Plato’s Argument for Rule by Philosopher Kings


Plato’s idea of specialization is also linked to justice, which he considers to be structural, as political justice is a result of a structured city, where individual justice is a result of a structured soul, and where each member of the polis has a “specific craft for which he has a natural aptitude” (Reeve; 2009, 69). “Ruling … is a skill” (Wolff; 2006, 68), which requires special training available to few. At the same time, philosophers must possess qualities that enable them to rule; for instance, they must be able to recognize the difference between friend and foe, good and bad. Above all, philosophers must “love wisdom”[1] (Nichols; 1984, 254), as the rule of the wise leads to the reigning of justice, as philosophy becomes sovereign. Justice is a virtue, as is knowledge, which requires understanding. Understanding refers to goodness, and thus, knowledge and goodness are one. The philosopher kings have virtue as they have knowledge, and thus, according to Plato, their rule is justified.


Criticizing Plato’s Argument

Plato’s argument is very much in line with what he defines as democracy, the rule of the unfit. His argument may be valid, in the sense that he explains that these philosophers have “capacity to grasp the eternal and immutable” (Plato; 2007, 204), while common men are blind as they have “no true knowledge of reality, and no clear standard of perfection in their mind to which they can turn” (Plato; 2007, 204-205). Nevertheless, this argument is not persuasive or realistic in contemporary politics and the modern state, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, all modern states stress that today democracy is defined as “government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’” (Wolff; 2006, 62). Therefore, all states have not only become supporters of the representative model of democracy, whereby voters determine who will represent them at governmental level, but have also adopted a pluralist attitude towards politics. In fact, the state is, in theory, no longer an instrument in the hands of an elite, or in the hands of Plato’s philosophers, but a public and neutral arena where interest groups come together to argue and discuss policies, which are “mainly economic” (Dryzek and Dunleavy; 2009, 41). Ideally, these interest groups should have the necessary knowledge to bring about political change, but it is very hard to determine and quantify the necessary knowledge to bring about such change. As Wolff argues, “no one can be absolutely certain about anything at all. All claims of knowledge…are fallible” (Wolff; 2006, 70).  Also, being a philosopher, and knowing about logic, ethics, metaphysics and political philosophy, does not necessarily make you an expert on the interests of the people. It is the people who, in theory, rulers are aiming to represent and support. Plato is obviously not concerned with a representative form of rule, but nowadays it is necessary, though difficult, to ensure that all the ruled are represented, at least to a certain extent, by their rulers.

Plato also argues that a specific education, available to few, will allow these few to become philosophers, but again this would create a ruling class that is not representative of the ruled. At the same time, it is hard to find a government that is 100% representative of its population. Take the members of the Chamber of Commons, many of whom have attended elite schools such as Eton and Oxford: they are not representative of the population, but are those running the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, Plato’s argument has transcended time, as the Chamber of Lords, as well as the Senate, in bicameral systems, is an arena of experts who check and amend laws made by members of Parliament. Arguably the real experts are those who are aware of the people’s interests, and voting will indicate these interests, since, as Mill argued, “the fallacy here is to think of the people as a homogenous mass with a single interest…we are not like this” (Wolff; 2006, 64).

Finally, the main flaw in Plato’s argument, which renders it highly unpersuasive, is the fact that he is describing and arguing in favour of what Voltaire defined as a “‘benevolent dictatorship’, where an enlightened despot, without the need to consult people, would nevertheless govern in their interests” (Wolff; 2006, 62). In terms of the modern state, where people are continuously asking for a greater say in the running of government, and with a negative view towards totalitarianism due to the happenings of the 20th century, Plato’s argument becomes increasingly inapplicable. As Karl Popper argued, it is wrong to place political power in the hands of an elite. Nevertheless, it is also unrealistic to claim that an elite does not exist today, as, for instance, there are always several main political parties who take turns running governments.

Conclusion

Plato argues that “there will be no end to the troubles of states… humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in the world… and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands” (Plato; 2007, 192). Perhaps, Plato’s argument for a group of knowledgeable persons who have the ability to bring about happiness and justice in the Republic is ideal, but extremely unrealistic. As Aristotle argued, man is a political animal and it is inevitable for us all, not just for an elite of old men, to be interested and have a say in politics, as it is a force which inevitably affects us all. Plato’s argument is asking us not only to be disinterested in the political process, but also to leave our rights and opinions in the hands of a benevolent dictator. For this reason his argument is not only unpersuasive but is also unrealistic.

Bibliography

Dryzek, John, Dunleavy, Patrick, Theories of the Democratic State, First Edition (Basingstoke; Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

Nichols, Mary P., “The Republic’s Two Alternatives: philosopher kings and Socrates”, Political Theory, vol. 12, no. 2, May 1984, Pages 252-274

Plato (Author), Lee, Desmond (Translator), Lane, Melissa (Introduction), The Republic, Second Edition with new Introduction (London; Penguin Classics, 2007)

Reeve, C.D.C, Plato, in Boucher, David, and Kelly, Paul, Political Thinkers: From Socrates to the Present, Second Edition( Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2009)

Reeve, C.D.C, Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato’s “Republic”, First Edition (Cambridge, MA; Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 2006)

Wolff, Jonathan, An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Second Edition (Oxford; Oxford University Press, USA, 2006)

[1] Philosophy, from the Classical Greek ‘philosophia’, literally means “love of wisdom”.


Written by: Giulia Matassa 
Written at: University of York