Saturday, September 4, 2010

Democracy and the Philosopher-King.

Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, — nor the human race, as I believe, — and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day. Such was the thought, my dear Glaucon, which I would fain have uttered if it had not seemed too extravagant; for to be convinced that in no other State can there be happiness private or public is indeed a hard thing. 
— Plato, The Republic Book V (trans. Benjamin Jowett).

The comments on Tuesday's post brought to my mind the notion of the philosopher-king: one who gains power in order to effectively execute his philosophy, or who gains philosophy in order to justly execute his power. Philosophy in this sense means wisdom and knowledge about what is good for the state, good for the people, and (if you still believe in such things) good simpliciter.

Plato perhaps more than anyone else, and The Republic perhaps more than any other work, laid the foundations of democracy both in the classical world and in the modern one. Despite this, the way in which democracy is set up in most modern societies seems to me to be perversely opposed to the success of anyone who wants to actually become a philosopher-king. Politicians who stick to their ideology, take the time and expend the effort necessary to adequately inform themselves, and refuse to compromise (those who gain philosophy), are much less likely to be elected than those who bend themselves to the will of the Party or the whims of the public. Conversely, politicians who suck up to whoever funds their campaigns, base policy decisions on what will win them marginal seats, and do whatever it takes to actually get themselves elected (those who gain power), are much less likely to act responsibly and in the interests of the people with that power.

Does it have to be that way? I don't think so. But the implementation of a solution rests at present on it being in the interests of enough people who have enough power to make it happen. Even the independents who are holding the balance of power (in the sense of holding it over Gillard and Abbott's heads) are concerned first for stability, second for their electorates, and much less with the initially touted potential for parliamentary reform.

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