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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Plato's take on politics...

My Honors course this semester is entitled Ancient World, and appropriately so, because we are simultaneously investigating the development of culture through the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Greece, Rome, and China. Most of us have studied these ancient civilizations individually at some point or another-- but rarely do we compare and contrast them all on one time line.

Right now we're just moving into ancient Greece; today's preparatory reading includes an excerpt from Plato's Republic. This specific piece is called the "Allegory of the Cave" -- many of you may be familiar with it. If you're not, let me briefly put it in context: Plato was a student of the great Greek philosopher Socrates. Shortly after Athens government was defeated in the Peloponnesian Wars, Socrates--who flagrantly disliked the new regime and wasn't afraid to say so--was brought to trial (at over seventy years of age) for "subversive behavior, impiety, and atheism". He was condemned to die by drinking hemlock, a poisonous herb.**

Although Socrates was a great thinker, and took on students who would become themselves great philosophers, Socrates never wrote down any of his theories, conjectures, or ponderings. What we know of him is only what was recorded by his students. Plato especially seemed to have an affinity for his teacher, and went on to write most of his treatises as dialogues wherein Socrates delivers the major philosophical arguments of the text.

Ok, so now to get to my point. In Republic, Plato has Socrates impart this wisdom...

"...The truth is that you can have a well-governed society only if you can discover for your future rulers a better way of life than being in office; then only will power be in the hands of men who are rich, not in gold, but in the wealth that brings happiness, a good and wise life.

All goes wrong when, starved for lack of anything good in their own lives, men turn to public affairs hoping to snatch from thence the happiness that they hunger for. They set about fighting for power, and this internecine conflict ruins them and their country.

The life of true philosophy is the only one that looks down upon offices of state; and access to power must be confined to men who are not in love with it; otherwise rivals will start fighting. So whom else can you compel to undertake the guardianship of the commonwealth, if not those who, besides understanding best the principles of government, enjoy a nobler life than the politician's and look for rewards of a different kind?"

I feel like the man was on to something here...
This principle has been proven over and over and over throughout the course of history.

So why, I ask, do we--right now, here in America--focus more on healthcare plans and attractive economic stimulus packages than on each candidate's general satisfaction with life, their moral character, and overall wisdom??? In my opinion, the office of President should only have one main qualification: good discernment. He has more than enough peeps to do the research, crank the numbers, and fill him in on the latest from the nation. All he needs to do is be able to understand the information coming in, and make a good decision.

Isn't it a bit outrageous that we look for a presidential candidate thinking that it's possible for one guy (or lady) to have all the answers and strategic moves to advance and maintain the entire nation!? Division of labor and brainpower is a good thing; what we need is a good thinker that can look at the big picture and make good choices.

So I'm siding with Plato on this one...I'm not interested in leaders who are in it for the "bennies" (as mom always says)....private jets and general self-glorification shouldn't be primary motivators for a candidate's run for office.

And that's my political statement for the day.

**Source: Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition: Prehistory to the Early Modern World. 5th Ed. 2006.


  1. "All goes wrong when, starved for lack of anything good in their own lives, men turn to public affairs hoping to snatch from thence the happiness that they hunger for. They set about fighting for power, and this internecine conflict ruins them and their country."

    I think this is a HUGE problem...Because this happens over and over and over (Hillary Clinton, anyone?), the political sphere becomes filled with self-righteous, grandstanding crusaders on a mission to glorify themselves. As a result, do humble, discerning, value-oriented candidates enter the arena? Heck no...More often than not, these people want no part of the blood-sucking political world.

    So yeah, you're totally onto something...I agree that we should take a hard look at the way in which leaders have conducted their lives before becoming leaders.

    Good insight, Shirah, as always:).

  2. Definitely agree with you on this one! Like the other comment said, the people who would be best for the job, never even get that far because you have to be hardened and have good elbows in order to be able to advance in the political arena... it's a shame really, because it;s a bit like a vicious circle...


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