Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What politicians could learn from Plato

I am willing to bet that the vast majority of politicians in the world today do not give much thought to the relationship between governance and the “nature” of human beings. That is, how should one govern, given specific abilities, inclinations and dispositions on the part of the governed and the governing? Plato considered this to be crucial.

Those who recognise the name of Plato will probably know that he was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived in the 4th century BCE. They may also know that Socrates was his teacher and that he (Plato), in turn, was Aristotle’s teacher, who later happened to be the teacher of the Macedonian prince who became Alexander the Great. So much for trivia. What most people don’t know, is that Plato could teach politicians a thing or two about governance.

Politicians would snigger this — what, a dude who lived more than 2000 years ago teach us “modern” politicos how to do our job? Precisely, yes. Consider this. When Socrates was found guilty of misleading the youth of the city by an Athenian court, he was condemned to death. Plato saw this as a clear sign that Athens was not a just city. After all, Plato knew that Socrates was a just man, whose only “crime” was that he taught people to question things, especially “the gods of the city” — that is, all those things that cities (today, societies) value conventionally. Naturally, this is irksome for the individuals who have political and economic power in a city or society, and therefore Socrates had to go.

In Plato’s Apology we have an account of Socrates’ trial, which gives us some indication of Plato’s reasons for believing that Socrates was a just man, and his conviction was an unjust act. But in his well-known work, the Republic — one of the most important and influential works ever written — Plato provides a thoroughly reasoned account of the conditions that a city (or polis, in Greek), must satisfy to be a “just” city.

No doubt Plato’s notion of justice would strike most people today as strange, but perhaps some would be receptive to the idea (as true today as then), brought across early in the Republic, that laws are not necessarily just. (Think of apartheid laws: they were not just.) To understand his idea of a “just” city, however, one has to grasp his conception of the human psyche or soul.

Plato regarded the human psyche as composite and comprising three components, namely reason, appetite (or desire) and spirit. He often used striking images to visualise their relation to one another. The best known of these images is probably the one where he asks us to imagine a chariot, driven by a charioteer and pulled by two horses. One of these, a grey-eyed, black horse, was nothing beautiful to look at, but was incredibly strong, stocky, and disobedient. The other was a black-eyed, graceful, beautiful and obedient white horse. The charioteer represents reason, the black horse desire/appetite, and the white horse spirit. Reason guides, desire motivates and spirit animates.

Unless the charioteer (reason) enlists the assistance of the white, obedient horse (spirit), the black horse (desire) cannot be easily controlled, and drags the chariot wherever its fancy takes it. When the partnership between the charioteer and the obedient, but spirited horse does not work, the headstrong horse takes them from pillar to post, to satisfy its needs and appetites. However, if the charioteer (aided by the white horse) gains control over this powerful creature, he or she can guide the two steeds, and everything is fine and purposeful.

By analogy, if reason, assisted by spirit, rules over desire, a person can live a life of harmony. Differently put: only wisdom (reason’s “excellence” or function) together with courage (spirit’s “excellence”) can control the excesses of appetite or desire (whose “excellence” is to motivate) — if the latter is allowed to rule the former two faculties, disharmony or chaos rules in a person’s life. Interestingly, such an appetite-ruled person’s psyche or soul is said to lack “justice”. The “just” soul is also a happy one, where there’s equilibrium among reason, spirit and desire.

In the Republic, Plato maps this psychology on to the state or polis. There are three distinct classes, he argues — the rulers (or philosopher-kings), the protectors (soldiers and navy) and the producers (commercial classes) — and just as an individual lives happily and in harmony with her- or himself when reason rules over desire with the help of spirit, so, too, a polis (or society) is harmonious and “just” when the rulers rule wisely, with the assistance of the (spirited) protectors, keeping the sometimes excessive desires and needs of the commercial classes in check. Should motivating desire (the “excellence” of the commercial producers) gain the upper hand, a city is soon in disharmony, especially if reason (or the rulers) is taken in tow by the wish to satisfy desire uncontrollably.

One may take issue with Plato on the class-structure of his ideal Republic (which is thoroughly argued in the book) and I, for one, would do so, but you have to grant him the genius of his insight into the prerequisite for ruling well, namely a thorough understanding of the way a person’s psyche functions — that of the rulers AND the ruled. And his model of the human psyche is as illuminating today as it was in antiquity — test it on yourself, and those you know well. Or even better: doesn’t it explain the excesses on the part of those hundreds of “public servants” in South Africa who are regularly caught with their hands in the cookie jar? Where appetite has taken reason and spirit in tow, and “injustice” reigns? (Not that this does not happen in the private sector as well.)

On a macro-scale one sees the perversion of “just rule” in Plato’s sense when the rulers (or governments, here and elsewhere) instead of being guided by the wisdom that reason is capable of, surrender to their appetites and greedily indulge in the satisfaction of their desire for material wealth, leaving society floundering. And more often than not, the “protectors” also yield to desire, instead of offering spirited assistance to rulers striving for wise rule through reason. If you doubt the relevance of Plato’s thought for this country, read the article on South Africa by Alex Perry, ”The New Struggle”, in TIME magazine of December 24 2012.

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