Throughout this essay, I will discussing the nature of Plato’s thought in regards to who should rule an ordered society. I will do this by looking at the works of Plato in order to gather ideas, while investigating other key texts such as Jonathan Wolff, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and other scholars in order to discuss, support and compare Plato’s hypothesis of a philosopher king rule.
The Republic deals with the idea of ‘justice’ throughout all the books, and mostly what makes a ‘just society’ as well as the question of: how can people act justly? In order to achieve this, Plato outlines various conversations throughout The Republic between characters including Socrates, to outline the definition of justice and how to achieve an ideal city society. Furthermore, Plato introduces the idea of a class system which I will be discussing in more depth throughout the essay. However a brief outline: Plato suggests that there are three classes that are represented by ‘bronze, silver and gold’, children born in the ideal polis will get an opportunity to move through classes on a social mobility scale. For instance, Plato says: “occasionally a silver child will be born of gold parents”. (Plato, 2007, P116). Judging by these views about class, it’s understandable why some believe Plato’s ideal ruling borders on a dictatorship due to structured classes in his version of an ideal society. Moreover, the social mobility scale aim was to organise citizens into having different careers and responsibilities in the city, so it would function smoothly, which does allude to the idea of Plato wanting to have control the city’s population when the philosopher kings have ultimate power.
Democracy is a political system that most of the Western world at least, are familiar with. However, one of the most notable points from Plato’s works is how he believed democracy simply causes corruption and would lead to inexperienced people making decisions. This is because; democracy allows people with limited knowledge on situations to contribute to decisions that affect lots of people using their limited knowledge. Although it could be considered a fair system, Plato viewed it as creating more problems than it solved, leading him on to make his famous ship analogy: “… a true captain must pay attention to the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and all that pertains to his craft, if he’s really to be the ruler of a ship.” (Plato, 2007, P204). By asking if the captain truly knows how to rule a ship by becoming aware of the environment around them, Plato is emphasising the need for a ruler of a society to have the most knowledge in order to be successful. Furthermore, Plato uses this analogy of the ship to convey why democracies don’t work; an inexperienced captrain with limited knowledge on how to run their own ship wouldn’t be successful.
As previously stated; Plato introduced the idea of everyone in an ideal society having different roles or classes in order for it to function correctly. For example, in Book 2, Socrates introduced the concept of ‘specialization’ which highlights this idea of different people exercising different roles that match their personal abilities. He explains this by: “the result… is that more plentiful and better quality goods are more easily produced if each person does one thing for which he is naturally suited, does it at the right time, as is released from having to do any of the others.” (Plato, 2007, Book 2). It was put forward that everyone would have their different roles in society, further alluding to the idea that philosopher kings would have their special role of being the leaders. Due to the knowledge and reason that philosopher kings possess, Plato suggested they would be the best rulers of the ideal society. According to Plato, democracy doesn’t work as inexperienced people have the opportunity to contribute to decisions that they might not be knowledgeable about, so putting philosopher kings in charge guarantees that decisions will be made by people with the knowledge of how to reason.
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To describe the society in more detail; there are other classes and roles in Plato’s ideal society that would contribute to the city being ‘just’. For instance, Plato introduces the ideas of guardians, auxiliaries and producers who contribute to the ideal Polis through their own ways. For instance, the guardians were the philosopher kings who would rule and make decisions, auxiliaires were the warriors who protected the state from outside enemies and the producers would contribute to the state by farming or creating produce. (Plato, 2007, Part 4). Plato devised the city in a way that the philosopher kings would be at the top of the hierarchy and ultimately have control over what occurs inside of it. For example, Plato thought taking children away from their families and training them to fulfill their potential in one of the three roles would be the most beneficial way to run the state. There was also no rights of property to be exercised by any citizen, highlighting the control that the philosopher kings would have over everything.
As briefly mentioned; Plato focuses heavily on the idea of ‘the soul’ throughout The Republic, linking it to rulers and creating a parallel with the three parts that exist within a human soul and the three classes in society, it’s officially called the ‘tripartite soul theory’. The parts of the soul that were placed forward were: spirit, appetite and reason. (Lorenz, 2009) . Plato believed each part of the soul would ‘rule’ different things in a person, for example the spirit part of the soul could possibly encourage a ruler to love power too much, thus jeopardizing the state. Going back to the idea of the philosopher kings ruling, Plato thought that philosophers would be best suited as they hold more ability to use the rational part of their soul, thus giving them knowledge and not a craving for power that other rulers might have, asserting that philosopher kings would therefore be the most just rulers of the city.
Karl Popper is a scholar who has openly critiqued Plato in his work; ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ for his ‘totalitarian views’. More specifically, Popper suggests that the idea of philosopher kings ruling was primarily for Plato to become an elitist ruler himself, thus sending the perfect city into a totalitarian dystopian world. In his works, Popper goes on to mention how Plato associates tyranny as something that follows on from a democratic way of ruling. In the Open Society, Popper paraphrases Plato by stating “tyranny is often brought around by a popular leader who knows how to exploit people” (Popper, 1945, P30), and emphasises how Plato truly looked down on tyranny. Nevertheless, Popper takes the way that Plato emphasises his love for the perfect city to have true freedom and counters it: “totalitarianism always professes a love for ‘true freedom’” (Popper, 1945, P150). As we can see, Popper is one of the most celebrated critiques of Plato’s ideas and his comparison between Plato’s idea of philosopher kings ruling and totalitarianism is something I can agree with as it seems like an opportunity for Plato to take power for himself.
To summarise Plato’s arguments; the belief he held about philosopher kings ruling was primarily due to his theory on the tripartite soul, his dislike of democracy and his goal of having a just city. Whether or not this belief is justified in itself or whether it was an attempt by Plato to take power for himself has been largely debated throughout history. Personally, I disagree with Plato’s ideas that philosopher kings should ultimately be the ones that rule on the basis that the situation with this type of ruling would most likely gradually worsen over time. Namely, the idea of a tyranny being created by a group of people who long for power is one that other philosophers have taken issue with while discussing Plato’s ideas. Moreover, one could say that Plato’s ideas are morally questionable, due to the fact that he likely wanted more power in his ideal Utopian society, outlining the reasons as to why he was so adamant about philosopher kings holding a sort of ‘ultimate ability to reason’ that regular citizens simply didn’t possess. Essentially, I disagree with this sort of society as it would also create a type of elite class system which could ultimately lead to a revolution, making Plato’s ideas unfeasible at best and precarious at worst. In this essay, I have successfully outlined what Plato’s philosopher king theory is, while showing my own opinions on the matter coupled with criticisms and explanations from famous scholars, such as Karl Popper, to assess the theory in whole and reach the conclusion that I disagree with the ideas that Plato has put forward.