Philosopher kings…

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In Plato’s Republic we are presented with the idea of the philosopher as political ruler, or the ruler as philosophically trained. In the current essay we shall examine this view, starting from its underlying metaphysics and epistemology, in an effort to identify its valid or erroneous points, and, where possible, draw conclusions for the present, for the ethical/political considerations of ours.

On the face of it, Plato’s notion of the “philosopher king” and the rigid social order necessary to sustain such institution, is an ill advice to any political entity that aspires to be rules-based, diverse, pluralist, and open to sociocultural change. Nonetheless, Plato’s ideas are not altogether incompatible with contemporary modes of political organisation. A constituted, law-governed society that makes use of scientific input in the formulation of its policies can be considered as partly subscribing to an adaptation of Plato’s program, insofar as it sets to pursue a range of substantive moral objectives for the totality of its citizens.

Underlying metaphysics and epistemology

The idea of the philosopher as ruler is a byproduct of Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology. Plato relies on a bifurcated conception of reality that distinguishes between intelligible and perceptible objects in a way that while both are considered as subsisting, each has its own mode of being. It is, to put it roughly, a system that enables the combination of Heraclitus’ and Parmenides’ views on the nature of things.

Objects of sense are subject to incessant change. They have an alterable presence. No two plants are identical. No single plant is equal to itself over time. The suggestion is that the world is in flux and whatever constants we may grasp are ideas. Which brings forth Plato’s claims about the subsistence of Forms, of which individual ideas are instantiations of.

Forms occupy a realm that is not governed by the forces that produce change and flux. They are immutable, absolute. Thus, it is claimed, while we may not have two strictly identical plants, we all conceive of Plant as a magnitude that is found in all those objects of sense we name “plants”; a Form that is beyond—exterior to—any one, or even the totality, of its particularised manifestations.

How exactly Forms are accessible while being outside the scope of their instantiations is a matter that runs off on a tangent not covered by the present article. Suffice to remark that Plato propounds no definitive theory. He rather sketches possible solutions, which involve having to rely on some dubious assertions about the nature of the human soul, its transcendent presence and capacity to recollect on past experiences. This is the likeliest conduit to the Forms: the immortal soul has, or has had, access to them and can thus “remember” what they are.

Technicalities aside, such metaphysics inevitably introduces an idiosyncratic dichotomy between types of genuine and fake knowledge. There is knowledge of the things susceptible to the faculties of sense, and then there is Knowledge qua Form with its corresponding knowledge of the Forms. The former concerns the world of change. It cannot be considered reliable, for if the object to be known is alterable, so must be the understanding of it. In contradistinction, the Form is fixed, the constant every instantiation partakes of without ever equating it. For that it must always be “there” and be true.

Against this backdrop, Plato entertains the notion of the philosophically trained soul as the only one properly equipped to recollect on its grasp of Knowledge, the Forms and concomitant metaphysical magnitudes. The others, the non-philosophers, are limited to familiarity with changeable things. With falsehoods that is. Such epistemological binary is outlined in one of the philosopher’s famous allegories: the cave.

Immanence and realism

I think Plato is generally mistaken about the subsistence of Forms and the manner in which their domain may be accessed. The human mind, courtesy of its capacity to abstract from the totality of stimuli, can trace patterns and constants. These may then form the basis for a given concept. To use Socrates’ own words from another Platonic dialogue (see Meno) on what that may be, it is the common in the multitude among the things considered. If so, it must be an inference from what is already susceptible to the faculties of perception. Thus, the intelligible understanding of pattern initially corresponds to part of what is already experienced, while any patterns therefrom are logical deductions.

Still, can we be satisfied with such empirical mode of thinking when we are presented with arguments for the universal flux of the world of experience, and the constancy of the realm of Forms? The answer can be three-fold:

  1. The physical laws that govern such incessant change and the forces therein are universal. There is no proof of them being otherwise. The onus falls on the proponents of the contrary opinion to justify their position. We may concede, for the sake of argument, that if universal laws are ever proven to be alterable, we will have to revise our theories about them. Though given the lack of evidence for such a hypothesis, radical skepticism of the empirical method is unwarranted. We may suspend judgement on final statements, which themselves are speculative, while providing assent to what we cannot reasonably—and factually—doubt.
  2. If the theory of “incessant change” implies total arbitrariness and randomness, it is spurious. Though it may be the case that no two plants are alike, we do not have any data sample or indication of a given plant that unexpectedly transmogrified into, say, an animal. The world of flux, if it is to be named so, is replete with patterns and constants, with causes that produce effects, and with interrelations that engender sets of possible outcomes. It is a domain of causality and probability. All these are discernible and in fact provide the basis for the kind of knowledge that is consistent with—and aware of—its source and scope. Besides, arguments for relativism, such as that of universal change, which happen to be presented as absolutely true are contradictions par excellence.
  3. If concepts are abstractions from the world of experience and if any patterns to be discerned therefrom are deductions, we may attribute the perceived immutability of intelligible objects to the way our mind operates in relation to our experience. The magnitudes-to-be-abstracted are immanent in everything that is susceptible to the senses, while the way in which they may be conceived is dependent on the capabilities of the mind. To relate to an aforementioned example, the similarities among plants are not to be attributed to their participation in an exterior, perhaps exalted, Form Plant. Whatever patterns they exhibit, we qualify them as constitutive of the taxonomical concept of “plant”, while their variety and other characteristics are to be attributed to biology in accordance with the laws governing its processes.

Plato’s metaphysics and the resulting epistemology are in a difficult position to prove themselves. There is great value in Plato’s opus, as there are several compelling ideas one may draw from it. Yet the system as a whole requires us to provide assent to a wide range of brave assumptions; assumptions that may have been widely accepted in ancient Athens, but which are at odds with modern intellectual work and the breakthroughs in understanding achieved hitherto.

Benefiting from the historical progress of thought, “standing on the shoulders of giants” as it were, we may venture to reject Plato’s views by applying the law of parsimony for determining our position in the face of final uncertainty. In that regard, the empirical approach makes fewer assumptions about the nature of the things considered, and is therefore less likely to be erroneous.

Politics as context not profession

With the underlying metaphysics and epistemology of the “philosopher kings” proposal under question, what remains is to scrutinise Plato’s conception of politics, not so in juxtaposition to contemporary democratic values (an otherwise worthy objection), but mostly in terms of their philosophical merit. We shall examine the strictly political aspects of his argument, in particular the very idea of a single person, or [social] class thereof, as best suited for government. Our contention is that such view is misguided.

In another one of his famous metaphors, Plato likens the polity to a ship, and its governor to a ship’s captain, to argue that only those truly knowledgeable of the things specific to government may be given the task of governing, just as only those with expertise in sailing may be qualified to pilot a ship.

Indeed, to argue along Plato’s lines we have to maintain that politics is an art, an area of expertise, one may master. While it may be true that government is akin to management, a polity cannot be likened, at least not in advance, to otherwise homogeneous institutions, such as corporations, organised religion, military establishments etc. A polity is broader than these, which is clear from the very fact that it encompasses entities of that kind, without remaining limited to them.

At scale, a polity is quite diverse, consisting of categories of expertise and of cultures/subcultures that are different from one another in numerous ways or in varying degrees of intensity. It is an open-ended system within which sets of values, developed dynamically and consolidated historicoculturally as well as socioeconomically, provide for the realisation of multifaceted intersubjective and interobjective relations.

As previously argued, politics is the nominal context in which such a nexus of relations and feedback loops takes place. What occurs within the context is the political process. To use a metaphor from our own technological times, I would consider politics to be similar to the underlying code of the software we use on a daily basis. Take the case of a certain OS (Operating System). It provides for an exhaustive list of ways an application may leverage the platform. Though the OS is predetermined, the actual functions and combinations thereof are not. The OS is the context, the environment of a development process. What happens within it depends on the interplay of several variables.

Thinking of politics as nominal context, as the milieu in which certain categories of events take place, enables us to appreciate the complexity in the multitude of phenomena that derive from human interaction. It is a view that is deeply rooted in the observations of the social sciences, which may be mostly compartmentalised, but still examine regularities that eventually overlap. Depending on the case, an economic agent is as much a subject for the economist as it is for the psychologist, the political scientist, and the sociologist. A free market is not developed organically, as anarchocapitalism would contend; it rather is the product of a broad range of social and legal institutions, such as e.g. the morality and legality of private property, the distinction between legal and natural persons, the historical evolution of social organisation, and so on.

Beyond elitism

This view of politics does, I believe, place us in a better position to think of things in their actuality, and to avoid sloppy conclusions or prescriptions. One such case of sloppiness is Plato’s tacit suggestion that one may be the master of the truth underpinning many trades by means of grasping the Form(s) these instantiations partake of. Notwithstanding the aforementioned critique of such metaphysics, what is missed in the process of strong reductionism is the totality of emergent qualities germane to social phenomena. These are in no way fundamental, yet they are of paramount importance for our research, if it is to correspond to things as they are. The abstract is no substitute for the specific, and vice versa.

Another presumptuous claim is the superiority of the philosopher in judging. While philosophers do specialise in the abstract structure of things and are, in general, expected to discern valid from invalid statements, they are by no means insulated from forces that give rise to implicit bias and the stimuli that influence one’s thought, mood and disposition (also of interest: Philosophers’ Biased Judgments Persist). It is wishful thinking to treat a group of specialists—the philosophers—as a priori robust to influences exerted upon them by their nominal and natural contexts.

Moreover, it is highly questionable whether one’s capacity to rule is solely a function of their knowledge. Such seemingly irrelevant parameters as speaking style can be critical in shaping the general perception regarding a philosopher’s competence, so much so that one may appear—even in the eyes of other philosophers—to be smarter or wiser than what their actual work would suggest. The gist is that overly simplistic views aimed at exalting the philosopher as some super-human being are inconsistent with the facts (let alone that they impose impossible standards on actual philosophers).

By the by, we have been writing of philosophers as a largely homogeneous group. In terms of the general features of their profession, they may be so. But in as far as the content of their labour is concerned, they are as diverse as it gets. Let’s say that we grant Plato his ideal polity, which set of philosophers is to govern? The logicians, or the metaphysicists? Perhaps those who specialise in ethics? And if it is ethics, which of the competing traditions is to be preferred? And who shall be the arbiter to make such definitive judgement in the face of final uncertainty? Must the polity remain ungoverned until the issue is settled, if ever, or will it be ruled by whatever school of thought is ad hoc qualified as best qualified for the task, with criteria that are essentially extrinsic to philosophy?

There is no need to go down the rabbit hole of answering each of these and related questions, provided we acknowledge the plurality of views within philosophy, and then extend that notion to the rest of society. We inevitably come back to the conclusion that we need to be judicious, so as to avoid idealising and idolising various groups of people.

What remains

Given the above, it is reasonable to wonder whether there is anything to be salvaged from Plato’s political vision. I would be lenient on my judgement for a couple of reasons:

  • Plato is, just like every thinker, trapped in the web of his epoch. Part of what he suggests may have been considered as the most mainstream of opinions in his cultural milieu, while being at odds with contemporary standards. It is one thing to justifiably disagree, and another to be appreciative of the opposing side’s starting point and motives. To use Thoreau’s words: “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new”. We can do better than that.
  • Plato is a system builder. His ethics are consistent with his epistemology, which is based on his metaphysics. While the system as a whole may be problematic, there may be several individual views that are worth considering for adoption or adaptation. Philosophical argument is nuanced; granularity is to be expected.

As such, let us slightly modify Plato’s claims about the philosopher king. Instead of philosophy/knowledge personified, we can argue for a broadened view of knowledge whereby the shared effort is placed at the centre. No philosopher, scientist, engineer etc. needs to reinvent the tools and specifics of their profession. They rather rely on accumulated knowledge; they draw from and give back to a pool of collective experience. That there may ever be progress and refinement in our knowledge of things, is courtesy of this very community-driven process, which both saves time and empowers the individual to bring their own contribution to the fore.

In light of this, the political system need not wait for some exalted individual mind(s) that will govern by virtue of their own genius. That is unreliable and unsustainable. Let there be linkages between the political process, the socio-economic players and the centres of research, to have a knowledge-based society, rather than a knowledge-based ruling elite. In other words, there can be a political setup where institutions, norms and rules are informed by knowledge.

The next value we can extract from Plato’s agenda, and modify it accordingly, is the ethical role of a polity. The system must be such so that it aims at the realisation of substantive moral outcomes, which are, quite clearly, broader in scope than economic/GDP growth. Social justice, universal education, the end of poverty and immiseration, respect for and protection of the environment and the animals, non-discrimination regardless of one’s background, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

These principle are, arguably perhaps, already incorporated in our modern political organisations, albeit in various ways. Constituted, rules-based democracries, operating within an international framework of legal and moral principles (e.g. human rights) are instances of political entities that strive to meet certain moral objectives. They may not be perfect, yet they clearly are on this track.

Concluding remarks

In the present essay we have scrutinised the idea of the philosopher king, arguing against it on a number of levels:

  • We have rejected the idealism in Plato’s metaphysics together with its underlying tissues of assumptions regarding the subsistence of Forms, the nature of the human soul and the manner in which Forms are accessed. Consequently we could not provide assent to Plato’s epistemology, which underpins his distinction between “genuine” and “fake” knowledge; an important aspect of the “philosopher as ruler” proposal.
  • A polity is complex and diverse, so much so that politics cannot qualify as an art one may master. Instead we treat politics as the nominal context in which sets of values, developed dynamically and consolidated historicoculturally as well as socioeconomically, provide for the realisation of multifaceted intersubjective and interobjective relations.
  • The presumptuous notions about “the philosopher” and the elitism they engender have been cast aside. Philosophers are no less prone to erroneous judgement than non-philosophers, nor are they immune to subconscious influences that lead to implicit biases and the like. Furthermore, philosophers are quite a heterogeneous group of specialists. Even if Plato were to have his polity, the decision on which specific subcategory of experts would govern, would inevitably be based on criteria extrinsic to philosophy.

The above granted, we have contended that Plato’s views are not altogether incompatible with contemporary values. In being eclectic, we may extract from his political program the principles that suit our needs. To that end, I would argue that we already witness partial adaptations of Plato’s politics. Modern democracies tend to rely, at least to an extent and in certain areas of policy, on the input of science and research in the formulation of their norms and institutions. They are configured to deliver—or aim at delivering—substantive moral outcomes for the body of their citizens, and are committed to internationally-accepted principles of universal justice.

If Plato’s Republic were to be offered to us as a monolithic whole, a blueprint for a desirable polity, we would outright reject it. However, philosophical argument is nuanced. Choices are not—or need not be—binary. As has been demonstrated herein we can be critical while remaining respectful, and we can dismiss the theoretical apparatus as a whole while acknowledging the value of some of its components.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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