This is an essay I wrote for philosophy class. We’ve just finished reading Plato’s Republic, which is basically Socrates and friends sitting around trying to figure out what justice looks like. It’s crazy to think that colleges are still teaching a book written before Christ was born – we’re talking 2300 hundred years ago. That’s a pretty solid shelf-life. This book has taught me about as much as anything I’ve ever read. So maybe this essay will be a preview, and you’ll decide to read it for yourself.
The assignment entailed giving answers to about 12 questions, which is why the paper reads the way it does.
The Philosopher King
The Philosopher King (or Queen) is a person who has demonstrated excellence in every area of training; they have what Socrates refers to as a golden soul and, most importantly, a definite knowledge of the good. This knowledge of the good, as well as a nature of “philosophy, spirit, speed, and strength”, is what makes the Philosopher King a just person and the best choice for ruler of the just city (376, c). Socrates says this person will be compelled to rule because, “the greatest punishment . . . is to be ruled by someone worse than oneself” (347, c).
Socrates proposes that the just city is made up of three kinds of citizens: craftsmen, auxiliaries, and guardians (415, a-b). Similarly, the soul consists of three parts: appetite, spiritedness, and reason (435, e). Socrates’s definition of justice is tightly interwoven with the theme of moderation. Each thing, within the city and the soul, must do that which it is intended for if justice is to be achieved. For moderation to be achieved, it also means that the city must be ruled by the guardians, and that the soul must be ruled by reason. It is when, as P.G. Wodehouse says, “reason. . . wobbled on its throne” that chaos ensues (Wodehouse 42). Socrates says that the city and the soul are just when “each of the three classes in it [do their] own work” (441, d). The appetitive part of the soul must inform reason as to the needs of the body. And the spirited part of the soul must ally with reason to enforce its dictates.
According to Socrates, philosophers must be without falsehood; they must “refuse to accept what is false, hate it, and have a love for the truth” (485, c). The nature of the Philosopher King is one that is completely without and opposed to “true” falsehood. He even goes as far as to claim that “true” falsehoods are hated by every god and human (382, a). The distinction that we must make here is between falsehoods which are told maliciously with the intent to corrupt and those, like the parables of Christ, which are told in order to spur towards the truth or prevent destruction. Socrates says that, “No one is willing to tell falsehoods to the most important part of himself about the most important things” (382, a), but a short time later he says that some falsehoods may be useful to prevent people from doing something bad through madness or ignorance (382, c).
The goal of the educational system is to turn the soul around by directing its desires away from becoming and towards being. The thing the soul loves and values above all else is what will determine the different classes of people. Socrates says that, “What we need to consider is whether the greater and more advanced part of it (areas of study) tends to make it easier to see the form of the good. And we say that anything has that tendency if it compels the soul to turn itself around towards the. . .[things] the soul must see at any cost. (526, d-e) The knowledge-loving nature of the Philosopher King becomes evident as he excels at every turn in the educational system. From birth, all the children in the city are provided with the same educational opportunities. They advance (if they are able) through music and poetry, physical training, calculation, geometry, solid geometry, astronomy, harmonics, and dialectic. Each of these fields of study shapes the understanding and appeals to the nature of the one who is to be a Philosopher King. Then it will become apparent, through close observation of the children in their roles of small responsibility, which ones are suited for which tasks. The ones who are to be philosophers and someday rule must be exemplary in everything, the golden souls. And only the ones who will become guardians of the city will ever be allowed to know the truth about their own society and origin. This is a sort of brainwashing, even if it does produce a desirable outcome.
The Philosopher King, whose soul is bent on being and who knows the good, is compelled to tell medicinal lies to the people whose souls do not love knowledge above all else. Socrates is adamant that “the majority cannot be philosophic” (494, a). Because their souls are bent on becoming and not being, they will never reach the level of thought of the Philosopher King. And even the ones who will someday be philosophers will not immediately be capable of high-level reasoning and understanding. In this way medicinal lies must be told as a crutch for lower intellect. As mentioned, these “lies” are comparable to the parables that Christ told when he wanted to communicate a truth or idea to his disciples. He knew that they would be more able to understand a story woven to illustrate than an intellectual dialogue of the thing itself.
The allegory of the cave illustrates the point that not everyone can be philosophic. In the illustration, the masses are chained up inside the dark cave looking at illusions which they mistake for clear depictions of reality. Because the philosopher has been up and out of the cave and seen by the light of the sun, he has a knowledge and truth unattainable by everyone who remains in the cave. Because the Philosopher King desires the best for the city and the people therein, he re-enters the cave with the hope of sharing his knowledge with those still in the chains of ignorance. Yet it is apparent that they will not be able to understand him or the foreign things he tells them about. Socrates asks, “Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward?” (517, a). This necessitates the telling of medicinal lies, a sort of weight hung upon truth to bring it down to the level of the cave dwellers. The Philosopher King’s love and pursuit of knowledge is what led him up and out of the cave, and those who remained were held there by the chief desires of their souls which will also compel them to kill the philosopher if they are able.
This type of lying is compatible with the Philosopher King’s nature and being a philosopher. His nature is that which loves knowledge, and as a philosopher, he wants to make the best decisions for the city’s best outcome. These lies are what Socrates describes as medicinal lies and are not deserving of hatred. They are told to prevent harm from coming on the city by the “[attempt], through madness or ignorance, to do something bad” (382, c). The Philosopher King’s knowledge of the good allows him to recognize these attempts to do something bad. In keeping with his own nature, he must try to prevent them from successfully perpetrating bad things through madness and ignorance.
In my estimation, if a man such as Socrates dreams of were to come about, one who truly knew the good, it would not be unjust for him to use medicinal lies to promote the health of the city and prevent bad decisions from being made. I think that if he did know what the good is, then he would be able to do what he is compelled to do with goodness. As the Philosopher King, he is compelled to rule justly, and the medicinal lies, or parables, or children’s tales, or whatever you may call them are necessary for the Philosopher King in his attempt to communicate the truth to the masses who are not philosophic.
Additionally, I believe that the greatest problem with Socrates’s system lies upon the basic premise that the knowledge of the good can be fully attained by careful study. These rulers are supposed to have intimate knowledge of the good, to be so well acquainted with what is good, that they can choose it and make laws which promote it in all circumstances. Socrates allows these philosophers fifty years of education to develop an understanding of goodness. Yet, I believe that if you were to ask a practitioner of medicine or math or astronomy who had been in the field for fifty years whether he had grasped the highest handholds of knowledge, he would be inclined to say he’d only begun to climb. I don’t think true knowledge of the good is at the top of a staircase which starts on earth; it appears to me that Socrates is constructing a tower of Babel. I tend to agree with George Bernard Shaw who, at a celebratory dinner in honor of Albert Einstein, raised up a toast and said, “Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating ten more.” And I reckon that if you gave a man two hundred years of schooling in Socrates’s education system, he would be inclined, after his centuries of learning, to confess that his finite mind and human hands still did not hold the keys to justice and her great mother, goodness.
Firestein, Stuart. “The Pursuit of Ignorance.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, Sept. 2014, http://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_firestein_the_pursuit_of_ignorance
Plato. Republic. Translated by G.M.A Grube, Revised by C.D.C Reeve, Hackett Publishing Company, 1992, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Wodehouse, P.G. Uneasy Money. Penguin Books, 1958, London, England.