When democracy and expertise collide.
I've always taken the Platonic philosopher-king to be the prototype for the Leftist intellectual who believes his/her mastery of certain texts and infallible roadmap to Justice and Equality (assuming they're not the same thing) are the credential that provides their right to rule unimpeded.
"Having determined that the many have no knowledge of true being, and have no clear patterns in their minds of justice, beauty, truth, and that philosophers have such patterns, we have now to ask whether they or the many shall be rulers in our State." Couldn't this describe everyone from Saint-Simon to Rousseau to Marx and Bakunin etc?
"....they are of a social, gracious disposition, equally free from cowardice and arrogance."
The Socratic philosopher-king reminds me most of the Taoist sage who rules only reluctantly and is trusted because he has no interest in power, no belief in Good or Evil and practices the virtues of No self, No name, No merit, that is more or less: utter humility, disinterested clarity and radical acceptance.
And I think this helps explain why there have been no philosopher-kings in the modern West, and maybe none at all except somewhere deep in the mists of history: the people who put themselves forward as prophets of a new dispensation (maybe by necessity) are always the opposite of a Socrates or a Lao Tzu: arrogant and imperious (would anyone describe Marx or Rousseau as having a "gracious disposition" LOL), and inevitably treating humans as interchangeable meat puppets who need to be remolded or even eliminated if it will bring their dream world into being.
It's always fun to play with Platonic forms and other air castles, and always fun to imagine some human so gifted he/she will solve all the problems of humans and our societies, but as the 20th century "engaged intellectual" proves, once someone gets too high on their own supply of idealism, there's usually some cataclysm or atrocity up ahead.
Really loved the piece and have subscribed to your substack Mary! I thought I'd take up this claim
"No human being looks qualified, actually, to be a philosopher-king. What human being, with all their limitations, could know justice itself?" I'd tend to argue the inverse. I think everyone has a sense of justice and thinks instinctively about what is 'just'. Some arguments may be more technical than others but all citizens feel what this is in an acute sense.
I’ve always found Aristotle a lot more helpful than Plato. Whether Plato’s Socrates is right or wrong, his dialogues, when I read them in college, seemed to consist too much of people agreeing with Socrates. Too much hero worship for my liking. And while the man deserves to be remembered as a martyr for intellectual freedom, he seems to have been a pain in the ass to deal with. It’s easier to just read Aristotle’s opinions, and then agree or disagree as you see fit.