Where are My Philosopher Kings?
Plato’s Republic can come across as naïve, and I find that fact tragic.
Broadly, the book climaxes with a plan to make a state ruled by Philosopher Aristocrats. While Plato calls these rulers “Philosophers”, we shouldn’t picture modern Philosophy students, but academics.
I find the failure tragic because all rulers - whether by committee or a single ruler - have failed spectacularly at plenty of basic questions.
As a quick rundown, I want to state the obvious, and obvious methodology.
Should we punish people for being gay?
We have an easy methodology at hand for the question: do gay people do awful things, such as confusing children, or poisoning puppies? No matter how you phrase the question, and no matter what methodology you use, an easy answers drops from the question. This is ‘1+1=?’ levels of basic, and not just ‘from the perspective of the 20th century’.. Anyone could perform any reasonable experiment in any society, and plenty of people have managed to succeed in getting the right answer.
Speaking of, Plato managed to arrive at a good-enough-for-his-time Feminism without the need for experimentation or verbose theory.
You keep guard dogs. Which dogs guard the best, the male or female?
Plato’s Socrates character asked this of one of his characters (Glaucon I think?). The answer came ’the male guard dogs are the best, they are bigger’. The fictional Socrates character then continues, in the classic Platonic style (currently, deeply unfashionable, please stay with me)
Okay, so how do you make the training different, given that male dogs tend to guard better
and Glaucon answers ‘I train them the same, because I give all dogs the best training’.
Plato managed to side-step gender equality questions by making them irrelevant. He decided men and women should receive the same training in Geometry, Philosophy, and art, and if we found women couldn’t understand Geometry well, this would prove nothing.
The ancient Greeks may have found the idea more distasteful and less obvious than modern people, but nobody needs to feel confused about the reasoning here.
Humanity has, as a species, repeatedly failed at these basic questions.
Which is the best voting system?
Probably STV, definitely not FPTP.
How should we divide voting areas?
Probably the split-line method, definitely nothing which allows for Gerrymandering.
How do you deal with trans-people?
Start with a GP, then probably a specialist doctor.
Should you control children by hitting them?
If someone smokes weed, can we help them out by stealing the weed, and giving them a fine?
No, that’s not useful.
Can we ban alcohol by making it illegal?
No, laws can’t stop people drinking.
Should we produce trousers by command-market (e.g. a government making the trousers) or by the free market (e.g. many corporations)?
Should we make films with a command-market or free market?
Free market again.
Should we get medical care with a command-market, or a free market?
Can we makes laws to stop people being gay?
No. Even the death penalty will not change how people feel about each other, or even stop them sleeping with each other.
How should we send instant messages?
With a protocol, like Matrix or XMPP, and not by installing a series of apps, each controlled by a corporation.
Should we find and execute witches?
No, witches aren’t real.
Can we ban abortions?
No, laws can’t do that, they can only stop people getting safe abortions.
Can wishful thinking unlock my true potential?
Yes - thinking positive about your projects, gumption, education, family, and health can help a lot, but it won’t change the rain, and you still need doctors and dentists.
I’m Still Irritated
All of these questions, and a wealth of others, have easily-intelligible, correct, answers, and nothing is complicated . I can see the temptation to wonder about what a society would look like if it managed to pull in all the easy answers. This isn’t necessarily Utopian thinking - we don’t have to imagine an eternal holiday resort with no resource issues. We’ve managed to not lock people up for being gay, and the image beckoning here asks how we could flourish if we could vote with a list of best-to-worse politicians, rather than casting just a single mark.
I’d like to hear of more Platonic dreams, without any embarrassment about being naïve, because someone knows the right answer to a basic question. I want to hear more grand ideas about running a republic where the decision-makers understand the subjects they make laws about.