Republic 5-6: Philosopher Kings

Republic 5-6: Philosopher Kings

This essay examines books 5 and 6 of Republic and explicates Plato’s notorious doctrine of the philosopher king.

Near the end of book 5, Socrates is asked whether the ideal city sketched so far is politically possible. Is it a city that can exist in the physical word like Athens or Sparta or is it confined the imaginations of philosophers? Note that this is not a question of logical possibility. A theory is logically possible so long as it does not entail a logical contradiction, and no one has raised such a challenge against Socrates’ proposal thus far. He has not, for example, claimed that the guardians are wise and not wise, or that the auxiliaries are courageous and not courageous. Rather, the question is whether the city Socrates has described could be constructed given the current political reality of his day. In a world where power seems to operate for its own sake and vice appears to be more profitable than virtue, how could the virtuous city that Socrates imagines ever be constructed? To adequately answer this question, Socrates must show that there is some mechanism for creating a virtuous republic from the ruins of a vicious culture.

His doctrine of the philosopher king is just such a mechanism. Socrates thus introduces the concept to demonstrate the political possibility of the just city, though he admits that its realization remains unlikely. He declares:

“Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide…cities will have no rest from evils…nor, I think, will the human race. And until this happens, the constitution we’ve been describing in theory will never be born to the fullest extent possible or see the light of the sun” (473d-e).

Were philosophical prowess and political authority to converge in an individual, he could reform society and build the ideal city. And since the emergence of such a ruler is possible, the ideal city is also possible.

Before setting forth Plato’s doctrine in more detail, it is first important to address the contemporary biases against it. When introducing the idea of the philosopher king, Socrates worries that he may be greeted by a wave of laughter to drown him “in ridicule and contempt” (473e). Contemporary classroom pundits seize this remark with glee, exuberant to add their own spite to the wave of contempt. Slouching from behind their podiums, these ill constituted professors scoff at the very idea of spiritual authority. They sneer, do not the atrocities of the 20th century prove that philosophy and political power must never mix? Look what happens, Marxism and eugenics become the law of the land! And does not experience prove that political aptitude has nothing to do with the timeless principles of philosophy, but with aptness for intrigue and an instinct for ingratiating oneself to money lenders. Contemporary teachers are thus quick to dismiss the concept of the philosopher king, claiming, with a contemptuous smirk, that the idea was so stupid that Plato must have meant it ironically. Indeed, perhaps his entire project should be read ironically, and Plato was secretly a moral nihilist like Thrasymachus.

In light of such prejudices, it is important to dispel the contemporary ideological fog before we unpack the details of Plato’s argument. Note first that Plato’s definition of philosophy differs from our own. Whereas we identify professional philosophers by their shrewdness, cynicism, and servility, Plato believed we should know philosophers by their love. Etymologically, φιλοσοφία means the love (φιλία) of wisdom (σοφία), and Socrates observes that to truly love something one must love all instances of it. For example, the lover of beauty will love all instances of beauty, not just a particular beautiful body. The lover of wine will love all types of wine, not just a particular merlot. And the lover of honor will love it in all its forms, not just a particular award. Similarly, the philosopher, as a lover of wisdom, “doesn’t desire one part of wisdom rather than another, but desires the whole thing” (475b). He is insatiable in this desire for truth and hence seeks all kinds of learning (475c). “Loving the sight of truth itself”, the philosopher is not content with particular facts, but attempts to grasp the underlying forms of things.

Socrates contrasts these philosophers, who love the Beauty in virtue of which all beautiful things are beautiful (476b), with the lovers of mere sights and sounds, who seek out only particular beautiful things. These lovers of sights and sounds “would never willingly attend a serious [philosophical] discussion nor spend their time that way”, yet will go to “all the Dionysiac festivals…as if their ears were under contract to listen to every chorus” (475d). Socrates argues that the distinction between these two groups is grounded in the fact that the former possess knowledge (ἐπιστήμη), while the latter have mere opinion (δόξα).

According to Socrates, knowledge grasps what is (or Being). “Knowledge is set over what is, and knows it as it is” [ἐπιστήμη μέν γέ που ἐπὶ τῷ ὄντι, τὸ ὂν γνῶναι ὡς ἔχει;] (478a). Ignorance, in contrast, (ἀγνωσία) concerns what is not (or Nothing). And opinion lies between the two, grasping neither Being nor Nothing, and attempting to comport itself to the best of its ability to the realm of Becoming (478d).

And, since philosophers “study the things themselves that are always the same in every respect” (479e) and “embrace the thing in itself” (480a), they possess knowledge, whereas the lovers of sights and sound are left with mere opinion. Philosophers, and philosophers alone among men,  grasp the eternal reality which grounds and orders the changing world of experience.

With this definition of philosophy in hand, we can see how today’s professional despisers err in using the horrors of the 20th century as proof against Plato’s theory. For both Marxism and Darwinian eugenics are materialistic theories, attempting to account for reality in exclusively physical terms. In other words, they deny the existence of what Plato calls the realm of Being and operate solely within the material world of Becoming. As a result, neither dialectical materialists nor scientistic eugenicists should be called philosophers in Plato’s sense of the term. Not only do they fail to satisfy his definition of philosophy, but they could even be considered  anti-philosophers, since they attempt to cut humanity off from the realm of Being. Hence, the horrors of Stalinism or American or Nazi eugenics cannot serve as cautionary tales against Plato’s idea of philosopher kings. Indeed, they could just as easily serve as warnings about what happens when societies reject philosophical speculation in favor of financial speculation.

A second prejudice that prevents us from understanding Plato’s theory is our identification of the politician with the court intriguer and lapdog of foreign financiers. Though our culture is so thoroughly subverted that we now take kakistocracy to be axiomatic and can no longer imagine what it would be like for political leaders not to be feckless degenerates beholden to hidden masters, other perspectives are nonetheless possible. Indeed, if we look back at older, more traditional, civilizations, we can see that the idea of the philosopher king was not absurd at all. Rather, it constituted the standard justification for political authority. Rulers, according to this view, rule by divine right, judging in accordance with the eternal moral order that grounds our material reality. Julius Evola describes such a traditional perspective as follows:

“In the world of Tradition the most important foundation of the authority and of the right (ius) of kings and chiefs, and the reason why they were obeyed, feared, and venerated, was essentially their transcendent and nonhuman quality. This quality was not artificial, but a powerful reality to be feared. The more people acknowledge the ontological rank of what was prior and superior to the visible and temporal dimension, the more such beings were invested with a natural and absolute sovereign power. Traditional civilizations, unlike those of decadent and later times, completely ignored the merely political dimension of supreme authority as well as the idea that the roots of authority lay in mere strength, violence, or natural and secular qualities such as intelligence, wisdom, physical courage, and a minute concern for the collective material well-being. The roots of authority, on the contrary, always had a metaphysical character” (Revolt Against the Modern World, 7-8).

Like Plato’s philosophers, rulers in traditional societies ruled in virtue of their connection to the realm of Being. It was not a matter of physical might making right or of intellectual shrewdness, but of spiritual authority. Such an idea was at play in a variety of cultures. For example, in ancient China we have legends of the primordial rule of the three sovereigns and five emperors who reigned by divine right. And a similar account is provided by Confucianism, which grounds political authority in the cultivation of virtue. For instance, when asked how to make the people obedient, Confucius responds:

“If you promote the straight and set them above the crooked, then the people will be obedient. If you promote the crooked and set them above the straight, then the people will not be obedient.” (Analects 2.19).

For Confucius, political authority is grounded in metaphysics. When rulers set down rules that align with the moral nature of the universe, the people will recognize their authority and obey. But when rulers set down rules that run contrary to the natural order of things, the people will disobey.

We see a similar idea in ancient India with the authority accorded to the Brahminic caste. It can be found, for example, in the Rig Veda’s hymn to sacred speech through which gods and rulers rule:

“I move with the Rudras, with the Vasus, with the Adityas and all the gods. I carry both Mitra and Varuna, both Indra and Agni, and both of the Asvins. I carry the swelling Soma, and Tvastr, and Pusan and Bhaga. I bestow wealth on the pious sacrifice who presses the Soma and offers oblation. I am the queen, the confluence of riches, the skillful one who is first among the worthy of sacrifice. The gods divided me up into various parts, for I dwell in many places and enter into many forms. The one who eats food, who truly sees, who breathes, who hears what is said, does so through me. Though they do not realize it, they dwell in me. Listen, you whom they have heard: what I tell you should be heeded. I am the one who says, by myself, what gives joy to gods and men. Whom I love I make awesome; I make him a sage, a wise man, a Brahmin. I stretch the bow of Rudra so that his arrow will strike down the hater of prayer. I incite the contest among the people. I have pervaded sky and earth. I gave birth to the father on the head of this world. My womb is in the waters, within the ocean. From there I spread out over all creatures and touch the very sky with the crown of my head. I am the one who blows like the wind, embracing all creatures. Beyond the sky, beyond this earth, so much have I become in my greatness.” (Rig Veda, Speech, trans. Doniger).

It is thus sacred speech that establishes the order of things and gives brilliance to the Brahmin.

Indeed, the myth of a sage king handing down divine laws to his people lies at the foundations of most cultures. The Greeks have Solon, the Romans Numa, the Jews Solomon, the Christians Jesus, and the Muslims Mohammad. Thus, when we look at sweep of history, we see that there is nothing shocking about the idea of a philosopher king. It is only shocking to us now, because we have been alienated from that history. While a philosopher king would not thrive in a kakistocracy such as our own, the idea is not intrinsically incoherent and may even allow us to imagine a better way of organizing our society. 

Now that we have dispelled the contemporary biases against Plato’s proposal, let’s turn to examining the details of Plato’s argument. Socrates begins by using the definition of philosophy sketched above to show that, all things being equal, philosophers would make better rulers than non-philosophers. For philosophers, unlike non-philosophers, are marked by knowledge, and it is better for rulers to have knowledge than to lack it. Socrates asks:

“Since those who are able to grasp what is always the same in all respects are philosophers, while those who are not able to do so and who wander among the many things that vary in every sort of way are not philosophers, which of the two should be the leaders in the city?” (484b)

He believes the answer is clear. The guardians are meant to rule by “guarding the laws and ways of life for the city” (484c), and keen sighted guards are superior to blind ones (484c). Furthermore,  knowledge, according to Socrates, constitutes just such keenness of sight, whereas a lack of knowledge would be akin to blindness. He explains:

“Do you think, then, that there’s any difference between the blind and those who are really deprived of the knowledge of each thing that is? The latter have no clear model in their souls, and so they cannot—in the manner of painters—look to what is most true, make constant reference to it, and study it as exactly as possible. Hence they cannot establish here on earth conventions about what is fine or just or good, when they need to be established, or guard and preserve them, once they have been established” (484c-d).

Thus, all things being equal, it is those with knowledge, the philosophers, who would make for better guardians. For it is they who can see the eternal law from which temporal laws should be derived. So, unless the philosophers lack other requisite qualities for guardianship, they should be preferred as rulers.

Socrates then goes on to argue that philosophers also possess these other needed qualities. As lovers of Truth and Being, they will shun falsehood (485c). And, since their desire is for the eternal and the pleasures of the soul, they will care little for money and be able to resist the pleasures of the body. Socrates explains:

“Now, we surely know that, when someone’s desires incline strongly for one thing, they are thereby weakened for others, just like a stream that has been partly diverted into another channel…Then, when someone’s desires flow towards learning and everything of that sort, they’d be concerned, I suppose, with the pleasures of the soul itself by itself, and they’d abandon those pleasures that come through the body—if indeed he is a true philosopher and not merely a counterfeit one… Then surely such a person is moderate and not at all a money-lover. It’s appropriate for others to take seriously the things for which money and large expenditures are needed, but not for him” (485d-e).

Furthermore, a philosopher will be neither slavish nor cowardly, “for pettiness is altogether incompatible with a soul that is always reaching out to grasp everything both divine and human as a whole (486a).” Living in the light of eternity, a philosopher will remain unperturbed by the turns of fortune’s wheel and fearless in the face of death. As a result, “the cowardly and slavish nature will take no part in true philosophy” (486a-b). And such an orderly person, lacking the aforementioned vices, would be neither unreliable nor unjust (486b).

In regards to his intellect, the philosopher will be a fast learner with a good memory. And he will  be gentle (486b) and graceful, since “the unmusical and graceless element in a person’s nature draws him to lack of due measure” (486d), and truth is akin to what is measured rather than what lacks measure (486d). For thought that is measured and graceful “is easily led to the form of each thing that is.” (486d).

Given that philosophers possess these virtues in addition to knowledge, Socrates takes himself to have established that philosophers would make for the best rulers.  He queries:

“Is there any objection you can find, then, to a pursuit that no one can adequately follow unless he’s by nature good at remembering, quick to learn, high-minded, graceful, and a friend and relative of truth, justice, courage and moderation? [And] when such people have reached maturity in age and education, wouldn’t you entrust the city to them and to them alone?” (487a).

Socrates’ interlocutors cannot challenge his argument, yet remain unconvinced. Adeimantus likens the situation to one in which inexperienced players get bested by a superior player. Socrates is clearly better at arguing than they are, but the conclusion he has reached is so counterintuitive that they feel that something must have gone wrong somewhere in the argument (487c).  Specifically, Adeimantus argues that Socrates claims seem to conflict with the fact that, in contemporary society, philosophers are either socially useless or politically vicious (487d).

Socrates attempts to address this objection by explaining why this would be the case in our present degenerate era. First, he explains why true philosophers would be useless to his society. He draws an analogy to sailing. Imagine a shipowner, himself poor of sight and hearing and ignorant of navigation, is out at sea (488a). The crewmembers, equally blind and ignorant, fight with one another about who should be captain of the ship. Because of their ignorance, they declare that “navigation isn’t teachable and are ready to cut to pieces anyone who says that it is” (488b). They do everything in their power (even resorting to drugs) to convince the owner to hand over control of the ship to them, and they call those who are successful  “navigators.” (488d). But Socrates observes that:

“They don’t understand that a true captain must pay attention to the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and all that pertains to his craft, if he’s really to be the ruler of a ship. And they don’t believe there is any craft that would enable him to determine how he should steer the ship, whether the others want him to or not, or any possibility of mastering this alleged craft or of practicing it at the same time as the craft of navigation. Don’t you think that the true captain will be called a real stargazer, a babbler, and a good-for-nothing by those who sail in ships governed in that way, in which such things happen?” (488d-e).

True sailors would be useless under such a regime. And Socrates argues that the same case holds for philosophers in our current political climate; “the most decent among the philosophers are useless to the majority” (489b). But this fault lies not with the philosophers, but with the society that fails to make use of them (488b).

“It isn’t natural for the captain to beg the sailors to be ruled by him nor for the wise to knock at the doors of the rich…. The natural thing is for the sick person, rich or poor, to knock at the doctor’s door, and for anyone who needs to be ruled to knock at the door of the one who can rule him. It isn’t for the ruler, if he’s truly any use, to beg others to accept his rule” (489b-c).

Socrates then addresses the second concern and explains how vicious people are able to appropriate the label of philosophy for themselves in corrupt societies. He begins by explaining how those of a naturally noble character can be corrupted, observing how those capable of the greatest virtue are also capable of the greatest vice when twisted by a perverse education. He observes:

“We know that the more vigorous any seed, developing plant, or animal is, the more it is deficient in the things that are appropriate for it to have when it is deprived of suitable food, season, or location. For the bad is more opposed to the good than it is the merely not good…. The best nature fares worse, when unsuitably nurtured, than an ordinary one…. Then won’t we say the same thing about souls too, Adeimantus, that those with the best natures become outstandingly bad when they receive a bad upbringing? Or do you think that great injustices and pure wickedness originate in an ordinary nature rather than in a vigorous one that has been corrupted by good upbringing? Or that a weak nature is ever the cause of either great good or great evil?” (491d-e).

Socrates observes that education is currently dominated by the sophists who teach people to pander to the mob, endorsing the things that will gain its approval, and condemning what provokes its ire. Such an “education” thus does not aim at truth. Socrates argues:

“Not one of those paid private teachers, whom the people call sophists and consider to be their rivals in craft, teaches anything other than the convictions that the majority express when they are gathered together. Indeed, these are precisely what the sophists call wisdom. It’s as if someone were learning the moods and appetites of a huge, strong beast that he’s rearing—how to approach and handle it, when it is most difficult to deal with or most gentle and what makes it so, what sounds it utters in either condition, and what sounds soothe or anger it. Having learned all this through tending the beast over a period of time, he calls this knack wisdom, gathers his information together as if it were a craft, and starts to teach it. In truth, he knows nothing about which of these convictions is fine or shameful, good or bad, just or unjust, but he applies all these names in accordance with how the beast reacts—calling what it enjoys good and what angers it bad. He has no other account to give of these terms. And he calls what he is compelled to do just and fine, for he hasn’t seen and cannot show anyone else how much compulsion and goodness really differ. Don’t you think, by god, that someone like that is a strange educator? (493a-c)”

All the sophists teach is how to cater to the whims of the mob, a mob averse to Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, and concerned only with the satisfaction of bodily desires. Sophistic education, then, would not lead one to the truth, but away from it. Socrates explains:

“S: Keeping all this in mind, recall the following question: Can the majority in any way tolerate or accept the reality of the beautiful itself, as opposed to the many beautiful things, or the reality of each thing itself, as opposed to the corresponding many?

A: Not in any way.

S: Then the majority cannot be philosophic?

A: They cannot.

S: Hence they inevitably disapprove of those who practice philosophy?

A: Inevitably.

S: And so do all those private individuals who associate with the majority and try to please them” (493e-494a).

Those of a philosophical nature, subjected to such an education, would thus be led to deny virtue and seek vice. Furthermore, their friends and family would see their natural aptitude and attempt to exploit them to their advantage. They will be recruited from youth to help their friends and family gain power and advance their interests. Being naturally gifted they will likely be successful and grow arrogant and addicted to praise, thereby allowing their once noble nature to be corrupted. Socrates observes:

“When someone with a philosophic nature is badly brought up, the very components of his nature—together with the other so-called goods, such as wealth and other similar advantages—are themselves in a way the cause of his falling away from philosophic pursuits….And it is among these men that we find the ones who o the greatest evils of cities and individuals and also—if they happen to be swept that way by the current—the greatest good, for a petty nature will never do anything great, either to an individual or a city” (495a-b).

Another reason why vicious people can be found among those who call themselves philosophers lies in philosophy’s reputation. The profession of philosophy, though degraded, nonetheless has a reputation that outshines those of other crafts. Hence, glory seekers from other disciplines flock to it. Socrates explains:  

“Other little men—the ones who are most sophisticated at their own little crafts—seeing that this position, which is full of fine names and adornments, is vacated, leap gladly from those little crafts to philosophy, like prisoners escaping from jail who take refuge in a temple. Despite her present poor state, philosophy is still more high-minded than these other crafts, so that many people with defective natures desire to possess her, even though their souls are cramped and spoiled by the mechanical nature of their work, in just the way that their bodies are mutilated by their crafts and labors” (495d).

Or again:

“Don’t you think that a man of this sort looks exactly like a little bald-headed tinker who has come into some money and, having been just released from jail, has taken a bath, put on a new cloak, got himself up as a bridegroom, and is about to marry the boss’s daughter because she is poor and abandoned? […] And what kind of children will that marriage produce? Won’t they be illegitimate and inferior?… What about when men who are unworthy of education approach philosophy and consort with her unworthily? What kinds of thoughts and opinions are we to say they beget? Won’t they truly be what are properly called sophisms, things that have nothing genuine about hem or worthy of being called true wisdom?” (495e-496a).

In this manner, Socrates takes himself to have explained why the philosophers of his day were either useless to society or vicious when given political power. And, he points out that this fact does not conflict with his earlier argument that philosophers ought to rule.

He then goes on to use this doctrine of the philosopher king to address the original challenge and show that the ideal city is politically possible. Socrates argues that it is possible, though unlikely, for philosophers currently viewed as useless to society to be given political power or for a ruler to be born with a philosophical nature and educated to virtue. And, since such a ruler could bring about sweeping changes, and institute the ideal city, such a city is also possible. He explains:

“Then, if in the limitless past, those who were foremost in philosophy were forced to take charge of a city or if this is happening now in some foreign place far beyond our ken or if it will happen in the future, we are prepared to maintain our argument that, at whatever time philosophy controls a city, the constitution we’ve described will also exist at that time, whether it is past, present, or future. Since it is not impossible for this to happen, we are not speaking of impossibilities. That it is difficult for it to happen, however, we agree ourselves” (499d).

For, such a philosopher king would “by consorting with what is ordered and divine” “himself” become “as divine and ordered as a human being can” (500c-d). He would thus be able to imprint what he sees in the eternal world back onto the empirical world. Socrates thus inquires: “And if he should be compelled to put what he sees there into people’s characters, whether into a single person or into a populace, instead of shaping only his own, do you think that he will be a poor craftsman of moderation, justice, and the whole of popular virtue?” (500d).

To bring this about he would need to wipe the slate clean and sketch a new constitution, to “erase one thing…and draw in another until” he’d “made characters for human beings that the gods would love as much as possible.” (501c).

Hence, civic justice is not only logically, but also politically possible. Though remote, this possibility should give us hope as we try to live our lives as best we can under our current degenerate regime. We may stand amidst ruins, but at least we still stand, and those ruins testify to what once was and could be once more. With that in mind, I’ll leave you with the words of Confucius: “If there existed a true king, after a generation humanness would certainly prevail.” (Analects, 13.12).

[The image used as the thumbnail of this post is by N.C. Wyeth and is in the public domain.]

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