This semester, I am teaching a course on the classics of Western political theory. We start with Plato’s Republic, which is at once unavoidable and yet also kind of wasted on first-year students. The rhetoric is simply too complex to process, even for advanced readers, as it is very difficult to gauge the status of any of the claims on the table (does Socrates, and presumably therefore Plato, “really” embrace this view, or are they just adopting it for the sake of argument?) on a first or second reading. The result, which is especially understandable given the political context of the class, is that the discussion tends to take the ideal city Socrates outlines as a real political proposal that we should assess as such. And unsurprisingly, they don’t seem to think it will probably work out as intended.
I don’t presume to have the last word on this text, but as someone who has lived with it a little bit longer, I would point out that Socrates himself doesn’t believe it will work out, either. The problem will not be some contingent failing, but the very mechanism that was supposed to guarantee the city’s perpetual self-reproduction — namely, the managed breeding system that would make sure that everyone is a good fit for their personal station in life. This is of course the most difficult part of his proposal for modern readers to take, because we have the historical experience of Nazism and other attempts at eugenics to look back on. Without putting forward Plato’s proposal as realistic or desirable, however, I would point out that it is at least different from eugenics in that it is not trying to optimize everyone, nor is it eliminationist in its implications. All classes of people are necessary to the city, and Socrates believes it will be most harmonious if everyone is able to identify with their social role as a good match to their native abilities — which is at least a defensible aspiration, in my opinion. Yet at the very moment he presents this aspiration, Socrates is already undermining it by pointing out that sometimes people who are a better fit for an adjacent class will be born to parents of a higher or lower class — in other words, there is an aleatoric element in physical and social reproduction that Socrates takes to be ineliminable. And, again, it will be this aleatoric element that winds up undercutting the social system Socrates is laying out, because people will either mismanage the breeding system or refuse to go along with the (upward or downward) social mobility it implies for some individuals.
Why even put this system forward, then? I believe that it represents less a serious proposal than a brutal gesture, indicating that nothing is to be taken for granted in this political program. Everything is subject to deliberation and evaluation, even what seems most “natural.” This leads to a related moment of radicalism, this time one that modern readers view favorably: his proclamation of the fundamental equality of men and women. The only difference he can discern between men and women is the physical one relating to biological reproduction, and that does not count when we are thinking of souls. Although Socrates anticipates that women will not perform as well as men on average, he still finds no reason to view them as having a different kind of soul requiring a different education. So once again, what the Greek mind — including Plato’s own pupil Aristotle — would take as obvious and “natural” is held up to reasoned deliberation and found wanting, despite Socrates’s own evident embarrassment at the results.
This is the radicalism that I find refreshing in Plato’s Republic — the refusal to concede any point in advance to “nature,” custom, habit, or common sense. Even kinship structures, even the very act of intercourse itself, is subject to reasoned deliberation. If we take this literally as a political blueprint, it is a recipe for totalitarianism. I don’t think we are meant to take it literally, though, and my evidence is that Socrates is constantly trying to direct his interlocutors’ attention away from the logistics of his political model and toward the questions of virtue that are his real concern. And the way he does this is not by unilaterally declaring certain topics out of bounds but by meeting them where they are and trying to guide them along his desired path the best he can. Hence, when his interlocutors reject his initial vision of a harmonious self-sufficient city (which I typically designate as the “Amish City” in class) as too austere to be livable, he grants them the need for luxuries and the military strength that will require — and never brings up the Amish City again, even when deriving all “lesser” political forms from his supposedly “ideal” city. And interestingly, it is this military structure that ultimately necessitates the breeding program — which proves to be just as much of a distraction and a scandal to his interlocutors as it is to most modern readers.
In the same section (Book V) in which he indulges all their purient curiosity about the sexual practices of the Guardians, Socrates introduces the concept of the Philosopher King. Conceding that it is very hard to imagine bringing such a city about in practice, Socrates suggests a more workable reform, albeit one that still has him bracing for “a wave of laughter that will simply drown me in ridicule and contempt”:
Until philosophers rule as kinggs or those how are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race. (473c-d, Grube translation, ed. Reeve)
This invocation of the philosopher-king serves as an opening, once again, to redirect the discussion to Socrates’s true interest, which is the nature of philosophy. And in Book VI, we get the most famous passage in Plato’s body of work, and possibly in Western philosophy as a whole, the Allegory of the Cave. I won’t belabor this very well-known story, in which an individual who has been trained all their life to think in terms of artificial shadows and empty words is slowly introduced to the reality of things — an experience that, when they return to tell their former comrades of what they have learned, leaves them looking like a fool at best and a dangerous subversive at worst. (Sometimes I suggest to students that they have gone away to college and come back on break for the first time.)
The Allegory of the Cave is meant to give us a way of thinking about the Forms, which are of course the best-known and most controversial aspect of Plato’s philosophy. I will grant that it seems as though Plato is picturing some kind of mystical experience that brings one into contact with real entities that somehow correspond to our abstract evaluative concepts (e.g., goodness, justice, beauty), which is hardly credible for most modern readers. There are counter-readings — such as Agamben’s view that Plato is really inviting us to experience the sheer relationship between language and the world — but the conventional view seems difficult to fully disprove. What I find potentially useable, though, in Plato’s definition of the philosopher as someone who has seen the Forms is precisely the visible aspect, meaning the non-discursive aspect.
What the philosopher experiences is not some final, absolutely unquestionable definition of the term “justice” or “goodness” or whatever, much less some heaven-sent blueprint for how society should be. Instead, you gain the ability to know it when you see it — and to some extent, you can see it everywhere. Nothing in our world is identical to the Form in the sense of being the fullness of what can and ought to be, but neither is anything completely separated from it. When we see something as “beautiful,” we aren’t seeing Beauty Itself, but neither are we wrong about it being beautiful. And when Socrates derives all of the other possible political regimes from his “ideal” state (which, again, isn’t even his personal ideal, i.e., the Amish City), one implication is that all political institutions are somehow connected to that ideal of justice — even the regimes, like tyranny, that tragically fall short of that ideal. No one sets out to achieve a goal without some sense that they’re doing something good, nor does anyone set out to rule without some sense that they have a right to do so, that there is some kind of justice in what they are doing. The tyrant’s sense of what goodness and justice mean is of course extremely attenuated, but it is still there.
That is why the insertion of a philosopher king would be beneficial regardless of the regime or circumstances — because someone who had learned how to dissociate the ideal of justice from any actual-existing arrangement while simultaneously being able to discern the aspiration of every actual-existing arrangement to justice will be best equipped to effect workable change. Note that Socrates does not anticipate that his “ideal” city will be achievable at one stroke. Not everything will be changeable on a practical level, but on the level of principle, nothing will be beyond question, nothing will be taken for granted as legitimate or desirable. “Sacred cows” may be preserved for practical reasons, but the philosopher king will sacrifice nothing meaningful or important to those sacred cows for the sake of preserving them. The people in the land of the shadows must be met where they are, but their shadows must never be taken for the reality. And the ultimate goal will be to produce better institutions that will ultimately help to produce better people — meaning people more open to transformation through reasoned deliberation.
How does this more modest conception of the philosopher king relate to our contemporary political experience? I would suggest that, while we can’t hope for the benevolent dictator who will transform society by fiat, we should keep a look out for political leaders who do not believe in the system. The true “realist” is not the one who takes existing institutions and power relations as a brute fact, but one who sees at once their groundlessness and their aspiration — who knows there is something more, something better, than what we have, who is not seduced by the shadows and empty pieties that characterize so much of public life under every regime. Only someone who objects in principle to the system as it is can be trusted to press up to the point of real constraints, rather than habitual norms, and thereby achieve the full extent of what is really possible in any given time and place.