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Plato's Philosopher-King

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Below is a short essay I wrote last semester on the absurdity of the Plato's Philosopher-King. My argument mainly focuses on refuting his metaphysics, partly because the whole idea is absurd without it, but mainly because that's what I wanted to spend my time studying. I must admit that I oversimplify Plato's view a little, simply because my professor was not very good. After having listened to Peikoff's History of Philosophy, I understand Plato's arguments much better. Perhaps when I have more time, I will edit the essay to more accurately express Plato's views and provide a better defense of my position. However, I should also say that I was limited to 5 pages double-spaced, so the essay could not have been much longer (two lines). Obviously, I borrowed heavily from Ayn Rand, and especially Leonard Peikoff's OPAR. I cited whenever I used a direct quotation, but I took many more of the ideas than I could possibly quote.

Comments are obviously appreciated.

Every government is based, explicitly or implicitly, on a philosophy, on some view of existence and the way man gains knowledge about his environment. A government founded on the idea that reality is real and knowable to humans through reason will result in a society that upholds individual freedoms. A government based on the idea that reality is an illusion and unknowable to man will necessarily result in the opposite. The United States was founded on the idea that absolute power was too great for any one person to wield, regardless of his ability. Plato, however, argues that the ideal state is one in which all of the power is invested in a Philosopher-King.

This idea is entirely dependent of Plato’s views on ontology and epistemology. Plato’s ontology can be characterized as mysticism. He believes in an alternate reality called the Realm of Ideas. The physical world in which all human beings live is an illusion, asserts Plato, and sense perception inherently invalid. The intelligible world, the world in which Truth and Knowledge are found is the Realm of Ideas. If, Plato argues, our minds are properly trained and of sufficient ability, we can enter this Realm of Ideas and see the Good. This is the climax of his argument for a Philosopher-King. Because the Philosopher has seen the Good, he is fundamentally transfigured and must become the Good. Because he has been to the Realm of Ideas, he wants nothing more than to stay there. Plato’s argument is that because the Philosopher is Good and because he would much rather stay in the Realm of Ideas than accept a position of power in the physical world, he is the only one fit to be King.

In order to assess whether or not this idea is possible, we must examine Plato’s ontology and epistemology. Ontology and epistemology are the foundations of philosophy, from which all other parts are derived. Any theory of ethics, politics, or even aesthetics is based on a specific view of reality and the means by which one gains knowledge. The problem with Plato’s theory of the Realm of Ideas is that it violates a fundamental axiom of ontology.

Before we can start asking any philosophical questions, before we can start proposing ideas about any subject, we must begin by looking at the fundamental view of existence. As philosophers, we must start at the only place that does not suppose any prior knowledge: by looking at the world around us. In doing this, we find ourselves looking at just that – the world around us. When we are looking at things, at anything, we discover, as Parmenides did in the early fifth century BC, “What is, is.”, though Parmenides himself did not seem to grasp the implications of that statement. To put it another way, “Existence exists”, where “existence” is simply the sum of all existents. This is the first of our axioms. The existence axiom implies the next axiom: one possesses consciousness. Only after grasping the fact that something exists, is one capable of grasping that his consciousness exists. This means that existence presupposes consciousness. It would be purely mistaken to begin by saying “I’m conscious” and then pose the question “Of what”, because “before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something”1 A world without conscious organisms is entirely possible, but recognizing such a world implies that one is conscious of it. This means that existence exists independent of the human mind. The third axiom is Aristotle’s Law of Identity or Law of Contradiction. “Existence exists” states that something exists; the Law of Identity states that something exists. In other words, to be is to be something. The essence of something is contained in its being. To quote Mr. Adler, “The law of [non] contradiction, as a statement about reality, says…[a] thing – whatever it may be – cannot both exist and not exist at the same time. It either exists or it does not exist, but not both at once. A thing cannot have a certain attribute and not have that attribute at the same time. The apple in my hand that I am looking at cannot, at this instant, be both red in color and not red in color.”2 In Aristotle’s own words, “A equals A” or in formal logic:

If these axioms seem entirely self-evident, they should. Indeed, the axioms presuppose all knowledge, including the concept of proof. To prove or disprove an axiom requires existence to exist, consciousness to exist, and for A to equal A. And therein lies their irrefutability. In order to even debate the axioms, they must be true, for no debate could take place if they were not. If, for example, the Law of Identity were not true and A could equal non-A, no disagreement could ever be possible because there would be nothing to contradict. In order to argue that one is not conscious, one must be conscious. In order to argue that one does not exists, one must exist.

These three fundamental axioms imply one other. As a corollary to consciousness, sensatory perception must also be true. The validity of the senses falls outside the burden of proof because any proof requires reducing an idea back down to the data provided by our senses. All knowledge rests on the validity of the senses. As I stated earlier, in order for one to be conscious, there must be something to be conscious of. In order for one to grasp that he is conscious, he must perceive something. The only way to perceive anything is through the senses. To quote Leonard Peikoff, “Sensatory experience is a form of awareness produced by physical entities (the external stimuli) acting on physical instrumentalities (the sense organs), which respond automatically […] Such organs have no power of choice, no power to invent, distort, or deceive. They do not respond to a zero, only to something, something real, some existential object which acts on them.”3 The senses do not lie, they simply provide the raw date; it is up to one’s mind to interpret that data. Plato argues against the senses saying “Or does each of them [senses] act like this: first, the sense ordered to the hard is required also to be ordered to the soft, and announces to the soul that it supposes it is perceiving both hard and soft as the same thing”. However, this fails to distinguish between sense perception and conceptualization. “Hardness” and “softness” are concepts, not sensatory data.

As I stated earlier, Plato believes reality is an illusion and that our senses are duping us. Knowledge and Truth, he argues, come from an alternate reality, which he calls the Realm of Ideas. This is blatant violation of the axioms. As we examined earlier, existence exists prior to consciousness. Reality must exist in order to be conscious at all. Plato starts with the assertion, “What if reality is just an illusion?” He then argues, giving no evidence of why that might be true, that there must be another, higher reality, completely negating the first of our axioms. As to the exact nature of this reality, Plato offers very little substance. He says the Realm of Ideas holds the “essences” of all objects. This is a direct contradiction to the Law of Identity. The Law of Identity is defined as the idea that an object’s physical form has an exact nature, and that form cannot be separated from its essence. So not only does Plato fall plague to the primacy of consciousness, but he also openly contradicts the Law of Identity.

The problem is one cannot disprove an arbitrary assertion. The burden of proof lies on the one who made such an assertion, in this case Plato. One can no more disprove that the Realm of Ideas exists than he can disprove that I do not, in fact, have an invisible green goblin hovering over my right my shoulder whispering true Knowledge into my ear. But Plato offers no such proof. It is as if he considers it self-evident. Plato’s ontology can be summed up in one word: mysticism. An ontology of mysticism can only logically lead to one epistemology: intuition. The reason why Plato’s philosophy has received such attention, instead of being dismissed as absurd, is because all of his conclusions follow logically from his first arbitrary assertion. His ontology gives rise to his epistemology, which fuels his views on ethics, politics, and aesthetics.

While Plato claims to be the defender of reason, he is exactly the opposite. Intuition, he claims, not reason, is man’s true source of knowledge. Instead of defining what the “Good” is, he expects the true Philosopher simply to know based on his intuition, his feelings.

Plato’s idea that he can create a Philosopher-King immune to power is simply absurd because it rests on the Philosopher-King making it to the Realm of Ideas. His supposed proof of the matter lies in the belief of an ontologically- impossible alternate reality, which cannot be defined, only known through intuition. Some may argue that, though stripped of the Realm of Ideas, Plato may still be able to cultivate a person capable of rejecting power simply because of the intellectual achievement necessary to make it through the tortuous education program. To this, I reply, “Would you stake your life on it?” The question of whether or not it is possible for a person to resist power is unimportant unless one is willing to let him assume the power. Because each person has free will, his views are subject to change, and power is surely a strong driver of change.

The Founding Fathers believed that it was unwise to entrust the whole of society to one man’s whims. They set up the system of checks and balances to safeguard against that very idea. Plato had safeguards as well: his argument was not that a very smart, very good person would not be corrupted by power, but that someone who had visited the Realm of Ideas would not be corrupted by power. The fundamental difference here to Plato is that the former is still susceptible to the “desires of the flesh”, while the latter is immune. Once the Realm of Ideas is shown to be impossible, no amount of schooling or training is sufficient to completely exclude the possibility of corruption.

1. Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet, 1957. 942.

2. Adler, Martimer J. Aristotle for Everybody. New York: Macmillan Co, Inc., 1978. 140.

3. Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Meridian, 1991. 40.

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