Plato’s Philosopher King

Decentralized Socrates (Part 6)

Head of King Amasis, reworked for a non-royal individual 570–526 B.C

Previous post.

The characteristics of the Platonic philosopher-king are as follows.

  • The system of “philosopher-king” was borrowed from the Pythagorean school of thought by Plato, shocked by the execution of Socrates.
  • The idea that the being with the slightest will to power should be made the supreme authority (philosopher-king).
  • Plato’s analysis suggests that the cause of the execution of Socrates was out of control for administering democracy.
  • To prevent democracy from running amok, the “few whose souls are free from their bodies” must rule over the “many whose souls are enslaved to their bodies.
  • The person whose soul is least enslaved to the body is the philosopher.
  • A concrete example of a philosopher-king is “Socrates himself.”

Summarized in this way, it is a very naive idea. However, Plato’s analysis that the reason for the execution of Socrates was that “democracy tends to shift to a presumptive dictatorship and cannot be stopped from running amok” is probably actual even today, with the constant fluctuation of democracy and totalitarianism.

What seems strange is that the “philosopher-king” appears as a solution to this situation. What does the “control of the body by the soul” have to do with politics?

In “Legend of the Galactic Heroes,” a space opera and anime series, Yang Wen-Li is a Napoleonic tactical genius who wishes to become a mere historian. He is so successful in the war that he is gradually forced to become empowered, even though he does not want to. Napoleon not wanting power. Such is the portrait of Plato’s philosopher-king. He is not interested in possessing power. This absence of will to power is why he is worthy of being entrusted with power.

Let us paraphrase Yang’s character in a way that is closer to the characteristics of the Platonic philosopher-king. Jan overcomes fleshly desires (like lust for power) with the strength of his intellectual “soul” (like the investigation of history). Such beings are the most unlikely to have the degree of seeking “power for power’s sake” as demagogues do.

They are scarce, and even if increased in number, the “ mastery of the body by the soul” will only diminish. Therefore, the “tyranny of a single ideal philosopher-king” is the political system that is least tainted by the desire for power. This system can prevent rampant politics by the masses (which led to the execution of Socrates). He, who does not seek power for power’s sake, is good at suppressing it. The tyranny of a single philosopher-king is consequently superior to democracy.

Even after fleshing it out in this way, the naivete remains. Who will choose the philosopher-king in principle? If the philosopher-king is found, is there any guarantee he will act the way he is supposed to? Isn’t it possible for the philosopher-king to be transformed after he gains power?

Plato has a model for the philosopher-king. Socrates who was executed under democratic rule. The character and behavior of Socrates motivate Plato’s proposal. A tyranny of “men like Socrates” is better than a democracy. Yes, it is naive. Nevertheless, if we replace it with “A good tyrant’s rule is better than a mobocracy,” wouldn’t that still get much agreement today? Decisiveness and innovation by a good manager are better than a bureaucratic organization bound by procedures, isn’t it?

Incidentally, Jan Wen-Li, whom I mentioned above, believed that “even the worst democracy is better than the best tyranny. Socrates himself, a man with no will to power similar to Yang Wen-Li’s, how would he react to the suggestion that “Socrates should become the philosopher-king”? Or, if Socrates were to resurrect and Plato begged him to rule as a tyrant, would he undertake the task?

In the next entry, we will focus on that.

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