The Pathos of Politics (13-3) Plato


All the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue. ~ Plato

Plato (427–347 BCE) perceived political philosophy as an architectonic science of society. In the Republic (~380 BCE), Plato sketched a utopian society, with an oligarchical government comprising those of superior reasoning, ruled under a philosopher-king.

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands. ~ Plato

One of the main assumptions behind the Republic is that the right kind of government is constructed through rationality, rather than the common product of muddling through with faith and fear, improvisation and indolence, which is how most governments came to be.

Democracy assumes some kernel of rationality in individuals. Utterly absent is the hope that government can be rationally ordered. Democracy proposes the precise opposite: a proclivity to corruption, and hence the need for checks and balances, beginning with public consent.

Plato wrote the Republic when his home city, Athens, was at a crossroads after defeat to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BCE).

Athens was the strongest city-state in Greece before the war: a selectively limited democracy that debarred women, aliens, and slaves from political participation. After the war, Athens was reduced to poverty and near subjugation, while Sparta was the leading Greek power.

Athens defeated itself; its debacle caused by internal dissension, personal rivalries, and military strategic error, beginning with overestimating its capabilities.

Lacking expertise in foreign affairs, victorious Sparta fared no better as an imperial power, which led to the rise of Persia in short order.

Plato concluded that Sparta’s military victory owed to its polity and communitarian social system.

States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters. ~ Plato

Plato castigated Athenian democracy for its demise. The Republic was an indictment of Athens’ way of life, particularly the incompetence and ignorance of politicians, which gave rise to partisan factionalism. (The parallels to modern democracy are obvious.)

With his writing, Plato tried to infuse Sparta’s political spirit into individualistic Athenian society and temper its lurid aristocratic democracy with his moral values. The model described in the Republic was of an elitist, regimented, and authoritarian regime that was also non-political. Plato’s ideal polis was one that had transcended politics by virtue of enlightened despotism.

The Republic emphasized that the well-being of a state and its peoples are wholly dependent upon the quality of political leadership. How such excellence is achieved is secondary to the concern that government serve society’s best interests.

Plato’s vision may be contrasted with the heyday of laissez-faire over 2 millennia later, when the ideal of a highly trained political class, dedicated to public service without personal gain, had little appeal. Government, like the capitalist economy and society in general, was naïvely assumed to be largely self-regulating machinery. The less government the better. Thomas Paine’s opinion of government remains a popular sentiment.

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. ~ American revolutionary Thomas Paine

Democracy relies upon the analogy of government as machinery to a great extent: that anyone who talks a good game may be considered a competent administrator who has the public interest at heart, and that people may be replaced in critical governmental roles as if interchangeable parts. History has shown those to be faulty assumptions more often than not; a conclusion reflected in low public opinion of governmental institutions, most notably the legislature, which is usually the most direct representation of democracy.

The thrust of Plato’s political thought resonates with relevance for rheumatic modern democracies.