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Why did Plato believe Philosophers should rule?

When answering this question the most obvious source to refer to is Platos
book The Republic, for it is within its pages that Plato explains, through the voice of
Socrates, his belief that philosophers should rule. At the outset it is important to spend
some time explaining what Plato believed the word philosopher to mean.
In Book V of The Republic Plato gives us the best insight into what he believes
a philosopher to be, and the nature of such people.
Only the man who has a taste for every sort of knowledge and throws himself into acquiring it with an

insatiable curiosity will deserve to be called a philosopher .1

Plato believed philosophers strove to gain as much knowledge as they possibly


could during their lives. In his argument for this, Plato equates knowledge to
truthfulness, and describes the latter as a determination never voluntarily to receive
what is false, but to hate it and love the truth.2 Thus, Platos philosopher will always
desire the truth and hate falsehood. This is the primary point Plato makes in relation to
philosophers. He also states that philosophers are those who can apprehend the eternal
and unchanging.3
Plato believes that it is this sort of philosophers who should rule, or
failing this, that kings should be educated as philosophers. It is from this belief that
Plato creates the hybrid of the philosopher-kings. Plato describes in detail how this
group can be identified and trained, so that in the future they will be fit to rule. Firstly,
in a similar manner to the philosopher, only those who show an aptitude and a desire for
learning from an early age shall be chosen to be trained as philosopher-kings. In the
early years they will study literacy, music, maths, etc. Then, when they reach the age of
thirty they begin to study philosophy for five years, this is followed by fifteen years of
military service. Finally, only those who have completed this training with honour are
allowed to study philosophy permanently.4 This training Plato believed would be of
great benefit for anyone wishing to rule, making them better educated to make critical
decisions, than those who did not receive such training. Better education is one of
Platos major arguments in favour of philosophers being rulers. In The Republic
Socrates conversation with Glaucon is littered with analogys, to explain what he is

1
Cornford, Francis M. The Republic of Plato p. 182
2
Plato The Republic translated by A.D. Lindsay p. 167
3
Cornford, Francis M. The Republic of Plato p.190
4
Wolff, Johnathan An Introduction to Political Philosophy pp. 73-74

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trying to say more clearly. With education Plato uses the craftsman analogy. Plato
states that if one were sick, they would go and see someone who was specially trained
in dealing with illness, in other words, a doctor. Therefore, Platos argument is that if
the population of a town or city was looking for a ruler, then logically they should look
towards those who have been best trained to rule. And, in Platos eyes nobody would be
better suited to rule, than those who have been trained as philosopher-kings.
However, in order for Platos philosopher-kings to rule, a number of changes
also needed to be made in society in general. Plato believed in arranged marriages, so
that the best could be bred with the best in the hope of creating better offspring. Also,
he thought the idea of family should be abolished and that, children should be raised by
the community or state. Furthermore, Plato was in favour of the abolition of private
property. All of these points are important, and it is necessary to deal with each in turn,
in relation to philosopher-kings. Perhaps the most important among these changes in
society was the abolition of private property. By doing this Plato believed any
temptation that may have been there on the part of the ruler to rule for personal gain
would be removed. Both issues of private property and family are interlinked. This is
due to the fact that a ruler might use nepotism to enhance his familys prestige and
wealth. The prohibition on private property, removes this temptation from the eyes of
the ruler. Furthermore, family may impact on the decisions of a ruler. If this happens
then the rulers decisions may not be in keeping with those, which benefit the
community, because they are influenced by his desire to protect or help his family. This
went against everything Plato thought a ruler should be. He believed a ruler should
always act in the best interests of his subjects, in order to maintain the community or
state. Maintenance of the state was the ultimate goal of a ruler in Platos view.
However, even if these institutions were to remain, the philosopher-king
would not have a problem because, Plato argues that due to their love of knowledge,
they would have no desire for money or personal possessions of this nature. Also, he
claimed that the philosopher-kings would not show fear because, they are able to look
back over time and realise that their own life is insignificant in the grander scheme of
things. Thus they should not fear death.

Taking all these points into account, Plato argues that:

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If a man is temperate and free from the love of money, meanness, pretentiousness, and cowardice, he
will not be hard to deal with or dishonest. (because) from youth up he is fair-minded, gentle, and
sociable.5
Such an ideal ruler as described above would be developed in this way through the
training Plato setout. It is these sorts of people who Plato argues should rule.
However, this was not the case in Platos time, and in order to explain why this
was, Plato talks of why society of his time did not utilize philosophers. It is Adeimantus
who poses this very question to Socrates in The Republic. One of the reasons Plato
believed philosophers were not better utilized in contemporary society of the time was
that they were often mistaken for sophists. While sophists taught individuals in private,
philosophers like Socrates spoke openly to crowds. Sophists had a bad reputation at the
time and were often antagonistic to Socratic philosophy.6
Therefore, one of the greatest obstacles for philosophers was to try and change the
publics perception of them. Another reason why philosophers were dismissed as
politically useless is that the people of the time had a false idea of what ruling was.7
This is why when Socrates argues that it would be possible for philosophers to rule, he
is keen to point out that it would be necessary for the philosopher to clean the slate
and start from scratch when creating a society in which he could rule. Despite being a
rather far-fetched notion, Plato argues that this would result in the philosopher creating
a just state, over which he could then rule. Plato uses the ship parable to describe how
contemporary society viewed the philosopher. Plato argues that only those who have
studied the seasons of the year, sky, stars, and winds and all that belongs to his craft8
are fit to captain a ship. And, in the parable, without a man such as this the ship will
turn into a drunken carousal. The captain in Platos argument would be the
philosopher-king, who in the case of society, is not trained in the art of seamanship,
but in philosophy, math, war and other disciplines needed by a ruler. The sailors in the
parable represent the public, and some of those wishing to rule, who do nothing but
argue and fight amongst themselves, leading to a collapse of law and order, and the
failure of the ships mission.
Thus, when one comes to answering the question of why Plato believed
philosophers should rule, the answer is quite simple. In his mind, what a philosopher is,
would be the best-suited candidate to rule a community or state. The main reason for

5
Cornford, Francis M. The Republic of Plato p.192
6
Cornford, Francis M. The Republic of Plato p.193
7
Reeve, C.D.C . Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Platos Republic p.193
8
Cornford, Francis M. The Republic of Plato p.195

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this belief is that philosopher-kings are far better educated, and therefore better
positioned to make the right decisions. And, it is education that is the basis of Platos
argument; it is the knowledge they have gained that sets them apart from other potential
rulers.
However, although answering the above question may be relatively
straightforward a more challenging question is whether Plato truly believed the creation
of a society in which the philosopher-kings could rule was possible? It is true that he
argues in the case for such a belief in The Republic, but not very convincingly in my
opinion. What Plato suggests is a complete overhaul of private property and family, the
introduction of equality for women, and a complete change in the public perception of
philosophers. While these are undoubtedly theoretically possible, surely a man of
Platos vast intellect never really believed such drastic measures would be possible to
enact at the time. Therefore, one must question Platos motives for writing such a book.

Bibliography

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Annas, Julia An Introduction to Platos Republic (Oxford, 1981)

Cornford, Francis M. The Republic of Plato (Oxford, 1941)

Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and its critics (Yale, 1989)

Klosko, George The Development of Platos Political Theory (London, 1986)

Plato The Republic translated by A.D. Lindsay (London, 1935)

Reeve, C.D.C . Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Platos Republic


(New Jersey,1988)

Wolff, Johnathan An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford, 1996)