An Aristocratic Qualm Concerning Aristocracy

Among other things, Plato discusses what he believes to be the ideal form of government in Book VII of his Republic.

Observe, Glaucon, that there will be no injustice in compelling our philosophers to have a care and providence of others; we shall explain to them that in other States, men of their class are not obliged to share in the toils of politics: and this is reasonable, for they grow up at their own sweet will, and the government would rather not have them. Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude for a culture which they have never received. But we have brought you into the world to be rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other citizens, and have educated you far better and more perfectly than they have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty. Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good. Whereas 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.

Yes, my friend, I said; and there lies the point. You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. Whereas if they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering after the’ own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State.

Plato discusses an aristocracy of philosophers, those who are most educated and who possess an intrinsic motivation for creating a perfect society. It is unthinkable that such philosophers, such sublime men, could fall victim to crass personal motives. These are semi-divine beings who “ take their turn at the toils of State, [despite that] they are allowed to spend the greater part of their time with one another in the heavenly light.” Most interestingly, he implies a natural categorization of humans, the philosopher and the non philosopher. Most disturbingly, he suggests the superiority of philosophers to non-philosophers.

From my meager seventeen years of experience, I have never encountered anyone as “perfect” as described by Plato. I do not admire individuals because they conform to some objectively defined ideal of perfection. I do not admire them because I think they possess some singular elusive truth of life that I desire to reach. Rather, I look for the metaphysical ability to see beyond perfection, and I admire the strength of the individual’s deepest convictions and their courage to express those. True, I tend to look up to people whose beliefs are similar to mine. But I hold sincere respect for all who dare to openly voice themselves, even if they may believe in ideas contrary to mine.

Despite valuing individuality as a supreme virtue, I can’t help but cynically doubt the notion of the universal endowment of equal talents and skills. Don’t interpret this an authoritarian justification of slavery. The best I can express it is a sad feeling of indignation towards a natural inequality in the indifferent universe. I am always suspicious of statements that claim the superiority of one human being to another, and I very rarely take such statements seriously. At the same time however, I cannot trust that all humans were born equal in terms of logical reasoning, physical fitness, artistic talent, creativity, attractiveness, and all other human qualities. To this you might respond that different people have different talents, and that it’s impossible to compare the overall facility of a person. But this seems too idealistic, too utopian of an idea. What if some people are just born more disposed to coexisting on the Earth, more quick to find meaning? What if some people are born simply lacking certain skills essential to finding meaning? If there was some way to objectively quantify individuals’ talents and skills, I fear that the numbers would come out differently. It’s dangerous enough for me to toy with this idea, so I’m not going to attempt to offer what I believe to be examples of such “essential skills.”  The factor of luck and fate is present in all lives. Some people are simply luckier than others, in terms of birth and life events.

Imagine a world where all our biological needs are fully accounted for by a super machine. This machine, through a miracle of technology, is able to infinitely produce food, clothing, medicine, education, enough for every single person on the planet. The factor of “nurture” is thus removed from the equation, and all that’s left is “nature.” Would everybody be equally productive (in any sense of the word, such as creating art, performing necessary jobs, finding meaning)? Or would we see a disparity in natural abilities? Referring back to my Transliminism post, what if some people cannot experience the fourth stage of transcendence, be it by an unfortunate fate or by an unfortunate nature? The two factors of “nature” and “fate” have profound influence on the meaning of people’s lives, yet they are unchangeable.

Perhaps humans’ strength lies in our ability to change conditions predetermined by the universe. In addition to combating societal mores of our own doing, maybe another responsibility lies in fighting the indifference of the universe, caring for one another with no further justification than the fact that we are all of the same species struggling to live in this strange world. We all possess individual skills, and the question is how to discover, cultivate, and apply these skills to the world. There are 6.9 billion people, growing exponentially, and the more we even out the imbalance of fortune in all people, the more we approach a truly empathetic, meaningful society.

Maybe, unlike Plato’s aristocracy of philosophers ruling commoners, we can reach a world of philosophers assisting philosophers. I don’t like the traditional definition of “philosopher” as someone who concerns themselves with obscure dialectics and who live by logic. Rather, I see a philosopher as any other human being, struggling to swim against the current of the universe, swimming with the relentless faith that there exists a shore on the other side and aiding those with weaker limbs, hand in hand. A philosopher embodies humanity, in all its various forms. The most stunning, I think, is that distinctly human ability to see potential for a more beautiful future, and to pursue that vision with infinite willpower.

Tagged under Philosophy