PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday January 22, 2003

[5.] The Possibility of the Perfect Polis (Republic V).


Towards the end of Book V, Socrates considers the question whether the regime he's describing could ever actually be realized, i.e. whether such a system of government could ever work in the real world: "...let us try now to convince ourselves of this, that the thing is possible, and how it is possible, leaving all other questions to themselves." (471e, p.101)


[5.1.] The Philosopher-Kings.


As a first step, Socrates asks: what is it about currently existing cities that would keep them from being restructured as a perfect regime? Or put in a different way: what's the smallest change we could make in an existing city that would bring about such a perfect regime? (473b, p.102)


His answer:


            Unless it happen either that philosophers acquire the kingly power in cities, or that those who are not called kings and the powers-that-be, be imbued with a sufficient measure of genuine philosophy, that is to say, unless political power and philosophy be united in the same person, most of those minds which at present pursue one to the exclusion of the other being necessarily excluded from either, there will be no deliverance, my dear Glaucon, for cities, nor yet, I believe, for the human race; neither can the regime, which we have now sketched in speech, ever grow into a possibility until then, and see the light of day. (473c-e, p.102)


In other words, only if philosophers become kings, or vice versa, will the perfect regime ever be instantiated.


[5.2.] Doctrine of the Forms.


At this point the question naturally arises: What is a philosopher? As part of the answer to this question, Socrates introduces one of his most important claims: the doctrine of the forms.


His first example of a form is that of beauty: It is possible to recognize specific beautiful things but to lack an understanding of (or even a belief in) beauty itself. He who pursues experiences of specific beautiful things only is a counterfeit philosopher; the genuine philosopher is one that aspires to an understanding of beauty itself. This is because he who pursues sense experience of particular beautiful things does not have genuine knowledge of the beautiful -- he has mere opinion of beautiful things. For Plato, this is a hugely important distinction: knowledge and opinion are different "faculties"...




·         is infallible -- when you know something, you cannot be wrong

·         has as its domain "what is" (reality)

·         is fallible -- if you merely have an opinion, not knowledge, it's possible that you're wrong

·         has as its domain something other than "what is" (something other than reality)


This second difference is a bit tricky... Socrates is making the following points:

·         since knowledge and opinion are two different faculties, they must have different "domains" -- i.e., they must be about different things.

·         knowledge is about "what is," about the way things really are; so opinion must be about something else

·         but opinion can't be about nothing at all ("what is not") -- this is because ignorance has as its domain "what is not" -- and opinion is different than ignorance!

·         opinion is, in a sense, between knowledge and ignorance -- so its domain must be, in a sense, between what is and what is not.


The philosopher can transcend mere opinion of beautiful things and attain genuine knowledge of the form of beauty.


A Form is

·         unchanging

·         knowable (by the intellect alone, not by the senses)

·         public

The last point is very important. The Greek word Plato used was "eidos" (plural: "eide"), which is translated as either "form" or "idea". "Idea" is an acceptable translation, as long as you remember that a Platonic idea is not mental but something that exists apart from our thoughts about it; it is public (accessible to everyone) and entirely objective.



The Forms are completely REAL -- more real than the physical world. The physical world is constantly changing. Things that are at one time beautiful can change and become ugly; things that are large in some contexts are small in others. For Plato, this is a sign that these things are not as real as the forms, which are eternal and unchanging. It's not that the physical world is unreal or simply an illusion. It's just that it is less real than the Forms.


The Forms

form of triangle

form of whiteness

form of beauty

·         objects of knowledge

·         most real

·         unchanging

The (Physical) World (of experience)

triangles (all "participate in" the form of triangle)

white things (all "participate in" the form of whiteness)

beautiful things (all "participate in" the form of beauty")

·         objects of opinion (mere belief)

·         real, but less real than the forms

·         constantly changing


What is the relationship of PARTICIPATION? It seems to have at least two aspects:

·         the Form of F makes particular Fs intelligible

·         the Form of F is responsible for the existence of particular Fs as Fs


The main point is to see how the doctrine of the forms relates to Socrates' argument that it is possible for an actual polis to instantiate the perfect regime that he's described...

·         It is possible for the perfect regime to actually occur in an existing polis...

·         but only if the rulers are genuine "philosophers" (lovers of wisdom), i.e....

·         those who have knowledge (not mere opinion) of the Forms, including the forms of beauty, justice and goodness.





[5.3.] The Source of Political Authority.


There are at least four answers to Question 2: what justifies a PS, i.e. what is the source of political authorityN?[1]

1.       divine authority: God is the source of political authorityN [ancient Israel; monarchies in early modern Europe; contemporary Morocco]

2.       natural subordination: the ruled instinctively do, and ought to, submit to rulers due to their very natures [Aristotle]

3.       consent: the ruler's authorityN stems from the consent of the ruled [Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke]

4.       perfectionism: the ruler's authorityN stems from superior knowledge [Plato]


Q: What sort of knowledge legitimates political authority?


Plato's Answer: knowledge of the form of the Good (to agathon), and in particular, knowledge of how to make the community happy by maintaining justice in its affairs.


A criterion for admittance into the class of philosopher-king-rulers is that an individual know what's best for the polis and implement that knowledge in his capacity as ruler. Someone who abuses his power for his own benefit, or to benefit anyone other than the polis as a whole, will not be qualified to become ruler.


Behind this (perhaps overly optimistic) assumption is a claim that Plato adopted from his teacher Socrates, that virtue is knowledge. If you really do know what the Good is, then you will do it -- it is impossible for an individual to have genuine knowledge of virtue, justice, etc. without actually being virtuous, just, etc. The education and tests which probationary rulers undergo are like filters to see who has genuine knowledge of what's good for the polis, and thus who is just and virtuous enough to rule. So for Plato, if the educational/filter system is working properly, only those who are actually virtuous, who have genuine knowledge of the good, will become philosopher-kings -- and so, even though these folks will have complete authority over the polis, they will not abuse that authority.


[In two later dialogues, the Laws and the Statesman, Plato expresses skepticism about the possibility of an ideal polis like his Republic ever existing in the actual world, and specifically about the possibility of a philosopher-king who was completely devoted to the good of the polis and impervious to temptations of personal gain.]


[1] Identified in Jean Hampton, Political Philosophy.

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