Political Philosophy

Political Philosophy is study of government. What is the role of government? What is the best structure for Government? What is required for a good government to function?

In Book VIII of the Republic, Plato categorizes the kinds of government he thinks can exist, their characteristics, and their various merits.

Keep in mind that each form of Government correspond to a certain arrangement of the soul, reflecting the priorities of the state and of the individuals that compose it. Also, these are presented in a descending order, from best to worst, most balanced to most imbalanced, and from the greatest coherence between power and wisdom to the least.

Aristocracy: The soul is led by reason, and desire and spirit aim to knowledge and truth. This is the happiest type of state, because the the ruler is also the wisest person in the state.

Timarchy: The soul is led by spirit, and reason and desire aim to honor and reputation. This is not as good as aristocracy because the principles guiding the rulers will not be those that will always mean the best society. Instead, the rulers will focus on how best to gain fame.

Oligarchy: The soul is led by desire. The break with the first two is important, because Plato thinks desire is a bad master to follow. The center of power is no longer the center of wisdom at all. The state is maintained because those in power are able to force themselves to be somewhat reasonable- they are aware that being too greedy will cause their downfall.

Democracy: The soul is led by desire. Those with power in not those with wisdom. Instead, the idea that all people are equal is promoted, and a life of satisfied desire is promoted as best. Society in form is unstable.

Tyranny: The soul is led by desire. The ruler has absolute power and absolutely no wisdom. He rules through fear and violence, with no goals except his own pleasure.

Why does Plato think that philosophers should be kings?

The definition of a philosopher and the characteristics required of the philosopher-ruler are subject of part VII and VIII of the dialogue Republic. Summarized it can be said that, according to Plato, human beings may reside in two worlds: the lower world of Belief and the higher world of Knowledge. While governance by non-philosophers would mean to be caught in the sensual world and therefore governed by mere opinions, beliefs and self-interest, the philosopher ruler will in contrast govern with virtue and justice without self-interest because of his/ her special education in knowledge of absolute virtue, justice and other qualities.

They should rule "who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life", and those having had "an education as will enable them to attain the greatest skill in asking and answering questions" Plato says. Both are definitely qualities of true philosophers. Those, only "poor and hungering after their own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good…will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State."

As true philosophy means gaining the above qualities, philosophers are the only possible rulers. It is important to make a distinction between the acquisition of knowledge and the acquisition of truth, because knowledge is not necessarily the final truth. So philosophers of course can make mistakes, but will be ready (and hopefully able) to correct their views towards more truth.

Aristotle deals with this question only briefly in Chapter 10, although he spends significantly longer on the issue of being a good citizen. He has works specifically dedicated to the issue of politics, but we will not discuss them in our class (or only briefly). Of course, feel free to do some research on your own- i'd be happy to answer whatever questions you might have, or help you understand whatever text you are reading.

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