Plato on US Politics

A 2,400 Year-old Lesson We Should Learn

Everybody knows philosophy is useless. Philosophers have their heads in the clouds having nothing to do with events on the ground. Parents of university students want their kids to earn MD, JD, or MBA degrees, not a philosophy degree.

I have been teaching philosophy to undergraduates for over forty years. Current events call me back to Plato, the preeminent philosopher of the Western tradition, who lived in the fourth century BCE in Greece. Near the end of his most famous work, his Republic –well beyond where my students (and most readers) stop reading– Plato offers insights that would serve us well were we to take them seriously.

I’m referring to Plato’s description of five types of government: 1) rule by the best, 2) rule by those reputed to be best, 3) rule by the wealthy, 4) rule by democracy, and 5) rule by tyranny. He tells us that each type of government ultimately degenerates into the next, with each failure due to the very characteristics that define the failing government.

The most desirable government, ‘rule by the best,’ requires the most competent leader available, one with a strong sense of fairness and the good judgment needed to implement it. The best are hard to find but clearly serve the advantage of the governed, not themselves.

Unfortunately every government decays with time, even the best. The best leader gets old and dies. Historically it is not uncommon for the leader’s son to inherit rule, though the right to rule sometimes falls to a daughter, an assistant or a friend of the deceased ‘best’ ruler.

Rule by the best degenerates into rule by reputation. The new leader’s authority comes not by competence, fairness and good judgment, but by having been related to or associated with the best.

Of course rule by reputation deteriorates as well, this time into rule by the wealthy. How? Someone with enough money comes along and creates a reputation by purchase, that is, by buying and gaining influence simply by using wealth.

Rule by wealth deteriorates as well. The rich neglect the poor, the wealth gap widens and common people finally rise up against the wealthy few in charge. Democracy –rule by the people— emerges.

Plato tells us that democracy is the most beautiful form of government. Anyone can rule if elected and those who want no part of rule can avoid it. Freedom is the hallmark of democracy, and freedom is its undoing as well. Demagogues talk their way into office by convincing enough voters. They become autocratic tyrants by abusing their power, helping their friends and hurting their enemies, and by abandoning anyone who dares to disagree with them, even former friends and allies.

Descending from the clouds to the ground, we can apply Plato’s insights to our current situation. Who would suggest that our leadership is the best we can get out of three hundred and thirty million people? Our leader isn’t even second best, having no relationship to a former leader who may have been better. Third best? Maybe, given our leader’s alleged wealth. But the freedom of using wealth to secure power in our democracy has led to its decline. Democracy and its freedoms have descended into autocratic rule, that is, into tyranny. We have completed the descent. We can sink no lower.

Maybe philosophy isn’t useless after all.