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Tutorial Portfolio Paper 1

Does Plato’s Argument for the Importance of Philosopher-Kings Provide a Secure Basis for Politics?

20 October 1998

Fundamental Concepts and Notions

To analyse the question posed in the tutorial, we first broke the question down, identifying two key concepts - politics and philosophy.

For our discussion we interpreted politics as the use of conflict, power and negotiation to resolve problems of social interaction. For Plato, politics was a sordid matter of conflicting opinions. Only when truth had been established could politics possibly improve the human condition. For Plato, only the philosopher could hope to find this ‘truth’. For him philosophy was the use of reason to transcend the appearance of things and find ‘truth’. Plato used the ‘Analogy of the Cave’ - the world was in darkness, the mass of people seeing only shadows of reality. By reason the philosopher could ‘climb out of the cave’ and see the true nature (form) and structure of the universe - enabling him to discern ‘truth’ and therefore the good. Then the philosopher could return to the cave to establish an orderly system of government - one where each was in their place in a society based on ‘the Good’. For Plato, philosophy was the only secure basis for politics.

Areas of Disagreement and Controversy

There was remarkably little disagreement in the tutorial. All contributors seemed keen to attack Plato’s ideal of society. Plato’s ideas were controversial with the participants, but raised remarkably little excitement between them.

What Ideas Might have been Discussed More Fully?

While we discussed ‘the Good’, and Plato’s view of this was rejected, there was little discussion on the validity of a ‘Good’. In the light of increasing pluralism, I feel that the notion that a definable ‘Good’ exists is under pressure, and it would have been profitable to discuss this.

There was little discussion on how Plato’s ideas related to the reality of his own culture, let alone the present. We focused our discussion on the philosophical structure of Plato’s ideas. With hindsight, I believe it may have been useful to discuss their practicality also. Plato himself refined his views in Laws, while we barely touched on the eccentric ideas he has for the nurturing philosopher-kings.

Contemporary Relevance of Plato’s Ideas

Plato’s ideas sit uncomfortably with the paradigm of Western liberal democracy. Plato is profoundly undemocratic. Plato associated democracy with chaos and war - in opposition to the connotations democracy has in contemporary Western society.

Plato believes in a highly stratified society. Today’s society has a flatter and more fluid social structure, making Plato’s ideas less relevant.

However, two key Platonic ideas -Utopianism and dialectic thought are a staples of modern political discussion, especially Marxist thought. Plato’s intellectual influence continues right through to today, even if his views on the nature of society are unfashionable.

Persuasiveness of Plato’s Ideas

Plato devised a complex blueprint of society in The Republic. His philosophy is largely internally consistent. It is difficult to argue with Plato if one accepts his basic assumptions. However, if one chooses to reject these assumptions, then Plato’s argument falls.

I find two related Platonic concepts particularly unpersuasive. They are that ‘the Good’ and ‘absolute truth’, if they exist at all, can ever be grasped by humanity. Personally I find a hubris in the notion that one can ever grasp perfection - not to mention the lesson of history that most destructive personalities down the centuries believed they had ‘truth’ on their side, and were acting in the interests of the ‘Good’. The question of ‘quis custodet ipsos custodies?’ is not satisfactorily resolved by Plato. Why should the rest of society accept the ‘absolute truth’ offered by philosophers if only philosophers can validate it?

I am suspicious the fact that Plato’s ‘perfect society’ is controlled by the philosopher-kings - people like himself. Some scholars believe he wished to construct a defence of rule by the aristocracy, and at the very least he wished to see rule by his intellectual descendants perpetuated.

Plato’s ideas have never been subject to the fire of application in the real world. His ideas appear to be contrary to historical experience in Ancient Greece. His key argument against democracy is it’s ‘short-sightedness’ - it inevitably decays into tyranny. However, this seems to ignore the stability of the Athenian republic for two centuries.

Plato’s ideas in The Republic, are an interesting intellectual exercise and make fascinating reading. However their impracticality means that it is all they can remain.

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