In Plato’s political works, he is mainly concerned with an analysis of the nature of the individual and of the state that is an appropriate reflection of the individual. Plato looked on the state as analogous to the individual, and he believed that the type of individual found in the state determined the sort of state it would be. In Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701), he searches for justice in the state to discover the nature of justice in the person; and after he describes the ideal state and its ruler, he traces the state’s decline by pointing to the concomitant decline in the soul of the individual. In Nomoi (last period, 360-347 b.c.e.; Laws, 1804), he concentrates on the second-best state, a government of laws, not people, and works out the constitution applicable to it. In the Statesman, written most likely between the Republic and the Laws, Plato attacks the problem of defining the king who would rule in the best state, distinguishing him from sham rulers.

The Art of Ruling

Plato looked on ruling as an art, and as with other arts, it has subject matter that only an expert can master. People who are ill turn willingly to a physician expertly trained in the art of medicine to cure them; people who are in need of transportation between lands separated by an open sea turn to a pilot expertly trained in the art of seamanship to guide them across perilous seas; yet in the most important problem they face—conducting themselves as citizens in the state that involves their very happiness—they seem content to trust their fortunes to people untrained in statesmanship, who know nothing of the art of governing. It is as if they turned to the first person they met for medical help or trusted anyone at all to sail them across dangerous waters. Plato believed that intelligent human beings would willingly turn to the expert for advice. He believed that if he could spell out the art of ruling and the training necessary to be an expert in it, intelligent people would willingly turn to true statesmen to rule them.

The Athenian stranger points out that we are to seek a definition of the statesman as a kind of expert, and, hence, a division of forms of knowledge will be necessary, for to be an expert takes knowledge, and knowledge of statecraft should be separated from that which is other than statecraft. In addition, we must also separate knowledge into that which is applied and that which is pure. The stranger points out that the ruler’s art is closer to mental than to manual labor, and thus the distinction is needed, for the former is theoretical or pure rather than practical or applied.


In his search for a proper definition, the Athenian stranger makes use of the logical technique of defining his terms by proceeding from the most general to the more particular, thus specifying what the statesman is as accurately as he can. He begins by examining appropriate subdivisions of the division of theoretical knowledge: the art of counting (which has nothing to do with applied work), and that of master builder, charged with directing action. The king is found in this class, which can itself be divided into those who give initial directives (the kind) and those who pass on to others commands that are given to them (the king’s ministers).

As one who issues commands, the king aims at the production of something. That which is productive may itself be divided into the lifeless and the living. The king, who is a member of the directive class, may be distinguished at this juncture from the master builder, for whereas the builder produces lifeless things, the king is concerned with ordering living creatures, in flocks rather than singly. These, it must be remembered, are flocks of tame rather than wild creatures, of people rather than animals. The art that we are looking for, then, is that of shepherding humankind; it is the art of government, and the expert, the man of knowledge concerning this art, is the statesman or king, who is herder to a human, tame flock. It is a peculiar herd in that its members challenge the herder, and various members claim that they themselves are the true herders of humankind. Thus, it is not easy to get people to accept willingly the expert in governing as properly ruling over them; they do not recognize the art for what it is. Farmers, doctors, merchants, teachers, others, all put in their claims; some point out that even the statesman is fed by them.

Plato turns to one of his famous myths to aid us in our quest. This myth relates the reversal of the movements of heaven and earth and the changes that this brought about. Before the reversal, every herd of living creatures was watched over by a heavenly daemon. The herds were all under the great god Cronus, and they lived an idyllic existence. The reversal changed all this; when Zeus took over, the daemons left the human flocks and, unattended, they were prey to wild beasts. People were forced to learn to protect themselves; they had no crafts and were at the mercy of nature. With mastery of crafts came protection from and the control of nature;...

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The Role of Laws

At this juncture, Socrates questions whether a good governor can govern without laws. This perhaps marks the midpoint between the Republic and Statesman, works concerned, respectively, with the best government and its ruler, and the Laws, a work that discusses the second-best government, a government in which the laws are prior in importance to the character of the ruler. The Athenian stranger answers that the art of kingship includes the art of lawmaking, but that the political ideal is not full authority for laws but rather for a person who understands the art and has the ability to practice it. If a law is an unqualified rule of human behavior, then it cannot with perfect accuracy prescribe what is right and good for each member of the community at any one time—this takes a king. Laws are necessary, however, because the legislator cannot give every individual his or her due with absolute accuracy; general codes of conduct must be spelled out for the bulk of the citizenry. In any particular case, if the statesman can legislate better than the laws, he should be permitted to do so, no matter what. Here Plato includes the possibility of forcing the citizen to accept this kind of ad hoc ruling.

A state in which the ruler is superior to the laws is the best state, but when that is not possible, it is best to adhere to a government of laws. The Athenian stranger points out how the laws grow through the experience of legislators in dealing with human affairs. The knowledge that is gained is that of a science. As such, it has the force of a scientific truth of the kind that Plato considers infallible. As rules of behavior, the laws must be obeyed, and no one is to act in contravention to them. The only better situation is that in which a king, having achieved the art of statesmanship, applies the knowledge that he has gained to a particular situation. The Athenian stranger hints at the work to be done in the Laws when he points out that...

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Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.


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