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What were some themes of ancient political thought?

One of the major themes of ancient political thought, especially in Greece, was the fraught question of who should rule. Elite thinkers like Plato and Socrates were profoundly suspicious of democracy. They believed that governing was a skill that was possessed by only a handful of individuals. Rulers should only be chosen after a lengthy period of rigorous training that would prepare them for their duties.

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Ancient Athens in the time of Plato and his mentor Socrates experienced a great deal of political upheaval. Due mainly to Athens's defeat in the Peloponnesian War, the once stable democratic city-state was turned into a pro-Spartan tyranny, the rule of the so-called Thirty Tyrants, who proceeded to impose a reign of terror on Athens that caused death and bloodshed on a truly horrendous scale.

Both Plato and Socrates lived through this terrible period of history, and their experiences fed into their political philosophies. Though neither philosopher supported the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, they weren't especially keen on democracy, either. Plato, using Socrates as his mouthpiece, expresses a profoundly critical view of democracy.

He thinks that in a democracy, men are concerned above all with the satisfaction of their desires rather than achieving the common good. As there are so many desires, it becomes impossible to reconcile them with each other. The only way that anything gets done, then, is by having strong leadership that can forcibly unite disparate interests. And that means the establishment of tyranny. Paradoxically, then, a system that is supposed to bring freedom ends up destroying it.

In order to avoid such a frightening scenario, Plato, again through Socrates, floated an ideal republic which would be ruled over by philosopher-kings. Plato believed that ruling was a skill and that like any other skill, it could only be practiced by a relatively small number of people. In modern parlance, Plato would be described as an elitist, in that he believed that the ideal political system should be run by an elite.

These so-called philosopher-kings would be best suited to rule because they, uniquely in society, have a special understanding of what is good. Philosophers don't just know about good things, as we all do, to some extent, but the good in itself; the idea of the good in its perfect, unchangeable Form. For a state to be ruled properly, it must be run in accordance with the good of the people. Tyrants and oligarchs are unable to do this, as they are only out for what they can get for themselves. The same applies to the people in a democracy; each citizen is only interested in satisfying their own needs and desires.

Only a philosopher, according to Plato, has the necessary skill, knowledge, and disinterestedness to be a good ruler. Even so, he or she—and Plato, way ahead of his time, advocated that women could be rulers in his ideal state—would need to undergo an extensive and intensive period of training before being allowed to wield political power. Only then would it be possible to have the right people in charge of the ideal city-state.

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