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Plato’s ‘Philosopher King’ – a Virtuous Benevolent Ruler

Detail of Plato (left) walking along with Aristotle from The School of Athens by Raphael. (Sanzio /wikimedia)

Plato ( 428/427 BC – 348/347 BC), a student of Socrates, the teacher of Aristotle, was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece. His Platonist school of thought and the Academy was the first institution of higher education in the Western world.

It is not possible to overestimate the Plato’s influence on the last two thousand years of development of the Western philosophical and political thought; he could be rightly called an intellectual father of modern politics and philosophy, particularly of political and economical collectivism.

Plato. Luni marble, Copy of portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. (Copy of Silanion/wikimedia)

Taking inspiration from Socrates, whose teachings, never written down by Socrates himself, were largely passed down by Plato, he used the form of vivid and lifelike conversations between Socrates and other members of society to convey his, Plato’s, original and visionary ideas.
Like Socrates, Plato believed that virtue and wisdom could not exist without each other, and therefore were the same thing. He stipulated that since all virtues are one, being identical to knowledge, one cannot possess one virtue without possessing the others, therefore philosophers, individuals of a higher knowledge, possess all these virtues together.

In Plato ‘s dialogue Republic the idea of a just City-State presented with a concept of ‘guardians’, benevolent ruling class, who possess a strong love of knowledge, virtuous and selfless, living communally, like soldiers, without forming families, possessing no property, dedicating their lives to the happiness and prosperity of the state. ‘Guardians’ would be raised and nurtured from among the best children of society, most promising morally and intellectually, who would grow to become the best not only in virtue and knowledge but also in sports and military arts. ‘Guardians’ would include qualified women as well as men.

At the core of Plato’s views on the ideal, highest knowledge that the philosophers are to pursue is a theory of Forms, or Ideas, a world view that the tangible, physical manifestations of things are not as real and significant as their immutable and absolute forms, or ideas. Forms are the highest and most perfect prototypes of any objects or qualities. For example, there are countless instances of beauty in the world however these are only pale, forever morphing imitations of a Form of Beauty, perfect and unchangeable.

‘Philosopher King’ is the philosopher, virtuous, competent and most accomplished among others in all respects, the one who can gain access to and comprehend the knowledge of Forms. Knowledge of Forms is only true and universal, never changing knowledge. Ability to possess the highest knowledge which, in turn, translates into the highest virtue, makes the ‘philosopher kings’ the most capable and qualified to rule with wisdom for the prosperity and happiness of the State. They know the true essence of Beauty, Temperance, Goodness, Generosity and Justice, being guided by supreme wisdom which in turn, will allow them to guide and educate those over whom they rule.

The idea of a benevolent, virtuous, all-knowledgeable king is very appealing even if not feasible. ‘Philosopher King’ can be seen as a Form in its own right – perfect, incorruptible gold standard of an ideal ruler by which the rulers of the world should appraise themselves and with which they should strive to align.

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