12. knowledge and power in plato's political thought

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International Journal of Philosophical Studies Vol. 14(1), 5177

Knowledge and Power in Platos Political ThoughtThom BrooksDepartment ThomBrooks 0 1000002005 Journal 14 2006 & (print)/1466-4542 Original Article 0967-2559Francis Internationalof PoliticsSchool of Geography, Politics & Sociology, University of NewcastleNewcastle upon TyneNE1 17RUUKT.Brooks@newcastle.ac.uk 10.1080/09672550500445137 (online) RIPH_A_144496.sgm of Taylor and Francis Ltd Philosophical Studies

AbstractPlato justifies the concentration and exercise of power for persons endowed with expertise in political governance. This article argues that this justification takes two distinctly different sets of arguments. The first is what I shall call his ideal political philosophy described primarily in the Republic as rule by philosopher-kings wielding absolute authority over their subjects. Their authority stems solely from their comprehension of justice, from which they make political judgements on behalf of their city-state. I call the second set of arguments Platos practical political philosophy underlying his later thought, where absolute rule by philosopher-kings is undermined by the impure character of all political knowledge. Whereas the complete comprehension of justice sanctions the absolute political power of those with this expertise, partial knowledge of justice disallows for such a large investment of power. Platos practical political philosophy argues for a mixed theory of governance fusing the institutions of monarchy with democracy in the best practical citystate. Thus, Plato comes to realize the insurmountable difficulties of his ideal political thought, preferring a more practical political philosophy instead. Keywords: Plato; Socrates; Republic; idealism; constitution; democracy

I

Introduction

Plato justifies the concentration and exercise of power for persons endowed with expertise in political governance. This article argues that this justification takes two distinctly different sets of arguments. The first is what I shall call his ideal political philosophy described primarily in the Republic as rule by philosopher-kings. The philosopher-kings wield absolute authority over their subjects. This authority stems solely from their complete comprehension of justice, from which they make political judgements on behalf of their city-state. The second set of arguments is what I shall call Platos practical political philosophy underlying his later thought, although hinted at in earlier dialogues. According to this view, absolute rule by philosopher-kings is undermined by the impure character of all political knowledge.

International Journal of Philosophical Studies ISSN 09672559 print 14664542 online 2006 Taylor & Francis http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/09672550500445137

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES

Whereas the complete comprehension of justice sanctions the absolute political power of those with this expertise, partial knowledge of justice disallows for such a large investment of power. Platos practical political philosophy argues for a mixed theory of governance fusing the institutions of monarchy with democracy into the best practical city-state. Thus, Plato comes to realize the insurmountable difficulties of his ideal political thought, reluctantly preferring a more practical political philosophy instead. Contrary to Straussian interpretations, I argue that the problem with philosopher-kings relates to the nature of political expertise, rather than speculation beyond the text about whether or not philosophers would want to rule.1 II Platos Theory of Expertise II A Crafts as Expertise

Plato believes that the opinions of some people are better than those of others (Crito 47a; see also Republic 494a).2 As a result, some people are assumed to be able to make better judgements. This point is fairly uncontroversial, unless Plato is attempting to argue that these persons have superior judgements about all matters a view he rejects. The ability to make correct judgements stems from one of two sources: either right opinion or true knowledge. Acting from right opinion is akin to lucky guesswork, as the individual chooses correctly, despite a less than full comprehension of the subject-matter in question. On the other hand, when individuals make decisions from true knowledge, their choice is deliberately well-thought-out and not given to chance. For Plato, when we make judgements based on true knowledge our choice carries a certain authority that judgements based upon right or wrong opinion simply do not have. Thus, knowledge confers a special status on its holder (see Republic 583a, 584e585a).3 The authority that is conferred is not political authority as such; instead, we might think of it as similar to assurance or certitude. For example, a medical doctor with true knowledge will speak with greater assurance on how best to treat a variety of ailments, as she will most likely be correct. On the other hand, a medical doctor with less than perfect knowledge can only attribute his success to an arbitrary judgement, a choice that will hardly win our confidence. We each possess some degree of expertise in one type of craft (techne ).4 It is supposed that if a person needs to have his shoes repaired, he would do best to seek the advice of a cobbler. However, if this same person suffers ill health, a medical doctor ought to be consulted instead. Thus, it follows for Plato that we may only perform well at one given craft (Apology 22de). Plato believes that the crafts we choose are commensurable with our given nature, instead of the demands of the marketplace (see Statesman 286de).5 In addition, the crafts we choose complement the craft-related expertise of]r m ea [c

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KNOWLEDGE AND POWER IN PLATOS POLITICAL THOUGHT

others in our community rather well, forming a natural division of labour from which all in a community benefit (Republic 370c). When each citizen does what he or she is naturally suited for, the city obtains a unity (Republic 423d, 433a). A city is virtuous when each of its citizens pursues his or her naturally suitable crafts (Gorgias 506de; Republic 433d).6 This unity breaks down when persons who ought to be engaged in one variety of craft activity are able to pursue a different craft, or no craft at all (see Republic 434ab, 496a, 535c).7 In such a city, the community is transformed from a united whole to a community of independent persons a sign of poor social organization (Charmides 161e162a). II B Expertise in Governance

For Plato, governance is one kind of craft. He calls this brand of expertise the expert knowledge of kingship (Statesman 292e) and the art of kingship (Statesman 308e, 311c; see Euthydemus 291d).8 Because it is a craft, only persons with a particular nature are suited to pursue expertise in governance. The right to rule is not conferred via majority approval or material wealth, but via expertise in statesmanship (see Euthydemus 291c292c; Republic 426d, 477de; Statesman 292c).9 A person need not actually be a king to have this particular form of expertise (Statesman 259c, 292e). If we can only practise one craft well and ruling is a craft it will always be impossible for all citizens to rule together, and a minority will always be predisposed to rule (Republic 494a; Statesman 297bc). Indeed, Plato assumes that only a few or perhaps just one individual will possess this knowledge in any given city-state (Statesman 297bc, 300e; see also Republic 494a). Persons whose natures direct them best to pursue expertise in other crafts such as slaves, retailers, or day-labourers will forever be unfit to rule as a result (Statesman 289e290b). For Plato, it is a common fact of life that people properly seek counsel solely from experts in a particular field.10 As a consequence, whenever we discern those who possess expert knowledge in governance, it is right that they should rule as this is the craft they naturally pursue best just as those with expertise in trade skills ought to work as manual labourers (see Statesman 266e). The expert statesman alone transforms the naturally bestowed authority from certitude which all naturally have of their given craft to an authority that is political.11 In addition, the city-state with expert rulers as its sole authority enjoys natural unity to the fullest extent. Plato says: this is the constitution which alone we must say is correct. All the others that we generally say are constitutions we must say are not genuine, and not really constitutions at all, but imitations of this one; 53

INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHICAL STUDIES

those we say are law-abiding have imitated it for the better, the others for the worse (Statesman 293e; italics in the original) The constitutions of different varieties of city-states imitate expert rule insofar as they attempt to live by just laws (Statesman 300ce). These attempts will fail because only persons naturally predisposed to governance can ascertain and implement just laws, whereas those who are not so predisposed may only ascertain just laws through lucky, but imperfect, guesswork (Statesman 293c, 300ce). An assessment of various types of governance can only be based upon the ability a constitution has to imitate expert rule (Statesman 300e302e). III The Philosopher-Kings Right to Govern

How does Platos theory of expertise in worldly affairs relate to political institutions? This is one of the more hotly contested debates in the literature, particularly regarding Platos many criticisms of democracy. It must first be said that what Plato meant by democracy was quite different from how we may understand it today.12 For Plato, a democracy is essentially a libertarian society in which each citizen can arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him (Republic 557b; se