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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.

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The Art of Ruling

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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.


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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; because the gods had abandoned the flocks, human herders had to take over. The Athenian stranger points out that the mistake they were making in defining the statesman was that they confused him with the divine herder, did not define his manner of rule, and forgot that nurture was to be subsumed under the flock in discussing the herder’s function. The herder is concerned with people in flocks and it is to this fact that we must turn in our search for a definition.

In “tending men,” sometimes rule has to be enforced and at other times it is willingly accepted. It is important that this distinction be made, for on it depends the distinction between a tyrant and a king. The true statesman has his “tending” freely accepted. If the state is to function properly, the rulers must be accepted willingly by the subjects; in any form of government, the ruled must obey the laws or face sanctions provided in the law.

In order to understand what kingly duties entail, the Athenian stranger continues, we must first distinguish those activities that are not part of statesmanship from statesmanship. First of all are those practical activities that contribute to the basic needs of the community and without which the community could not survive. (Nevertheless, it is not the kingly art to produce these things.) Under this category, we find such workers as those who preserve what has been produced; those who produce the support of things (the carpenters, for example); those who defend us from cold as well as from enemies—such people as builders and weavers; those who provide diversion for us, the poets and musicians; those who produce the basic materials to be used in other crafts, the skinners, the lumbermen, and so on; and those who provide food and nourishment for the community. We also find in the community other groups such as slaves or merchants, civil servants and priests; but the statesman is not to be confused with any members of any of these groups, for none has independent authority and none is a ruler. Nor must we confuse the statesman with those who pretend to teach one how to rule, those who boast of their ability to argue any side of an issue, the Sophists who walk the land.

The Athenian stranger proceeds to discuss various types of states to see if the statesman fits one more than another. There are three major types, each with two subtypes. In monarchy there is rule by one, and this may be exemplified by a tyrant or a hereditary ruler in a constitutional monarchy. The next type is that in which a few wield power; this may be seen in an aristocracy or if wealth is the criterion for rule, an oligarchy. Lastly, there is the rule of many, called a democracy. The many may control either by force or by consent. Given that these are the forms of government, can we thus discover the art of rule?

For Plato, the art of statesmanship is not a function of the type of state. If a statesman is capable of ruling, then, whatever the constitutional form of government under which he rules, he is to be regarded as a ruler. Plato goes on to say that this is so whether there are subjects who are rich or poor, willing or unwilling, and regardless of whether there is a code of laws.

The Role of Laws

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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 imitative constitutions must keep strictly to the laws and never transgress written enactments or established national customs, if they mean to reproduce as far as they can that one real constitution that is government by a real statesman using real statecraft. The various types of government occur when the ideal constitution is copied in various ways; thus, when copied by the wealthy, the rule is called “aristocracy,” and when aristocrats disobey the laws, that rule is called “oligarchy.” When someone governs in imitation of the truly wise ruler, he is called “king”; however, calling him this contributes to confusion because a king who imitates the true statesman rules by right opinion without knowing the grounds for the art of statesmanship. When such a person rules not by right opinion but by passions, he is called “tyrant.” Although people doubt that any statesman could be superior to the laws without being corrupt, such a statesman is the only one who could govern the commonwealth worthy of the name of best state.

Previously those functions in the state that were important to the very existence of the community were distinguished from kingly duties. However, what of those functions that resemble statesmanship, and what of those individuals who practice them? That is, what of generals, judges, rhetoricians, and the like, all of whom function something like a ruler, and all of whom have been suggested at one time or another for the office of ruler? Each of these people, in practicing his art, uses some form of action on other people; it may be by force (military action), or by persuasion (oratory or rhetoric), or through interpretation and judgment of the law (legal decisions). The Athenian stranger holds that the art that decides which of the foregoing forms of action is to be practiced is superior to the particular art employed. It is the statesman who decides whether to use persuasion or force against a group of people or to take no action at all. He can use oratory that is an adjunct of statesmanship but is not statesmanship itself; thus, the statesman is superior to the rhetorician. Similarly, he can decide whether the generals are to fight or whether friendly settlement is possible; thus, he is superior to the generals. The duty of the judge is to make honest judgments in accordance with the laws made by the statesman; thus, the judge is subservient to the statesman. As an art, statesmanship is concerned with which of these other arts is to be used on the right occasion in the great enterprise of statecraft. It is the art of arts as the good is the form of forms. The statesman must develop the best in the conflicting natures of his subjects—he is a royal weaver.


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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.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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