Plato’s Idea of the Philosopher King

“The philosopher whose dealings are with divine order himself acquires the characteristics of order and divinity.”

-Plato, The Republic


BY HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR

Plato writes in The Republic that until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, cities will never have rest from their evils.

platos-idea-of-philosopher-king
Plato (left) walking along with Aristole.

This above statement sums up Plato’s views regarding the government of his Ideal State. However, Plato thinks that it is scarcely possible for philosophers to become rulers and so rulers must also be philosophers. Plato establishes theories and arguments on why rulers must also be philosophers. In spite of practicalities in certain cases, these theories and ideas undeniably make Plato an idealist thinker.

Plato On Why Rulers Must Be Philosophers

The reasons and arguments Plato provided in his theories on why rulers must also be philosophers are briefly discussed in the following:

Theory of Three Souls and Three Classes

According to this theory of Plato, every soul has either of the three qualities- rational, spirit, and appetite. Individuals in whom the rational element is predominant constitute the ruling class or the guardian class. The remaining constitutes the warriors and the workers respectively.

Plato has a strong bias in the superiority of the rational mind. He insists that philosophers are best suited to rule because reason is dominant in their soul. An arch-rationalist himself, Plato contends that reason ruled the world, not God.

Myth of Metals

To sustain his argument, Plato insists that there must be one “noble or royal lie”. The most important part of it is the dogma or myth that God has created man of three kinds- the best made of gold, and the remaining two of silver and bronze respectively. Those made of gold are best fit to be rulers, and those made of silver and bronze to be soldiers and workers respectively.

Plato’s Idea of Justice

In his conception of justice also, Plato points out that the city is just when the guardian, the auxiliary and the trader each does his appointed task without interfering with that of other classes.

Plato justifies his arguments saying that the guardian class has the virtue of wisdom and their soul made of gold is best suited to rule and will provide the most desirable governance.

The Dictum That Virtue is Knowledge

Plato believes in the Socratic dictum that Virtue is Knowledge. This phrase would mean that the highest virtue is identifiable with the highest knowledge i.e., philosophy. The class representing Reason showed the highest capacity for virtue. Because of their superiority in virtue, Plato further insists, the philosophers are best entitled to rule.

Knowledge vs Opinion

According to Plato, there are two worlds- the world of Ideas and the world of Senses. The former is the world of Being, Beauty or Forms, and the latter the world of Becoming, Beautiful or Opinion. A person who understands Beauty itself has knowledge; a person who merely sees beautiful things has mere beliefs or opinions.

For Plato, knowledge is something eternal, everlasting and permanent. On the other hand, opinions are subjective, not real and simply based on appearances. There is incompetence in opinion.

Plato argues that only the philosophers have a passion for knowledge, are curious and eager to learn. They can see the “Form” of justice and therefore they can only ensure that justice in the city state matches that Form as much similar as possible.

The Idea of Good

In the world of Ideas, the Idea of Good occupies the topmost place. It is like the sun that illuminates all other ideas. Man thrives for betterment or what is good. Everyone ones to lead a good life and all knowledge seeks for the good life of mankind. However, only the philosopher has the knowledge of the Idea of Good. Plato argues that a philosopher ruler who has the knowledge of the Idea of Good can best make the city-states similar to the Ideal State.

A more analytical discussion on why Plato thinks that a ruler must also be a philosopher or the necessity of a Philosopher King in his Ideal State:

According to Plato, a philosopher has a rational mind, he has wisdom as virtue, he has knowledge and he only knows the Idea of Good and all these qualities make him to be the best ruler of the city-state. However, since there is little possibility of philosophers becoming rulers, Plato argues, a ruler must also be a philosopher. This will enable the ruler to govern his State in an ideal way.

Plato believes that a ruler must undergo an extensive study of philosophy. A philosopher searches for Absolute Beauty beyond all beautiful things, Absolute Good beyond all good things. He knows what is Beauty, Temperance, and Justice and uses this knowledge to mould the character of those over whom he rules.

When a philosopher king rules, the laws would be the dictates of reason and his discretion would be better than inflexible laws. His reason and wisdom are the motive and the regulative forces in the Ideal State.

Bertrand Russell points out four basic points regarding the Platonic insistence of rulers also being philosopher:

  • Goodness and Reality being timeless, the best state will be the one which more nearly copies the heavenly model (the Ideal State), by having minimum of change and maximum of static perfection, and its rulers should be those who best understand the eternal Good.
  • If a man is to be a good statesman, he must know the Good. This he can only do by a combination of intellectual and moral discipline. If those who have not gone through this discipline are allowed to rule, they will inevitably corrupt.
  • The third and fourth points tell the necessity of extensive education of rulers in mathematics, and the importance of leisure to wisdom respectively.

What all these arguments point out is that a philosopher king is the ideal ruler and hence Plato’s insistence that a ruler must also be a philosopher.

Plato as an Idealist Thinker

Plato’s Republic, unlike modern utopias, was perhaps intended to be actually founded. Many of its provisions, including some that seemed quite impracticable, were actually realised at Sparta. The rule of philosophers had also been attempted by Pythagoras. Indeed, the idea of a ruler also being a philosopher and a philosopher king ruling a State providing the best possible governance is very tempting.

However, Plato’s idea that a ruler also being a philosopher proved to be impractical when his own attempt to make Dionysius a philosopher king failed.

First of all, a philosopher becoming a ruler is unattainable. Giving the task of ruling to the philosopher who does not have the knowledge of statecraft would be very inadequate. Simply having the knowledge of abstract sciences like mathematics or dialectics is no preparation for a man of action which a philosopher ruler has to be.

Claude Levi-Strauss argues that the ideal state was unrealistic and unrealisable, for the philosopher was not a natural ruler and governing was thrust upon him in the larger interest of the community.

Besides, Plato’s conception of the rule of philosophy or dubbed as ideocracy is criticised as against the spirit of democracy, equality, liberty and free citizenship.

Plato rejected popular participation for the fear that ordinary people cannot comprehend the Absolute Truth and the Idea of Good. In this regard, Karl Popper famously called Plato as one of the enemies of open society. Popper says that Plato is anti-democratic, anti-individual and anti to social change. As a matter of noteworthy, Popper argues that it is unimportant who governs. The key issue is to minimise misrule and prevent misuse and abuse of power. Popper further argues if the claims of absolute truth are falsified.

Aristotle, Plato’s disciple, also argued that it would be better for a ruler to be worldly wise than to be wise in the world of ideas.

What a ruler needs to know is not what is good in abstract but what is good for different individuals and different conditions of society. A ruler becoming a philosopher having superiority of the rational mind, the knowledge of the Idea of Good, ability to know Absolute Truth and ruling an ideal state with absolute perfection are all very tempting yet they remain too idealistic to realise.

Plato himself realised the impracticability of the rule of philosophy. He later offered his second-best state in the Laws, making a major theoretical shift. In Laws, his conception of the rule of philosophy is replaced by the rule of sovereign law. With Plato’s own admission, we can conclude that the conception of the rule of philosophy is too idealistic to realise and this makes Plato an idealist thinker.


NOTE: I wrote this as an assignment for the subject, Western Political Thought (WPT), taught during my undergraduate in Ramjas College, University of Delhi.
The question for the assignment:
Why does Plato think that a ruler must also be a philosopher? Does it make him an idealist thinker?
Some grammatical and otherwise corrections have been made. The original assignment is uploaded towards the end of the article.

Reference

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy.

George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory.

Shefali Jha, Western Political Thought: From Plato to Marx.

Subrata Mukherjee and Sushila Ramaswamy, A History of Political Thought: Plato to Marx.

Class lectures and notes.


The Original Assignment

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