Plato claims that until philosophers are kings and kings philosophers we will never have an end to our troubles. Is Plato right

In a static and unchanging condition, Plato is right in saying that the troubles of society and people would end when philosophers are kings and kings are philosophers. When individuals and classes play their roles well, this enables the existence of a philosopher king who focuses on the pursuit of knowledge to govern with justice. This form of governance then prevents and addresses social problems. However, in the physical and changing reality, his statement cannot stand because it is impossible for the philosopher king he envisions to exist in the physical reality. Without his idea of philosopher king, the role played by the guardian cannot work to end social troubles. Moreover, in the physical reality, just governance can be achieved without the philosopher king. It was Platos description of reality as the context of the philosopher king that raised criticisms. Politics is an existential or practical discourse to be relevant to addressing actual social problems. The discussion then adopts a critical perspective by explaining how Plato is right in his description of the philosopher king as the solution to societys troubles given his non-physical reality and how he is wrong when considering the physical reality.

Plato propounded a duality of reality. One reality constitutes what is observable to the senses but to Plato this comprises an appearance and filled with mere opinions. The other reality is not physical but rather an eternal and unchanging state where knowledge resides. By adhering to the duality of reality, philosophy then rests within the realm of the eternal and unchanging and not in the physical world. (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005) Plato describes his philosopher king in the non-physical reality.

    The context of Platos claim about the philosopher-king lies in his vision of an ideal and just society. According to Plato a just society is one where there is hierarchical balance that addresses common needs. The society emerges because individuals are not self-sufficient. (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005) Society functions to fulfil the needs of its members and the individuals comprising society play their roles in contributing to the fulfilment of individual and collective needs.
Human needs fall under three hierarchical classes. The achievement of each class of needs serve the purpose of sustaining society. At the base of the hierarchy are the nourishing needs to include food, clothing and shelter (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005). These comprise the basic human needs, which measure well-being. A state of poverty reflects very low well-being because even the most basic need for food is not met. In the middle of the hierarchy are the protection needs (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005). Soldiers and law enforcement authorities address this need by ensuring an orderly and secure environment. At the top of the hierarchy of needs are the ordering needs (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005) that involve leadership role and governance.

The individuals forming part of this utopian society are also organised into a hierarchy to serve these needs. Nourishing needs are addressed by the largest group of production workers (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005) including farmers and other producers to address basic needs. In the modern sense the bulk of the labour pool constitute white and blue collar workers who create goods and services consumed by society. Protection needs are addressed by the group Plato calls auxiliary (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005), which is comprised of military and law enforcement personnel comprised of the local or state police to national and international investigation and intelligence officers. This group is fewer in number because of the requirement of specialised training. Ordering needs are addressed by a small group of learned individuals, which Plato calls guardians (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005). The guardians are the leaders of the country who are given titles such as prime minister or president. This group is comprised of a select few.

    To maintain balance and justice, the classes should focus on fulfilling their roles. This comes from the recognition and acceptance of the key roles played by the classes and the individual members of each class (Duncan and Steinberger 1990). The production workers accept their role in nourishing society. Farmers diligently work knowing they provide food to the rest of society and workers in clothing and shoe manufacturers also take pride in their contribution of keeping society warm and dry. Production workers also recognise that the auxiliary cannot help in production because they need to focus on securing society and ensuring order and that the guardians cannot also contribute to production because they need to continue honing knowledge for good governance.

The auxiliary class focuses on its role of protecting society from internal and external threats that could adversely affect social balance. Apart from a few members of the auxiliary who advance to become guardians, the rest of the protection forces keep to their role and continue to improve their capability through physical training and skills building. The selection of those who advance to become guardians is based on philosophical prowess. There is recognition among the auxiliary class that only those who are keen on philosophy would advance to become guardians. The auxiliary also recognise that they cannot contribute to production and have to depend on the producers for their needs in order for them to develop excellent skills necessary in maintaining peace, order and security.

The guardians are a select few who focus their effort and time to education, learning and knowledge building so they could govern society justly. They do not participate in production or protection. While they understand production, they do not participate in the activities because of the time and diligence required by a life of philosophy. Former auxiliary members cease to exercise the protective role to focus on studying. While they depend on the producers for their nourishment and other basic needs and on the protectors for their security, they contribute by using their knowledge to govern society in a manner that fosters balance and needs fulfilment to achieve a just society benefitting all its members.

    Societys troubles emerge when the classes neglect their roles or subsume the roles of the other classes. Some production workers could prefer the life of an auxiliary or guardian and abandon production to train and learn other roles. Some members of the auxiliary could prefer production or aim for guardianship. Guardians could abandon philosophy to pursue production by engaging in business or become remiss in their role as governors. These and similar situations that muddle inter-class relations and roles do no good to society. 

    The solution, according to Plato, rests on the guardians assuming the role of philosopher-kings. As rulers, the guardians exercise political power to influence order in society based on their philosophical ascendancy. As a small group who achieved high level of learning, wide knowledge, and experience about the affairs of the state, this group holds the highest qualifications to lead and influence social dynamics (Duncan and Steinberger 1990). By using their knowledge, the guardians can determine how best to achieve a balanced and just society. The guardians make decisions on strategic production shifts, security issues, and other affairs of society. No other group can provide the best governance for a just society other than the guardians. A rule by philosopher kings creates a just, functional and orderly society.

Philosophy merged with political power is then the key to a just society (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005). Platos consideration of the rule of philosopher kings as the solution to human troubles is founded on the special characteristics of philosophers that set them apart from the other classes and makes them fit to become leaders who espouse justice. Just governance would address societys problems. The concept of good governance explains the important role of the type or form of leadership in achieving a good society. Good governance refers to the competence of leaders to wield power, make sound decision over a wide range of issues encompassing economic, socio-cultural and environmental dimensions (Smith 2000). The ability to exercise good governance depends on the extent of knowledge of leaders as well as skills in resource allocation, consensus building, development of key relations, and implementation. The exercise of political power has an encompassing impact on society. Lack of good governance can create social problems. At the same time, good governance can also prevent and address social problems. This concept could explain why Plato placed high premium on the role of the guardians.

Plato identifies a number of characteristics of philosophers, which if exercised in governance or developed by kings make them the best political leaders who can put an end to societys troubles.
One characteristic is education and a certain level of maturity. Education refers to formal learning to develop not only knowledge but also the mental discipline and passion for learning to foster continuous philosophical study. Maturity refers to the achievement of the capability to discern appropriate attitudes and beliefs as well as the ability to behave accordingly. Plato considered age as a determinant of maturity but only within the limits of prime age, after which guardians should retire. Education and maturity of philosopher kings make them just leaders because they are able to discern what is good for society even if the other classes may not be able to do so. Their wide range of knowledge enables them to know about production and auxiliary work and use their knowledge and experience to establish policies on production and protection in a manner that addresses the basic needs of society. (Philosophy Internet Resources 2005) In this way, needs achievement creates balance and order.

An implication of this characteristic is that education and age are important qualifications of a good leader. During the time of Plato, education was a determinant of competence for leadership. This was the case since only a few people with the financial capability to do so were able to pursue formal education, gain insight into the political affairs of the state, and develop the qualifications for leadership. This could explain Platos stress on formal education.

However, in the existential context, education has become a fundamental right. This means that anybody holds the right to become educated, albeit not everybody opt to pursue higher or continuing formal education. Excellence in education and mature attitude or perspective makes good leaders, with education taken to mean learning and knowledge inside and outside of the formal school system. Not all good leaders achieved high levels of education. Although there are no past or existing leaders who can be considered as philosopher kings, there are those who came close. Abraham Lincoln had only eighteen months of formal education but had passion for learning. Winston Churchill went to a private school and the military academy but praised more his education outside of the school. Nelson Mandela was expelled from university for activism. The philosopher is no longer constrained by formal education.     

Another characteristic of philosopher kings is their rarity based on unique characteristics and undeniable pedigree in philosophy. In this sense, Plato clarifies education as a qualification by considering education together with excellent philosophical prowess as the qualification for philosopher kings. This makes philosopher kings knowledgeable about state affairs, good governance, and leadership above ordinary individuals. This distinction enables philosopher kings not only to make the right decisions and actions over political matters but also exact compliance through their qualifications. (Philosophy Internet Resources 2005)

The implication of this qualification is only a few can become philosopher kings. Guardians cannot then come from the production class. The impossibility rests on their lack of uniqueness as commoners. Moreover, access to education and using time only for learning is a privilege that not many can afford. This context creates a situation where unique individuals with high levels of learning and passion for education are easily distinguishable.

However, Plato was unable to provide a clear-cut way of distinguishing individuals with unique characteristics to make them philosophers to be applied in the modern context. Variances in unique individual characteristics and the wide range of knowledge specialisation would likely create unique characteristics of philosophers in different ways. Perhaps this is settled based on the outcomes of governance but this still does not provide a means of distinguishing philosophers among leaders or leaders with philosophical prowess. Uniqueness of philosophers may not be as strong as justification for the ability to end social ills.

Still another characteristic of philosopher kings is superior professional skills, philosophical training, and disposition towards knowledge. Professionalism refers to the ability to grasp issues with precise and in-depth understanding. Guardians are able to discern issues with speed and address these issues with strength based on confidence or certainty towards decisions that are based on their specialised knowledge. A good track record of governance is an expression of professionalism. Philosophical training means excellence in intellectual exercise by engaging in debates or discourse with oneself and with other guardians over a wide range of topics. Disposition refers to the passion for learning and knowledge building. (Philosophy Internet Resources 2005) When these are put to use in governance, political decisions would likely yield just results.

The implication is on the merging of philosophy and political power when philosophical prowess is applied to the exercise of political power (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook 2005). This addresses the troubles of society that emerges from ill-governance. The problems could be expressed as incompetent leadership, irresponsible or faulty decision making, and poor judgment. When philosophers are made as political leaders and when leaders pursue a philosophical path, they are likely to exercise their roles and exert power in a manner that employs good judgment and competence. Political governance then ushers good results instead of problems.

This characteristic of philosophers applies even in the modern concept. Professionalism and informed decision-making are two characteristics expected from effective leaders. The great leaders had impeccable records of professionalism by making rational and responsive decisions, exercising discipline and self-control, and using information to understand issues before making responses. Lack of good judgment creates problems. The global economic recession can be attributed to poor regulation that created the sub-prime market bubble. Ineffective regulation is a result of leaders that do not depend on in-depth understanding of conditions or inability to translate information on situations into effective solutions. In this sense, the governance of a philosopher could have created effective regulations to prevent the string of events that created the recession.

The last characteristics of philosopher kings are excellent personality and a philosophers lifestyle. Guardians should exhibit the personality of a philosopher that reflects competency for good governance. These personal traits include excellent memory, perceptiveness, strength, courage, gentleness, truthfulness or reliability, self-control and other similar characteristics. These factors not only ensure good governance but also the acceptability of political decisions and actions by developing a good reputation with the populace. This maintains balance. A philosophers lifestyle means absorption in the pleasure of knowledge and learning to an extent that there is lack of concern for bodily pleasure. This lifestyle requires a high level of mental discipline, which philosophers have developed. (Philosophy Internet Resources 2005) Guardians with a philosophers lifestyle also ensure good governance by preventing corruption and abuse of power. These problems cause great trouble to society by upsetting the balance of resource use to the detriment of some sectors of society. By having a philosopher as leader or leaders who pursue philosophy, leadership is strengthened and the problems caused by poor governance are prevented or eliminated.

The implication of these personal traits and philosophers lifestyle is the justification of why philosophers make the best leaders and leaders should become philosophers. Pursuing a philosophical direction develops good leadership traits to establish a positive impact on society. This also prevents problems in governance that cause trouble to society. Good leadership traits are also needed in addressing social problems.

Personal traits are recognised to be qualifications for good leadership. Charismatic leaders and leaders with good reputations have a strong influence on the public in implementing solutions or directing society towards well-being. However, practicing a philosophical lifestyle is an entirely different factor. Living a philosophers lifestyles of shunning away from bodily pleasure in order to focus on learning and knowledge building in support of the fulfilment of governance goals does not find strong support in the physical reality or existentialist context. The concept of addressing basic needs of philosophers so they can concentrate on their role takes a different meaning in the lavish lifestyle of state leaders around the world. Many leaders tend to relish the material privileges of their positions. Personal interests are sometimes placed ahead of societys best interests. A number of leaders have been tried and found guilty of corruption and plunder, especially in developing countries. When this happens, the pursuit of a philosophical lifestyle weakens and the traits of philosophers may be neglected in governance. There are also leaders exhibiting a lifestyle closer to a philosophers mode of living. Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela are both known for retaining a simple lifestyle in terms of material embellishments amid the abundance of resources available to them.

The difficulty in having a philosophers lifestyle creates a rift between philosophers and kings in the real life context. On one hand, philosophers focus on the pursuit of knowledge across the economic, socio-cultural, political, religious and environmental dimensions of social life. By focusing on knowledge building, philosophers de-prioritise material things apart from their basic needs. On the other hand, the exercise of political power requires the development of a good public reputation, which involves concern over material things such as appearances in public and towards other states. In inter-state relations, the heads of states represent the citizens to other countries. As representatives, leaders should have certain material amenities to reinforce the position as state leaders. The philosophers lifestyle does not really fit in the exercise of political power in the real life context. The exercise of political power also involves the pursuit of knowledge but not necessarily through a philosophers lifestyle. To have philosopher kings or to make kings philosophers, philosophy as envisioned by Plato needs to be reconciled with politics.

This can only be done by deviating from Platos utopian and purist idea of the philosopher king. Philosophy as the pursuit of knowledge is necessary to effective governance. However, there are certain things to be compromised including the strict adherence to a philosophers lifestyle in order to accommodate certain political realities such as the establishment of appearances and reputation in national and international politics supported by material things. A shabby looking leader would not receive much support from the people. As the representation of the peoples aspirations, the leader should exhibit an example of a good life, which in real life standards involves more than just meeting basic needs. In the modern context, technology and developments have heightened the standards of living. A state leader also needs to be concerned with physical appearances as representative of the state to other states.

Another perspective towards the Platos philosopher king deviates from philosophy in a contemplative state. Excellence in learning and knowledge building are needed for effective governance. According to Aristotle, the philosopher as king and the king as philosopher constitutes a disadvantage in governance not only because of the conflicts in the nature and expectations from both but also the impracticability of being both philosopher and king (Chroust 1968). An implication is that philosophy is not necessarily the only forte of the leader. Political power can be exercised by tapping into specialised or in-depth knowledge and continuous learning but not necessarily done solely by the leader. A state leader can still pursue knowledge through the advice of a group of philosophers. In this way, the leader can still provide good governance without sacrificing the positive contributions of philosophy to political power.

Platos concept of philosopher king becomes a challenge and even problematic in the existential reality. Philosophers should recognise their role as leaders and leaders should become philosophers. However, there are those pursuing the life of a philosopher who opt not to take leadership roles or are blocked from becoming leaders because of differences in the expectations from philosophers and as political leaders. There are also leaders who do not care about pursuing a philosophers life. While philosophical perspectives, qualities and skills usher good governance, it is difficult or even impossible to have a philosopher king in the physical reality or existential reality.

Whether Plato was correct in expressing that only when philosophers are kings and kings are philosophers that the troubles of society ends depends on the perspective of reality taken. In Platos dual reality and within the non-physical reality, the philosopher king exists and governs with justice to achieve a good society. The greatest criticism of Platos philosopher king is its limitations in the existential context. Society and its troubles exist in a changing physical reality so that the contemplative philosopher king cannot exist or sustained. Just leadership can also exist even without the philosopher king.


Post a Comment