Plato’s philosopher ruler, revisited and applied

Western thought, one might say, has been either Platonic or anti-Platonic, but hardly ever non-Platonic.

Popper

Plato was a first systematic political theorist and a study of the Western philosophical tradition begins with his masterpiece, the ‘Republic‘ Born in 428 BC in Athens, he had a wide ranging corpus.

In his writings he talks about his ‘Ideal State’. For him an ideal state is one based on timeless and unchanging principles which could be discerned and employed to reform a diseased polity and transform it into a thing of beauty and health.

In his notion of ideal state, he talks about philosopher ruler i.e. his state ideal state would be ruled by a ruler who is a philosopher. Put differently, a philosopher is eligible to be a ruler in Plato’s Ideal State.

Ruling a state for Plato is not everybody’s job. It requires skills and certain qualifications (which he mentions specifically). Besides, a good ruler for Plato is one who adds meaning to the life of individuals and works for the well-being of all.

Until Philosophers become kings … or till that we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers … there is no road to happiness, either for society or the individual.

Plato

As per Plato, a philosopher is well equipped to rule because he has the grasp of the Idea of Good, which could be grasped by a select few. Justifying his claims, he said that a philosopher is a person with good character, a calm disposition and a sound mind; and who would be able to administer justice and work for well being of all. He would be a wise and honest legislator who would frame laws in accordance with the Idea of Good.

Besides having many admirers, Plato had his share of critics too. His idea about philosopher ruler was criticized from different lenses.

His notion of philosopher king was seen as an ‘elite-phenomena‘ i.e. denying participation of average persons in mainstream politics. He rejected majoritarianism and people’s participation on the grounds that they lacked the ability to comprehend political phenomenas which were based on Idea of Good.

Also, his knack of granting absolute power to the philosopher ruler was incorrect. It would lead to authoritarian tendencies.

Therefore, Plato’s ‘philosopher ruler’ remained confined to the covers of the Republic. It remained an idealist hypothesis. In contemporary scenario, it is necessary that the notion of philosopher ruler should be revisited and applied to the reality, given an unprecedented rise in the criminalization of politics, corruption and nepotism.

Moving on Plato’s lines, if certain qualifications in terms of education and conditions are fixed for rulers in present times, then can we see a new precedents in politics?

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