The philosopher ruler


The qualities of the Ruler

Plato argues that "some people will have aptitude for philosophy, whereas the rest should follow their lead but let philosophy alone". He then defines all of the qualities which he believes every philosopher ruler should have.

1) Truthfulness, "he will never willingly tolerate an untruth, but will hate it just as he loves truth". Once again Plato uses extreme languages with the "never tolerate" an untruth, showing quite how passionately the philosopher ruler must care for truth. However, this is an odd requirement as in todays world information about the secret services are often kept secret, and there are some pieces of information we do not want the government to share. Plato's response would be that the this is a flaw of our system, rather than a problem wih his definition. Another issues is that Plato openly endorses censorship, which seems to contradict the quality of complete truthfullness.

2) The philosopher ruler must be concentrated solely on "pleasures of the mind", which has the effect that "physical pleasures will pass him by". This is because the "flow" of his passion for "physical pleasures" will be diverted towards his books. Plato seems to believe that this would make the ruler more focused, and less corruptable. However, denying physical pleasures is possibly unhealthy, and just because he is focused solely on "pleasures of the mind" does not mean that he is uncorruptable, or unlikely to enjoy his vices. Instead, he could indulge in academic pleasures, which is still extremely indulgent.

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Qualities II

3. The philosopher must also be well balanced. He must posses "a sense of grace and proportion" which is (according to Plato) linked to "a good sense of taste or style". Perhaps this would lead to a ruler who understands what is important, and what is irrelevent, but Plato's definition is quite hazy and appears irrelevent. Furthermore, our understanding of "good" style changes, which implies it cannot be learnt from the forms.

4. The ruler must not be obsessed with money. Plato argues that he should be "not grasping about money" and "self controlled". This uses the word "grasping" which has undeniably negative connotations, yet another hit at the ruling sophists. Whilst it would be good to have a leader who would be less easily corrupted by wealth, if he really does not care about wealth surely the philosopher ruler will struggle to enrich his state, a potential flaw.

5. The philosopher ruler will be kind. Plato says that he must "have no touch of meanness", the language shows once again how definite Plato views all of these qualities in any leader. Certainly a sadistic leader would be bad, but if the ruler is completely nice then he might not be able to survive in the meanness of the world in which we live in.

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Qualities III

6. The philosopher must be "just and civilised" rathre than "uncooperative and savage". This quality is so important it must be seen "from its early days". This is a confusing definition, as the main definition of "savage" in our world appears to be "different from me". Is Plato suggesting that the child shouldn't plan or joke around?

7. The philosopher "must possess a good memory", and Plato argues forcefully that "we can't include a forgetful man". This is because his memory would help him to love and enjoy getting to understand the Forms, and would make learning faster. Whilst a good memory would aid in understanding the Forms today it does not seem essential as he could keep all sorts of digital notes.

8. Plato argues that it is of crucial importance "whether it learns easily or not" because then the Philosopher will have "true learning of all of the branches" of the forms. However, if a student learns easily sometimes they can work less hard, and the philosopher could become lazy.

9. Finally, the philosopher must possess "courage". This seems more virtuous than the other arguments but his courage should always be held in proportion, nobody wants a ruler who believes that they can overcome all obstacles despite the actual reality.

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The Simile of the Ship

This all leads Plato to conclude that: "They are clearly superior" in their knowledge of the world.

The captain, the seat of power in Athens is "larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted and similarly limited in seamanship".

The crew are "all quarrelling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation". The crew represent the population who vote and the various factions around the captain who "spend all their time milling around the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. This is like those who cite miracle cures for the economy, like less immigration or stopping the NHS.

If these factions gain power the voyage would become a "drunken pleasure cruise". They don't understand that "the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds" - Plato thus references his forms, but a better example would be how a politician needs to understand the economy and the impact on this change on the country itself.

However, the crew view "the true navigator as a word-spinner and a star-gazer, of no use to them at all". His knowledge is simply not appreciated and  modern society "should blame, not the philosophers, but those who fail to make use of him"

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Issues with the simile of the ship

As with many of the attributes of the philosopher ruler, the "navigator" seems disconnected between what the people want. Perhaps a "drunken pleasure cruise" would actually be the best (or at least the most amusing) path for the sailors to take. In a similar vein, Plato argues that the leaders are "short-sighted" but surely a balance between long and short term improvements should be made.

The analogy has also been criticised because a voyage has a clear journey, wheras a state has a less clear direction.

However, Plato would respond saying that because  "His eyes are turned to contemplate fixed and immutable realities, a realm where there is no injustice done or suffered, but all is reason and order" he can then use this as " the model which he imitates and to which he assimilates himeslf as far as he can" towards a realm of perfection and order.

Another issue is that Plato's navigator is meant to hold special "knowledge" which is meant to hold value, but there is nothing about the "value" that the simile of the ship adds to Plato which means that the Philosopher holds this knowledge. We could substitute anything in the place of the philosopher, such as a sophist, because Plato never justifies why the philosopher has this amount of knowledge. Alternatively, the philosopher might be a better advisor than a ruler.

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The simile of the beast

This simile provides an unflattering account of Athenian democracy 

"Suppose a man was in charge of a large and powerful animal" and understood "why it was espeially savage or gentle" and could either "soothe or annoy it". 

The man can learn this by "experience and familiarity" and "call it a science...reduce it to a asystem and set up to teach it".

However, the man would not understand "which of the creatures tastes and desires were admirable or shameful" and "he would have no rational account to give of them". Instead, he could only teach what made the beast happy or sad, and from this he would call "what pleased it good, what annoyed it bad".

All of this means that he remains "quite blind" and in charge of the best whilst being ignorant of "the real nature of" the beast.

Socrates believes that is analogous with those who think that "the knowledge of the passions and pleasures of the mass of the common people is a science"

The sophists ignorance leads to "the fatal necessity of providing only what it (the beast) approves."

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Issues with the simile of the beast

The simile of the beast raises the time old issue about whether a responsive or a resolute leader would be best, which remains controersial today. Plato claims that popularism is a bad thing because people do not know what is in their own interest. However, some people would argue that the right of self determinism is more important than having a resolute leader (though a resolute leader would be useful at times - like in imposing austerity measures)

A petty criticism is that zoology is actually a science, and that science often knows which food and living conditions would benefit the animal. In contrast, we cannot clearly see which "habitat" or "diet" would best help the voters. However, Plato would respond saying that knowledge of the Form of the Good is posible and therefore the philosopher ruler actually knows what is best for the people.

Also, the simile of the beast attempts to lump all of the people together as a "large and poweful animal", whilst some voters make a lot of assumptions others spend time to research party manifestos and actually understand the meaning of these policies.

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The failure of the ruler in society

Socrates has to explain why "philosophy is impossible among the common people"

The philosophers attributes endanger himself because "with such gifts a man is bound from childhood to take the lead", and "his friends and fellow-citizens will want to use him for their own purposes when he grows up."

These people continue to corrupt him "flattering in anticipation the power that one day will be his"

These "evil influences" give him "boundless ambition", and even if philosophy tempts him they would stop him "by private intrigue and public prosecution"

Thus philosophy is underappreciated and "suffers at the hands of second rate interlopers" and a "whole crowd of squatters" who sully the name of philosophy. thus the potential philosopher "commonly degenerates"

He proposes that when "men skilled in philosophy are somehow forced to take part in politics" the perfect society will arise.

Socrates claims that the process of the philosopher gaining all of this power "though difficult, would not be impossible"

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failure of the ruler in our society II

He addresses the question "why are most philosophers rouges?" by explaining that the qualities "courage, self-dicipline, and the rest - corrupts its possessor and distracts him from philosophy". Furthermore "the good things in life all contribute to ruin and distract him".

This is explained because the potential of the philosopher means that he is more vulnerable to being ruined: "very high natural quality will come off worse in an unfavourable environment than proper philosohy" neacause "any seed or growth, plant or animal, depends on the right nourishment and climate and soil".

Glaucon introduces the idea that "some of our young men are corrupted by Sophists", but Socrates argues that the popularity of these young men make their corruption inevitable "won't he be swamped by the flood or popular praise and blame" until he begins "behaving like one of the crowd and becoming one of them". If the treat doesn't work them "punishments - disfranchisement, fines or death...imposing sanctions were persuasion has failed" is enough to corrupt them.

Socrates concludes that it is "sheer folly" to attempt "to escape harm and grow up on the right lines" "is something that can fairly be attributed to divine providence", especially as Sophists "teach nothing but the conventional views"

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Issues with the ruler

However, the ruler appears to be quite weak if no one trusts him to rule, and if "anyone else who is going to act rationally in either public or private life must have sight of" the Form of the Good, why has no one recognised the value of the philosopher yet?

Any practical implementation of this would be hard, Plato discusses the need to "wipe the slate of human society and human habits clean", but does not describe how this would be achieved. Furthermore, the citizens would be pushed into roles (like gaurdians) for which they are unprepared.

For Plato's society to be implemented he would also need to convince all of the population to give up their personal freedoms. Despite Plato's best attempts to show that his philosopher would not be corrupted, there is no evidence that they would actually go beyond this, as none of Plato's society has been tested.

Finally, Plato's philosopher ruler is still incredibly isolated from the world. Surely he cannot understand what the population, who are not keen on transcendent mental pleasures, really want even though he has knowledge of the Form of the Good. Why couldn't a "drunken plesaure cruise" be best for everyone?

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