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?
- The Philosopher in the City (intotheplaceinbetween.wordpress.com)
- Plato on Philosopher Kings (manticorebooks.net)
- A New Social Order (camillephillipsportfolio.wordpress.com)