Why not philosopher-kings?

One can be forgiven for thinking that some politicians don’t care which laws are passed as long as they get to make speeches and attract headlines.

This should not surprise us. To a large degree democratic politics just is a popularity contest. We should expect it to attract the vain and the ambitious.

But governing well – making good laws, and working out which social problems are pressing and what solutions might work – is not easy. It is an open question whether those attracted to politics can do this well.

Why should philosophers rule?

Plato thought that philosophers – or lovers of wisdom – should rule. Like most philosophers, he also thought that while opinion is common, knowledge is rare. Things are complex and coming to know anything is a laborious process.

Underpinning this is a distinction between appearance and reality. Is the world really as it appears to us? Does common sense reliably identify real political problems or just imaginary ones (like Reds under the bed or the EU as the source of all our troubles)?

Plato was also sceptical that the desire for worldly success is a reliable guide to knowledge. One of his major criticisms of  the Sophists – a group of peripatetic educators in ancient Greece – was precisely that their teaching focused on the skills that brought worldly success. What a caddish bunch!

Still, Plato was on to something. The desire for worldly success can bias us in favour of conclusions that please those who have rewards to dispense.

Like most philosophers, Plato also employed a sharp distinction between rhetoric and good argument. A good argument withstands patient and fair-minded criticism over time.

Rhetoric is windy verbiage with no depth that is designed to influence the barely-listening or simple-minded. (This might be a tendentious definition.)

On the other hand, good arguments can be tedious to work through and can take forever to understand. Rhetoric is much more pleasing to the ear and can be enjoyed over a glass of wine.

Why philosophers shouldn’t rule

A love of wisdom, of rigorous argument and complexity are not sufficient qualifications for ruling. Perhaps they are dis-qualifications. Jonathan Wolff has noted that, while acting as a jury member, others ‘seemed much better at judging people, and whether they were telling the truth’ than he – a professional philosopher – was.

Lovers of wisdom have no need to be good at this; they do not take others’ word for things. They check them for themselves. But this is not feasible for politicians. They are simply too busy.

The philosopher’s commitment to complexity also makes for an unhappy marriage with democratic politics. Democracies give ultimate political authority to the people. Happily, most of ‘the people’ have day jobs and cannot spend much time establishing whether immigration really is a significant problem. They rely on common sense and trusted sources.

Things get worse. The contemporary lover of wisdom – the academic – is a specialist in only one field. If offering policy advice involves going beyond their specialism, contemporary lovers of wisdom often refuse: it’s not their ‘area’. But politics does not respect academic divisions so, reasonably enough, politicians find this reticence annoying.

Finally, politics is about exercising power. One needs to know when to negotiate, when to be bold, and when to retreat. Lovers of wisdom have no expertise in this at all.

Let’s face it, the philosopher-king is a bad idea. But kings who are more like philosophers is an awfully good idea.

The case for philosophical-kings

The advanced democracies have solved most easy problems. Generally, people don’t starve or die of easily curable illnesses. The complex problems remain.

In England there is a ‘long-tail of under-achievement‘ in schools. Since about 1945, between 15-20% of school-leavers have suffered from functional illiteracy or innumeracy. This problem has survived many policy changes.

Windy rhetoric aside (see here or here), we really don’t know what causes this problem, and even less what we might do to address it.

If many social problems are similar, some philosophical virtues may help. But what might we do? There are at least two different approaches. One focuses on improving the intellectual virtues of politicians and policy-makers. We will put this option aside.

A second focuses on creating institutions that can change behaviour. An example is the UK Statistics Authority which is licensed to publicly correct politicians when they make mis-leading statistical statements. Over time, this should alter politicians’ behaviour.

With a little fancy we might imagine a ‘Good Argument Authority’ that is licensed to publicly correct politicians’ non-sequiturs, contradictory claims, or point out the irrelevant arguments sometimes invoked to make the case for policies.

One example is the common appeals to recent findings of science – often neuro-science – to support education policies. Such appeals can be effective, not to say seductive. But, mostly, they are irrelevant.

There is a large gap between scientific findings and their policy implications. If there weren’t, the same policies would work everywhere.

More institutions like the Statistics Authority may not solve social problems any quicker. But they may nip some of the sillier ideas in the bud. This will save time and money.

Plato was wrong about philosopher-kings. But attempts to solve complex social problems without the help of lovers of wisdom will almost certainly be wasteful and may well makes things worse.

1 thought on “Why not philosopher-kings?

  1. rung2diotimasladder

    Great post. I’m always interested in hearing how Plato can be applied to our lives.

    “With a little fancy we might imagine a ‘Good Argument Authority’ that is licensed to publicly correct politicians’ non-sequiturs, contradictory claims, or point out the irrelevant arguments sometimes invoked to make the case for policies.”

    Count me in. We need this! Or how about we make a simple Aristotelian logic course a requirement in public high school so that the public can no longer stomach poor arguments?

    I think you’re approaching a sort of tension between intellectual knowledge and politics that draws forth a tangle of questions about interpretation. Philosopher kings in a realistic political sense are close to impossible for the reason that a) no one wants them and b) they don’t want to be politicians. Hence, they must be coerced by a call of duty to this vocation, and that coercion is not likely to happen. They’d rather spend their time contemplating the heavens, outside the cave. The ones in the cave think these people are pretty goofy, at best. At worst they look upon them with scorn and call them “Ivory Tower,” thinking that they have lost touch with reality. I think your focus on institutions rather than politicians is spot on in interpreting Plato to suit the needs of the real life problem.

    I think another applicable approach to the whole philosopher-king thing would be to take it psychologically, to go back to the original purpose of the Republic before the expansion of the city of pigs. At this point we’re trying to find the meaning of justice in the individual soul. In order to illuminate the soul, the soul was “writ large” to create a beautifully illustrated analogy. So if we take the analogy as such and go back to the soul, we see that the philosopher king is to be a representation of reason as it applies in the individual soul. The lower forms of government represent lower aspects of ourselves, the desires and ambitions that can override reason if they are “in power”. So justice becomes a kind of balance of powers—not elimination of desire, since desire creates the drive to make good things happen—but harmony of all aspects.

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