Against Sophistry: Philosophers and Politics in Plato’s Republic

In Plato’s Republic, the ideal politician is also the ideal kind of philosopher. This politician-philosopher is an honest individual who is never willing to accept anything but the truth (Rep. 6.485f). He – and for Plato in fourth century Athens, it will always be a he – is a lover of wisdom and learning. He is self-disciplined, someone who avoids reckless spending, and isn’t greedy. He isn’t narrow-minded or petty, forgetful, cowardly or boastful. And he won’t ever drive hard bargains or act unjustly.

Since childhood, he will have been notable not only for his sense of fairness and his kind disposition, but also for his excellent memory and the speed with which he acquires knowledge. He will be refined, with a developed understanding of ‘order’ and ‘grace’ – and he will be courageous, someone prepared to make a full contribution to the world around him. He will, in short, be an impressive figure indeed, an all-round good human being. And in Plato’s view, his virtues will make him ideally suited – together with a small group of equally impressive colleagues – to running the state.

In this way, Plato openly doubts the capacity of most individuals to play a part in government. Sound political decision-making, he thinks, plainly rests on special capacities of judgment and wisdom, capacities which most people simply don’t possess. Best, therefore, to leave this decision-making to those with the right skill-set (which he feels he can identify).

This vision of oligarchy, in which a highly educated and morally virtuous elite rule over their peers, offers nothing short of an affront to our contemporary sensibilities. It is a profoundly anti-democratic vision, as Plato himself knew all too well: a major part of his goal in offering it was to propose an alternative to the democracy of which he himself was a member in ancient Athens.


This alternative was not put into practice, then or subsequently. Despite this, Plato’s political programme has continued to remain a topic of discussion and debate ever since it was first formulated. In a previous post, I explored how one recent strand of interpretation even identified in Plato’s political ideas an important intellectual influence on the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

In this post, I want to offer some brief thoughts about what a charitable interpretation of Plato’s vision of politics – featuring rule by philosopher-kings – might look like today. For centuries, Plato’s negative view of democracy at Athens was accepted and endorsed by his readers: this began to change in the 19th century, and since then, Plato’s criticisms have been viewed in an altogether different – and usually much more critical – light.*

So what might a charitable reading of Plato’s politics look like in the light of this dramatic shift? In sketching out a few thoughts on this, I am interested in trying to make sense of Plato’s ideas in a way that assumes they are not the simple product of a malign or bigoted point of view – but rather of a sophisticated mind trying to confront serious problems with a view to finding solutions that would be to everyone’s benefit.

It is no doubt easy to sympathise with Plato’s preference for politicians who are honest, courageous, kind and wise. And who could complain about the sort of politician who doesn’t spend recklessly and isn’t greedy? On the face of it, Plato’s ideal politicians sound plausible and attractive enough: indeed their qualities wouldn’t go amiss among some of the politicians of today.

Nelson Mandela, who many hold up as a model of good statesmanship in the modern world.

Having said this, I recoil from Plato’s suggestion that only a small group of highly educated individuals should enjoy political power – though even here I would still argue that the motivation underlying his point of view deserves some sympathy. Put simply, Plato wants to find a way to ensure that the best sort of politician really will get to exercise power – and to ensure that people lacking in the qualities required of good leaders (as he sees them) don’t.

Oligarchy, he assumes, is the best way to achieve this – accompanied by a ruthless selection procedure that enables only the very best leaders to be put in charge. We may disagree with some of Plato’s ideas about the qualities required in leaders – and indeed about his sense that such qualities are present only in a few people. But his sense that the best leaders should lead, and that there should be a rigorous process for determining who they are, is uncontroversial enough. Plato’s high standards might even hold lessons for the ways in which we set the bar (not high enough?) for political leadership today.

Importantly, and perhaps despite appearances, it is not (or at least not solely) a snobbish elitism that motivates Plato, but a desire to find a way to ensure that ordinary citizens enjoy the best kind of governance. Plato thinks that his form of oligarchy will produce the best potential for happiness for all citizens: it is a way of ensuring the common good. On this basis, some interpreters of Plato have seen him as a kind of utilitarian.

Plato’s scepticism about the capacity of democracy, as he saw it practised in Athens, to deliver the best outcomes for the city’s citizens is grounded in a number of reservations he had about how he saw the Athenian democracy working in practice.

One big problem, as he saw it, was that ordinary Athenians were too much in thrall to an influential group of individuals he regarded as charlatans: the sophists. These sophists were in some respects similar to philosophers like Plato himself. They were involved in offering education to the city’s young, but they seem to have had a special interest in providing a particular kind of training: teaching people to speak persuasively in Athens’ democratic assembly.

They did this in a way that Plato himself found alarming. In Plato’s estimation, all that the sophists really impart to their pupils is a capacity to argue convincingly in favour of any given proposition. They do not try to instil in their pupils a sense of what is really true, what is really good and what is really just. The sophists are highly skilled and convincing arguers, but – for Plato – they lack any real moral compass, and they produce pupils (and political opinion-formers) with this same deficiency.

For Plato, the false views that could be detected among many of his fellow Athenian citizens, far from being attacked and exposed by the sophists, were in fact often (indirectly) attributable to them. He even compares the citizens of Athens to a large, irascible but dim-witted animal and the sophists to an animal trainer who has mastered the art of pandering to the animal’s preferences, without really seeking to improve its behaviour (Rep. 6.493).

Plato likens the citizens of Athens to a large and powerful animal, and he describes the sophists as their trainer

A clear issue here, for Plato, is that the sophists are not trying to get their fellow citizens to think accurately with a view to arriving at good decisions, and they are not looking after their genuine best interests. Rather, they are part of a culture in which superficial cleverness and rhetorical sleights of hand are having a corrosive impact, leading citizens to disregard – or to misapprehend altogether – what is best for themselves and for their fellow citizens.

The fairness of Plato’s attack on the sophists, and the extent to which he accurately represents their views, have both been subjects of extended scholarly dispute. If, however, Plato has a point when he says that the Athenian democracy was in the grip of a school of thought that placed no discernible emphasis on what is true, good, or right, then we may find some sympathy with his attempt to confront this state of affairs, even if we stop short of accepting his conclusion that democracy as a whole would need to be sacrificed to ensure that its malign influence could be prevented.

*This process is neatly charted in Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought, by Jennifer Tolbert Roberts

The State is Like a Ship: on Plato’s Critique of the Athenian Democracy

In Book 6 of Plato’s Republic, in the context of a damning appraisal of the way the democracy at Athens works, Socrates compares the Athenian state to a ship. The owner of the ship, he says, is big and strong – but he is hard of hearing, shortsighted and not much of a navigator. The ship’s crew are in persistent disarray. They recklessly gorge themselves on the ship’s resources, while disagreeing with one another about who should be in charge on board, with each sailor believing he should be the captain (despite having neither experience nor training). Being the captain, the sailors maintain, requires no special skill (Gk. techne).

In this analogy, the citizen population of Athens are the owners of the ship. In Plato’s candid assessment, they are politically powerful but lacking in governmental acumen and intellectual ability. With them in charge, the Athenian ship is not going to cut a clear, sensible or efficient path.

The crew of the ship, meanwhile, are the disputatious demagogues and politicians who hold sway in Athens’ political assembly, each vying for influence and power over their fellow citizens.

Plato wants his fellow Athenians to undertake a thoroughgoing revaluation of the way things on board work. Rather than looking to the ship’s owner, or to themselves, he thinks the sailors on board the Athenian ship should look instead to a marginal, currently powerless figure whose quiet presence on board is regrettably overlooked: this figure he calls the ‘true navigator’. This true navigator is a person of great learning, wisdom and moral fibre: a philosopher.

A bust of Plato

My doctoral supervisor once told me of how she had been campaigning to try to get philosophers onto many of the various university decision-taking panels and boards she had contact with. Decisions rely on philosophical judgments: even if philosophers present on decision-making panels weren’t themselves making such judgments, might they nonetheless be able to advise those who were about philosophical issues and questions which arose in the course of a given set of deliberations?

I don’t know if this argument ever gained any traction but it is a good example of how – in our society too – philosophers’ voices are usually pretty marginal to the way things in the arena of practical affairs proceed.* Indeed, we even use the word ‘philosophical’ in everyday speech to describe people who have a calm attitude in the face of disappointment: in common parlance and the popular imagination, then, being ‘philosophical’ is certainly not something you openly do when successfully pulling the levers of worldly power.

Plato’s fellow Athenians would also have been surprised by his suggestion that philosophers, of all people (and whether they could lay claim to being true philosophers or not), are the best placed group of people to run a city-state. Philosophers at Athens, by Plato’s own admission, were not the most popular of individuals. In the estimation of the majority of Athens’ ordinary citizen population, he himself suggests, philosophers served no self-evidently useful purpose.

On one level, this is easy enough to understand: philosophers in ancient Athens tended to earn their livings by presiding over the higher education of a select group: the wealthy young men of the city. An education in philosophy was thus an education in a form of high culture. If most people found themselves able to make do without it, just how valuable to them could it be?**

Raphael’s famous depiction of philosophy in action at Athens. Depicted in the centre are Plato and Aristotle. Not all Athenians had Plato’s high view of the capacity of philosophy to have a positive influence on public life.

Plato doesn’t offer anything like the sort of sociological explanation for most ordinary Athenians’ remoteness from philosophy that I have just presented. Instead, he offers a moralistic explanation. In the Republic, philosophers are marginal figures in Athens simply because most people don’t approach them in the right spirit.

Philosophers are like doctors of the soul, Plato says (Rep. 489b), using a further analogy. The ‘sick’ man should have the wherewithal to go to the door of these doctors: it’s certainly not incumbent on the doctors to go around canvassing for their patients! What ordinary Athenians ought to do, Plato thinks, is to recognise their own dire need of good politicians – they are sick, after all – and to respond accordingly (by knocking on the doors of the philosophers in their midst).

I can almost find in this passage a humorous patrician hauteur (the hauteur is clearly there; the humour just possibly). The idea is that the less well-educated ought simply to recognise their need for intellectual instruction from the neighbours they perceive as effete and unworldly and then take steps to address it. This is an idea that is certainly of a piece with the picture sketched in the analogy to the ship: there the sailors need to acknowledge their own reckless and grasping behaviour if they are ever to stand a chance of benefiting from the wisdom of the navigator on board.

The analogy of the ship thus forms part of Plato’s broader argument, but it encapsulates many of his key points on politics in general – on the state of Athenian society, on the inadequacy of democracy as a form of government, and on the nature of the alterations to it that he would like to see. To what extent might these assessments, particularly in the form in which they are outlined in the analogy of the ship, have been convincing to his fellow Athenians?

A very brief answer here might be that, if they had cared to reflect on it, Plato’s analogy would likely have seemed a rather loaded one. Ancient ships would indeed have had just one captain – but democracy in ancient Athens plainly didn’t have just one officially recognised leadership figure, even if a figure like Pericles might emerge periodically as a particularly important political influencer. The fact that modern representative democracies do have officially recognised overall leadership figures – whether e.g. presidents or prime ministers – represents just one clear point of contrast with democracy at Athens.

The analogy of the ship arguably allows Plato to make his argument that only very few people should be able to control the state just a bit more effectively. He manages to insinuate that Athenian ships – a large number of which would have been involved in their navy, a much celebrated force which provided the city with its political and military strength – function so effectively precisely by using a non-democratic (and very hierarchical) model. Leading figures in the Athenian army and navy were not selected by lot for their posts (and yet they – mostly – performed their roles to the satisfaction of their fellow citizens, while presiding over a flourishing institution). This was exceptional in Athens: most public positions involved selection by lot.

A replica Athenian trireme, the key ship in the Athenian navy

Many Athenians would not, we can guess, have shared Plato’s damning assessment of the limited capacities of the owner of the ship, or the sailors on board, in his analogy. And as I have suggested, by Plato’s own admission they would have baulked at the idea that highly-skilled philosophers were the right people to have in charge of their political affairs.

This is not to dismiss tout court the potential of Plato’s analogy to appeal to his readers. Equally, it seems unlikely to me that in offering his criticisms of the workings of Athens’ democracy, Plato was mounting a serious attempt to convert all of his fellow citizens to his point of view.***

*At least, that is, on a surface level. The ideas and/or influence of philosophers, in one form or another, often lie hidden and unacknowledged within the moral reasoning people employ.

**One group of teachers – the sophists – had a short and effective answer to this question: it will enable those who learn it to argue well and make convincing points in public meetings of the democratic assembly. Plato himself regarded this as charlatanism: doing philosophy, for him, was emphatically not about learning how to make popular arguments.

***This post was written to accompany an earlier post on Plato’s political philosophy: Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat: from Plato to Popper via Arginusae.