In the last 2 posts I’ve talked about ancient political thoughts from China. For this post, I will take a brief ideological tour to Greece. At around the same time as the inception of Confucianism in China, Plato’s idea of Philosopher Kings also came into existence. This idea of Philosopher Kings is what we are going to explore today.

Historical (and dramatic!!!) Context

At the end of 6th century BCE, Greece entered a Golden Age called the Classical Era when philosophy, arts and literature flourished, mirroring China’s Spring and Autumn Period. In Athen- a state of Greece- a tyrannical ruler was dethroned and a form of democracy was instituted. It was the first form of democracy that ever existed and it was precisely because of this reason that Greece had attracted many great minds. The first democratic government, however, was hardly considered democratic by today’s standards – Although there was a general assembly for “citizens” to discuss policies, several groups of people such as women, slaves, youngsters and first generation settlers were not part of this group of “citizens” that got to participate in this democratic process. The weakness of the democratic system back then can be further evidenced through the tragedy of Socrates. Socrates, as you might know, was a Greek/Athenian philosopher at that time. Socrates challenged the democratic system of Greece in his time using philosophy. He is most well known today for his Socratic Method/Questioning, which paved way for Aristotle (His grand-disciple) invention of empiricism and thus the scientific method. His fame earned him many disciples, but also made him a threat to the authority of Athen. He was later charged with the crime of corrupting the youth, which led to a death sentence. Socrates, despite having the option to leave Greece altogether or renounce his views, gracefully accepted his punishment instead. He was basically the opposite of Galileo who instead renounced his helio-centric ideas in order to escape the wrath of the Catholic Church. Socrates had a disciple known as Plato (who later had a disciple called Aristotle). Plato was furious at the injustice done to his teacher, which compelled him to come up with the idea of Philosopher Kings.

Political Moralism in Philosopher Kings

Plato is who we call a utopian. A utopian in political science refers to an individual with the political belief in striving towards a morally ideal world, advocating political ideas to achieve moral ends. That is essentially what political moralism is about and Philosopher Kings is one of the earliest form of political moralistic ideas. Here’s why: Plato, just like Socrates and later Aristotle, believed in eudaimonia. I mentioned this in another post, The Virtue Theory, that eudamonia can mean “a live well lived”. Plato’s idea is underpinned by the basic assumption that the goal of life is to be virtuous; hence, the goal of the governing entity is to help its citizens live good and virtuous lives- achieving eudaimonia. In order to achieve eudaimonia, Plato and Socrates had a model for virtues, which deviates from Aristotle’s model of the Golden Mean, called the Ideal Forms. I myself find it difficult to fully grasp this concept (I was only able to understand the fabric of it) so I will just quote from the source directly to avoid minor inaccuracy:

“From Socrates, Plato had learned that virtue is not innate, but dependent on knowledge and wisdom, and in order to lead a virtuous life it is necessary first to understand the essential nature of virtue (thereafter referred to as Ideal Forms)…These Ideal Forms exist in a realm outside the world we live in, accessible only via philosophical reasoning and inquiry.” (The politics book | Hardback, 2013).

The Evils of Democracy, and All Other Forms except for the Kallipolis

We know that Plato had a tragic experience with democracy: a dramatic episode of his teacher, Socrates, being sentenced to death for the perceived innocent act of practicing philosophy. This led many historians to believe that this was precisely what drove Plato’s anti-democracy sentiment. Plato was highly critical of democracy and all other forms of government that existed during his time. Remember, he was a utopian with a eudaimonia-centric idea of morality and virtue that of which that can be facilitated using the model of Ideal Forms. This made Plato see the pursuit of wealth as evil, something which many of us will agree with instinctively. In his work, The Republic, he criticized timocracy and oligarchy for the emphasis on wealth and political power. As for democracy, he saw it as an even lesser form of government based on the justification of mob rule. He argued that democracy not only breeds ineffectual employment of power by the oligarchs (yes he saw this as a problem even though we would disagree by today’s standards given the backlash against the wealthy elite that we are seeing today), it also let the governing entity be characterized by the selfish traits of the general population. This is what we call populism in today’s term. This would, argued Plato, degenerate democracy into an even worse form of government: “tyranny, or mob rule.” (From Wikipedia, take it with a grain of salt if you must). Plato thought that these governments are inherently unjust because they are designed based on self-interest: the oligarchs/timocrats and their wealth, the monarch/tyrants and their political power.

Plato’s Solution, Plato’s Utopia

Plato’s solution to the political imperfection during his time was a form of government based on the idea of Philosopher Kings called a Kallipolis. In short, a Kallipolis is a hypothetical city-state ruled by a philosopher king. That is pretty straightforward, but how did Plato justify it as a utopia? If you remember, Plato believed in a virtue model based on Ideal Forms. These forms are only achievable through philosophical understandings. And since Philosophy is a study about questioning our existence and how we can live our lives well; philosophers are generally, and expectedly, the experts on living our lives well, and in Plato’s addition, virtuously. Of course, Plato didn’t stop here, he gave another strong argument on why Philosophers are fit to rule. He argued that the fundamental reason why all other forms of government fail is that the people they put in power have the desire to rule. This desire to rule is, Plato asserted, a lust for power and by extension for wealth when corruption sets in – something which we can still agree with today. Plato claimed that philosophers have no desire to rule because they value virtue above honor, power and wealth. It is, paradoxically, this lack of desire to rule that qualifies them to rule as it does not represent a conflict of interests between the rightful responsibility of ruling and personal interests. Based on these 2 arguments, Plato argued that “until philosophers are kings, cities will never have rest from their evil”. Plato’s utopia, a Kallipolis, is thus a city-state justifiably ruled by a philosopher king. Furthermore, Plato suggested that this utopia can be further augmented and be made more realistic by the institution of a system in his other series of dialogues: Statesman and Laws. This system makes the practice of philosophy common in education in general. After which, those with aptitudes, presumably through a form of examination or recommendation, should be separated from their families and friends to be trained together in philosophy so as to ensure loyalty to the state. These small groups of elites are therefore the future generation of ruling elites in the Kallipolis.

Personal Criticism of Philospher Kings

Although I must agree that philosophers are generally more thoughtful about how we should live our lives, but they are not well-versed on how we can get there. Plato’s Theory of Forms may be acclaimed as the philosophical way for us to reach moral goodness but it doesn’t teach us how to govern effectively. For a state to help its citizens live good and virtuous lives, we can’t only teach them the way to do it themselves – through philosophical inquiry. There are other businesses of the state that are realistically important: diplomacy, economy and war if it comes down to it. These are matters that dictates the survival of the people and what goes on the plates and bowls of the people during dinner; these are the preconditions needed for people to be happy and satisfied before they can even think about living a virtuous life. I’m not saying that Plato didn’t think this through, he probably thought that the philosophers would be wise enough to come up with solutions but this rebuttal that I proposed nonetheless gave less weight to Plato’s preposition that the seat of power should be monopolized by philosophers because philosophers don’t know it all. A more diverse set of ruling class with different specialties such as that of a technocracy would instead be better. If it means that the philosophers should have the final say as a final rubber stamp to ensure that the government remains morally on track, then perhaps it would be a better solution. However, this brings me to the next criticism. Plato claimed that philosophers have intentions free from the lust of power and wealth. I agree that it would be logical for philosophers to exhibit such tendencies but it must not be over-generalized. What determines our intentions depends not solely on our professions, it also depends on upbringing and past experience. It would be foolish to rule out the possibility of tyrannical philosphers. Through the example of Emperor Nero of the Roman Empire, where the empire had partially adopted Plato’s idea of Philosopher Kings and the Emperor just watched as Rome burned down, we can realize how a Kallipolis can also go awry. Instead of conducting totalitarian social experiments that had cost millions of lives in the past, we should rightfully be fearful and instead impose checks and balances to prevent a monopoly of power – something which the Kallipolis that Plato proposed lacks. 

Legacy: Good or bad? Doesn’t matter, it is too lasting and entrenched

Plato’s idea of Philosopher Kings left a legacy that is contentious. Some claimed that it is good because he laid the foundation for western political philosophy but others claimed that it is bad because it gave rise to totalitarian and elitist regimes that are motivated and justified on Plato’s ideals. Whether it was good or bad, you be the judge of it. However, I believe that it does not matter because his ideas are too entrenched in our history and culture today to do away. If there’s nothing that we can do about it, why bother asking if it was good or bad? Plato’s idea was indeed most influential. He inspired the political model in the Roman Empire and the treatise on training potential ruler by Chanakya in India. In the medieval era, his ideas spread to the Islamic empire then to Europe where Plato’s ideas were “incorporated into the teachings of the church”(The politics book | Hardback, 2013) by Augustine. All in all, Plato definitely had a lasting legacy on human politics and it will continue to be so, regardless of whether it is for better or for worse. 

Conclusion

Plato’s idea of Philospher Kings stemmed from both his own intellectual rigor and his traumatic experience with democracy and Socrates’ execution. The idea is fundamentally a political moralistic one because it is meant to use politics as a mean to serve a moral end. Plato set off from his teacher’s death by first criticizing how the other forms of governments are inherently “evil”, with democracy; the form of government that Socrates died under; at the near bottom that is bound to reach the bottom anyway. He based his criticisms on the overemphasis of unimportant or even evil things such as wealth borne out of these forms of governments. Particularly for democracy, it was populism, or mob rule, that he argued would drag the government down into a tyranny. Based on this criticism, he offered a solution, a utopia, a new form of government called a Kallipolis where philosphers are kings. He argued that it should be so because the government’s goal is to help its citizens live good and virtuous lives and philosphers are well-versed in this based on the premise of his Theory of Forms and the inherent nature of philosophy. He also argued that philosphers have a purer intention – the non-intention to rule – that ironically qualifies them to rule. He was a man of acute awareness, thus he was aware of the idealistic nature of his idea. Hence, he proposed a system to isolate and educate potential philosophers before they become kings. Overall, his ideas are, in my opinion, flawed but we must pardon him for he was an ancient man without much preceding ideas to work upon. We have the benefits of hindsight and we grew up with progressive ideas that never existed in Plato’s time, so we must recalibrate our judgement and exercise historical empathy to be fair. Nonetheless, his idea is flawed as the assumptions that philosphers know it all and are always pure in intentions are over-generalizations and unrealistic assumptions. Also, I still believe that checks and balances is an indispensable feature that is seemingly absent from Plato’s utopia. To end it off, we also know that Plato’s ideas were very influential with a lasting legacy, regardless of whether it was generally good or bad. So let us embrace it, build on it and improve on it.

Signing off,

Jackson

Reference:

The politics book | Hardback (2013) Available at: https://www.dk.com/uk/9781409364450-the-politics-book/ (Accessed: 16 January 2017).

Image: The School of Life (YouTube)

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