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Plato: Socrates and the Conflict Between Knowledge and Opinion in the Polis

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The purpose of this essay is to examine whether or how far Plato’s argument that philosophers should be the rulers of the Republic is valid and persuasive. In The Republic, Plato argues that kings should become philosophers or that philosophers should become kings, or philosopher kings, as they possess a special level of knowledge, which is required to rule the Republic successfully

The essay will argue that Plato’s argument for the philosopher kings’ rule is neither persuasive nor realistic in theory, but that traces of the characteristics of his ideal form of rule do appear in the modern state. To set out this argument, the essay will firstly consider Plato’s argument for the philosopher kings, as well as its limitations, and secondly and finally consider what characteristics of the philosopher kings’ rule are valid and realistic in terms of the modern state.

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Plato’s Republic centers on a simple question: is it always better to be just than unjust? The puzzles in Book One prepare for this question, and Glaucon and Adeimantus make it explicit at the beginning of Book Two. To answer the question, Socrates takes a long way around, sketching an account of a good city on the grounds that a good city would be just and that defining justice as a virtue of a city would help to define justice as a virtue of a human being. Socrates is finally close to answering the question after he characterizes justice as a personal virtue at the end of Book Four, but he is interrupted and challenged to defend some of the more controversial features of the good city he has sketched. In Books Five through Seven, he addresses this challenge, arguing (in effect) that the just city and the just human being as he has sketched them are in fact good and are in principle possible. After this long digression, Socrates in Books Eight and Nine finally delivers three “proofs” that it is always better to be just than unjust. Then, because Socrates wants not only to show that it is always better to be just but also to convince Glaucon and Adeimantus of this point, and because Socrates’ proofs are opposed by the teachings of poets, he bolsters his case in Book Ten by indicting the poets’ claims to represent the truth and by offering a new myth that is consonant with his proofs. As this overview makes clear, the center of Plato’s Republic is a contribution to ethics: a discussion of what the virtue justice is and why a person should be just

Yet because Socrates links his discussion of personal justice to an account of justice in the city and makes claims about how good and bad cities are arranged, the Republic sustains reflections on political questions, as well. Not that ethics and politics exhaust the concerns of the Republic. The account in Books Five through Seven of how a just city and a just person are in principle possible is an account of how knowledge can rule, which includes discussion of what knowledge and its objects are. Moreover, the indictment of the poets involves a wide-ranging discussion of art.

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The clash between Socrates and the city of Athens which leads to his trial and death raises in the most dramatic possible form the fundamental question of the relationship between philosophy and politics. What is the nature of this conflict? How was it that Socrates who sought virtue and wisdom above all else was perceived as a mortal a threat to Athenian political forced to pay with his life? In point of fact the conflict between Socrates and the Polis is explicable only in terms of the fundamental kinship between Socratic philosophy and the concerns of politics. Socrates did not make the distinction one finds fully developed in Aristotle between the theoretic life (i.e. the philosophical life) and the political life. This contrast with Aristotle is instructive. For him this distinction is rooted in the difference between the moral and theoretical virtues (Werner Jaeger, 1962). The moral virtues being active are proper to the political life while the intellectual virtues are proper to the theoretic life

While both the active and contemplative forms of life have their own goodness, Aristotle will argue for the superiority of the theoretic life on the grounds that the intellect is the distinguishing and highest function of man. Moreover while active works are chiefly good for further things beyond themselves, leisured pursuits have their own proper excellence. For Socrates the intellectual quest for “wisdom and truth” is part and parcel of the effort at the perfection of the soul, for it is by knowledge of the Good that one becomes good (Werner Jaeger, 1962). This point is made more explicit in the Protagoras where Socrates argues that “…no one willingly goes after evil or what he thinks to be evil in preference to the good.” Just as evil is a consequence of and basically identical with ignorance, so is virtue logically identical with wisdom. The philosophical life which seeks the knowledge of the Good and the ethical life which acts according to the Good are the same for Socrates. This mean that for the philosophical life will also be one concerned with the central question of the political.

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In any event, this instability was the context for the emergence of Greek city-states. Without a powerful, centralized state, smaller governing bodies created political order. One such type of governing body was the city-state or polis. Initially, the term polis referred to a fortified area or citadel which offered protection during times of war. Because of the relative safety these structures afforded, people flocked to them and set up communities and commercial centers. Over time, poleis—the plural of polis—became urban centers whose power and influence extended to the surrounding agricultural regions, which provided resources and paid taxes.

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Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. (Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press, 1999).

Werner Jaeger. Paideia : The Ideal of Greek Culture, Vol. I (Oxford University Press, 1962)

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