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August 1, 2013 / Congau

The Philosopher Kings

Plato’s philosopher kings are not technocrats, because they are not experts in any particular field. They are moral authorities who oversee the constitution and guard the harmony of the carefully established state against any excess or any shift in the minutely calculated balance between the different parts of society. Their wisdom is justice, and that is not a knowledge, theoretical or practical, that is aimed at achieving some economic objectives similar to what modern technocrats or central planners are supposed to achieve. Financial experts would play a subordinate role in the republic just like experts in any other particular field like shipbuilding or shoemaking, and their knowledge would probably also be both theoretical and practical.

The institution of philosopher kings is essential to Plato’s republic. Many modern readers are shocked by this arrogant claim to power and see it as a recipe for totalitarian dictatorship. But in fact that is exactly what the philosopher kings are guarding against.

At first glance the republic looks horribly totalitarian. Everything is strictly regulated and it seems to be begging for someone to take control of it all and turn everybody into slaves. Like for any other absolutist model of society, for example communist experiments in recent history, one feels like commenting that it may look nice in theory, but it would be horrible if put into practice. Actually any political model fails when meeting reality. History abundantly shows how beautiful intentions have turned into ugly monsters. That happens when the idealists meet the opportunists. People crave for power and no matter which ideology nominally rules society that very ideology will be used by individuals in order to gain and exercise power.  (The communist leaders of the east led very uncommunist lives, and the societies they created were not communist at all.) In Plato’s republic, on the other hand, that abuse of power would not be possible, because the leaders of that just society would themselves be just.

Also Plato clearly states that the philosopher kings don’t want to rule at all, but do so reluctantly as a sacrifice. There would be no personal ambitions to obstruct the good of society. Isn’t personal ambition the one eternal problem that lies between us and the good society?  Why not accept this argument then: If the structures of the state are perfectly just and the rulers of the state are perfectly just, then the state will be perfectly just. (The rulers must of course be real rulers, i.e. they must be obeyed.) (Of course perfection doesn’t exist in this world, but it can still serve as a model.)

Another note: The idea of philosopher kings may not be as foreign to us as we think. Isn’t that what we most of all want from our elected leaders? That they be good and just and only have the public good in mind. They deceive us of course, but that’s another story.

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