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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Dave Harris Dave Harris 8 February 2013

    “Think of apartheid laws: they were not just.”
    What you and your ilk constantly seem to forget is that not only was it “not just” it was EVIL – against every spiritual tradition in human history. Maybe you can use your Greek philosophy to explain why the oppression of people of colour went unchallenged for centuries before trying to “analyze” our government?

    More troubling however, this common stereotype of the black horse and the white horse is a sickening trend that pervades eurocentric literature and culture. How is it that there is no shame in the continued peddling of these white supremacist stereotypes in this day and age in our society?!!

  2. Enough Said Enough Said 8 February 2013

    Brilliant article Bert. I however do not take exception to Plato’s class structure.

    Where the world has gone wrong, is some (all) classes abuse their position when opportunity presents to the detriment of other classes.

    Whether we like it or not, we were not all created equal, however, classes should support each other for a harmonious society.

    The problem is when the ‘black horse’ in any class takes control the stuff hits the fan.

    If there was balance and fulfillment of class duty between “the rulers (or philosopher-kings), the protectors (soldiers and navy) and the producers (commercial classes)” there would be no class conflict, only harmony.

    No class would be in need, the rulers would rule justly, the protectors would protect society as a whole, not vested interests, and the producers could produce and fulfill their material and spiritual needs without fear of oppression or bankruptcy.

  3. Trevor Trevor 8 February 2013

    Wow! Excellent! I down-loaded this.

    What incredible restraint in not getting your teeth more specifically into our governance scenario. It screams at us, doesn’t it?

    You obviously had the grey-eyed steed in hand.

  4. Maria Maria 9 February 2013

    It is truly a pity that your blog space does not allow you to elaborate further on this theme – I am thinking of the paper you did last year somewhere, comparing Plato’s notion of the soul with Freud’s, and demonstrating the re-connect between Freud and the pre-Socratic tragedians (read through Nietzsche’s eyes). You should follow this up with such a comparison some time. In what journal did that paper appear?

  5. Socrates Socrates 9 February 2013

    Harris comments “this common stereotype of the black horse and the white horse is a sickening trend that pervades eurocentric literature and culture.”

    What a stupid, absurd comment. The only sickening trend here is the sickening propaganda dished up by a brain-dead troll with a boring, racist agenda.

  6. Walt Walt 9 February 2013

    The black and white horse example was sure to elicit spirited comments from rainbow readers with a keen eye on blinkered visions. Referencing Plato has the further disadvantage in that the well-being of his society was founded on slave labour. And since the Wabenzis of today the world over prefer horse power clad in black, Plato does look a bit faded. How about Il Principe next time?

  7. Rene Rene 9 February 2013

    Poor Dave, to have to say such dumb things just to get paid by his masters….the life of an agent provocateur is a thankless business.

  8. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 9 February 2013

    Dave Harris

    If apartheid should have been questioned within the (under) 100 years that it was in existence, why was slavery not questioned from biblical times? We have a problem because our philosophers were questioning why we were buying slaves. Do your ancestors ever have a problem with having sold them?

  9. bernpm bernpm 10 February 2013

    I must give Harris his prize: he was the first to respond!!

    Hope he will start reading Plato, Socrates and Sophocles to inform us about his findings.

  10. abrham abrham 10 February 2013

    dave harris is blind or he has no mirror. his ‘ begging to be black’ is rather pathetic.

  11. Enough Said Enough Said 10 February 2013

    I am still hoping someone is going to comment on my support for class structure. I look at nature, ants for example. If large colonies of ants did not have a supportive class structure they would collapse, yet with each class performing their duty, huge colonies of ants live together in perfect order.

    Its not the class that is the problem, its lack of “control the excesses of appetite or desire” that is the problem.

    A person in a small classless hunter gatherer group that cannot control the excesses of appetite and desire is a threat to that group, and has to be dealt with, maybe placed on a drifting ice flow never to be seen again. :-)

  12. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 10 February 2013

    ‘Control yourself’ is usually sensible advice; we all have to live with each other.

    But remember Plato was no democrat and there could hardly be any belief more hostile to the ideals of ‘democracy’ than that there exists a class who naturally possesses, or who can be brought through education and self-discipline to possess, the wisdom and restraint to govern justly.

    Democracy, as SA is in the painful process of learning, does not usher in utopia or even get you there after a long, bumpy ride. It is an untidy, one-step-forward, two-steps back (or sideways) journey that continues indefinitely not going anywhere in particular and never promising to, which is why it’s forever at risk from philosophies that do.

    Quite a few people thought Thabo Mbeki a bit of a philosopher-king. Many more thought him a bloomin’ know-all, but thought it unwise to say so.

  13. Niall O'Hagan Niall O'Hagan 10 February 2013

    A very nice piece Bert, and thanks for reminding us of the great Greek scholars who thought deeply on how human beings may lead noble lives.

    Not a lot of nobility going around these days what with our world of instant gratification. The bitterness underlying the remarks of people like Harris is a reminder that bigotry is a triumph of selfish desire over reason and courage.

  14. Enough Said Enough Said 10 February 2013

    Plato was no democrat. Maybe he had a point though that is not politically correct (PC) to discuss in our modern world though.

    Look at the world democracies!! Democracy is tyranny’s in wolf’s clothing.

    “The Classical Greek philosopher Plato discusses five types of regimes. They are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny.” – Wikipedia

  15. Enough Said Enough Said 10 February 2013

    Democracy is tyranny’s in sheeps clothing.

  16. Maria Maria 10 February 2013

    @ Enough Said: Whether one admits it or not, our societies are still structured according to different classes, some more than others. In my experience the British have the most clearly visible class divides, and yet all such societies are supposed to be democracies. In Plato’s vision of the ideal society (a utopia, of course), every class was supposed to be happy to contribute their share and in the terms befitting their class, somewhat like the ants you refer to. If people could/would do that, sure, everyone would benefit and be happy, but once democracy has been ushered in, there’s no going back – people want to believe in the illusion that they actually have a share in governance, even if they are only represented by others. But as Paul points out, Plato was an enemy of democracy, because he regarded it as misguided – after all, how could people with no special talent for governance govern? (Today they do, of course…) Paul is right – democracy is messy, but in the end it is the only system, to the extent that one tries to make it as democratic as possible, that does not leave one to pick up the pieces after disastrous experiments that did/could not work out, like apartheid. So class will always be there – it is a function of economic disparities – but not the happy class structure of Plato or the ants.

  17. HD HD 10 February 2013

    I am inclined to turn to another figure that had a lot to say about a Republic,

    “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

    I am afraid reason play very little part in politics and is the very hubris we should guard against when we hear the philosopher kings (usually the intellectual classes and the political elite) appeal to reason. (then again the left has a peculiar fondness for philosopher kings or utopian deliberative democracy)

    Madison understood why both the rulers and ruled should be limited in their scope for political influence and power.

    “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other.”


    “An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the other.

  18. Mr. Direct Mr. Direct 11 February 2013

    Interesting piece, really relevant to today’s society in general I think. Too many people have lost control of their desire, whether it be in government or business. local or international.

    Don’t you just love the fact that Dave Harris just called Plato a racist? Maybe in a few hundred years society will be discussing the wisdom of Harris…

  19. Bert Bert 11 February 2013

    Enough Said, I am in agreement with what Maria has said, above, about classes being unavoidable in society, although I believe they are not ONLY the result of economic disparities – sometimes ‘classes’ are artificially created withing more encompassing classes by those who wish to elevate themselves above others within their own group. The reason I said that I don’t agree with Plato, is that while I believe classes are unavoidable, unlike him, I don’t believe there should be watertight compartments between them – people should have the freedom to take the initiative and move to other ‘classes’ by their own hard work. That’s a realistic appraisal. However, in a different, more principled sense I believe that all people are equal (not exactly similar; of course there are always differences), and that no one has the right to lord it over others. Whatever one’s contribution to society, if it is commensurate with one’s talents, it should be valued just as much as any other’s. I know that you would say that a physicist’s contribution is so much more important than a street cleaner’s, and in terms of ‘scientific progress’ (and even cilvilizational progress) perhaps it is, but as a valuable contribution someone is capable of, however humble, the street sweeper’s must get recognition too – after all, in cities awash with trash, unhygienic conditions would soon show how valuable their work is. Ranciere demonstrates forcibly the equality of all people.

  20. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 11 February 2013

    Plato’s Republic is a fascinating political structure. There are some who reason this model was an excuse the Greeks used to justify slavery. I also disagree that philosophers, with their tendency to focus on a blurred combination of episteme and doxa would make a good ruling class.

    Societies are a collection of individuals. One can tell them Noble Lies about workers being exploited or greedy capitalists standing on their heads, yet a principle of justice is only a principle if it can be consistently applied to all.

    Little is known about Socrates, but it is suggested that he praised the societies of Sparta and Crete. This is a bit different from Plato’s own views, which were more in line with that of the status quo in Greece that had Socrates assassinated.

  21. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 11 February 2013

    @Maria et al – I have no special fear of dopes governing – indeed dopes governing seems no more than the default mode – something to do with distribution, I’d say. But I am very afraid indeed of people not being able to get rid of a government, whether of the dopey or philosopher-king type.

    HD – I would mention that brilliant, absolutely brilliant as he was, Madison could not imagine how (broadly) representative political parties would change the world he was part of and come to allow ‘the rabble’ a role in a different kind of ‘democracy’ that lay a century or more ahead from his time.

  22. HD HD 11 February 2013


    Yes, despite many of the founding fathers warnings along these lines they did not foresee the full extend of future developments…It is unfortunate that public choice theory and the literature on *radical ignorance gets so little attention in academia and popular discourse outside of economics. Instead there is almost this mythical Utopian belief in democracy, politics and the state. Contrast this to early liberals and their ideas at the height of Western civilisation. All the more ironic that most of the West is moving in the opposite direction…

    * I promote this article from Friedman (the political theorist not economist) a lot, but this should really be compulsory reading for anyone interested in politics/democracy in practice:

  23. Enough Said Enough Said 11 February 2013

    Thanks Bert.

    I agree that no person or class should be discriminated against. I believe nature did not design humanity to be classless, like large colonies of ants or bees.

    A just society guarantees every class and individual in society the fulfillment of their full potential.

    Class conflict shows that the society is out of balance. That is a society that supports oppression and injustice.

    So instead of working towards a classless society, we should embrace class differences and celebrate them like we should celebrate racial, cultural and gender differences.

    Elevate diversity, that is what makes nature survive in balance and harmony in an evolutionary direction.

  24. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 12 February 2013

    Exactly. One of the reasons why the Greek culture was so successful is because Greece was a decentralised arrangement of city states. Their main contact with each other was by trade. There was no grand overall design that was implement, no Republic blueprint. Broadly, the Romans that came after that were practical people and assimilated whatever worked. This pragmatism served them well and this is how they came to establish the Roman empire.

    One could argue that the reason why the USSR was not a great success doesn’t have so much to do with the ideologies followed, but with the nature of a centralised system. It’s impossible to plan for all eventualities and to ensure nobody blurs the line between classes, no matter how real or artificial the barriers are.

  25. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 12 February 2013

    @HD – This is where you and I disagree. The idea that our choices, including our political ones, must be ‘rational’ is an Enlightened conceit. It is obvious from all experience, everything we live with, know and witness, that they are not, and even if they were, it would be no guarantee of a better society. Rather the opposite. The proposal is all of a piece with Plato’s for rule by philosopher-kings: it is simply elitism.

    If we believe ‘democracy’ and the rights of man offer anything of value, we must be prepared first and foremost to take people as we find them and accept that they make ‘mistakes’, just as we accept that each individual, to have any freedom worth the name, must be free to err. ‘Erring’ here includes ‘dissenting’.

    I dissent, for instance, on the writer’s opening point in the piece you mention. I’m afraid I am among the many who did not want Clinton to resign and who continue to believe that the subsequent charge of perjury was a perfectly permissible – all is fair in love and war – but horrid brew of Puritanism and politics concocted by competitors for power. As such it, too, was an appeal to emotions, not reason alone.

    Constitutional democracy does not demand that a politician should be impeached for having it off and then fibbing about it. It allows for him to be kicked out at the next election for doing so, if that’s how a majority feel about it.

  26. HD HD 12 February 2013


    I completely agree with your first two paragraphs and I would suspect so would Jeffrey Friedman. The whole point of his piece is to illustrate the role of human “error” (ignorance) in politics. As a Hayekian classic liberal it is music to my ears.

    Friedman simply uses the Clinton example to illustrate that it was relatively easy for the Clinton spin machine to spin things away from a debate about perjury & obstruction of justice (the real political issue at stake) to one “just about sex”. The point being, that politics is often characterised by public ignorance or if you like not about rational debate. He is not arguing that is should be rational – merely stating the it is not and marked by ignorance and ideology.

    He then discusses various studies that point to massive levels of public ignorance and a lack of basic political information. He then moves to the role of political elites (journalists, academics, pundits, politicians etc) and illustrate that they are largely governed by ideology (a simple heuristic to process the large amounts of political information the deal with). Concluding, that the best way to escape this irrationality is not to argue for more rationality (or alternatively deliberative democracy) – but to limit the scope of government and politics.

    This is entirely inline with the reasoning in your first two paragraph. Even his conclusion I would suspect is very much in line with your own thinking…

  27. HD HD 12 February 2013


    In his own words:

    “The true advantage of shrinking the state lies, most probably, not in the likelihood of greater rationality in the remaining government functions, but in the likelihood of greater rationality in the functions that would no longer concern the state.”

    “In short, the best way to rationalize political decisions may be to depoliticize them. That would not completely solve the problem of ignorance; ignorance is pervasive, and human beings, with their inherent limits, will always have to deal with it. Individuals who endorse irrational public policies will not magically become all-wise in their capacity as private decisionmakers. Heuristics distort private as well as public affairs…But, although people will always make disastrous personal and financial decisions, at least in the private sphere they get feedback that often causes them to realize that they’ve made a mistake—something that usually isn’t true of disastrous public policies, which often remain too far removed from individual observers even to be recognized as failures.”

    “We need, in short, to infuse the study of “public choice” with a much greater appreciation of the environment of ignorance, ideology, and deference to expertise in which interest groups and politicians maneuver. This would produce not only a more realistic understanding of the nature of modern politics but also a more rational approach to setting its limits.”

  28. Falco Mazwelane Falco Mazwelane 13 February 2013

    Thanks for the inspiration of thinkers who seem to be concerned about the way things should happen in societies. My take will be of also adding the view that Plato had on those who rule or are in government (maybe in this case, Reason or Charioteer) rulers should be removed from social structures and stay in compaunds so that they cannot enjoy the benefits of comfort zone or gravy train in our case. Plato mentiones that the danger of rulers enjoying what we see our politicians enjoying is that they might abuse thier powers and do what we see in Zumaville. Who is going to foot the bill of paying nurses or doctors who will be working in the Zumaville clinic if it was build for one individual? Some may agree that our rulers are victims of the mess we find ourselves in since the advisers are the ones who initiates decisions. If reason is not able to guide, desire will not motivate and spirit will not animate.

    This leaves poor African souls in dilema, misguided, disgrandled and loosing confidance in the democracy that was established in 1994. I share some sentiments with @Mr Direct, @HD and @Pual Whelan in that a room for sharing the ideologies should be opened and that people should have a right of participating freely in things that are aimed at shaping classes that are needed in Mzantsi (Azania). As long as we have a constitution that is only promulgated in English and does not serve the intire population of people of the South, we will continue having a divided society.

  29. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 13 February 2013

    Yes, but would it? It makes a good case, but would it in practice result in ‘greater rationality in the functions that no longer concern the state’?

    I suppose in the end it is about a political position or, if that is too strong a word, a faith or tendency that I can’t share. I simply don’t feel safe with a general proposition like ‘shrinking the state’. When people argue for it, my reaction is to ask where and why? And it is quite the same if they suggest extending the state – where and why? – though I confess I am much more wary about extending the state.

    But the point is orders are not spontaneous; they are also at least partially managed (or mismanaged), by people, and by events. We can’t get away from it, or from the consequences. We’re here on a constant patch-up job.

    How is what we do going to improve things? For whom? For how long? Above all, can we change it all back when it turns out to have been wrong again? They’re the questions for me.

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