Plato's Philosopher King: A Potent Object of Hope?

Essay, 2016
18 Pages, Grade: A+


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Philosopher King

III. The Paradox

IV. Contra Paradox

V. In Support of the Paradox

VI. Conclusion


Michael Ernest Sweet

Johns Hopkins University 25 April 2016

Plato's Philosopher-King: A Potent Object of Hope

I. Introduction

Plato lays out some rather troubling conditions leading up to his introduction of the philosopher-king. Troubling, that is, if we are to take the idea of the philosopher-king as a true identity, a pragmatic possibility, rather than merely a kind of tension between man and political life.

Much of the Socratic dialog in the Republic is never fully explained in any kind of finite way. Thus, lot of Plato's thought is quite fairly left open to interpretation. We come to see that it is no exception when we tackle the concept of the philosopher-king. One of those troubling aspects Plato places in our way en route to the notion of the philosopher-king is a conception of justice as each man doing what is he is best suited to do. That is, a spontaneous ordering of crafts arises early in the Republic, namely in the First city in speech, whereby each man 'minds his own business' and carries on with his craft. This, for Socrates, seems to portray a relatively complete account of the just city, fundamentally a city of experts at work in their respective domains.[1] Thus, already Socrates is building paradoxical roadblocks to our acceptance of the idea of the philosopher-king; how can one man do two jobs? The paradoxical flavor only builds in intensity from here.

My essential point in this paper will be to show that not only should we not get lost in trying to resolve the paradox of the philosopher-king, but that we should also not take the concept literally, that is, as an identity, but rather as a tension. In other words, the philosopher-king is a clever and deliberately paradoxical rhetorical device meant to guide our thinking back onto ourselves. Remember, the project of the Republic is to uncover the nature of justice, not to found a perfect political regime. This point seems lost on many who obsess over the practical impossibility of the philosopher-king while, simultaneously, passing over its very possible use as a potent object of hope.

II. The Philosopher King

Plato's Socrates constructs three cities in speech. The first city, which might be seen as a "spontaneous ordering of crafts”[2] is a city where each person does what they do best - the principle of specialization. A component Socrates will take and add to the subsequent cities in speech. Glaucon refers to this first city as a city of pigs, as it lacks the luxuries that humans, as opposed to animals, characteristically desire and subsequently have, in reality. Glaucon says to Socrates, “You seem to make these men have their feast without relishes."[3] In other words, Glaucon is not happy to examine the first city in speech for the definition of justice because it lacks human luxuries. It is too simple of a city. It is important to take note of a few things about this first city in speech prior to moving forward: a) it seems to lack any political or ruling element[4] and; b) Socrates describes it as the true and healthy city saying, "Now, the true city is in my opinion the one we just described - a healthy city, as it were"[5] and; c) this city is harmonious and orderly.

It is Glaucon then, and his insistence, that we move to the second city in speech, the "feverish city". As Steinberger points out, "At the core of The Republic, then, is an effort to purge [in thought] this feverish city of its excesses, to restructure it to approximate the health and orderliness of the first city. The result of this effort, of course, is the concept of the Kallipolis itself, as outlined especially in books 3-5."[6] I am in agreement with Steinberger's claim thus far. Where he falters is in suggesting that the philosopher-king is only introduced in the third and final city in speech in an effort to apply it (the kallipolis) to existing cities. Thus, his claim is that the second city in speech is able to contain the "fever" by way of the guardians and their rule. Here, I agree with Duncan, "...the just city and the kallipolis are not fundamental equivalents but rather two different kinds of communities - one artificial and one natural."[7] That is to say, containing the “fever" in the second city in speech is not the same as founding a just city. Hence, Socrates introduces the idea of the philosopher-king to try and bring the second city in speech not simply into the realm of existence, but to make it just. The second city in speech has introduced human "luxuries" (which thereby cause "fever"] and also contains a political element [there are guardians) but it is still not a just city. Therefore, Steinberger's claim that the philosopher-king is superfluous is unfounded, as he is clearly forgetting the central focus of The Republic’s project. Its project is not to merely to found a city that functions politically, but rather one that functions justly. Hence, Socrates introduces the philosopher-king in an attempt to add justice into the "feverish" city that Glaucon has insisted he engender. Duncan adds, "The guardians [in the second city] can rule over the political approximation of the just city but they cannot make it just."[8]

III. The Paradox

In order to bring about a just city, we need to find a ruler (king) who is also a philosopher - the philosopher-king. Socrates insists that those who will rule best, and thus bring about justice in the city of speech, will be those who least like to rule, as they will not seek the political power and honors of ruling. "But the truth is surely this," says Socrates, "that city in which those who are going to rule are least eager to rule is necessarily governed in the way that is best and freest from faction...” and later, "If you discover a life better than ruling for those who are going to rule, it is possible that your well-governed city will come into being."[9] We should note here that the philosopher-king would be fulfilling the principle of specialization while ruling, as they are best suited to do this task given that they have experienced the Form of the Good (been outside of Plato's cave and experienced true reality). Despite this, there is a paradoxical nature to the discussion that unfolds in the Republic from 519b to 521b. Socrates intends for the philosopher who has experienced the Form of the Good to return to the cave (the realm of the people] and rule. He even suggests that we might compel such philosophers to do this, as they the best suited for political rule. Glaucon objects and proposes that we may be doing them an injustice by compelling them to leave a life that is obviously better for them - the life of contemplation (519e).[10] Hence, the paradox may be expressed in the following seemingly inconsistent propositions[11]:

1. Justice always benefits the possessor.
2. Philosophers act justly when they consent to rule.
3. Ruling benefits philosopher-rulers (from (1] and (2]].
4. Philosophers correctly judge that ruling is a sub-optimal activity for them.
5. Ruling does not benefit philosopher-rulers (from (4)].

From this paradoxical discussion it would seem as though we are creating an injustice by demanding that the philosopher rule, rather than pursue a life of contemplation. As a result a plethora of academic writings have come about that try to resolve the problem. I assert that these writings have, for the most part, lost sight of the forest for the trees, but before getting into my theory, let's take a look at what some of them propose in their various attempts to resolve the paradoxical nature of this famous passage of The Republic.


[1] Plato, and Allan Bloom. The Republic. New York: Basic Books, 1968, 370c.

[2] Steinberger, Peter J. "Ruling: Guardians and Philosopher-Kings." The American Political Science Review 83, no. 4 (1989]: 1207-225. (doi:10.2307/1961665), 1210.

[3] Plato, and Allan Bloom. The Republic. New York: Basic Books, 1968, 372c.

[4] Steinberger, "Ruling", 1210.

[5] Plato and Bloom, The Republic, 372e.

[6] Steinberger, "Ruling", 1210.

[7] Duncan, Christopher M., and Peter J. Steinberger. "Plato's Paradox? Guardians and Philosopher-Kings." The American Political Science Review 84, no. 4 (1990): 1317­322. (doi:10.2307/1963266), 1319.

[8] Duncan and Steinberger, "Plato's Paradox?", 1319.

[9] Plato and Bloom, The Republic, 521a.

[10] A fuller account of this exchange will follow.

[11] McKeen, Catherine. The Problems of Philosophical Rule in Plato's Republic and a Solution. Accessed May 2,2016. o_s_Republic_and_A_Solution.

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Plato's Philosopher King: A Potent Object of Hope?
Johns Hopkins University
Western Political Philosophy
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Plato, Plato's Republic, Philosopher King
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Michael Ernest Sweet (Author), 2016, Plato's Philosopher King: A Potent Object of Hope?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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