Do Democrats Dream of Philosopher-Kings?
When democracy and expertise collide.
Commitment to democracy usually means a pugnacious rejection of anything that smells even distantly “aristocratic.” But this commitment often involves a hidden admiration for what is not, strictly speaking, “of the people”. Modern democratic polities retain a faith in expert ability to rescue them from multivariable problems; embarrassingly, we also retain a dream of politicians who could knock enough heads together to sort out the mess.
For all their egalitarian promise, modern democracies still want governance defined by knowledge. But what they don’t want is to examine the relation of knowledge to authority, hierarchy, and the possibility that lack of knowledge might be anything other than, well, stupid.
These contradictions were on my mind as I read through Brian O’Boyle’s recent Jacobin piece on Plato’s allegedly pro-aristocratic, anti-democratic vibe. O’Boyle pins two millennia of anti-democratic thinking on Plato, arguing that his “uncompromising defense of human inequality has appealed to conservatives ever since.” He builds his case primarily on a somewhat thin description of Athenian history (since when is hoplite warfare with its expensive armor “democratizing”?) and of course on the political structures from Plato’s most famous book The Republic and the rulers Socrates imagines there, namely, the philosopher-kings.
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Like many others, O’Boyle’s critique depends heavily on philosopher of science Karl Popper’s arguments against Plato from the mid-1930s. Popper was explicit about his desire to see the “destruction of the awe of Great Names,” and Plato was his particular target, if almost by accident. But Popper’s views are passé. As seen in Jonny Thakkar’s recent book on Plato as critical theorist and Jacob Howland’s exploration of how Socrates may have failed to turn Plato’s older brother away from tyranny in Athens, the Plato we have is a much more interesting thinker.
Fortunately, there are plenty of substantive reasons why Plato should not be seen straightforwardly as an enemy of the left. For one thing, Plato’s work almost didn’t make it into the western canon specifically because of Socrates’ critiques of private property in the Republic. Many of his political arguments indicated to Renaissance rulers that Plato was strongly invested in overthrowing ordinary social hierarchy (the opposite of O’Boyle’s view).[i] No “aristocrat” of Socrates’ passes on private property to any natural child of his own; and in fact, the rulers are allowed no private property at all. Socrates’ vision of “hierarchy” involves turning aristocracy as usually practiced upside-down. What self-respecting aristocrat would put up with the suggestion of being paid for their governing labor only in gruel, as Socrates does at Republic 420a?[ii]
A truer Marxist critique of Socrates’ plans in the Republic targets his failure to demand “everything in common” for more than upper-class gruel-eaters—or for that matter, his failure to extend the abolition of the nuclear family to all. But those views are much less likely to cause mainstream indignation than the idea that Plato is “against democracy.” Our commitments include hierarchies Socrates has already partially abandoned.
What’s more, in an age of Trump and Victor Orban, we can now admit that Socrates’ warnings regarding the way that democracy can serve as a doorway for demagogues and tyrants is obviously prescient.
But Plato’s thoughts about what destabilizes democracies are not even the biggest contribution he can make to our present thinking. The real trouble with the O’Boyle critique is that he fails to see The Republic is about an issue that applies equally to political thinkers of any stripe, democrat and aristocrat alike: to what extent is the political community dependent on knowledge?
For Socrates, the real fault-line of politics is the dependence—and the desire for dependence—on the knowledgeable expert. Whether it’s theorists or practical men, strong men or democrats, there’s always still dependence. Someone somewhere makes some claim to know and people climb on board; even the strong man has to insist that strength is good. But we usually avoid interrogating what knowledge is in the first place. Socrates insists that the material and human conditions of how knowledge comes about in a community will drive resulting political structures. The “philosopher-king” thought-experiment is set up to uncover both our dependence and avoidance.
Socrates begins his argument with a relatively simple proposition: If you want to know where to build the harbor, who do you ask? Presumably someone who knows about boats and their demands. If you need directions to get your boat to the next town, you do not ask the tallest, best-looking person, but rather you ask a navigator. If you are sick, do you get advice from the person on the street, or from a doctor? We know very well what we’d prefer, and so far, so good for the idea of knowledge.
But to reframe Socrates’ claim in more familiar terms, if you want to know what the population thinks, you go to someone who is a pollster — right? But then, to what extent is our politics dependent on “expertise,” whether in the form of empirical analysis or the specialization of policy wonks? In the post-war period, we have found real comfort in an idea of governance that sees itself as simply implementing expertise as neutral. Michael Sandel pointed out that during Obama’s presidency, he used the word “smart”—to refer to everything from freeways to weapons—more than 900 times.
Socrates’ plan for philosopher-kings takes us past this comforting neutrality. Rulers, Socrates thinks, should not only know about boats if the local economy happens to depend upon it. They should know about much more fundamental questions, namely, what justice itself is. This is a seemingly abstract question, but it becomes practical very quickly. Is private property just, for example? It’s not enough to know how we might win a war. We have to know what war is and what it’s for, and whether it is compatible with justice—or not. If the rulers lack this final knowledge of justice, Socrates argues, there will be no end to the misery of the human race.
Socrates’ kings are fixated on ancient geometry rather than statistics, and metaphysical insight rather than sociology. But they rule because they have the knowledge that will bring about more justice. Socrates describes in its fullest form the kind of rule we argue for every day.
It’s easier to be suspicious of a philosopher-king than a meritocrat. But the suspicion that Socrates’s thought-experiment brings out is its most valuable feature. No human being looks qualified, actually, to be a philosopher-king. What human being, with all their limitations, could know justice itself? But if that’s true, we are going to need to be suspicious of our wonks and technocrats too.
For instance, does our need for knowledgable political leaders or advisors justify a meritocracy of leadership over and above the democratic process and its ethos? Do the benefits of meritocracy justify rule by tyrannical meritocrats? Deferring to the knowledgeable expert is one of our society’s deepest temptations, and we are lulled into accepting rule when we thought we were only getting advice.
In fact, our desire for the competent technocrat is the respectability-politics version of the desire for the philosopher-king, tyranny in business casual. The philosopher-king looks obviously unjust because his too-great authority sits right there in the name. But every time we cede intellectual authority to technocratic sleight-of-hand, we pay fealty again to our dressed-up version of the philosopher’s tyranny, while forgetting that any human knowledge will remain all too human.
So how do we get past this paradox, our need for knowledge in politics and our weakness for enshrining imperfect versions of it? The human answer lies in the example of Socrates’ life: not the historical version, but Plato’s version, the Socrates who knows only one thing—that he knows nothing at all, and the humility born of this painful realization. The typical critique of the Republic, that Plato prefers know-it-all hierarchy to the rule of the many, misses this absolutely essential point. The center of the Republic is not Socrates’ hope for an ideal polity structured around impossibly perfect knowledge, but Socrates himself, citizen and defender of democratic Athens, who committed himself to living and dying in the consciousness of no knowledge at all. Socrates allowed himself to imagine the philosopher-king possessing what he sought all his life without success. But his avowal of ignorance, and his choice to take no money for his pursuit of better knowledge, placed him solidly at the bottom of the meritocratic heap. A knowledge of your own ignorance ought to be more politically trustworthy than the technocrat’s impossible claims.
If we’re being honest, exactly how much more do we know than Socrates? We still go to war without knowledge of justice. And even if we sat down and raised someone from birth with the best education in justice possible, the perfect meritocrat at the top of the heap, we know in our hearts he still might not make the best decisions about war. If Socrates’ experimental perfection isn’t going to work, how much less will ours? Only the paradoxical courage to admit the things we don’t know for sure about politics can allow us to avoid the desire for knowledge-tyrants. Instead of farming out our ignorance to someone else, we have to be willing to exist as someone other than the person with all the data at their fingertips.
But in our attempt to avoid the tragedies of the 20th century, and the disasters of the world wars, it’s precisely this Socratic unknowing that we’ve found difficult to embrace. We’ve turned toward the love of policy in part because it is easier. The world can appear relatively controllable, and we can present neutral data to clarify the best policies to put in place.
And so the irony continues: we blame Plato for the tyranny we continue to bring upon ourselves. Popper’s attempt to destroy Plato’s influence on political thinking couldn’t have happened at a worse time, because Plato helps us precisely with the political foibles we most want to avoid in the attempt to not be Nazis. In our day and age, it’s only by understanding the paradoxical failure of the philosopher-king that we can forge a better path to what shared rule by imperfect humans and imperfect knowledge can look like.
[i] James Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance, vol. 1, 66.
[ii] Republic 420a, 543b.
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