University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
The aim of this essay is to critically evaluate platos justification of rule by philosopher kings. First the essay will try and stress how plato understood the way the state has to be governed in conjunction with philosophy. In Platos most famous work Republic he puts forward the view that only the study of philosophy would allow man to see what was good and just. Therefore to cure the ills of society it would be necessary to either make kings philosophers or make philosophers kings. I intend to show how Plato justifies this view and then attempt to point out some possible problems with this justification . Platos starting point was his recognition that justice was one of four cardinal virtues, along with wisdom, courage and moderation, that when working harmoniously together in a high level of order – he felt equaled the elusive good life . Kahn and Charles (2004).
Plato thought that the best way to discover what justice was, was to create a perfect soul – this he did by first creating a theoretical perfect city , which would have a good soul and all four virtues. Using the theory that the polis is the individual writ large he intended to compare his perfect city with a perfect person and subsequently evaluate justiceTará (2001) Plato s perfect city was to be a model of order, efficiency and discipline. Above all it would be governed by the strict adherence to what White refers to as the natural division of labour . This was to take the form of vocational and social division within the city. Everyone had one job in order to specialise and become good at it. We forbade our shoemaker to try his hand at farming or weaving or building and told him to stick to his last, in order that our shoemaking should be well done. Kierkegaard, (1992). More fundamentally however the city was to be divided into three distinct social classes, in which people would be raised from birth.
These classes consisted of the producers, the guardians and the rulers. These correlated to a high degree with their microcosm in the individual soul in which they took the form of reason, spirit/emotion and appetite/desire. The producers were to be the farmers and artisans who were responsible for the supply of food, clothing and other such essential but basic needs. They would be highly specialized and allowed money and private property as their main incentive. In the individual soul the producers equated to desire as they were not governed by true reason. In the same way that ungoverned desire e.g. I must eat this cake even though it is not mine, created conflict in an individual that must be controlled, the producers were susceptible to the temptation to take land with better soil or more area for example. Therefore a second class was necessary – to protect from both internal and external threats and keep both the city and the soul in order. The perfect city maintained order by using guardians, the guardians were the warrior class that protected the city. These warrior characteristics made them a potential internal threat, so Plato decided to neutralise volatile factors such as greed or envy by denying the guardians access to money or private property. The guardians equate to the spirited or emotional side of the soul, which was usually tamed by reason, but might spontaneously follow desire. Nails, (2006) The third class in the perfect city is by far the most important and complex. Rulers were chosen from the guardian class on the basis of aptitude (but with some degree of assumption of hereditary traits).
Plato felt that as a pre-requisite to rule they must have a thorough understanding of the theory of forms including the essence of justice and the other virtues and ultimately the true essence of good by grasping which the philosopher will finally achieve a full understanding of all the rest. Vlastos,(2006) .
Plato explains in his allegory of the cave, along with his theory of the line and the sun, how the philosophers who understand the theory of forms are the only ones with true objectivity and how the rest of society is merely staring at shadows – mistaking them for reality and so they would believe that the shadows of the objects we mentioned were in all respects real Therefore by the theory of forms a philosopher is able to release himself from the subjective world of the rest of humanity and enter the world of objective views. Salli (1999). The distinctive step which Plato has taken by the time of the republic is to suggest that forms which are the object of definition are entities in themselves, subsisting outside time and space, in which particular things come to share or which they imitate . The ruler class then is selected by aptitude and educated through a rigorous process until his understanding of the theory of forms is so complete that he understands the forms of the virtues of justice and even good, this then entitles him to rule. Plato connected the rulers with the reason aspect of soul. Just as the rulers were able to judge right or wrong for the city, the souls calculating part told a person the rational side of a situation.
Plato consolidated all of this with the myth of metals taught to all, whereby the rulers had gold in their veins, the guardians silver and the producers iron and bronze, but they were all brothers and should all be happy in their situation. For the perfect city all three classes must work in harmony – the producers making materials, the guardians protecting and ensuring stability from both above and below, and the rulers determining through their enlightened reason what was good or bad. The soul would work in a similarway. Melchert, (2002)
Plato felt that he had now found justice through the concept of the ideal city and soul. If the soul was in order then the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice would exist in the person. The wisdom was present in the rulers of the city and the calculating part of the soul. The courage was present in the guardians of the city and the spirited part of the soul. Moderation was found when all three groups of the city and soul worked together, moderation was best seen in the soul when all three parts were equal, moderation showed harmony. Justice was created when every part was doing what it was supposed to do. With all of these different parts put together Plato created what he considered to be the ideal city and soul. Vlastos,(2006). It can be seen from his point of view, therefore, that philosophers must be rulers as they are the only ones with true objective understanding of justice and good as defined by Plato and are therefore the only ones competent to lead the rest of the population towards them. There are however a number of problems with Platos argument. In his ideal city where philosophers are kings, it is necessary for order and efficiency that everybody sticks just to their own job – this is fine in theory but would soon lead to a lack of unity through a lack of understanding, empathy and therefore sympathy. Without these the obligation to help each other would soon be overrun by a lack of motivation. This would throw the whole system out of kilter. Plato may have argued that this may have been circumvented by education but he seems fairly a dam Anton a strict division of labour.
This phenomenom would also spread to natural disaster, for example if the city was to burn down there may be insufficient carpenters to rebuild it, or insufficient doctors to treat disease. Plato himself admits that once
philosophers gain the knowledge of the good they would usually prefer to reflect on it, rather than sully themselves in actual politics. To go back to the allegory of the cave, once they have discovered the real world, what motivation would they have to enter the dark world of the cave and participate in the pointless games? He argues that they will do it because they are just men and that their reluctance is not only a good thing but is actually necessary as it prevents dissension and strife over who shall rule. I think that in reality some would be unable to overcome their reluctance and that those who do enter face a very large chance of being corrupted by their superior knowledge.
Plato makes the huge assumption that knowledge of the good is sufficient motivation to act in a just way, this, I feel , is a very dangerous assumption and the corrupting influence of power has been proved time and again throughout history. As Karl Popper quotes I think we must face the fact that behind the sovereignty of the philosopher king stands the quest for power. Argument can also be found in the works of Aristotle that dispute Plato s claim that philosophers should be king. Aristotle felt that Plato relied far too heavily on theory and disagreed with Plato s theory of forms, instead believing that actual instances in this world (rather than other-worldly forms) were the key to universals. This heavier reliance on experience allowed a more amateur approach, rather than years of formal training, to be acceptable.
Another argument against Philosopher kings stems from the Christian influence. The core-belief of Christianity was that faith, rather than reason, held the key to salvation and so the good life , This created the need for a separate private and public sphere that would be unacceptable in Plato s ideal city. This would be compounded by the democratising effect of faith – which all can have, rather than reason which is restricted to the few. In modern times the faith aspect of the separation of public and private spheres has significantly diminished, however it has been replaced by a fierce belief in individualism that is underwritten by a nebulas concept of equality enshrined in individual rights and constitutional checks, perhaps based ultimately on the free-for-all concept of capitalism. Nails,(2006). In conclusion can be observed that even during platos days the philosopher king could have been difficult to achieve because let alone any other since then given the nullifying concepts from Aristotle to Christianity to Capitalism.
I tend to agree to some extent with Karl Poppers view that Plato allowed himself to be seduced by the idea (as many others have since) that he (and his theoretical like in the philosopher-kings) were the only ones that could see objectively and so should rule. It is a trap more dangerous, possibly, than any other and democracy (in the modern, rather than Greek sense), its antithesis, is a far safer – if far less than perfect alternative.
REFFERENCES Kahn, Charles H. (2004). “The Framework”. Plato and the socratic dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge University Press Kierkegaard, Søren (1992). “Plato”. The Concept of Irony. Princeton University Press Nails, Debra (2006). “The Life of Plato of Athens”. A Companion to Plato edited by Hugh H. Benson. Blackwell Publishing Tarán, Leonardo (2001). Collected Papers 1962-1999. Brill Academic Publishers Kraut, Richard (Ed.) (1993). The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge University Press Melchert, Norman (2002). The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. McGraw Hill. Salli John (1999). Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s “Timaeus”. Indiana University Press Vlastos, Gregory(2006). Plato’s Universe – with a new Introducution by Luc Brisson, Parmenides Publishing