Plato’s Theory of the Philosopher-King: A Just and Ideal Government
Plato, one of the most influential philosophers in history, was the founder of the Academy in Athens, where he taught his famous student Aristotle. Plato’s most famous work is the Republic, a dialogue in which he presents his vision of a just and ideal city-state, ruled by philosophers who have the knowledge and wisdom to govern well.
In this blog post, I will explain Plato’s theory of the philosopher-king, why he thought it was the best form of government, and what challenges and criticisms it faces.
What is a philosopher-king?
According to Plato, a philosopher-king is a ruler who has both political skill and philosophical knowledge. The philosopher-king is not a tyrant who seeks power for his own sake, but a benevolent leader who cares for the common good of his citizens. The philosopher-king is also not a mere politician who relies on rhetoric and persuasion, but a seeker of truth who has access to the highest form of knowledge: the knowledge of the Forms.
The Forms are eternal and perfect ideas that exist beyond the physical world. They are the models or archetypes of everything that exists in reality. For example, there is a Form of Beauty, Justice, Goodness, etc. that are more real and more perfect than any particular instance of beauty, justice, or goodness that we encounter in our experience.
The philosopher-king is able to grasp the Forms through a rigorous process of education and training that involves mathematics, dialectic, and contemplation. The philosopher-king is able to see beyond the appearances and opinions of the sensible world, and reach the intelligible realm where the Forms reside. The philosopher-king is thus able to discern what is truly good and just for himself and for his society.
Why did Plato think that the philosopher-king was the best form of government?
Plato thought that the philosopher-king was the best form of government because he believed that justice and happiness depend on having the right kind of rulers. Plato defined justice as having each part of the soul and each class of society perform its proper function. He divided the soul into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. He also divided society into three classes: guardians, auxiliaries, and producers.
The guardians are the rulers who have reason as their dominant part of the soul. They are responsible for making laws and policies that benefit the whole city. The auxiliaries are the warriors who have spirit as their dominant part of the soul. They are responsible for defending and enforcing the laws made by the guardians. The producers are the farmers, artisans, merchants, etc. who have appetite as their dominant part of the soul. They are responsible for producing and exchanging goods and services that satisfy the needs of the city.
Plato argued that only those who have reason as their dominant part of the soul are fit to rule, because they are able to overcome their personal desires and emotions, and act according to what is best for everyone. Moreover, only those who have philosophical knowledge are able to rule well, because they are able to understand what is good and just in itself, not just what is good and just according to convention or custom.
Plato believed that if philosophers became kings, or if kings became philosophers, they would create a harmonious and prosperous society that would reflect the order and beauty of the Forms. They would also educate their citizens to become virtuous and rational beings who would love wisdom and justice.
What are some challenges and criticisms of Plato’s theory of the philosopher-king?
Plato’s theory of the philosopher-king faces several challenges and criticisms from different perspectives. Some of them are:
– How can we ensure that philosophers will be willing and able to rule? Plato admitted that most philosophers would prefer to live a quiet life of contemplation rather than engage in political affairs. He also acknowledged that most people would not accept or appreciate their rule. He suggested that philosophers should be compelled by law or by force to take up their duty as rulers, and that they should be educated from childhood to love their city more than themselves. However, this raises questions about whether such coercion would be compatible with freedom and happiness.
– How can we identify who are true philosophers? Plato claimed that only those who have seen the Forms are true philosophers, but how can we verify or test their claim? How can we distinguish between genuine philosophers who have knowledge and wisdom, and false philosophers who have only opinions or sophistry? How can we prevent impostors or charlatans from pretending to be philosophers in order to gain power or influence?
– How can we prevent philosophers from becoming corrupted or tyrannical? Plato assumed that philosophers would be immune to corruption or tyranny because they would have no personal interests or passions that could cloud their judgment or tempt them to abuse their power. However, this assumption may be unrealistic or naive. History shows that many rulers who claimed to be wise or virtuous turned out to be cruel or oppressive. Even Plato’s own student, Aristotle, criticized Plato for neglecting the human and social aspects of politics, and for ignoring the diversity and complexity of human nature and culture.
– How can we ensure that philosophers will be accountable and responsive to their citizens? Plato envisioned a hierarchical and authoritarian system of government, where the philosopher-kings would have absolute authority and discretion over the laws and policies of the city. He also rejected democracy as a form of government, because he thought that it would lead to chaos and injustice, as the majority of people are ignorant and irrational. However, this raises questions about whether such a system would respect the rights and freedoms of the citizens, and whether it would allow for any participation or feedback from them. How can we ensure that the philosopher-kings will not impose their own views or values on the citizens, or ignore their needs or preferences?
– Plato. Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve, Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.
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