Mark Franke: Plato’s philosopher kings and America in 2024


One of my less than admirable traits is to attempt to categorize and organize everything into its simplest terms. All too often, simple devolves to simplistic as I keep trying to pound an unwilling square peg into an unreceptive round hole.

Philosophy is one such recipient of my zealousness for reduction. During the semester or two when I considered myself a philosophy major, the left side of my brain resolved to assign all philosophy to either Platonism or Aristotelianism based on the litmus test of realism versus materialism. If one believed there were real things that couldn’t be seen, heard or touched, then you are a Platonist. Otherwise, you are an Aristotelian. All subsequent philosophical models or schools must, by my taxonomy, find their origins in one or the other. It’s probably a good thing that I changed my major — eventually — to economics. So far I have only been able to reduce economic thought to three major classifications, but rest assured I haven’t given up in getting rid of that pesky third one.

I am a Platonist by my own definition and I stand in exalted company. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said Hamlet, a true Platonist if ever there were one.

The point being that, when in doubt about any question not answerable in Holy Scripture, I turn to Plato for a starting point. As I contemplate the sorry state of our democracy given the presumptive presidential candidates, my thoughts are drawn to Plato’s “Republic” and his political structure based on the abstract ideal of the philosopher king.

Plato wrote in the format of dialogues with his teacher, Socrates, as the main character. I need to confess my reading of Plato’s works always left me confused as to when we are hearing Socrates himself or when it is Plato’s own thoughts expressed through the Socrates character.

In the “Republic,” Plato as Socrates contends only someone who will guard the laws and institutions of the state is qualified to rule. This philosopher king will be recognized by his personal attributes which Socrates induces from his interlocutor.

The list is extensive and may be exhaustive. It includes intelligence, memory, cleverness, fearlessness, steadfastness, knowledge and truthfulness. The last two warrant special attention for America in 2024.

Plato insists truth must be the first love of a ruler and deliberate falsehood to be avoided at all cost. We don’t need media fact-checkers to report both of our current candidates have the propensity to tell some whoppers. Unfortunately, this has become the sine qua non of American political discourse.

So what constitutes truth? Plato suggests it can only result from knowledge, so whence knowledge?

Plato anchors knowledge in an “eternal nature” that does not vary from generation to generation. It is a love of learning that fulfills the ruler. For America these eternals are to be found in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and their application in the Bill of Rights. Can either candidate list all the rights protected in the first ten amendments?

Even knowledge serves a higher purpose. It’s much more than being the all-time grand winner on Jeopardy. The philosopher king will pursue knowledge of the good as the highest aspiration of the ruler.

Does one get the sense that anyone in our ruling class is motivated by a love of knowledge in the pursuit of the objective and universal good? If they start out with that in mind, they are quickly disabused of its political usefulness in Washington D.C.

Perhaps I am being unfair by measuring Messrs. Biden and Trump against Plato’s philosopher kings. Even Plato realized he was creating an alternate reality to what Athenian democracy had become. This was just after the disastrous Peloponnesian War, disastrous for Athens at least. Its precious democracy had not stood the test as it descended into mobocracy. Despite what we were taught in grammar school, the war was not one of a pure and democratic Athens defending itself against an evil and totalitarian Sparta. Athens provoked the war through its foreign policy of enforced hegemony across Greece and the Aegean littoral.

And it was this Athenian democracy which condemned and executed Plato’s mentor Socrates for his disregard for the political correctness of his day.

No wonder Plato set his mind to building a more perfect state, even if nothing more than a castle in the sky.

Caveat: It is hardly beyond the realm of possibility that I have misconstrued and misapplied Plato’s thoughts by time-traveling them nearly 2,400 years into the future. If so, I have a lifeline in a retired university professor and colleague at the Indiana Policy Review who is my metaphysical father-confessor on all things Plato. I expect to hear from him soon.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Send comments to [email protected].

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