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Plato grew in a family of high social class and political influence in that; he would have taken a noble role in Athenian politics. Nevertheless, he did not wish to live a political life because he witnessed injustices perpetrated by rulers, who were his relatives and friends.
Plato witnessed the unfortunate execution of fellow philosophers and thus, preferred to receive severe penalty than participate in promoting injustice and evil actions that characterized political powers.
When a revolution that changed the constitution occurred, Plato longed to participate in politics and public affairs; however, he was surprised when he noticed how the new regime instituted other injustices by avenging on perceived enemies from previous regimes.
It was a shock for Plato to see powerful people in government summoning Socrates to court and charging him with impiety before condemning him to death. Through such experiences, Plato observed that injustices would dominate society until when rulers become philosophers and use their wisdom to discern and change the retrogressive constitutions of their cities.
According to Reeve, Plato argues that, people will only achieve a just society “if a king becomes philosopher or philosopher becomes a king” (6).
Thus, justice in society depends on wisdom that rulers employ in their governance. According to Plato, the best way to avoid abuses of political powers is by electing philosophers as rulers because they have the wisdom to discern justice from injustice, and thus prevent the occurrence of political injustices.
The Problem of Power
Plato holds that, there is a power problem in politics because politicians misuse power to achieve their desired ends no matter whether the means is justice or injustice. In trying to unravel the problem of power associated with politics, Plato questioned on what constitutes morality in society.
Based on his experiences, Plato realized that there was a power problem in politics, for he lived in tyrannical regime that executed philosophers and promoted injustices. Consequently, he did not get involved in public affairs and politics despite the fact that his relatives and friends were in power.
Rulers misused political powers for selfish interest because they perceived human actions as either beneficial or unbeneficial, thus recognizing morality and laws as mere conventions that one ought not to follow.
According to Reeve, Plato noted that rulers have been committing injustice to society because they perform actions that are only advantageous to them while disadvantageous to other people (20). Although justice elevates individual and state, unwise rulers cause injustice in society for they do not realize the essence of justice and morality.
In dialogue with Socrates, Plato affirms that justice is the most desirable virtue in society because of its inherent goodness and consequential happiness it bestows to humanity. Thus, Plato pointed out that injustice or justice occurs at individual and state level. In this view, rulers concentrate on actions that benefit state and later examine their consequences at an individual level.
Therefore, it means that rulers have a significant responsibility of ensuring that people receive justice at an individual level relative to justice at the state level. Reeve asserts that, Plato held that habits and principles that rulers exhibit at the state level emanate from individual attributes (140).
Thus, if a ruler has no wisdom and virtues, it is probable that injustice would dominate society. A ruler must have virtues and wisdom, which is essential in guiding one to make just decisions and perform just acts for the sake of justice, rather than selfish interests of attaining advantageous ends.
Therefore, Plato believes that unwise rulers abuse their political powers by perpetuating injustice in society. Moreover, Plato argues that non-philosophical rulers do not like truth to flourish in society because truth reveals injustice enables them to achieve their desired political ends.
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It became evident that when philosophers like Socrates and others enlightened Athenians, political figures planned to execute them because they did not want people in society to understand their unjust actions and agitate for their rights.
Plato and Socrates concur that, justice emanates from personal attributes such as virtues and wisdom because political leadership has numerous forces, which influence how rulers make decisions and implement them accordingly.
Fundamentally, false ideology of politics and ethics distort how rulers perceive ethical truth, which subsequently influences delivery of justice to people.
According to Reeve, Plato believes that, “…virtuous people can gain genuine knowledge of ethical truth, because they alone can achieve genuine understanding of the virtuous life” (19). Thus, the lack of virtuosity on the part of rulers has contributed to a great deal of injustices, which have clouded political leadership and created governance problems in society.
Plato believes that, philosophical rulers are true leaders who can create a just society, which recognizes the interests of everyone, despite the difference in social class or ideology. Since philosophers have wisdom, they have the capacity to discern what is expedient for humanity.
Reeve argues that, a state will deliver justice when kings and princes become philosophers or embrace power and spirit of philosophy (180). Philosophy is an integral component of leadership because, it guides rulers on how to handle diverse people and satisfy different political interest that they have, with respect to administering justice.
Since philosophers have superb wisdom, they are able to ensure that everyone in society receives fair treatment, unlike unwise leaders who misuse political powers for selfish interests while neglecting justice. To the unwise rulers, ethics and laws are secondary to selfish interests, while to the wise rulers, ethics and laws are central elements, which are essential in creating and promoting a just society.
In philosophy of government, Plato argues that philosophers are the most knowledgeable members of society; thus, they deserve to be rulers because they understand what is right for humanity and government.
Given that governance is complex, it needs wise rulers with expansive and diverse knowledge so that they understand different interests of people and satisfy them harmoniously without causing undue discrimination, which subvert justice in society.
Misuse of power by political rulers has created numerous injustices, which could not have occurred, if they used philosophical ideologies that recognize equality. Since the serious problem that is facing leadership is misuse of power, philosophical rulers provide a credible solution because they use wisdom when solving daily challenges of life.
Reeve contends that, philosophers love knowledge and continually stick to its principles in spite of political influences (196). Knowledge that philosophers cherish is essential in political leadership as it aids rulers to make wise decisions concerning delivery of justice.
Hence, to avoid abuse of power, people need to make philosophers their leaders because immense wisdom that they have restrains them from abusing powers.
In addition to having knowledge, philosophers also value societal virtues. Philosophers use their knowledge, wisdom, and virtues in transforming society; thus, if given a chance to exercise dreams, they are going to build a better society that has its foundation in justice and virtue.
Having witnessed injustice that Athenian government committed under unwise rulers, Plato observed that philosophical rulers have the capacity of ensuring that governing principles depict moral values of society.
According to Reeve, philosophers are virtuous because they cherish truth (186). Given that philosophers love truth, selfish desires, which cause injustices, have no place in their hearts or minds. Moreover, wealth, honour and pleasure will not influence their leadership because virtues take precedence in life of a philosopher.
If a philosopher becomes a ruler, selfish acts of stealing, lying, assassination and even boasting will not occur in society because philosophers have principles and virtues that respect other humans in spite of their social class. Thus, philosophical rulers guarantee leadership that promotes virtues and morality in society and is free of selfish interests.
Plato argues that men in general do not like philosophical ideologies because they do not want to seek knowledge, wisdom and truth. In discourse with Socrates, Plato identifies four forms of government that unwise rulers lead in perpetuating injustice and pursuing selfish interests.
Tyrannical government is the first form of government that misuses political power in performing unlawful acts that undermine human freedom and dignity. Second form of government is democracy in which power and wild ambitions that are unnecessary are its driving forces, while oligarchy is the third form of government in which necessary appetites are driving for of a ruler.
Timocarcy is the fourth form of government in which honour and selfish interest are the driving forces of the rulers. According to Reeve, Plato describes the ruler of timocracy government as “rough, proud, power hungry, lover of honour, and devoid of virtue” (241).
Rulers of the above forms of government share similar characteristics in that they all lack wisdom, virtues, knowledge and that they are after selfish interests that create injustice in society. Since philosophers have proper attributes of leadership, society needs philosophical rulers to prevent the occurrence of injustice associated with excessive political powers.
Although philosophical rulers do not abuse their political powers, it is essential that a government should have a constitution that guide rulers and prevent them from committing injustice in society. Absence of the constitution provides immense freedom to rulers to make subjective decisions that suit their own interests, even though they are disadvantageous to people.
Plato confesses that, he did not join Athenian politics because he was waiting for an opportune moment when constitution would have changed because he perceived that, without constitution, nothing meaningful would ever come out of the Athenian government.
He believed that philosophical rulers are the only people who are able to discern what wrong in society, and act appropriately by formulating constitution that is going to guide all leaders in spite of their political backgrounds. Thus, philosophical rulers and constitution are critical components that political leadership requires in enhancing justice in society.
Plato perceives that the best way to avoid abuse of power is by electing philosophical rulers. Philosophical rulers are the best leaders because they have principles and values that guide them, unlike ordinary leaders who are subject to influences of pleasure, wealth and honour among other political forces.
Moreover, philosophers are wise, knowledgeable and virtuous, which are the best attributes that rulers require in preventing the occurrence of injustice due ignorance and immorality. Therefore, to enhance justice in society, philosophical rulers are critical because they provide appropriate leadership and a constitution for it provides a blue print of governing.
Reeve, C.D.C. ed. Plato Republic. 2nd ed. Trans. George Grube. Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1992.