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Philosophers Rule OK?

Tim Ogden thinks not.

In the Republic, Plato argued for rule by philosophers. The book is written in the form of a ‘discussion’ between Socrates, the narrator, and various others, principally Glaucon. Here I imagine Glaucon being a little more argumentative….

“Imagine a ship where the captain is powerful but slow of mind. Although he decides which direction to take, he listens to his crew. But the voice prevails of he who is skilled in sophistry, not he who is skilled in true navigation. This then is the current state of democracy; the ship is the state, the captain the people voting at assembly, the persuaders skilled in sophistry the politicians and the ignored navigators the philosophers.” I said.

“So you think in a democracy power goes to those adept in swaying opinion; to those skilled in gaining power rather than those skilled in its best use?” said Glaucon.

“Yes” I said. “In an ideal republic power would go to the philosophers for these reasons:

Only philosophers who after long study have embraced the Form of the Good, know from it what is truly valuable in life and thus for society as a whole.

Philosophers would not desire power, preferring philosophy, and would rule better for this than those who sought it such as tyrants.

Indeed philosophers would have no individual interests such as the love of money in the rulers of oligarchies. Having no love greater than that of philosophy, truth and the Good, they would act only in the interests of the whole community. This I would insure further in my ideal republic by proscribing private property and family relations within the philosopher class.”

“But how might it happen that philosophers gain and retain power? As you say, Socrates, in a democracy the ignorant mass of voters prefer sophistry. In a tyranny the tyrant would stop at nothing to retain his power or regain it once lost; in an oligarchy the rulers would be just as determined to hold onto their wealth.” said Glaucon.

“It is possible, though unlikely, that philosophers might gain power” I said. “For example, a king might become interested in philosophy and also have the right temperament. To maintain philosophers in power, a myth should be propagated. This, which I will call ‘the Noble Lie’, would say that philosophers were made by the gods of finer stuff than common men. After a few generations everyone would believe it and forget it had started as a lie.”

“That’s preposterous, Socrates!” said Glaucon. “You argue philosophers should rule because they alone have the wisdom to reach the truth, yet they should be maintained in power by a lie. The paradox is obvious - but also surely philosophers of future generations who believed this lie would be incompetent or corrupt.

Another criticism of your idea of rule by philosophers. You do not say how power is to be allotted within the group of philosophers. Should there be for example a democracy within the philosopher class, or a dictatorship of one philosopher over the others? Is it not shifting the problem of government rather than solving it? At the moment we have free men and slaves, women and children. In states of different types, only free men take part in government – all of them in a democracy, some in an oligarchy, one in a tyranny. Rule by philosophers would leave the same basic problem – how should power be allotted within the group of philosophers?”

“A democracy of philosophers would be composed of men able to see what is true and valuable and good, not ignorant men to be swayed by the false arguments of sophistry” I said.

“That I grant you” said Glaucon. “But though the captain were of better judgement, would not those interested in power and skilled in the arts of persuasion still tend to gain control of the ship, rather than those skilled in navigation?”

“But,” I said, “men trained in philosophy would not be interested in power, having tasted the greater delights of knowledge of the Form of the Good. As I have said, philosophers in my Republic would have no narrow self-interest; their only interest would be that of the whole society.”

“How then would anything be decided?” asked Glaucon. “Imagine a schizophrenic with two minds and a body. He lies abed as the dawn breaks. ‘Where shall we go today?’ says one mind to the other. ‘Although being learned I know the way to everywhere, I have no interest myself in going anywhere. My only interest is the common one of you, me and our body. Is there anywhere you want to go?’. ‘No’ says the second mind. ‘I too have no interest for myself.’ ‘And we can’t ask our body’ says the first. ‘It’d only want to go to the pub or the brothel and get us all into trouble again; that’s why we took over in the first place.’ ‘Oh well – might as well stay in bed then.’ ‘Might as well.’ .”

© T. Ogden 1993

Tim Ogden won’t be planning any coups in the near future

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