All entries for April 2010
April 01, 2010
Vote Plato! Plato’s Government of Philosophers
A UK general election is looming and, for those of us who are UK voters, politicians are getting increasingly desperate for our votes … and I shall also be asking you for your votes, for at the end of this blog I shall be inviting you all to vote for your own alternative Cabinet of Philosopher Rulers. But first: who would Plato vote for if he were around today?
That’s easy: he wouldn’t vote because he didn’t believe in democracy. Certainly not the participatory democracy (if you were an Athenian male citizen) of the Athens of his day (which had, of course, put his beloved Socrates to death), and his arguments against democracy suggest he would have been no more sympathetic to our representative version. His arguments, in brief, are these:
1) The majority of people are characterized by their non-rational appetites (for e.g food, drink, sex, material possessions and the money needed to acquire them). If left to their own devices and not guided by others, they will not only be characterized by such appetites, they will be ruled by them. As democracies are constitutions where the majority rule, then democracies will be constitutions at the mercy of non-rational appetites. The reason this matters so much becomes clearer when viewed in the context of Plato’s psychology (as expressed in the Republic). Our individual psyche is comprised of three parts: as well as the appetitive part, there is a rational part which desires truth and reality, and a spirited part which cares about worldly ambition and success. Both our individual well-being and our virtue depend on our being ruled by our rational part.
2) Because of the above, Plato also believes that democracies can be a breeding ground for tyranny. Democracies can be swayed by the oratory of popular demagogues and not realise when the demagogues start to turn themselves into tyrants who will actually undermine democratic freedoms. Furthermore, one can even view democracies themselves as a kind of tyranny – the tyranny of the irrational majority over the rational minority.
These are not views, of course, that I personally endorse, though I believe that Plato’s critique of democracy is a salutary reminder of how democracies can go astray and how vigilant we always need to be against various forms of tyranny. But what is of relevance for the coming election is the view put forward in the Republic that states should be ruled by philosophers. So what I would love you all to do is to nominate one or more philosophers, past or present, for an alternative Cabinet. You can either just propose a name or names, or you can also say what post your candidate should have. Your proposals could be entirely serious e.g Hobbes for Home Secretary or they could be more mischievous e.g Zeno for Minister for Transport. The idea is both to have some fun and to consider whether any past or present philosophers might actually be/have been any good at such jobs.
If you want to take part in this bit of electoral philosophical fun, post your nominations, votes or thoughts on Twitter and simply add the hashtag
#voteplato to your tweet.
I have a team of three election returning officers poised to monitor the process and I will produce for the blog a more detailed roundup of the nominations after a week’s votes are in – more frequent reports will follow as the race hots up. We will close our philosophical poll on the day before the UK election is held and declare the final results on the UK general election day.