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The great wise ruler, calm and serene, wise and knowing, potent and benevolent, is an idea that Plato put forward in TheRepublic, ISBN 0140440488 (alternate, search). This idea has been debunked once and for all in KarlPopper's book, The Open Society and Its Enemies [ISBN 069101972X (alternate, search), ISBN 0691019681 (alternate, search)]. See OpenSociety.

In short, the society that Plato describes in his book is a spartan city state where censorship is paramount, the wise know-alls rule and the stupid rabble follows. As no free speech is allowed, criticism remains unheard, mistakes accumulate and disaster is inevitable, no matter how wise and benevolent the philosopher king is.


Taking Plato as talking about practical ways to manage a society is missing the point a bit. The Republic is really about building an elaborate conceptualization of justice. The whole thing is set up in a way that makes it clear that it is impossible to set up the city-state that is described. At one point Socrates says (paraphrase) "since it is impossible to build such a city in the world, we should strive to build it within ourselves." The elaboration of the city is necessary to imagine justice, and the justice that Plato describes remains compelling to this day (IMHO, anyway). His conception of the ruler as not needing criticism is probably a bit naive, but Aristotle cleared that up in Politics, beating Popper to the punch by 2.5 k years. :> The whole concept of debunking, especially with regards to Plato, seems shortsighted and a bit of a cop-out; criticisms that try to discredit the whole are good at making us feel smug for ignoring Plato and others, but that leads us to miss out on all the good stuff that's packed in there, starting with the very roots of the western tradition. --DruOjaJay

There is no doubt that Plato was an admirer of the Spartan state, as were most of Socrates' associates, so it seems plausible to me that he would have based an ideal state on it. If he were in fact intending the Politeia only as an allegory or metaphor, what are we to make of his attempt to train the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse as a philosopher?

There are two different questions here. The first is, did Plato intend TheRepublic primarily as a description of an ideal state? He clearly did not. The state is brought up only in aid of understanding justice, and the state described in the dialogue is already something of a compromise. The second is, what sort of state would Plato have supported? On this point you are right to mention his experience in Syracuse. It seems clear that Plato favored some sort of aristocracy, and was deeply suspicious of democracy. --MossCollum

I certainly don't dispute that Plato would have supported such a state, just that that support is not relevant to the value of the Republic. What I've heard is that in his later years, Plato went a little nuts, and tried to create the Republic, or at least parts of it, by getting some tyrant in Syracuse to learn math and be enlightened. But the tyrant wasn't really into it, so Plato ran back to Athens. He most certainly was not an advocate of democracy, at least as he defined it at the end of the Republic. However, his def'n of democracy is quite a bit different than ours, both in the way things are set up, and the way it relates to his definition of justice.

Roughly, he said that Justice is "everyone practicing their own craft", which is elaborated to mean that everyone does what they are meant to do. On a national level, implementing something like this quickly becomes authoritarian. But on an individual level, I find that "doing what I do well, while not meddling in others' affairs and standing up to those who would compromise mine (unless it is their craft to be a teacher, or something)" is compelling as a personal concept of justice. Plato defines democracy as a place where anyone can practice any craft (including governance) regardless of their knowledge of what they are crafting. This, Plato saw as antithetical to (the conditions for the possibility of) Justice; the only thing worse, according to him, was Tyrrany.

Aristotle, btw, thought that "democracy" (mob rule) was a perverted form of the constitutional state, which was the healthy version (and still is, IMHO). Aristotle corrected Plato with the notion that however benign or loving, a ruler wouldn't Know how to govern. Just as the knowledge of whether a ski is of good quality lies in the skier and not the ski-maker, so the knowledge of what is good government (often) lies in the governed, and not the governor. Still, the only way to have a truly just state is to have people who have knowledge of justice in power. Since we don't have any really good way of doing that, we instead have our (fundamentally imperfect) democracy, which I can live with :> --DruOjaJay

See also BookShelved:TheRepublic


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