Saturday, November 29, 2008

Philosopher Kings

The suggestion is often made, apparently seriously, that the best form of government would be that by philosopher kings, or it is expressed as ‘least bad’, which seems to be the same thing; a reduced, or weak version says that it would be better than some specified form of government, or better than some perceived state of affairs is held to be. It is fairly clear that this notion is complete and utter nonsense.

The reference is to Plato’s Republic, in which he suggests that if philosophers would be kings, or kings would philosophize, the state would be a much better place. In fact, he says in book VII that it is necessary in order for his ideal city-state to come into being. And there we begin to spot the flaw.

Firstly, does anyone have any idea what a philosopher-king would look like? Or how we could go about finding a few of them? Or how we could interest them in politics, which is almost entirely the preserve of the personally and intellectually inadequate? (The world knows almost nothing of its greatest thinkers. What the press, and, presumably, the public, seems to consider public intellectuals shows that they have no conception of what an intellectual actually is. But that is another matter. And another rant) And, having agreed on what a philosopher-king is, and found enough to make a respectable oligarchy, and persuaded them to take an interest in governing their fellow-man, how do we propose to persuade their, and our, fellow-man to let himself be governed by such people? The practical difficulties are insurmountable, and there is therefore little point in considering it as a practical possibility, rather than an intellectual game.

But the point is that it does not stop people proposing such a thing as though it could in fact be done. And it is a very good thing that it can’t be done, because it would undoubtedly be the end of all freedom, almost certainly it would be the end of the very concept of freedom. And probably the end of wealth and happiness, too. The destruction of what it means to be human, or at least of what makes it worth being human. And all, ultimately, so that an abstract entity we call the state can be seen to function more efficiently.

So yes, it’s a good thing it’s impossible. Unfortunately, those who get into positions of power tend to think that they are that elusive creature, the philosopher-king, and to act accordingly. This is a very bad thing, indeed. Which is why it is absolutely vital that we can argue with them, criticise them, call them names, and kick them out when we have had enough of them. The idea of the members of government and of parliament as servants of the people has always been utopian, since they will never think of themselves that way, but the people should treat them like servants anyway, to remind them of what they should be.

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