Why should the philosopher talk to the political man and why should the political man listen?

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Famously, Plato solved this problem in the Republic by inventing the idea of the philosopher-king. The two roles, political and philosophical, were combined. His solution, though, showed the deeper problem that a philosopher, like Socrates, poses for any city. If a philosopher poses a problem for the city, he then poses it for the political man. The philosopher embodies the pure individual who does not need the city except in a basic or physical sense. The philosopher can think for himself and he does not need the city or political society to give him his opinions. The philosopher pursues excellence and virtue which are not always the political man’s highest ambition. The philosopher pursues what is true by nature. As someone who pursues wisdom and not the city’s political good, he presents a fundamental or existential challenge to the city. The city has its opinions and it does not want them challenged. His work, his existence, may indicate the city is flawed because its cherished beliefs are flawed illusions to the extent that they lack what the philosopher seeks. In other words, the city gives an opinion while the philosopher seeks knowledge and wisdom and questions the city’s opinions.
The political man already knows what to do?
The philosopher has no need for political men or for their conversation. He may partake in politics to protect philosophy, but he has no desire to be involved in political events or groups. Plato says that the political life held no interest because the philosopher is interested in the eternal things. They are things worth understanding. Political fame or success is ephemeral and un-rewarding when compared to the mysteries of philosophical life. Political life pales in comparison. By contrast, the political man has no need of the philosopher because he knows what is needed. His political group, his city, tells him what he needs to know and do. His political life is clearly set out by the limits of the city and what he believes to be best for the city simply. Any time the politician spends to listen to a philosopher, who asks questions about whether the city’s way is the best way to live or work, distracts at best or undermines at worst. A politician will not want to listen to the philosopher.
Philosophy or politics is that a choice in a democracy?
Once we become aware of this dilemma we have to ask ourselves are we political or are we philosophical? Even that question, though presupposes a philosophical approach. A political man will never ask himself if he is philosophical. If philosophy supports the political, through political philosophy, it takes on a different role. However, we remain uncertain whether that is the best way to live. If a philosopher recognizes the dangers and does enough to protect him he may leave the political realm open to decay. The philosopher and the political man may, out of necessity, talk because the city cannot defend itself philosophically. The question then is what is that necessity? Who identifies it first, the philosopher or the political man? If the necessity is a philosophical “threat” can the philosopher convince the political man to change the political regime? Will the political man simply be unable to accept the philosophical advice because it is not political, or rather because it is too political because it recommends something that runs counter to what the political man believes?
Will we have the happy coincidence of a philosopher and a statesman?
In a constitutional democracy, the answer seems to be the constitution will decide. The laws act as a substitute for the philosopher king. They express reason spoken politically. However, the question is only delayed. A constitution cannot be written to address the exception. A constitution cannot defend itself from threats that exist beyond it. When that occurs and the philosopher recognises the solution, which may require the regime to change itself, will a statesman be found to listen? Is democracy’s fate now left in chance encounter of a statesman and a philosopher? Perhaps what we have seen is democracy’s greatest success. The system has worked so well that it requires neither philosophers or statesmen. If there are philosophers who remain who can identify the political and can provide a political philosophical answer, what can a statesman do should one be available to implement the answer?


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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3 Responses to Why should the philosopher talk to the political man and why should the political man listen?

  1. Melek-Taus says:

    Reblogged this on Manticore Press.

  2. Le philosophe rend compte de ce qui se passe à la jonction de la Nature et des connaissances qu’a le vivant, qu’ont les Hommes, de cette Nature. Il en rend compte de différentes façons, certaines opposées, et cela produit de la connaissance théorique. L’Homme politique a une connaissance pratique. Il trouve de manière empirique les moyens pour établir, maintenir, une communauté humaine. L’Homme politique introduit ainsi dans la Nature, comme le fait tout technicien, des connaissances humaines et reçoit en échange de cette Nature, des réactions, de l’information. Dans l’un et l’autre cas chacun modélise de manière complexe et crée des super-modèles qui ne sont pas les mêmes et qui n’ont pas les mêmes trajectoires. On peut supposer que le philosophe, qui traite aussi du passé, construit un super-modèle plus générique que celui du politique plus sensible aux expressions locales de la Nature. Alors il peut comparer le super-modèle politique au sien comme on compare un exemplaire à sa source, une trajectoire à une autre. Cela ne soumet pas l’action du politique à la théorie du philosophe. Un bon exemple serait la psycho-histoire décrite par Asimov dans le Cycle Fondation qui est un modèle de réaction chimique métastable auto-entretenue. Ce serait le modèle du philosophe. L’action politique reviendrait à ne pas faire sortir la société de cet état métastable, de ne pas interrompre le mécanisme d’alimentation quelles que soient les formes politiques nécessaires pour cela. L’action du philosophe serait de prévoir le moment où le modèle ne fonctionnera plus pour que soient déjà préparés les ressources nécessaires pour générer un nouveau modèle. (If you wish, I can translate this text).

    • Michel,
      Thanks for the comment and my apologies for the delay in responding. I am not sure if the distinction is simply theoretical and practical. I agreed that the role of nature is something the philosopher has a deeper concern than the political man to the extent that the philosopher seeks the nature of things, especially political things. By contrast, the political man takes these, for the most part, for granted. To the extent that they seek to understand the nature of political things, it is for political purposes.

      If the philosopher serves the political purposes have they ceased to be a philosopher and become a political man? In that question, I think we find the issue of nature playing a key role becuase nature is by default, I would suggest, apolitical, even though it provides a clear direction, through natural law and natural right, what is best in accordance with nature. As such, though, I do not believe it is political in the sense that the political man is political.

      If I have misunderstood your intent, please clarify, as I said my French is rather rusty.


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