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The Third Wave in The Republic by Plato

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Voluntary Servitude in the Kallipolis

Towards the end of Book V of Plato’s Republic, Socrates begins to discuss the ‘third wave’ that would be necessary to bring about a ‘sea of change’ for the establishment of an ideal society. The first wave dealt with the inclusion of women in the ruling class, whereas the second interrelated wave enunciated the radical idea of the abolishment of the private nuclear family in favor of communal rearing. As radical as these floods may be, it is the third one that is “the biggest and most difficult” (472a4). So difficult and prone to ridicule in fact, that it takes two full pages before Socrates on 473d, can plainly and fully articulate it: “The philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophise, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place.” There are two main statements throughout the Republic that introduce skepticism for the realization of this idea. First, as early as in Book I, Socrates holds that in a just city we would find an aversion to ruling, unlike the propensity for ruling we encounter in prevailing societal formations (347d). Second, in Book VII, it becomes clear that this aversion to ruling on part of the philosopher king, is part and parcel of the reason that posits members this class as ideal candidates for ruling: they are only interested with the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and goodness for its own sake (519b-520b).

The enduring puzzle caused by the third wave has been largely taken up by scholars in the following form: why would philosophers voluntarily agree to rule, when a life spent pursuing the divine knowledge of Forms is far superior for them? There are three possible, and somewhat overlapping answers that will in turn be explored in the first part of this essay. (1) The idea that philosophers rule motivated by altruism. (2) The idea that philosophers rule motivated by the Form of goodness. (3) And the idea that philosophers rule motivated by their aversion to being ruled by inferiors. Whereas the puzzle of the motivation of the philosopher king is one of the most enduring questions stemming from Plato’s Republic, its chiral opposite is often taken for granted. This is the question of the response of the ruled, and the focus of the second part of this essay: what makes citizens of the Kallipolis follow the philosopher king so as to avoid the emergence of factions in the city? Who is most likely and inclined to persuade the philosopher to rule? Since Plato inaugurates a scathing critique of democracy, this is not a question of explicit consent from the ruled, but rather a question of implicit consent, i.e. the the acceptance of rulers without demanding their overthrow. More importantly, it is the citizens that bear the burden of compelling the philosopher to rule, for as Socrates says, “it’s not natural that a pilot beg sailors to be ruled by him” (489b). In conjunction, these puzzles points towards the fragility of the ideal city: rulers that only answer to an abstract from of accountability and citizens that might not easily be swayed by the superiority of the philosopher king.

We know from arguments made in Book I that philosophers are neither lovers of honor, nor money. Hence, they cannot be compelled to rule by ‘traditional methods.’ In 347c, Socrates makes clear that they will need to face some penalty if they refuse. However, since this penalty is neither material, nor related to social castigation, it remains somewhat abstract in nature. Thus, philosophers need to be simultaneously compelled and willing to rule. This is akin to the idea of voluntary servitude, where the unpleasantness of the task at hand is a priori recognized, yet a higher calling of some sorts enlists the philosopher’s full commitment to ruling. In the following, I will go through three arguments that tackle the question at hand, which are in no way exhaustive of the possible solutions to the puzzle. First, since rulers in the ideal city rule not from themselves, but for their subjects, does it follow that philosophers are compelled to rule by feelings pure altruism towards their fellow citizens? According to David Sedley, the answer is not quite. Although in passages from Book I (346d-347a), Socrates holds that any expertise is altruistic in character the argument does not stand as an answer to the question at hand. “If you become a ruler, you are ipso facto committing yourself to promoting the good of your subjects; but, absolutely nothing commits you to becoming a ruler” (Sedley, pg. 274). What follows from this is that the altruistic practice of a certain fact becomes a commitment only when one has undertaken a craft. Altruism cannot compel the philosopher to rule, but only to rule justly once they have accepted to do so.

Second, we find the idea of compulsion by the Form of goodness itself. Julia Annas puts considerable emphasis on the impersonal nature of the pursuit of knowledge through the contemplation of the Forms. After introducing the analogy of the cave, on 519-520b, Socrates elucidates that the analogy could apply not only to a bad, degenerate society, but also to the workings of a very normal society. Herein lies the meaning of the phrase that the prisoners in the cave are ‘just like us’. Once the philosopher has left the cave, and after a period of rearing and education gets accustomed to ‘the sun,’ i.e. the pursuit of the ultimate form, goodness, then there is really little to compel them to go back into the cave. In fact, there seem to be much stronger disincentives to do so, for people in the darkness are not easily swayed by argument, since they have a vested interest in protecting their view of the world. Once they leave the cave “we find the philosopher raptly contemplating Forms and only Forms, dismissing the world we experience as being on the level of a shadow or a dream” (Annas, page 161). It is unmistakably true, even to the present day, that people do not take easily to the disruption of their worldviews, especially by messianic figures that exclaim a privileged access to the true nature of reality.

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