Plato: Towards a Government of the Best

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 1/29/2019 1:02:07 PM IST

 In the course of history, the Greeks had experimented with various forms of government: timocracy, in which a person’s sense of honor dictates decisions; oligarchy, or the rule of the rich; tyranny, in which a ruler acts arbitrarily without any fear of law and pursues only his self-interest; and democracy, where the majority of citizens rule to suit themselves.

Although the Greeks came to regard democracy as superior to all other forms, both Socrates and Plato did not seem to agree with them. They were still quite aware of the many deficiencies and dangers of democracy, especially when its rulers were not guided by wisdom. For example, it was during a democratic regime that the Greeks suffered defeat at the hands of the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C., which was followed by a period of political instability and apprehension about their own government under thirty tyrants.

Both Socrates and Plato were men of revolution. They were enemies of the status quo, of the Greek governmental system of the day. They saw the Athenian government and society dominated by ignorance, irrationality, falsehood, envy, and pride. So, they wanted to see their government and society replaced by proposing a new system of governance. Like the best of revolutionaries, they wanted to put an end to the old order of things because they wanted to see a new and better one. The new order was to be governed by wisdom and justice, the very things whose absence made the old order intolerable. 

In Book VI of The Republic, Plato described Socrates interacting with Adeimantus to expose the flaws of democracy by comparing a society to sailing in a ship. To put the long conversation in a nutshell, Socrates essentially asked, “If you are heading out by sea, who would you rather have to be in-charge of navigating the ship?  By some men who are ignorant of the rules and demands of sea faring? Or, should it be left to experts in navigation?” “The later, of course,” replied Adeimantus. To which Socrates responded, “Why, then, do we keep thinking that just any person could be a ruler of a country?” Rulers need special knowledge. Like expert sailors, they need to know the direction the “ship” (society) should go as well as be competent enough to steer it safely through any storm.  

Although in a democratic society, the smooth-talkers, or demagogues, often get elected, Plato argued that such people have unbridled appetites for power, wealth, sex, and all the worldly allurements and, therefore, are enemies of society and the state. It is only when those people learn to replace their appetites with reason and moderation can they be fit to govern.

Plato made clear that merit, and not heredity, determines who should rule. And these merits are to be defined in terms of virtues such as self-discipline, courage, knowledge, wisdom, and love for one’s society. It is also important that rulers live a simple life and not own private properties so that they may be able to give their full attention to serving the people under their care. Those who possess these necessary virtues are perfect candidates to be guardians of the state, because they can govern with wisdom and serve to create a just society. Such persons are called, in Plato’s words, philosopher-kings. That is, either philosophers must become kings, or kings must become philosophers. Also, for Plato, whether it takes the form of an individual as a philosopher-king or a body of philosophers serving as a team is a matter of secondary importance. What does matter is that power should be wielded by those who exemplify all the best virtues.

Why did Plato come to the conclusion that philosopher-kings should rule?

First, because they are, according to Plato, able to understand true goodness and justice in a way that other people cannot. Such rulers would strive to discover the ideal city, as all philosophers would do. Second, because philosophy, which philosophers possess, unites people, whereas all other things divide. Therefore, to overcome the divisive nature of politics, the only remedy is to have philosopher-kings, who can transcend petty matters of ordinary life so as to be able to focus on the needs of the society.

Of course, nothing human is perfect; even the best government is vulnerable to corruption. So, in Books VIII and IX, Plato addresses those gloomy truths. As a matter of fact, he was also aware that such an ideal society ruled by philosopher-kings was not very likely to happen in most societies. Even among philosopher-rulers, some might eventually yield to temptation by putting their own interests before those of their city.

Later in life, Plato himself seems to have come to a conclusion that the rule of philosopher-kings was too idealistic and thus somewhat impractical, though not impossible. This is reflected in his book, The Laws, which is his last and most comprehensive work on how an entire society might be educated, organized, and governed. Though he still viewed the rule of philosopher-kings as the best choice, he clearly started thinking that the most feasible system was the rule of law (that is, constitutionalism as opposed to aristocracy).

Perhaps, Plato’s theory about the rule of philosopher-kings may not be feasible in many societies even today. In addition, to create a ruling class that is not representative of the ruled is another problem, because no society should be thought of as a homogenous mass with a single interest. But having said all this, it is extremely important to strive for the ideal—a government of the best, even if that means only a few philosopher-rulers may be available in one’s society. 

Mazie Nakhro

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