Just Rule and Plato’s Statesman

Names and Bios

  • Garrison Holt
    • I am a graduating senior majoring in Political Science, and minoring in Politics/Philosophy/Economics at Virginia Tech. I have been interested in political philosophical discussion throughout my time at VT, and synthesizing them with modern day problems and philosophical discussions.
  • Paul O’Donnell
    • I’m Paul and I am a senior in Political Science graduating this spring. I enjoy reading and writing analytically, and I am excited to continue learning these skills through these discussion posts. I look forward to diving deeper into the analytical frameworks that make up a majority of our philosophical discussions.
  • Elizabeth Vasquez 
    • I’m Elizabeth and I’m a junior majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics with a minor in Environmental Policy and Planning. I am interested in exploring the intersection of political science and philosophical topics, and how those fields influence each other.
  • Max Gallant
    • I am a junior majoring in International Relations. I enjoy political and philosophical readings such as this one, and discerning their meaning.I also enjoy writing about these texts and putting my understanding into words.

Statesmen: Achieving Excellence through a just state

This week, we were tasked to read Plato’s Statesman, a dialogue written in the later parts of Plato’s works, and directly following the events of Sophist. The bulk of this writing consists of conversations between The Eleatic Stranger, and a Younger Socrates, and continue a lot of points of discussion around “the good life” and what it means to be “just”, specifically in the context of statesmen and states themselves.

Democracy, Rule, and Property/Discussion of the political science and the care of the state

One of the first important topics that the two discuss revolved around different types of government, namely monarchy (which is ruled by a royalty), aristocracy (which is ruled by a select few), and democracy (which is ruled by the many), and their “distinctions between the one, the few, and the many” (292a). They then charge themselves with discerning which of these methods of ruling is the most just and constituted statehood, and which do not. The Stranger states that scientific men are the true rulers, and whether or not they make themselves kings is up to them, yet they remain kingly in nature regardless. True states are to be ruled by those who are scientific in nature and rule in a scientific manner. The Stranger brings up a notion that physicians are an example of scientific men ruling over their subjects (293b): he notes that physicians “cure us against our will or with our will”, and thus make us their subjects of medical practices, in much the same way that scientifically led rulers make us subjects to their rule. 

Instead of deciding whether one form of government is inherently better or worse than another, Socrates and the Stranger decide that these forms are less relevant than those ruling them, which I believe is a very interesting philosophical point. If a ruler is just, and makes decisions in order to best help his people and best prolong the state he rules, then it does not matter what kind of government he aligns with. The institutions surrounding the ruler constitute the “form” of the government, which ultimately matters less so long as the ruler in charge rules in a just and scientific manner. On the other hand, it can be inferred that they believe corruption (or as they would say it: unscientific men) can plague any type of government, and the laws within them. 

The discussion moves on, beginning with the Stranger seemingly railing against the nature of laws themselves, posing the idea that perhaps acting in a scientific manner is more important than any laws might be, because if a ruler were to act scientifically, he could act in just ways that stretch outside the boundaries of laws, and can better address the problem in his state. He extends this to say that whatever form of government must take place, that the power should be concentrated in a few people, if not a single person, because while a single person may be able to study political science and use it to rule justly, a large group of people could not, and would mess up the system, foreshadowing that perhaps Democracy is not as perfect as we would believe.  Any state in which the rich few take into account the law solidly, he calls an aristocracy, and any which largely disregard them, he calls an oligarchy, and those who rule are called kings. However, if a ruler goes against the laws with an ignorant way of thinking, and is not altogether scientific in his reasoning and decision making, then he is not a king at all, but a tyrant. The Stranger acknowledges, however, that this perfect type of ruler (being the one that is not ignorant and acts according to science) is essentially impossible, or at best highly improbable, and not something one should base entire state institutions around. 

The rule of the many, unlike the types of rule we just discussed, is democracy. The Stranger believes that democracy is comparatively weaker than other forms of government, namely monarchy and aristocracy, due to its stretching itself too thin amongst its subjects. However, it has its advantages, namely that “of all these governments when they are lawful this is the worst, and when they are lawless it is the best” (303a), essentially stating that in the absence of these scientifically driven rulers, and in a state which emphasizes freedom above all, democracy flourishes. Without laws, this type of government, according to the Stranger, provides the types of conditions we might want in order to live “the good life.” He ends this part of discussion railing against the sophists of his day, calling them not statesmen, but partisans who are themselves the “greatest counterfeits… imitators and cheats”, which I believe adequately sums up his thoughts on the aristocratic rule of Athens in his day (303b-c).

Here’s an example of a… “scientific” ruler enacting his will upon his people through his own “scientific” reasoning. This goes to show that maybe not all science is sound science, and that it might not always be a good basis for a ruler, given its evolving nature.

Statecraft as a Science, The Just State

This clip shows a student take credit for another’s joke and be given all the credit. This is similar to the situation of statesmen Socrates and The Stranger discuss. They practice the art of statesmanship, and the kings use their advice and earn the credit.

The Stranger goes on to argue that the statesman must become its own occupation, rather than a duty performed by others not fit for the role. When discussing the path of a statesman, the Stranger says, “For we must find it, separate it from the rest, and imprint upon it the seal of a single class.” (258c). Importantly, anyone who understands and applies the science of statecraft, “whether he happen to be a ruler or private citizen,” (259b) has a right to the title “kingly.” This is due to the precedent of only kings and nobles participating in statecraft. The Stranger is making the argument that anyone with distinguished ability in statecraft deserves to practice the science. The Stranger then suggests that they “divide all science into two arts,” (258e) by making one category for practical applications, and one for intellectual applications. This is an important distinction because the Stranger and Socrates agree that all science falls into these two arts, except for statecraft. Statecraft is described as “the kingly process of weaving,” (305e) because it intertwines intellectual and practical arts.

The Stranger makes a critical point about education in statecraft by saying that only kings and nobles from birth are educated in statecraft, but the statesmen become adept in statecraft through experiences and their own nature. The king rules as he wishes, but the statesman interweaves “the characters of restrained and courageous men.” (311b). The Stranger argues that statesmen possess the “kingly science,” (311c) which accounts for their gifts in statecraft. Kings and rulers, however, are merely instructed in statecraft, and do not truly understand it. The Stranger says, “for them this is the medicine prescribed by science” (310a) when referring to kings’ knowledge of statecraft. The distinction made between kings and true statesmen is significant because the statesmen possess the knowledge and ability to practice statecraft, and the kings are only able to practice statecraft by being advised by the true statesmen.

Definition of a Statesman/God, the Universe, and Nature

Further into this discussion, the definition of a Statesman starts to take shape. In the conversion between Younger Socrates and the Stranger they discuss the subdivisions present in the art of the statesman. They discuss clearly the commands and work that it takes to “herd-tend” subdivisions of animals. Specifically, the one we are most interested in is the art of herding human beings which it is described as, “a single art called both kingly and statesmanlike.” I want to raise a question, however: from the ruler’s perspective are we merely animals designed exclusively for being raised? This definition carries that familiar burden that is present in our democracy. Throughout this reading we hear of the distinction between false Statesman and other misleading ruling categories. Explicitly, ruling styles like democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, etc or most styles present from our modern history. These styles are limited in their effectiveness based on their inability to rule from direct knowledge. Rather they rule based on law, order, and other forms of mass consent which gains internal legitimacy from those values, not necessarily knowledge. These claims made by the stranger highlight some key flaws in his conclusions. From his argument, he concludes that a Statesman would be an individual who would “herd” others into making thoughtful decisions and using knowledge would create a better society. However, these claims seem unreasonable in operation. This thorough practice would require significant manpower and individuals willing to live their lives based on knowledge rather than choice. This choice allows us to remain ignorant to lives led by knowledge which may be harmful to our democracy. Further, this devout myth presented by the stranger creates a void in current politics that creates a divide between the politicians and the individuals they represent. Despite the radical thought discussion presented, it is clear that buried in this reading is an inherent message that represents the difference between us and animals. The idea of knowledge and consciousness present itself as a significant barrier that makes us different from herded sheep. Yet, the feeling and aspiration for happiness causes discussions like these to deepen our own individual perspective on how we run society, and specifically, what we can do to change this perspective.

The King and a Tyrant

The Stranger and Socrates discuss a distinction in caretaking between the divine shepherd and the human caretaker: that which is compulsory and that which is voluntary. Through this they realize “we were more simple-minded than we should have been, and we put the king and the tyrant together, whereas they and their respective modes of ruling are quite unlike” (276e). Though they had previously likened the king and the tyrant to each other, they observed the dissimilarities. The Stranger divides the ruling of people into two parts, the aforementioned compulsory rule and voluntary rule. Tyrants compel their people while the “true king and statesman” provides voluntary caretaking.

This section of the dialogue brings up the distinction between forced and voluntary compliance, between tyranny and royalty. Though the Stranger and Socrates have discussed them together, they are dissimilar. Specifically, the tyrant rules without law while the statesman rules citizenry according to the values of justice. The distinction they end up making between mandatory and voluntary compliance to a leader is significant because while it helps the two in their journey to find the statesman, still “our figure of the king is not yet perfect” (277a).

Production/Instruments, ‘Carving the world at its joints’ and Statecraft

Now that the Stranger and Young Socrates have made their distinction between the king and the tyrant, they are still trying to complete their figure of the statesman. The Stranger inquires, “What example could we apply which is very small, but has the same kind of activity as statesmanship and would enable us satisfactorily to discover that which we seek?” and he chooses a metaphor about weaving to illustrate his thoughts (279a). He walks Socrates through the steps of weaving and gets to the point that “the process of weaving is, I take it, a kind of joining together” (281a). The Statesman weaves together politics and society. He is one who unites his people.

Continuing with the way of thinking that they used for the weaving scenario, they try to classify arts as contingent causes (287c). The Stranger wants to divide the arts “like an animal that is sacrificed, by joints, since we cannot bisect them” (287c). By this he means he does not want to separate these classifications into more parts than are necessary. The Stranger begins to separate statecraft into classes. (1) He says the first class – instruments – will be hard to separate from the others. It is too large a group as everything that exists is an instrument of another. (2) The next class is also unhelpful to the two: “It is a very large class and has, so far as I can see, nothing at all to do with the art we are studying” (288a). This is one that is composed of materials both wet and dry, wrought by and without fire. (3) Another class that is very large, but differs from the other two is that of vehicles. It is the work of carpentry, pottery, and bronze working, but it “certainly is not at all the work of statesmanship” (288a). 

“Carving the world at its joints” as a method of division is not helping them get closer to finding the statesman. The Stranger has already illustrated that the statesman is one who weaves together, so they should be searching for something that unifies. The Stranger had previously said to Young Socrates “I think, Socrates, that the form of the divine shepherd is greater than that of the king, whereas the statesmen who now exist here are by nature much more like their subjects, with whom they share much more nearly the same breeding and education” (275b, 275c). The statesman weaves himself together with his people by being similarly educated and so brings about social reproduction through statecraft. He is united to his people through their shared humanity and the rule of reason itself.