Interest in politics, running parallel to a critical stance toward the Athenian Democracy and its institutions, permeates Plato’s philosophy. The idea that philosophers must rule or rulers must philosophize, which is presented as a necessary condition for the ‘realization’ of the best state, is anticipated in the ‘socratic’ account of the value of art; interpretative questions of the Crito, concerning the question of obedience, can be addressed through a rich network of ideas that is developed from the criticism of the Politicus until the Laws.

Philosophy and Politics

The most prominent among the ideas Plato has left to political philosophy is that philosophers must rule or rulers must philosophize, which is presented in the Republic as a necessary condition for the realization of the bet state. That the Platonic Socrates describes this measure as a ‘third wave’ (Modern scholars describe this as a tsounami) on the one hand reflects his contemporaries’ prejudice against philosophy and on the other hand it allows us to connect this idea with the very image of Socrates and his condemnation by the Athenians. According to the autobiographical 7th Letter, that was precisely the incident that triggered Plato’s interest in the kind of philosophy that he himself introduces in his Academy. The philosopher’s passion for knowledge secures his resentment for power. This is exactly the characteristic that makes him an ideal ruler, since this kind of person will rule against his will, that is he will never choose to rule because of the greed that, according to Plato, is a common drive among statesmen.

The Socratic Legacy

The curriculum of the philsopher-kings is taken to reflect that of the students of the Academy, some of which would indeed pursue political careers. Commitment to a particular kind of study is in turn related to the Socratic demand for the definition of an art that would allow statesmen to justly claim their title. The distance that separates Athenian Democracy from such a Socratic-Platonic ideal is reflected on the paradoxical phrase Plato attributes to Socrates in the Gorgias:

Ι believe that I am among a few Athenians who practice true political art, and that I act in a political way; or maybe I am the only one (521d).

The paradoxical character of this formulation has to do with the fact that, regardless of Socrates’ exepmlary, just behavior one would hardly attribute to him a political art which (according to the conditions posed by Plato) would be transmitted to others. Plato’s failure to identify such an art is reflected on his criticism against teachers that in Socrates’ time claimed to be able to train politicians. Of critical importance for Plato’s criticism against such teachers, whom he presents as partisans of relativism, is the claim for defining objective principles through which knowledge is directed.

An Enemy of Democracy?

 Plato’s ‘article of faith’ concerning the identification between philosophers and rulers as well as his inimical views about the Athenian Democracy and its politicians have plausibly led to the conclusion that he was an enamy of this type of constitution. Indeed, just as many other thinkers of his time, Plato develops a harsh ciriticism toward Athenian Democracy and he describes its politicians as populists, demagogues, who flatter the citizens, building ships..walls and ports (Gorgias 517c2). An important component of the Democracy is the citizen body, which is presented as incompetent, unable to judge. In the Apology Socrates describes an animal who is lazy because of its huge size, which he himself had failed to awaken. This picture is taken up in the Republic, in the image of a beast, whose appetites drive orators who aim at the beast’s satisfaction. This condemnation of public opinion, as well as measures confining free speech and art, but also the implementation of eugenic rules that will govern the marriages between guardians, or th use of a noble lie as a foundation for the argument of the Republic certainly lead to the idea of Plato as an enemy of democracy (this idea draws support from dialogues such as the Gorgias , the Protagoras, the Menexenus, as well as the Apology ). Plato’s critical stance against democracy can be further traced in his comparative study of constitutions which is presented for the first time in the Republic and is completed in the Politicus. Leaving aside Plato’s criticism toward contemporary politics, any serious assesment of his contribution in the history of democracy must take into accound his commitment to the value of dialogue and dialectic, which is forstered through his writings.

The Criticism of Law

Earlier views on Plato’s political philosophy stress the tension between different stages of his work, placing special emphasis on the notion of written law, which is completely absent from the Republic. The relevant argument is introduced in the Politicus in the course of a discussion that has led to the conclusion that even if we were able to find the ideal master of political art, whose definition is the aim of the dialogue, his presence would only benefit a small number of cases, because of the fact that he would only be able to communicate with all the citizens, either because of their defficiency or because of objective practical difficulties. Through this reasoning, Plato in the Politicus introduces written legislation as a necessary yet not ideal route, a second sailing compared to a constitution that would be founded on the constant presence of a royal man. One interpretative difficulty that characterized earlier studies arises from the fac that, despite the criticism of written law in the Politicus, Plato devotes his last work to drafting a law code for a colony in Crete. Most recent interpretative tendencies, however, treat Plato as an artist who works through the same topics in different contexts, taking into account new parameters which are developed throughout his career as an author. The case of legislation if of unique interest. In his early Crito, Plato exploits the story of Socrates’ condemnation to discuss the question of obedience to the law. One can see this dialogue as a keynote to a question that continues to permeate Plato’s work throughout his oeuvre. But whereas in the Crito there is a series of questions that remain open-ended (a fact that is reflected in interpretative debates on this dialogue), in the Laws Plato is able to presuppose ideas that have been introduced in earlier dialogues. The most important among them is his view that the world is the product of divine providence. Far from treating law as an expression of relativist ethics, in the Laws , presupposing a cosmology that shows the world as the product of design, Plato describes law as the golden chain of reason that connects humans with the gods. Another important idea that is present in many dialogues and is incorporated in a critical way in the Laws is the idea of persuation and the citizens’ consent. The criticism of rhetoric that marks a bumber of earlier dialogue allows Plato in the Laws to introduce the novel idea of preambles, through which the legislator will be able to persuade the citizens to obey the law.

Author: Chloe Balla
  • Bobonich, C. Plato’s Utopia Recast. His Later Ethics and Politics. Oxford, 2002.
  • Morrow, G. R. Plato’s Cretan City. A Historical Interpretation of the Laws. Princeton, NJ, 1960.
  • Schofield, M. Plato. Political Philosophy. Oxford, 2006.
  • Yunis, H. Taming Democracy. Models of Political Rhetoric in Classical Athens. Ithaca, NY and London, 1996.


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