There’s Simply No ‘You’ in Utopia: The Fallacy of Felicity in Plato’s ‘Philosopher King’ Society

The word ‘Utopia’ was coined in Latin by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. The word comes from the Greek: οὐ (‘not’ or ‘good’) and τόπος (‘place’) and can variously mean either ‘no-place-land’ or ‘good-place-land.’ There is quite an obvious distance between those two places. It’s fitting that the one Greek derivation of utopia would be ‘no place,’ since it would appear that utopia truly is no place that we’ll ever know or find. On its face, today’s violent and barbaric world is not so very different than the time of More, or even Plato, for that matter. However, communication and technology have irrevocably transformed our world and our connection to each other in it, leaving it proverbially ‘smaller.’ We have lost sight of those distant and idyllic civilizations of peace and tranquility once crowding the pages of lore. On a very literal level, we have thoroughly chartered and explored nearly every inch of this planet, and it is increasingly improbable that there are lost Shangri-Las still yet to be discovered. Even our understanding of the deep sea or the depths of outer space is sober and rooted in science, more than fantasy. Science Fiction itself projects utopian/ dystopian worlds—writ on an intergalactic canvas—but still allegories of Earth’s woes. On a theoretical level, ours is a world being culturally unearthed every day, and we are bombarded with new sights (and sites) that dramatically alter our worldview, and invariably make the strange and exotic familiar and comfortable. We may hold onto the last vestiges of enmity and barbarism, but today, it is couched in a highly sophisticated nuance the world has never known. We live in a society where we have adopted the idea that our leaders should look like us, and be superlative versions of ourselves: a little better looking, more stylish, confident, yet humble, etc. We do not inhabit a world where we place our trust in unparalleled giants of intellect and sagacious reasoning. We ask that they be smart and capable, but also possess so much more. Plato’s ‘philosopher king’ is enviable in theory, but our leaders need to be men and women of sterner stuff—of thoughtful and deliberate action, and even more careful diplomacy. They must certainly learn at the feet of philosophers when they deeply consider the natural rights of man, that are those not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, but are rather universal and inalienable truths and states of being. It is there that Plato’s philosopher king would retreat into his cave and ponderously and judiciously govern his fellow man. Such a ruler would be characterized by a dogged pursuit of inalterable essences and truth in deliberation. This same man would desire to peer beneath the superficial gloss of shallow understanding, and understand the richness and fundamental use and purpose of a thing. Plato’s rulers would thoroughly explore the deepest and most profound meaning in the world around them, to not only understand it better, but also be able to fairly and firmly govern it as well.

I would argue that such a world couldn’t exist today. Our leaders cannot be ascetic philosophers, governing from contemplative places of solace and scholarship. They must be men and women of the world, and exert even more energy engaging their Earthly peers, than exploring the ethereal catacombs of their own minds. We are far less physically active than the ancestors we might call barbaric today, but we are far more active in other ways. Like the increasingly diversified and multi-tasking workplaces around the globe, we elect leaders that demonstrate a wide array of strengths. We cannot solely rely on superior intellect and an exhaustive probing exploration of fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Those are the men and women that populate think tanks and demonstrably affect policy change. These are the loyal aides and advisors, Cabinet members, and trusted friends that think into a problem, so as he may think around it or through it. Instead of electing pure thinkers and philosophers, our world demands a more nuanced politician, and one who understands the delicate, and often perilous, balance between force and diplomacy. Leaders like this must possess: a deep and meaningful emotional intelligence; judicious reasoning capacity; a sizable wealth of knowledge, particularly regarding history and political maneuvering; empathy; and most importantly, a highly evolved, diversified, and adaptable style of communication. We live in a rapidly changing world of ubiquitous technology and communication. Any leader worth his salt, must expertly navigate the waters of diplomacy – with all the challenges of negotiating with adversaries, battling with foes on the home front, and balancing it all in the harsh glare of the media spotlight. Communication is the absolute number one most important trait for any world leader to have. Much of the rest can be learned, but communication—talking, negotiating, forging peace, flattering, standing resolute, warning, cajoling, and all the rest, are vital to a nation’s safety and livelihood. Frankly, it can mean the difference between building new bridges and burning down old ones.

One might find fault with this analysis by pointing out that both More and Plato were speaking theoretically. The work of both men is undoubtedly philosophical and academic, and intended to develop and further the paradigm of a parallel and ideal universe. Not surprisingly, it’s not clear whether More and Plato were suggesting anything more than a theoretical daydream of an n unblemished world. The first recorded utopian proposal can be found in Plato’s Republic. The text is part conversation, part fictional depiction, and part policy proposal, and proposes all citizens be categorized into a rigid class structure of ‘golden,’ ‘silver,’ ‘bronze’ and ‘iron’ socioeconomic classes. The golden citizens would be trained in a rigorous 50-year long educational program to be benign oligarchs—the ‘philosopher-kings.’ The wisdom of these rulers would supposedly eliminate poverty and deprivation through fairly distributed resources, war would be contracted out or eliminated, and there are few laws in such a society. Plato effectively creates a utopian society, but one plagued with a rigid and unfair class system, and a society of wealth and elitism making decisions for the vast unwashed masses. Plato’s democratizing relief comes in the form of trickle down benevolence, and is the direct result of absolute power steadfastly held in the hands of a few titled men. All the cerebral heavy lifting in the world couldn’t account for the vagaries of human nature and unavoidable circumstances and catastrophe. I would argue that it is virtually impossible to solve the many ravishing ill of this planet, while refusing to come out of a gilded box of contemplation. 50 men can hardly provide for the needs of an entire nation, regardless of how smart they may be. Plato’s ‘philosopher-kings’ lack a tactile relationship with the world around them, and could never engage our diverse and challenging patchwork of nations today. However advanced and remarkable Plato’s Greece might have been, it was by no means, an egalitarian society. Plato was undeniably a product of his time and social standing. Even while pondering the ineffable uncertainties regarding the meaning of one’s own life, I have no doubt that Plato struggled with the even greater challenge of grasping life outside one’s own head. Plato’s search for truth was understandably solipsistic at times, and it’s not surprising that we see his utopian leaders look much like himself. Yet, was any of this meant to be taken seriously? Did Plato intend for it to be an academic model of an ideal world, with its sole purpose being for instruction and pedagogical scrutiny? If so, the theoretical proposal is interesting, but one flawed in its applicability.

Even in Plato’s time, his world could have benefited from more diplomacy and less conquest. But of course, holding up ancient Rome to 21st Century values and constructs is unfair and ultimately, a worthless endeavor. I’d like to think we’ve evolved as a people, but perhaps our primitive and savage natures are simply buried under learned civility, but easily awoken should the threat arise. In the conflicts with our foes, lay the conflicts with ourselves, as we are both the instruments of slaughter like our ancestors before us, and are our better selves, who call for peace and reconciliation. We are still evolving, and cannot seem to fully reconcile our animal instincts of defense and survival with our rational goals of peace and collaboration. Ours is a liminal age of great hope, and grave dangers. As we stand at the crossroads, we must choose a future for our planet, marked by cooperation, tolerance, and good will, or divisive territorialism and demonization of those deemed different and threatening to a certain way of life. Such prejudice can be found on both sides of the aisle, and there are heroes and scoundrels in every wolf pack and church choir. When it comes to peace, man’s reach may always exceed his grasp, and some who refuse to let go of their ancient grudges may never learn to reach for something new. As each generation passes on, more and more ancient grudges are buried with them and we seem to move that much closer to peace. In many ways, our miraculous tools of communication and fellowship have opened our eyes to the once exotic, and now familiar. Opposing lifestyles seem more acceptable and those we once feared are suddenly humanized by the time we now share together. In this time of tumult and possibility, more of us are awaking to the inalienable rights of everyone to live lives of liberty, dignity, and the freedom to control their own destinies. Rigid and unyielding institutions of learning, religion, government, and other monolithic pillars of our society, must evolve and accept that their members can live free and fulfilling lives, while investing in the growth and progress of the places they spent years embracing. However, these houses of the holy and home to sacred texts and learning must learn to embrace those who number in their ranks, or else risk extinction from failure to adapt. Even Aristotle concluded that “…it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily.” And yet, these aging and immovable people and institutions still threaten our future, as their voices are invariably louder than those who preach peace and acceptance. They still wield the power to influence smaller and smaller numbers of younger folks. And sadly, many occupy the highest offices in the land, and are responsible for making public policy, and reinforcing laws and doctrine that propagate hate and intolerance. These elders of the state are dangerous to our well being, because their actions cast long shadows. In the case of dramatic global climate change, the decisions we do or don’t make now may have catastrophic and irreversible consequences in the very near future. These are just some of the many challenging issues that weigh heavily on our nation, and in turn, the world.

Being President of the United States, or any other country—to a lesser degree—takes a complex skill set, which cannot be forged solely in the furnace of the mind. Plato’s philosopher kings were finally deemed the most desirable rulers, after eliminating four other lesser possibilities. He arrived at this conclusion after deep consideration of the pros and cons of other political systems. After the death of Socrates, Plato was disillusioned with democracy and an Athens that was past its height of power and was waning and groaning under the weight of its pluralistic and populist philosophy. Plato was also fatigued by the loss of life inflicted by a costly war that Athens ultimately lost. Even the class system was clumsy and illogical, rewarding the common and uninformed man with the right to vote and influence law and policy. But Plato’s philosopher kings were not ideal choices, because their ponderous scholarship and search for the truth was self-imposed exile from the nation they’re charged with leading. Plato’s ideal and just state is an aristocracy, the rule of the best. He believed leaders needed to be wise and trained in how to run a state, just as captains of ships are trained in how to run a ship. And yet, his kings are thinkers and speculators, divorced from the needs and wants of the city they serve. They have never wanted for anything, and cannot be expected to equitably serve the needs of a needy and diverse city-state. Training an aristocrat to be a fair and consistent ruler is impossible in a vacuum of academic rigor and the fortification of cerebral acrobatics. As Greece was in decline, the democracy buckled under its own tyranny and corruption. Plato didn’t live to see it fall, and come under the rule of Macedon and later returned to the Greeks. Yet Aristotle did, and fell victim to one of the same charges of heresy that cost Socrates his life. In this instance, Aristotle was not executed, but paid the price in exile and an ignominious death. Although Plato had been his teacher, Aristotle disagreed with much of Plato’s philosophy. Plato was an idealist, who believed that everything had an ideal form and that the ideal government was an aristocratic hegemony of intellect and inherited leadership acumen. His philosopher kings would be well suited to rule, as they were products of superior education, good breeding, and refined tastes. In his ideal world, the aristocracy was preternaturally adept in ruling fairly and equitably. They understood their duty and responsibility. The ruling class was inextricably linked to reason and lived to gain wisdom. Their unquenchable thirst for knowledge and profound understanding would allow them to make informed decisions, forged in the crucible of carefully weighed arguments and facts. Plato believed no other class could provide such measured deliberation. As Plato’s prize pupil, Aristotle disagreed with an ideal state and believed in looking at the real world and studying how it realistically functioned and operated. He ultimately concluded that “…it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily.” On the other hand, Plato posited that “excess of liberty, whether in states or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.” His ideal state was rigid and despite his severe hatred of tyranny, he chose to put the reigns of power in the hands of a select few citizens. Plato’s philosopher kings were not only perfect in breeding and pedigree, but in their natural reluctance to lead—preferring the ascetic pursuit of truth and enlightenment. Plato found virtue in such hesitancy, reasoning that “The truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.” In the end, Plato concluded: “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, . . . cities will never have rest from their evils . . .”

Our world is unmistakably different than the world of Plato and Aristotle, and Sir Thomas More. Their utopias favored the rich and educated, and provided a blueprint for a world perhaps ruled by withdrawn thinkers and reluctant leaders. Such men might theorize the way to win a war, but likely will not taste the sting of defeat or know what it is to lose a comrade. Their leaders will be insulated from their subjects, and know very little about the clasp of a handshake between foes. Our leaders cannot afford to be so aloof. They must inject themselves into the national debates, and make concerted efforts to reach out to their constituents. Not only as a political maneuver and way to bolster poll numbers, but also as a way to understand the thoughts, needs, concerns, ideas, and complaints of the American public. Philosopher kings don’t seek answers outside of themselves, and our contemporary world leaders should not escape into the caverns of their own minds. That is not to say that there aren’t several politicians who could benefit from more introspection and careful consideration. We all know that there are far too many leaders whose partisanship blinds them to the nuances and sober fairness of various laws, compelling them to vote quickly, but not carefully.

In our modern society, we have cowboy legislators and unyielding leaders of churches and other religious bodies, always quick to attack and reject issues of global importance, like climate change and non-proliferation weapons treaties, while fiercely and sadistically denouncing marriage equality and gender parity in the workforce. Such arguments may be rightfully justified in the eyes of their church, but the US government is not an arbiter of taste and morality, but a provider of equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, etc. It does not get simpler than this: if you allow the marriage between a man and a woman, you must allow the same between those of the same gender. This is no Jim Crow style justice of ‘Separate, but equal.’ All parties must be afforded the same rights, as mandated in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Similarly, women are entitled to earn the same exact wage as their male counterparts, and any business or entity defying that principle must be fined and held in compliance. These are the kind of raw nerve cases that test the civility of congress and its ability to work together for the common good, but which inevitably divides our government and stops the wheels of progress. Both parties are shamefully guilty of playing politics, and impulsively rejecting legislation, based solely on whom it’s sponsored by. These same men and women are quick to judgment, spin words of discord and blame foes liberally, and are exceedingly fast at taking action, for fear of being left out in the cold. More often than not, this body of legislators effectively function as a plutocracy, and are often tied together through wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Not surprisingly, the vast majority emerges from America’s aristocracy—understandably, given the prohibitive costs of mounting a viable campaign. Although we do not like to think of a rigid class system in this country, there most certainly is. Though they may refer to themselves as lower upper class or upper middle class, or use slippery euphemisms like ‘We were comfortable’ or ‘We never had to go without,’ these privileged few make up the 1%, and make up the populations of Ivy League schools, boarding schools, yacht clubs, golf tournaments, philanthropy and fundraisers, tropical villas, and a long list of exclusive pastimes. Perhaps these are the aristocratic philosopher kings that Plato described. However, on closer examination, it’s painfully clear that despite their education and breeding, a substantial number of our civic leaders are entrenched in their party and religious/ social/ political agendas, to the detriment of reason and careful consideration. Their decisions are hasty and habitually guided by loyalty and political gain. These are not the philosopher kings we seek, and could benefit from honest assessment, a willingness to collaborate and compromise, and a balanced analysis of every proposal put in front of them. It is their job, after all, and they have an obligation to all of us. Ours, it seems, is not a perfect or ideal system of government and our lawmakers (and other government employees, particularly Supreme Court justices) could possibly effect meaningful change in this country, if only they employed more of the scholarship and search for truth that the philosopher kings would naturally possess. Perhaps if our government took a step back to practice reason and empathy, we would reach agreement faster and more meaningfully.

Plato’s philosopher kings were men of learning and scholarship, and reluctant to get involved with affairs of state. They would rule with the commanding power of their own minds, using reason and dialectical discourse to work through problems, and envision scenarios and solutions. They were, for all intents and purposes, reasoning machines, and would perfectly serve the state and fit his ideal. And yet, these loyal and cerebral subjects do not possess the backbone and resolve to engage with the world around them. They are timid and reluctant to engage the common man, and are simply not experienced enough to understand his wants and needs, and serve any class but their own. Their brains are not sufficient enough to provide the wattage it would take to shine a light across the land. They are not men of action, but weak and ineffectual brains upon the throne. In stark contrast, the American political system—at every level—is rife with corruption, dirty campaigning, toeing the party line, making unethical alliances with businesses and wealthy contributors, making deals that undermine the opposing party, sabotaging the political process, hijacking a vote through absence or filibuster, and generally refusing to use reason and logic to work through a problem. These are not Plato’s philosopher kings, and could most certainly improve our crippled political system by resisting hasty reactions and dismissals, while taking time to deliberate and find ways to compromise and find common ground.

In the final analysis, Plato’s philosopher kings are unrealistic projections of who he envisioned as best leading a nation. It is no coincidence that his vaulted rulers look like him, and that he would naturally overlook the many deep flaws in such an impractical system. The reluctant and solipsistic nature of deep reflection and limited to no exposure to the outside world was probably not a viable option for Classical Greece, no more than it is for 21st Century America. At the same time, our system of government is fundamentally broken, and refuses to work together. This governing body is quick to take action and lock horns with opponents, the media, and anyone else that will listen. The one thing they fail to do is use reason to discover that collaboration and openness are not in fact signs of weakness, but rather, the cornerstone of all healthy negotiation and mutual respect. If Plato’s ideal state is anywhere, it is somewhere between philosopher kings and the power-junkie legislators moved by money and party agendas. In the middle lies a moderate engagement with their world, and a thoughtful considerate approach, with always the goal of compromise, along with civility and respect.

In our mythic ideal state, our Presidents and lawmakers and governors, and every public servant would understand that leaders couldn’t escape behind a desk and think through every scenario possible. There is a time and a place to take action, and leaders know that it is imperative that action be swift and purposeful. Ours is a complex world, and it is full of diverse people, separated by distance, language, culture, and belief systems. We must invest in leaders that can deliberate and draw conclusions from the vacuum of their mind, but also be prepared to engage defiant and reluctant foes, reach across the table and make painful concessions, and learn the cultural idiosyncrasies of those you’re negotiating with. When we invest in reason and logic, we understand that modern life is too complex to simply rule from the brain or the heart, and that every great leader is a thoughtful person of action, who is unafraid to defend what is theirs. We can so easily be both cerebral and people of action. The philosopher king is perhaps most unlikely in America, but the essence of disciplined scholarship and careful consideration, are skills every one of our leaders could benefit from. Plato’s aristocratic rulers could just as easily pick up the decisiveness, ease of communication, and skillful navigation through rough and unpredictable waters that are characteristic of politicians in the West. Perhaps together, we could find balance between heart and mind, and action and thought. Our leaders could be philosophers who probed the universe for answers, but also understood that the world around us needed answers and that meant making tough decisions along the way. Finally, we would find compromise, even if we could not agree to the same truths. Our philosophy should allow us to dream of an ideal world, while finding concrete ways to make that dream a reality.Image

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