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Liberty & Equality

Philosopher-Kings In The Kingdom of Ends

Richard Oxenberg tells us why democracy needs philosopher-citizens.

I would like to begin with a bit of a riddle: How do you turn a democracy into a tyranny?

The answer, as those familiar with Plato’s Republic (380 BCE) will know, is: Do nothing. It will become a tyranny all by itself.

Plato spends a good part of the Republic developing his argument for this, and yet the gist of his argument might be found in the word ‘democracy’ itself. ‘Democracy’ is derived from two Greek words: ‘demos’, which means ‘people’, and ‘kratos’, which means ‘power’; and so democracy might be defined as ‘power of the people’. This corresponds with Abraham Lincoln’s famous designation of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” – which he hoped would not perish from the earth. But what exactly are we to understand here by the word ‘people’?

I can illustrate the problematic character of this word through the title of a book I was assigned to read many years ago when studying for my Bar Mitzvah. The book was entitled When the Jewish People Was Young. Even as a twelve-year-old the title struck me as grammatically odd. Shouldn’t it be: When the Jewish People Were Young? No, because the phrase ‘The Jewish People’ was not intended to refer to a multitude of Jewish individuals, but rather to a singular entity made up of those individuals. The word ‘people’ – generally a plural – was here functioning as a singular.

So when we define democracy as ‘power of the people’, are we using the word ‘people’ in the singular or the plural sense? Do we mean a collection of separate individuals, or do we mean some singular entity made up of those individuals?

It’s not altogether clear. Indeed, it turns out that however we answer this question, we run into problems. If by ‘people’ we mean a multitude of individuals, then what can it mean to say that power is vested in the hands of the people? Surely a collection of individuals, each pursuing his or her separate ends, cannot be expected to achieve unanimity in all, or even very many, matters of importance. If, on the other hand, we mean by ‘people’ a singular entity made up of those individuals, then how are we to understand the relationship between those individuals and that entity? Do the individuals owe the entity allegiance? Must they put aside their private interests for its sake? And what, anyway, is this entity? Does it have its own independent existence? Or is it merely, in the words of Jeremy Bentham, a ‘fictitious body’? If the latter, what claim can a merely fictitious body make upon the very real individuals who supposedly compose it?

We can further pursue this problem by considering a phrase lifted from the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “government by consent of the governed.” Consent of the governed, Thomas Jefferson tells us, is the principle upon which the just powers of government rest. But what if all the governed do not consent to the same directives of government? On what basis should conflicts of interest be decided?

The simplest, but clearly wrong, answer is ‘majority rule’. That principle, applied to the antebellum South, for instance, would have justified slavery. Jefferson’s own answer was ‘natural rights’. Government exists to protect our natural rights. But what are natural rights? Where are natural rights? And how can a citizenry who cannot see, touch, taste, smell, or hear these natural rights be expected to govern their lives in accordance with them?

Various theorists of liberal democracy will have their various answers to these questions.It is not my purpose to explore these answers but to touch upon an issue fundamental to all of them: that for such answers to be effective, citizens must be able to recognize the validity of certain overarching moral truths. In particular, they must be able to intellectually apprehend moral imperatives that derive their legitimacy from something more universal than the individuality of individual interest. Indeed, the specific problem Plato saw in democracy is that, through its emphasis on the supremacy of the individual, it tends to undermine the capacity for recognition of such universal truths in society.

How then does a democracy turn into a tyranny? It’s the epistemology, stupid!


Let us consider Plato’s critique of democracy more closely. As he writes, “In a city under a democracy you would hear that [freedom] is the finest thing it has, and that for this reason it is the only regime worth living in for anyone who is by nature free” (The Republic of Plato, 562b-c, trans. Allan Bloom). A society that exalts individual freedom would seem the diametric opposite of a society under the oppression of a tyranny. But here we encounter a paradox. For if individual freedom is understood as the capacity to exercise one’s will without restraint, the ideal of individual freedom is the ideal of the tyrant as well. Indeed, we might define the tyrannical character precisely as one unwilling to submit to any higher principle than the unrestrained exercise of his or her will. Thus, ironically, democracy shares the same ideal as tyranny, at least insofar as individual freedom is heralded as its highest good.

Plato saw that a society that presents to its citizens no higher ideal than the freedom to satisfy their own private interests, will, by that fact, become a society of aspiring tyrants, competing each with the other for dominance. Eventually, those most skilled at the arts of manipulation and acquisition will come to lord it over everyone else, and the society that most exalted freedom will become the one that is most enslaved.

What might the defender of democracy say to such a charge? I believe she would have to say something like this: As a matter of fact, individual freedom is not the ideal on which a true democracy is founded. Rather it is founded on the ideal of respect for individual freedom – both one’s own freedom and that of others. It is just such respect that the tyrant lacks. Hence, a sharp distinction can be drawn between the democratic and tyrannic ideals. Unlike tyranny, democracy demands that individuals curtail the unbridled exercise of their individual freedom where such exercise would impinge upon the rightful freedom of others.

This distinction between the ideal of freedom and the ideal of respect for freedom is subtle and challenging. In particular, it is not so easy to say whence the ideal of respect for freedom derives its commanding force. It is easy enough to understand why we value our own freedom, as this is a direct implication of our desire to satisfy our appetites; but this says nothing as to why we should value the freedom of others. We cannot derive the value of respect for the freedom of others from this valuing of our own freedom. On the contrary, as we have seen, where individual freedom is heralded as supreme, we eventually get something far more like tyranny than democracy.

Indeed, we can take this a step further. Not only does the valuing of one’s own freedom not imply a more general respect for freedom, but the two values stand in decided opposition to one another, at least where we understand freedom as the freedom to satisfy appetite. Appetite, by its very nature, is self-referential; it is a demand for its own satisfaction. Respect for the freedom of others, on the other hand, demands a transcendence of strictly self-referential concern.

Where within us can we find the capacity for such self-transcendence? As Plato makes clear, certainly not in our appetitive nature. It is only in our rational capacity to rise above our self-referential appetites and sentiments, says Plato, that we can hope to achieve the self-transcendence necessary for the establishment of a just society that values the freedom of all.

It is in this context that we can begin to understand Plato’s call for a ‘philosopher-king’. “Unless,” writes Plato, “political power and philosophy coincide in the same place… there [will be] no rest from ills of the city… nor I think for human kind” (Ibid, 473d). He’s saying that the rulers of a just state need to be disinterested philosophical thinkers, or philosopher-kings.

Plato was aware of how outlandish this proposal sounded even as he wrote it, and much attention has been paid to the despotic potential of this political vision. However, his basic point remains compelling: society must be governed by those who are able to rise above the intensive self-centeredness of their emotive, appetitive, and egoistic impulses, so as to concern themselves wisely and dispassionately with the common good. The only human faculty capable of such self-transcendence is reason; hence only the philosopher, dedicated to the cultivation of reason, is suited for governance.

To understand this argument we must recall that by the cultivation of reason (logismos), Plato does not just mean the cultivation of technical acuity, but the cultivation of that capacity within us that is able to apprehend the logos – the good order – of things. Plato’s contention is that those able to see this good order will also see that their personal good is best realized through it. And to Plato it is just such seeing that philosophy pursues. It is only the philosopher, then – the true philosopher – who will have the intellect, character, and (therefore) the motivation to rule justly and wisely.

What are the implications of this argument for democracy? The answer seems plain: in order for ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ to avoid degeneration into tyranny, the people themselves must have something of the character of Platonic philosophers. To govern themselves justly, the people must be their own philosopher-kings, if you like. Or in other words, in order for democracy to succeed, it must cultivate ‘philosopher-citizens’, whose political commitments will be to something beyond the satisfaction of private, appetitive, interests.

The need to cultivate this sort of citizen further implies that an education into political values is crucial to the health of democracy. But here we again run into a problem. Almost everyone will agree that education is generally a good thing; but many will balk at any deliberate cultivation of values, especially in the context of democracy. Values, we like to suppose, are a private affair. Everyone in a democracy has a right to pursue what values she will. The paradox is that this assertion is itself the expression of a political value that must enjoy general currency for democracy to function. It is not the case, then, that democracy entails the right of everyone to ‘pursue what values she will’; but rather, the right to pursue those values consistent with the ideals of democracy itself.

This leads us to the question: What values must inform a democratic citizenry if they are to avoid descent into tyranny? To consider this we will look at Immanuel Kant’s conception of the ideal democratic society, which he calls ‘the Kingdom of Ends’.

The Kingdom of Ends
The Kingdom of Ends by Federico De Cicco 2015

The Kingdom of Ends

Despite Thomas Jefferson’s celebrated pronouncement that the ideals of democracy are “self-evident” truths, they do not have obvious roots in human nature. Rather, what is most evident in human nature, as Thomas Hobbes most famously pointed out, are the ideals of tyranny: each of us wants what we want and would be happy to have everyone else conform to our wants. Because of this, the appeal of democracy can be somewhat deceptive, since its emphasis upon the sovereignty of the individual and the sanctity of individual freedom can leave the impression that the democratic citizen has no responsibility to anything beyond her own private will. But that is a misimpression. Instead, the democratic form demands that each citizen affirms their responsibility to respect what Kant calls the ‘dignity’ of every other citizen, and recognizes that this responsibility supersedes commitment to their strictly individual interests.

Kant calls the ideal society organized along such lines ‘the Kingdom of Ends’ (see his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 1785). In the Kantian Kingdom of Ends, each member is at once the end for whom the society exists, the sovereign who issues the law of respect for each citizen as end-in-themselves, and the subject who dutifully abides by that law. We can immediately see that a society of tyrants, or of those disposed to tyranny, cannot constitute a Kingdom of Ends, since a Kingdom of Ends can only exist where each member willingly affirms the principle that respect for the person of the other must override the demands of private interest.

Kant manages to equate adherence to this principle with the ideal of individual freedom. However, the freedom of which Kant speaks is at a far remove from what is currently understood by that term in popular culture: it is not the freedom to do whatever one wants, but the freedom to do what is right. It is a freedom, thus, fully coincident with a self-chosen morality. That Kant is able to speak of such moral constraints as ‘freedom’ is due to his idealized conception of the rational person, as someone who willingly affirms a duty to do what is right as the highest expression of his own free will.

If we now compare Plato’s take on democracy with Kant’s, we find that their differences lie not so much in their conception of the just society as in their different estimations of the democratic citizen. For Plato, democracy is inherently unstable, since its valorization of individual freedom yields a society in which everyone aspires to tyranny. For Kant, a sound democracy implies a society in which each person recognizes respect for the freedom and dignity of every other person as the highest expression of individual freedom.

At the heart of their disagreement is a different estimation of the moral and intellectual potential of the average person. For Plato, only a moral and intellectual elite – the philosopher-kings – can be expected to rise above the promptings of their appetites to willingly prefer social justice over self-gratification. Kant, on the other hand, envisions, at least potentially, an entire society of such people: an entire society, so to speak, of philosopher-kings.

Toward a Democratic Education

Again, what this implies, is that the right kind of education is essential to a sound democracy. To be workable in the long term, democracy demands that its citizens embody a specific, and identifiable, set of moral and intellectual virtues. It is thus the educational establishment – not the press – that should be regarded as the ‘Fourth Estate’ of democracy. As we increasingly see, without an educated citizenry, the press will only pander to the citizens’ appetites and sentiments.

But it is not enough to simply laud the value of education, as is often done: the education needed must be one that cultivates those intellectual and moral virtues integral to the democratic ideal – which, again, is not the ideal of individual freedom per se, but of respect for the freedom, and, hence, the person, of others. Democracy entails the belief that such respect, and not the pursuit of appetitive gratification, is the highest expression of individual freedom.

To enact such an educational program would require a major shift away from the technology- and market-centered focus of our modern educational system – a shift in the opposite direction to that in which, sad to say, we have been trending for some time.The problem is that technology, by its very nature, is ethically neutral, and that the culture of consumer-capitalism fills this ethical void with a continual stream of messages equating happiness with self-gratification. The confluence of these two trends – technologism on the one hand, and consumerism on the other – has led to a conception of education that sees its principle purpose to be the imparting of technological skills for success in the marketplace – a marketplace largely driven by appetitive pursuits. If Plato’s analysis is at all sound, this does not bode well for the future of democracy.

What then is needed? Perhaps we can gain a general sense of what’s needed by recalling Plato once again. In his Apology, Plato has Socrates tell the famous story of his (Socrates’) encounter with the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle’s designation of Socrates as the wisest man in Athens leads him to interrogate its prominent citizens to see if he can find one wiser than he. After interrogating the technicians of Athens, Socrates reports that “they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom” (Apology, 22d-e, trans. Benjamin Jowett). Our educational system has largely lost sight of what Plato here calls ‘high matters’ – by which he means the disciplined examination of the values that govern private and public life. If the above analysis is sound, the democratic form will not survive such neglect forever. So what is required is an educational program that, beginning in the early years of high school, actively engages students in the practice of value inquiry, with the aim of imparting in them an understanding of the central role of values in guiding conduct in both private and public life. This, in turn, might then serve as the foundation for an extensive examination of the values integral to democracy itself. Only in this way may we have some hope of placing the ‘high matters’ of which Plato speaks into the thinking of the average citizen.

We thus arrive at a conclusion that will seem to some as outlandish as Plato’s seemed to some in his day: For democracy to survive and flourish we must make philosophy – specifically, ethics, or value-centered thinking – the heart of the public school curriculum. The challenge for those who would craft a pedagogical program in support of democracy is to consider how we might best do this.

Conclusion: The Power of the People

To conclude we might recall the ambiguity in the word ‘people’ with which we began. When we speak of democracy as ‘the power of the people’, do we use the word ‘people’ in the plural or the singular sense? Our reflections indicate that the answer must be: both. A sound democracy must be peopled by citizens who see concern for the dignity of others, and for the good of society as a whole, as integral to their own private good, such that private and public interest coincide. This requires a degree of moral and intellectual sophistication that can only be achieved through a robust program of value-oriented, ethical, broadly ‘philosophical’ education. The morally-realized citizen-kings of Kant’s Kingdom of Ends can become such only as they approximate to Plato’s intellectually-realized philosopher-kings. So a value-oriented education is essential to the democratic form as such. In the absence of such education, to recall Plato’s words, “there will be no rest from ills of the city, nor, I think, for human kind.”

© Dr Richard Oxenberg 2015

Richard Oxenberg received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Emory University in 2002. He taught for eight years at Boston University and is currently teaching at Endicott College in Beverly, MA.

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