Victor Nuovo: Philosopher Kings

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of essays or reflections about the Republic, a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
Socrates reminds his friends that the purpose of their exercise in imagining an ideal city is to discover what justice is and how it may be realized in the individual and the city. Therefore, they must continue their pursuit until they are able to decide whether this model city is possible. An architect would not imagine an ideal house without considering also whether it is possible to build it, if not in perfect detail, then at least in the closest approximation possible. The same principle applies here.
He goes on to say that the ideal city is possible only if its rulers are philosophers, and by this he means that they must be lovers of knowledge, and, as much as possible, become knowers. They must know the difference between true and false, real and unreal, what is and what is not, for knowledge is an understanding of some truth about real things. Then there is what comes between real and unreal, and the rest. What is it? Opinion, belief, faith — they all mean the same. A philosopher king must be a lover of knowledge, not of opinion.
Now there are all sorts of opinions. In a demented state or a dream, I might imagine myself to be the emperor of Russia, and that would count as a belief although a very foolish one. But you and I have other beliefs, some serious, some lighthearted, some essential to life, some throwaways.
Much of what we do with others depends on trust, which is a form of belief. If I enter into a contractual arrangement to purchase a house, or for important services, I trust that the terms of the contract will be observed. We trust ourselves, or believe in ourselves, and we urge others to do the same, for this seems essential to life.
So shouldn’t we be lovers of opinion also? Yes, but the opinions that we value, or should value are those that are as close to knowledge as we can make them, which is to say, very close to truth, opinions that have been tried and tested, and on sober judgment seem more likely to be true than false. We want them to be nearly knowledge. We would be fools if we didn’t.
Recall that for Plato, Socrates was the archetypal philosopher because, among all those who claimed to have wisdom, he alone was wise because he knew what they, sometimes willfully, ignored, which was that he and most likely they knew almost nothing. From that point on, he became a lover of knowledge, always in pursuit of it, never willing to settle into a sedentary faith and so to live by it.
But it is not only opinion that comes between what is and what is not, between the real and the unreal. What else is there? It is becoming. The world we live in is changing all the time, so, Plato supposed, we can’t really know it. “Here today, gone tomorrow” applies to everything, and our beliefs about them change with the changing course of things.
Everyday reality is fickle. It changes, and so do we, often unexpectedly. But if our ordinary tangible world and our tangible selves are such that we are unable to know them, then perhaps they aren’t real, which is not to suppose they are mere illusion, rather they are things once removed from what truly is. So, a true philosopher, who is a lover of knowledge, is also a lover of the real. And what is that?
Now suppose what is really real does not consist of tangible things that we touch and taste and smell, all of them changing, suppose rather that it is something that always is and is always the same as itself? Suppose justice itself were such a thing, along with beauty and goodness? Plato called them ideas, not because they are unreal, but because, for us, they can only be perceived by the mind, by intelligence.
And suppose these ideas, and many more, are not only parts of a real intelligible world, but are united under the aegis of the good, which is the source of all value and generative power and the supreme idea, a universal intelligence and creativity, impersonal and uncaring, and under its domain ideas are the causes of this world of becoming that we inhabit and of our ability to know it truly. Then lovers of truth will seek to gain access to this intelligible world, guided by its traces in this world, by glimpses of truth, beauty, and goodness here below, which may explain why sometimes we are enthralled by the mere thought of beauty or of justice and enjoy thinking about the ins and outs of pure numbers and other curious abstractions.
Incidentally, as a sequel to the Republic, Plato wrote a dialogue entitled Timaeus. It is a philosophical fable about how the world was made in imitation of the real world of ideas. It completes the picture that I am attempting to draw here.
Getting back to philosopher kings, according to Socrates they must be realists. They must know the difference between knowledge and opinion, and because of this they will be less likely to do anything rash; they may not be entirely free of error, but they will be less likely to make mistakes because they are lovers of the real. So they will be wise rulers.
But since the real as it really is isn’t here but somewhere else, accessible only to intelligence, philosopher kings, if they are truly realists, must also be lovers of that place, especially because justice itself, which is needed to make the city as perfect as possible, is there also. How does one find access to this intelligible world? For the philosopher king, it is a higher duty to access it, although any of us who are charmed by Plato’s grand theory may want to go along.
This is the purpose of higher education, which, as Plato conceived it, is sort of ascent of the mind, but — one must be warned — only by intellectual means. There is no easy mystical way to truth and reality. Higher education is supposed to open the way.

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