambridge, 2000, p. 224
[6] Plato, “Republic,” Book V, 473
[7] Plato, Book V
[8] History of Political Philosophy, co-editor with Joseph Cropsey, 3rd. ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987,p.68

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