In Pursuit of the Philosopher King

“Go on” Glaucon Insisted, pacing up and down the room.
“Tell us by what condition this perfect republic can come into being, or have we been only discussing a fantasy this whole time?” Gulls squawked above in mock laughter. On the beaches down below fishing boats set out for their evening catch. Further out in the bay a trireme sat idle, bobbing in the gentle Aegean tide. A pair of ceramic braziers lit up the plateau replacing the light of the rapidly fading sun and casting shadows of doubt on the faces of the group.

“Very well, I’ll tell you what it is, even if it swamps me in a surge of laughter and I’m drowned in contempt; so listen to what I’m going to say.” Socrates replied, lurching out of his stool and walking solemnly to the centre of the room. The other guests fell silent as all eyes fell on him awaiting the wisdom that would follow:

“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands, while the many natures now content to follow either to the exclusion of the other are forcibly debarred from doing so.”*

Socrates Speaks, Louis J. Lebrun, 1867

These words were given to Socrates by his student Plato in his book The Republic. 2400 years have passed since and yet many of the truths written down in the work still reveal themselves in the governments of today. Not only did Plato himself try to form his theoretical city-state, Kollipolis, but his work has inspired generations afterwards including the Catholic Church.

At the pinnacle of his society was the idea of the philosopher ruler and the class of Guardians from which this individual will be chosen. Plato goes into intricate detail laying out the exact education and training the ruler and his fellow Guardians must-have. He then specifies the kind of temperament and character the Philosopher King must have to be selected for the role.

But in all his certainty of his perfect system, there are questions he fails to answer. First, is this ideal Philosopher King even possible? Could such a person exist? If they could, then surely someone throughout the thousands of years of history since this work was written is a close resemblance to the man Plato envisioned?

Left Socrates, Top Right Plato, Bottom Right Raphael’s Painting of Plato’s academy featuring Plato (left) and Aristotle (right)

By finding such a man, I hope to breathe a second life into Plato’s Philosopher King. But this will then lead to the far more burning question: Would this form of governance work, and how is it to guarantee the ascension of successive generations of philosophers?

In The Republic, the feasibility of the entire system is brought into question towards the end to which Socrates gives the above argument in response. Perhaps Plato is mirroring himself in the Philosopher King in an egotistical homage to himself. In which case we could frame the entire work as nothing but a love letter to philosophy written on the ego of a wealthy aristocrat.

Certainly, he has no qualms about launching thinly veiled attacks at just about every other profession that existed in his world, casting them in the dim light of philosophy’s long shadow. The sophists (private tutors) he accuses of preaching the art of deception to their students – teaching nothing but “the conventional views held and expressed by the mass of people”. To artists he gives an even harsher sentence, “the artist knows little or nothing about the subjects he represents and that the art of representation is something that has no serious value.” Craftsmen he resigns to being useful for their craft and nothing else, as when a man asks ‘for what is this city made wise, courageous or just?’ the answer will never be the actions of its craftsmen. To athletes and those that train the body exclusively he calls “unintelligent Philistines”. If this savage attack was coming from a man of any other profession the argument against the ego could be ruled out immediately, however, given Plato’s position as a philosopher I cannot shake the possibility that The Republic is propaganda hidden in the veil of wisdom.

But we must give the old Athenian the benefit of the doubt and attempt to consolidate the gaps in his argument. In an attempt to show the possibility of Plato’s theoretical ruler I will look at two contrasting pairs from the Greek and Roman worlds: Plato and Dionysus II from the Greek and Marcus Aurelius and Commodus from the Roman.

* Plato, The Republic

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