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A Summary of Plato’s Political Theory and American Politics 2016
John G. Messerly   Nov 13, 2016   Reason and Meaning  

Plato argued that we can’t have a good lives without good government, and he also believed that we can’t have good governments without intellectually and morally excellent leaders.

To understand why we need intelligent and knowledgeable individuals occupying the most important positions in society, Plato invites us to consider the following: if we want good health care we consult physicians and nurses; if we desire legal advice we consult attorneys; if we want to construct buildings or bridges we consult engineers and architects; etc. Yet, Plato said, in a democracy when we choose our political leaders we consult all the people—even the most ignorant among us.

Now consider that if you were trying to determine whether you needed heart surgery you would consult a cardiologist, you wouldn’t take a vote or ask the cashier at the checkout lane in the grocery store. If you want to know about the merits of a lawsuit you would consult an attorney, not a pharmacist or plumber or psychologist. And if you want to understand the science of climate change, you would consult a climate scientist not a politician ignorant of climate science. Since running the society is the most important job of all, Plato believed it imperative that those occupying political positions must be at least minimally knowledgeable of politics, history, economics, science and more.

In his dialogue The Republic, Plato lays out an educational plan to help ensure, as far as possible, that politicians—like physicians, attorneys, nurses, physicists, and philosophy professors—are educated in areas relevant to making important decisions for the society. In addition Plato thought that the ruling class should be morally excellent, and in The Republic he lays out a plan to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that virtuous individuals compose the ruling class. Now none of this guarantees that will we get good politicians, nor that society will flourish as a result, because even after long periods of training there are incompetent and immoral politicians, physicians and philosophy professors. But surely the fact that physicians, nurses, attorneys, physicists, and philosophers endure long periods of training and must pass multiple examinations is better than if were chosen randomly or by a vote!

By contrast, suppose your physician told you that she know nothing of medicine but the free market lets anyone practice so she thought she would give it a go. Suppose your philosophy professor says he had never had a philosophy class, but that he got the job because he knows the dean. In either case you would not feel good about the situation. Plato thinks the same way about politics. You must expect that those who practice are qualified. And like Plato I believe that persons applying to hold a political office should have to pass some kind of exams to demonstrate some relevant knowledge of the job, in the same way you must pass medical boards (physicians), or the bar (attorneys), or comprehensive examinations (PhDs) in order to practice in those realms. [We might also consider some minimal qualifications for voting, as so many are low information voters.]

Now all of this is relevant to the American political system where those who run for political office often have no relevant knowledge; often they are ignorant of economics, science, political theory, history, religion, nuclear weapons, and more. Sometimes they are even chosen because they are actors, athletes, or ignorant celebrities. Surely all of this is insane! I want a physician to treat me, not someone who plays one on TV. In other important positions I want someone who understand health care, the economy, the environment and technology, not someone who only pretends to understand them. As for the argument that leaders don’t have to know anything, just choose good experts to advise them, I say balderdash. How can an ignorant person even identify knowledgeable ones? They cannot.

Now I do realize that intellectual excellence is merely a sufficient and not a necessary condition for good governing, but necessary it is. As for the moral component, this is a more difficult thing to recognize. To identify moral individuals we might use Plato’s model or the one used for centuries in ancient China—the Imperial Exams. But, as readers of this blog know, the best solution I know of is to use technology to change the human genome and the brain itself. This is a radical solution, but the best one I know of.

In the meantime we must hope that we have the wisdom to prevent morally and intellectually bankrupt individuals like Donald Trump from holding high office. And I would like to thank all the woman in this country who are disproportionately saving us from this catastrophe.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website:


Except that they didn’t John. In fact it looks like woman only turned out in numbers comparable to previous years - not in the numbers we were led to believe they would.
At the age of 54 I’ve discovered to my soul crushing surprise that there are more people in this country that are okay with a man that brags about sexual assault, is racist, is xenophobic, is fine with everyone having nukes, who invites our country’s enemies to attack our sovereign infrastructure, who believes it’s alright to threaten jailing his opponent for running against him etc.  Instead of voting for a woman. A woman who’s worst offense - we can’t call it a crime because she’s never been charged with one - is making poor decisions with regard to rules about emails.

I live among people with these bizarre and disturbing ideas of right and wrong.  We also have a corrupt press.  Every channel both enabled and normalized Trumps behavior while at the same time poisoning voters minds into believing emails were equivalent to his behaviour and his actual crimes.
Voters don’t get their opinions of candidates magically.  The press is THE conduit by which people get their information about candidates.  From the beginning they have shaped the narrative that these were “equally” flawed candidates even though any ten year old with an internet connection and a small amount of motivation could have seen the truth.
But over half of my countrymen don’t have that motivation. They’d rather be told what to believe.
So now my son and his children will know a country where Republicans control every branch of government. Where the majority of states are under majority Republican control.  Where the military voted overwhelmingly for Republicans and where our police forces largest union endorsed Trump.
As a white, middle-aged, Christian, veteran male in a red state that voted a straight blue ticket - for the first time in my life I’ve discovered - it IS their country after all.
We are actively working to sell our home and in about seven months we’ll be taking our family and moving to a town in New Zealand where we have a relative.
This makes us sick to our stomach every day but we see no choice. We’ve lost any sign of the America I loved and fought for.
I pray that it will rid itself of this cancer before it’s done too much damage but we’re too old to take any chances.
When America decides to rejoin the rest of the world it’s going to have a lot of ground to make up.
Until the day we leave we’ll be looking for reasons not to.
This past Thursday a buddy of mine across town said a Muslim family that lived two houses down from him had death threats spray painted on their sidewalk.  My wife’s mom - who’s coming with us - has been hearing kids in the neighborhood trying to out-do each other with racial slurs.
It looks a lot like we’ll be leaving on time.

Plato was a prototype fascist. His ruminations pure fantasy stuff.

You are correct, women didn’t save us as it turns out, although they still showed themselves on the whole to be more enlightened voters than men.

As for the rest of your comments, I basically agree with all of them. And if I could emigrate to NZ I would. I hope I’m mistaken but I believe things will continue to deteriorate in the US.

thanks for your comments and good luck. - JGM

To almostvoid

Many of my students thru the years have interpreted Plato that way but I do not. As for fantasy, the idea that there would be a few qualifications to hold political office is perfectly reasonable and hardly fantasy, even if very unlikely in the current climate.

To JGM.  Thank you for pointing that out.  I was wrong not to acknowledge that women (both white and of color) showed a much better grasp of the realities that this election was about than did most men.  I should also recognize that Latino’s showed a much higher percentage of involvement as well.
A great number of Americans tried very hard to prevent this outcome and I hope their numbers grow.
I didn’t mention it really before but one of the strongest things my family dealt with in reaching our decision was guilt at leaving.  For now, we intend to keep our citizenship and we DO hope to return. For now though, our young son and his future family are our priority.  Unless Democrats can find some way that I’ve not heard about to prevent it we’re looking at a supreme court that will be extremely conservative for generations and that will affect U.S. policy for generations more.

In the few days since I wrote my first comment I’ve only seen more evidence that leaving now is the right thing for my family to do.
Thank you.

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