POL B70: Classic Texts of Political Theory I: Professor Lee
Lecture 3: Plato
Readings for this lecture: Plato, The Republic
Book V (471c – 480)
Book VI (complete)
Book VII (514a – 521b)
Book VIII (complete)
Book IX (complete)
Review: The Republic (Politeia) begins with a debate about justice but quickly
becomes a discussion about political leadership and the virtues required for effective
political leadership over a city. Someone must rule the city, for it to act as one unit and
with a common purpose. Plato asks, who should rule?
Answer: III.412c: The ‘best’ – the ‘aristoi’ – should rule. It’s a matter of justice: It is
just that ‘the best’ – and only ‘the best’ – should rule the city. Or, to put the same point
differently, it would be unjust if anybody else ruled the city (we return to this last point
later). But who counts as ‘the best’ – as aristoi? And what would the rule of the best –
literally, ‘aristocracy’ (a compound word from aristos + kratos) – look like?
Hint: There is a linguistic connection between ‘the best’ [aristoi] and ‘virtue’ [arête].
The ‘best’ must be distinguished by the possession of virtue. And we know that ‘justice’
must be a part of what it means to be virtuous.
Plato now begins to give us an answer to this question, by describing for us the kind of
person that is best suited to rule the virtuous city – the philosopher. In fact, Plato claims
the kallipolis can only come into existence when (V.473c; cf. VI.499a-c) ‘philosophers
rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and
adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide.’
The ‘best’ ruler, then, is what Plato calls the ‘philosopher-king.’ Philosophy is what
makes one best suited to rule.
Philosophy and the Philosopher-King
What, then, is philosophy? And what is so special about philosophy that makes one best
suited for ruling the city?
II.375e-376b: ‘the philosopher is like a dog’ – the dog loves what it knows, but
treats what it doesn’t know as an enemy. It separates knowledge from ignorance.
Similarly, the philosopher is the lover of knowledge, but avoids ignorance.
Philosophy [Gr. philosophia] as ‘the love of learning…the love of wisdom.’
1 Philosopher must be: ‘without falsehood (485a-b)…high-minded (486e)…a fast learner
(486c)…a good memory (486d)…measured and graceful (486d).’
The problem of false philosophers: But there are some who seem to be like philosophers,
but are not true philosophers, but instead ‘the lovers of sights and sounds.’ (V.475d-
476b). Plato wants us to see the difference between:
(1) those who love only the sight and the sound of things
(2) those who love the nature of the thing itself, permanent and unchanging
E.g., those who love the sight and sound of ‘beautiful things’ (1) and those who
love the nature of beauty itself (2).
Only philosophers can apprehend the nature of beauty; this is true knowledge of beauty.
Most other people can only appreciate and understand instances of beautiful things, but
not the nature of beauty itself; this is not knowledge but opinion. Then there are others
who have no knowledge or opinion of either beauty itself, or instances of beautiful
things; this is ignorance.
Allegory of the Cave in Book VII
One of the most famous images in the history of Western thought, symbolizing the nature
of philosophical knowledge and the human condition.
The prisoners of the cave – Socrates: ‘they’re like us.’ They see only shadows, but not
the reality which produces the shadows. Only the philosopher is liberated from the
chains restraining him/her in the cave and can see the world as it truly is. One who sees
and knows not only good and beautiful things, but the very source or Form of goodness
and beauty. This is the sort of person that should rule.
The best rulers should not rule from ignorance or mere opinion, but according to reason
and from full knowledge. Since only true philosophers are lovers of knowledge and have
knowledge, philosophers would make the best rulers. Only they know what is true
goodness and justice for the city. By contrast, lovers of opinion or ignorance are not
philosophers; and for that very reason they are not qualified to rule.
If you don’t govern according to reason and from full knowledge, then necessarily you
must be governing from opinion or ignorance which, for Plato, is unacceptable. This is
why he thinks:
VI.484d: ‘It would be absurd to choose anyone but philosophers [=lovers of
knowledge]’ as rulers of the ideal city. Philosophers govern only according to
reason and by virtue, unlike others who govern according from ignorance or
opinion and by vice.
Why does Plato insist on the superiority of philosophers as rulers? Consider those who
are not philosophers:
-Those driven by appetites rather than governed by reason
Implication of this analysis for Plato’s city:
VI.503b: Guardians must be philosopher-kings.
But the money-making or auxiliary classes must be excluded from government. It is
here that Plato’s deep-seated suspicion of ‘democracy’ begins to come out.
‘Democracy’ = rule [Gr. kratos] of the (poor) people/the masses [Gr. demos]
Democracy can never be the best form of rule: Rule of the demos is necessarily not ‘the
best’ [aristoi] because it is not according to virtue [arête]. In fact, it is the second-worst
form of rule (Book VIII), only one step away from full-blown tyranny. We see why later.
Some problems with Plato’s theory of philosopher-kings
1. Not everybody can be a philosopher-king; this is because true philosophers are
rare. See VI.494a, VI.497b-c, VI.503-4.
‘Mass politics’ (like Athens) is a sub-optimal arrangement in Plato’s political
theory; he requires clear separation from the ruling elite from the popular mass.
In fact, (VI.497b) ‘None of our present constitutions is worthy of the philosophic
nature.’ (especially Plato’s native Athens which is a democracy!)
Two emerging models: Mass politics vs. Elite politics – which better answers the
question of political leadership? Can the people at-large govern the polis better
than a small elite with political expertise?
2. No true philosopher wants to rule – but that is precisely why they are best-suited
Remember I.347d: ‘In a city of good men, if it came into being, the citizens
would fight in order not to rule.’
VII.520d: ‘A city whose prospective rulers are least eager to rule must of
necessity be most free from civil war.’
Philosophers must be ‘forced’ to rule; the least eager to rule would make the best
rulers. Plato’s criticism of the retreat into private life (VII.519c-d): ‘we mustn’t
allow them to do what they’re allowed to do today…to stay there and refuse to go
down again to the prisoners in the cave.’
3 3. The problem is philosophers have a bad reputation – especially in a democracy.
Bad reputation: Either vicious or useless; not honored but slandered in the cities –
Plato’s commentary on the incompatibility of philosophy and Athenian
Inequality as central to Plato’s political doctrine: If the best (aristoi) should
ideally rule the city, it also implies that there must be less-than-good members of
the city who are obliged to obey the rulers. Equality is not an important value in
Plato’s theory – in fact, equality is an evil for Plato. The problem is that a
condition of inequality generates resentment within the city.
Analogy of the ship captain and the ship (VI.487e-489a)
The true ship captain is one who has learned the art of navigation; but sailors
think they know better and believe that navigation is not something that can be
taught. ‘They call the person who is clever at persuading or forcing the
shipowner to let them rule a ‘navigator’, a ‘captain’ and ‘one who knows ships.’
VI.489a: ‘ships resemble cities and their attitude to the true philosophers.’
Is there such a thing as an ‘unqualified’ political ruler? Plato thinks yes. Political
rulership is like a ‘craft’ or ‘trade’ that has to be learned and mastered.
4. If ‘the best’ truly are in control, is there is any need for law?
(An analogy: Does the master-chef need a cookbook to make her dishes? Does
the best doctor need a medical handbook to practice medicine? So we also can
ask, Does the best ruler (the philosopher-king) need law to govern the city?)
Plato introduces a conflict between two competing ideals:
Rule of law vs. Rule of (the best) man
Cp. Plato’s Statesman: statesmanship is a kind of ‘expert knowledge’ (258b), and
the essence of statesmanship is possession of knowledge, not possession of power
(292e-293a). What should you do when your rulers can’t access the ‘expert
knowledge’ of statesmanship? In these non-ideal, second-best conditions, you
must have laws (300e-301a). Critical shift from rule-of-man approach (personal
rulership) to a de-personalized rule-of-law approach (institutional/legalistic
Plato’s Typology of Souls and Constitutions
Up to now, Plato has presented us with an account of the cons