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Plato and Democracy

Plato’s Ideal Ruler Today

Mark Tan shows us how to overcome our distrust and cynicism towards governments through the appointment of philosopher kings.

We live at a time when there is a general distrust of people towards their governments, perhaps because governments who should do what is for the common good instead reveal their ugly sides. Instead of seeking to secure the good of the people, motivated by public service commitments, governments can be perceived as doing nothing but consolidating power for themselves, motivated by self interest. This perception has led to a cynical attitude towards governments, and a scepticism concerning the sincerity of those in public office. The UK Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009 was a clear example of the betrayal of the people’s trust. More recently, we saw the US government prying into the private internet correspondences of people all around the world. It is pertinent to note that both the UK and the USA are regarded as ‘model’ democratic nations. But this is a global issue, not limited to Western nations: Bo Xi Lai, who was a rising star in Chinese politics, has been tied with allegations of corruption, murder, espionage and sex.

To help us choose better leaders, we should draw upon the philosophical principles in Plato’s dialogues, primarily The Republic. The Republic stimulates ordinary citizens to reflect on the state and to make an appropriate reaction to it, so it can guide our deliberations and subsequent actions too. In particular, its principles could assist us in our choice of leaders and governments, which might in turn help us overcome our distrust and cynicism towards them.

First, Love Wisdom

In the twenty-first century, most governments are democratically elected and ordinary citizens are allowed political participation in a concrete way through the ballot box. If those in power are more conscientiously selected by citizens, then there will be a reduction of distrust and cynicism towards them. The question is, what amounts to a conscientious choice?

I would say that such a choice must be made on the basis of reliable criteria. I believe Plato’s Socrates provides one such criterion in The Republic: that one ought to be a philosopher to govern. In a literal sense, the ruler must be a lover of wisdom, which is the meaning of the Greek word philosophia. In Plato’s Crito, he affirms that the thought of one wise man may be better than the many thoughts of the foolish (Crito 47a-b).

But what does it mean to be lover of wisdom, or philosopher? As Plato’s works suggest, for him ‘philosophy’ is not to be understood in a narrow sense. It is not a compartmentalized subject disconnected from worldly affairs, as today’s academic philosophy can be, but is a passionate desire to understand all there is. The main thrust of his argument in The Republic is that those who govern must do so with the relevant expertise, but the philosopher king must be trained in the following in particular: (a) physical education, (b) music, and (c) mathematics (Republic 398b-412b, 522c-e, 525b-526c). Let us therefore consider these disciplines in turn.

Physical Education

For Plato, as for most Greeks, physical education was as important as cultivating the mind.This attitude inspired the later classical Roman saying, mens sana in corpore sano: ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’. Physical education enhances general health and fitness, which is often a precondition of a sound mind. This is not an absolute law, but one would find it difficult to disagree that a healthy body is crucial to efficiently carry out the daily tasks of government. The people must be physically fit also to protect the citizens from internal and external threats. This is not limited to security personnel (the police, armed forces, etc) but applies to their leaders as well. He who would defend justice or the people must first have the power to defend himself.

I find a parallel here in Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, where he argues that “justice without might is helpless.” (Section V, 298). I am also reminded of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, where he writes, “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Officers adhere more willingly to the directives of a general like Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte who can fight on the field with his soldiers. Generally, the ability to relate to one’s subordinates is a distinctive leadership quality, indispensable in governing. To put it simply, political leaders must not be detached from the populace.


However, physical fitness is not a sufficient condition for good governance. Brute force, if unconstrained, is dangerous. As Plato says, our leaders should never be ‘savage masters’ – more like “wolves attacking the sheep than dogs looking after them” (Republic 416a-c). So physical power must be tempered with reason. Rational political control is the path of good governance.

For Plato training in mathematics was necessary because it enhances one’s logical and reasoning faculties. But in today’s era of an unending chain of financial crises – for instance, China’s economic slowdown, the financial problems and bailouts of EU nations, or the rising debt of the US Government – mathematical skills would be useful in and of themselves. It’s also true that a training in mathematics simultaneously enhances one’s other logical faculties; ergo, the understanding of mathematics allows one to handle more than just fiscal issues. In order to formulate effective policies and pass appropriate legislative measures generally, those in government must be able to sift through, prioritise and ascertain the truth of information from multiple sources, for example think-tanks, research institutes, consultants or political lobbyists. To give an example of the complexity of governance: on one hand, austerity measures may cut spending but create additional unemployment problems; on the other hand, increased spending which may help kickstart the economy, may also increase government debt. Only leaders who understand the delicate balances involved can have the capacity to subsequently render these problems manageable. Logic allows one to perceive propositions with clarity. The development of the logical faculty thus enables leaders to better analytically unpack the myriad problems facing governments.


Proceeding to the last discipline required for a philosopher king, the requirement of a training in music is consistent with Plato’s association of justice with harmonious order (Republic 434c). Music teaches us the harmony of sounds: the Christian Platonist St Augustine understood that harmony applies to good political relationships as well. In his De Musica of the fifth century AD he uses music as a metaphor for cosmic order.

The coordination of sounds in music also illustrates the delicate coordination required of political idealism, where the state exists to work towards the common good. The formation of a cohesive society involves the prioritisation of social and economic issues across various interest groups, as well as the efficient utilisation of available resources. Harmonising these needs is not unlike the process of composing a musical piece.

Furthermore, a good musical composition adheres to certain rational principles. Similarly, good governance would involve the utilisation of the self-evidently worthwhile rational principle of ‘practical reasonableness’. Practical reasonableness, as John Finnis lays out in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980), would require the state to have a rational plan for the community, to be committed to that plan, and to act in a non-discriminatory manner towards all in the community (Chapter V).

This sort of idealism is not in any way naïve, nor ignorant of Realpolitik, where governments do only what is practical or expedient, rendering what is moral irrelevant or secondary. Realpolitik has contributed to the cynicism I talked about. Political idealism, on the contrary, provides an opposing force to such cynicism.

A Minimalist Focus

Only with the acquisition of the skills that this tripartite form of education provides would one become fit to govern, according to Plato, since with such an education one is able to transcend the shadows of uncertainty, go beyond the cave of ignorance and into the light where one would be able to determine what is for the common good (Republic 514a-520a).

We can intuitively agree that a person with a well-rounded education is better equipped to face and engage the world, and so our choice of leaders should be from among such people. I would like to clarify that this minimalist focus on the three disciplines of physical education, mathematics and music is not advocating a neglect of other important fields such as economics, science, IT, etc. I am simply proposing, like Plato, that studying these three would increase one’s aptitude in other fields, and that the skills they inculcate are applicable across many disciplines. They are foundational disciplines upon which other forms of expertise may be built on. Neither does this mean that only those with a good formal education are fit to govern – it does not discount the possibility of natural leaders who possess good leadership skills through other means. However, there is a difficulty about such natural leaders being selected to lead. Due to the fact that the electorate may have no prior knowledge of the candidate’s skills, we may have to rely on a candidate’s accredited formal education. But in any case, this meritocratic openness would counter any claim of elitism.


If we chose our political leaders using the criterion of wisdom gained through a Platonic education, we would gradually reduce our distrust towards those who govern. This is because Platonic education means the enhancement not only of one’s intellectual capabilities, but also of the virtue of temperance or self-control, since the process by which expertise is acquired requires the exercise of will and self-discipline. In other words, expertise is attained through reason’s control of emotion and desire. This sovereignty of reason over emotion and desire is Plato’s conception of justice in the soul. In present day politics, where we hardly have any in-depth knowledge of our political candidates, the assessment of the suitability of a person’s character based on his achievements would be a pragmatic and workable compromise.

We can see how deeply engaged Platonic philosophy is with political affairs. Applying it would allow us to avoid the prejudicial mental jump into cynicism that is often our default position in matters of politics, and open up the possibility of building a society where there is mutual trust between citizen and state. That may be perceived by some as too idealistic or utopian, but I would urge any positive steps towards that ideal. Those who deny even the slightest possibility of achieving it betray only the scepticism they cherish.

© Mark M.H. Tan 2014

Mark Tan is Lecturer in Law at Advance Tertiary College, Penang, Malaysia, an affiliate centre of the University of London.

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