Plato’s Philosopher-Kings Are Your Friends

All too often these days, conservatives and libertarians have taken to adopting synoptic views of the history of ideas aimed at dividing all philosophers neatly into two political camps: pro- vs. anti-liberty, or, more precisely, pro-liberty vs. pro-tyranny. And within this (in my view) misleading dichotomy, it is customary to prove one’s philosophical mettle by setting Plato atop the pro-tyranny list. Indeed, he is often casually denigrated by conservatives as an early progressive, as well as a communist.

All of this condemnation stems from Plato’s fanciful speculation about hypothetical “philosopher-kings,” in the Republic — or more likely, in most cases, from popular presentations of Karl Popper’s famous but simplistic reading of the Republic in The Open Society and its Enemies.

First of all, the idea that Plato was any kind of progressive is absurd on its face, since progressivism, as we use the notion in political terms, is entirely a child of modern philosophy — conceived in the seventeenth century, gestated in the eighteenth, and born in the nineteenth (at the University of Berlin, to be precise). Its theoretical underpinning is the notion that history is not essentially cyclical (as the ancients believed), but rather that human nature is fundamentally improvable, and has only been stuck in a preliminary stage of development which our race may now, thanks to modern ideas, transcend at last on the road to some future Utopia. This idea is so entirely contrary to Plato’s view of history and the development of politics that calling him a progressive is about as reasonable as calling Hitler a Zionist.

In fact, Plato’s notion of philosopher-kings is developed in response to his belief that human nature does not admit of fundamental improvement, and hence that all practical political designs are inescapably bound to devolve into tyranny one way or another. 

The question — in fact the driving political question of the whole conversation in the Republic — is how to prevent this inevitable deterioration of civil society from occurring. In other words, the question is, “How could we, in theory, design a city that might be resistant to the natural tendency of human society to collapse into tyranny?” 

And the first essential step in this design, always overlooked by, or unknown to, those who categorize Plato among the friends of tyranny, is the hypothesis that the reason societies collapse is that they are invariably ruled by men who define their advantage (i.e., their happiness) on the basis of the kinds of earthly objects that political power can provide: money, coercive authority over others, honor, glory. Even a seemingly honorable man, Plato shows us, if granted the power to make and enforce laws, to regulate education, and to tax his fellow men, will gradually succumb to the temptations of his perceived personal advantage. (In this, Plato’s thought is entirely consistent with, and in fact a great historical influence upon, many famous warnings and premonitions of America’s Founders.) In other words, Plato presents the rational argument behind Lord Acton’s aphorism, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

Socrates — not Plato, but Plato’s main character in the dialogue, who is not merely “Plato’s mouthpiece,” as the Popperites presume him to be — leads his interlocutors to the reasonable conclusion that if the corruption of all civil society is rooted in the fact that the benefits of rule are too great a temptation for most men, then the only conceivable solution would be to find men within the community who do not locate their own advantage among the objects of earthly gain, and force those men to rule. This solution becomes the springboard for a search through the nature of man in the hopes of finding a human type that does not seek its own good (i.e., its happiness) among earthly goals, and therefore sees no personal benefit in political power. In other words, the only preventive to the cycle of social decay is to have rulers who desire nothing power can offer, and therefore loathe the idea of being rulers. For such would be the only men likely to rule truly for the good of society, rather than for their own advantage.

And what kind of man desires or values none of the supposed goods that lead men to be corrupted by power? The answer is the philosopher, the lover of wisdom. This man’s life is dedicated to the pursuit of goods of an immaterial nature, and hence the only benefit he desires from earthly society is that it should leave him to his thinking, his search for wisdom. The wisest man, who by definition eschews the temptations of earthly goods, is thus the only man suited to rule a society that wishes to save itself from the inevitable, all-too-human slide toward tyranny. 

The problem, as noted above, is that such a man, finding no benefit in rule, while finding great benefit precisely in freedom from practical concerns, will have no wish to rule, but will rather see it as a form of punishment. This, as Socrates explains, is precisely why he should rule, but it is also why no such man ever does rule. Hence the need to force him against his will to accept practical authority for the benefit of all.

The rigid social structure of Plato’s “just city,” the city ruled by the philosopher-kings, is not, as today’s critics would have it, tyranny, let alone communism. (More on the communism argument in a subsequent essay.) It is merely Plato’s careful, unforgiving development of the reasoning behind his initial hypothesis that the only society resistant to tyranny is one ruled by wise men who (for that very reason) do not desire power. After all, what would happen if the rigidity were loosened, and non-philosophers to become politically powerful? The answer, given the initial arguments outlined above, is obvious: the society would fall back onto the natural path of devolution and disintegration, with vicious or shakily virtuous men desiring their own earthly advantage through power, and the most dangerously desirous of them ultimately rising to the top.

Find the nation today, or at any time throughout history for that matter, that does not fall neatly into Plato’s bleak analysis. No, he is not making the case for a “philosophical dictatorship.” He is making the case for the rule of reason and wisdom. Does any conservative really wish for unreason and ignorance to assume the mantle of leadership? The harsh and “Spartan” particularities of the city of philosopher-kings, as proposed by Socrates in the Republic, are clearly intended not as a practical (or practicable) strategy, but, on the contrary, as a demonstration of just how far from plausibility it is that mankind could ever achieve the true rule of reason — a condition that, if we are thinking clearly, we all desire, but which, if we are honest with ourselves, we know is not possible given the imperfections and material needs of our nature.

The best we can hope for, realistically, as Socrates himself declares at the end of the Republic’s political discussion, is that we, as individuals, may strive to achieve this “just city,” the rule of reason (i.e., the philosophic life), within our own souls. 

Plato was not a communist in the modern sense, nor any other form of progressive. He was not advocating tyranny. He was, as it turns out, setting the stage, at the very beginning of the history of political philosophy (a discipline he himself effectively invented), for the political theory of his greatest student, Aristotle, who formulated the idea of what we call a republic — a society that seeks to achieve in practically realizable terms some semblance of the rule of the wise men (permanence, dispassionate law), while allowing for the material limitations and spiritual gradations of mankind’s earthly life.

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