by the Editor, June, 2008
For practical (and therefore for political) purposes, the ideal ruler must adhere to the firm conviction that all Nature is under-pinned by an unchanging framework of what we call "Natural Law" and that only actions which are compatible with Natural Law may be considered "good". The genuine philosopher must have acquired a deep understanding of Natural Law as an eternal universal system which possesses a capacity for generating within itself an infinite multiplicity of forms. He must also have acquired the self-discipline necessary to live his own life in accordance with his understanding. If such a man became a ruler, he could be relied upon to govern others as he governs himself. In the pages of history, there is no shortage of examples of rulers who fell far short of the Socratic ideal, but very few who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as, for example, Marcus Aurelius [121-180 CE, Roman emperor and philosopher. Ed.].
A careful review of the criteria which must be applied to find genuine philosophers who also possess powers of organisation and command will quickly reveal that good candidates will be hard to find in any nation. In the first place, they will be reluctant to put themselves forward and, if identified, must be persuaded to take on the responsibility of rulership. Hence they will seldom be found among the self-promoting membership of any overtly political party.
They are equally unlikely to be located among the "philosophers" of academia, almost all of whom rely upon reviewing and revising the writings of the philosophical giants who have gone before them. Very few among them are capable of persuading their students to "believe in the existence of absolute beauty rather than of the many beautiful, or of the absolute in each kind rather than of the many in each kind".
Neither should we expect to find them in the news, entertainment, or advertising media, which attract people who thirst for the adulation of the crowd, and whose efforts tend to be directed towards orientation of public opinion in one self-promoting direction or another rather than towards disinterested education.
The giants of industry, business, and commerce may have much of practical economic value to offer, but are prone to giving more weight to material profit than to intangible moral considerations. Religious leaders, on the other hand, tend to underestimate the power of the economic and sentimental inducements by which ordinary people are so often led into temptation.
If we were induced by Thomas Gray [1716-71, English poet. Ed.] to seek a "village-Hampden" or "some mute inglorious Milton" among the population at large, we should certainly be disappointed; for there is no nation-wide organisation known to me which is dedicated to the identification and training of genuine philosophers. Our prevailing version of democracy is vitiated by the invention of the political party, which nullifies any prospect of allowing a genuine philosopher to rise to prominence. In any case, a political career would have little attraction for anyone who recognises that present-day politicians cannot themselves "do" anything except talk; that they are powerless unless they can persuade other people to do their bidding and enforce their edicts; and that the "levers of power" consist of nothing but rhetoric aimed at forming "public opinion" without much regard for truth.
Considerations such as these may help to explain why so many nations which, when their self-serving politicians have deprived them of hope and the means to help themselves, turn to those among the military who demonstrate the necessary qualities of courage, leadership, and organisational ability. Regrettably, few military officers can be expected to possess a philosophical bent to match that of Marcus Aurelius.
So where, then, are we to look for a philosopher-king approaching the Socratic specification? Socrates himself suggests the answer when he hopes for the emergence of a philosophical prince. We must look among the ever-diminishing ranks of the "landed gentry".
In the United Kingdom, socialist governments since 1946 have perpetrated many follies: but it will one day become apparent that their greatest folly has been to banish nearly all the "hereditary peers" from the House of Lords and replace them, quite literally, with "place-persons".
A nation's culture and psychic strength lies in its heritage. The landed gentry are the natural patrons and guardians of heritage. They know in their souls that longevity inheres not in individuals but in generations. They take a long-term view, without which their lines will surely be extinguished. Well provided with resources, they can ensure the highest standards of nurture and admonition for their dependants, and so provide every opportunity for natural philosophical gifts to emerge and mature. They can, and not infrequently do, endow foundations for providing bursaries to educate the gifted children of the poor. They stand above the crowd and can discern trends which are lost on career politicians whose horizons are limited to the intervals between elections. They are equally at home in town and country, and are well acquainted with the natural economic relationships which prevail within and between them. They offer our best hope of re-establishing the United Kingdom as a respected moral force in the tradition of Magna Carta, habeas corpus, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Arbroath. Long live the Royal Family and the landed gentry!
We have already acknowledged that genuine philosopher-kings are, and always will be, scarce. It should not therefore surprise us that by no means all scions of noble houses turn out to be paragons of virtue and wisdom. Even so, they are better guarded than most other adolescents against making fools of themselves and putting the continuation of the line in peril through prodigality or disgrace. Would that similar disciplines could prevail amongst those who currently constitute the here-today, gone-tomorrow political classes!
Once identified, trained, and appointed to high office, the philosophical ruler will by no means be immune from the principal difficulty which confronts all rulers: resisting temptation.
Rulers are constantly assailed on all sides by would-be counsellors, do-gooders, and beggars of all descriptions seeking special favours. They cajole, flatter, attempt to bribe, and enlist the aid of "public opinion". Speaking of philosophers, Socrates rightly points out that "their own virtues, their courage, temperance, and the rest of them, every one of which praiseworthy qualities (and this is a most singular circumstance) destroys and distracts from philosophy the soul which is the possessor of them. ... All the ordinary goods of life beauty, wealth, strength, rank, and great connections in the State you understand the sort of things these also have a corrupting and distracting effect."
Socrates further points out that "evil is a greater enemy to what is good than to what is not" and that "the most gifted minds, when they are ill-educated, become pre-eminently bad.
"There neither is, nor has been, nor is ever likely to be, any different type of character which has had no other training in virtue but that which is supplied by public opinion. I speak, my friend, of human virtue only. What is more than human, as the proverb says, is not included: for I would not have you ignorant that, in the present evil state of governments, whatever is saved and comes to good is saved by the power of God, as we may truly say."
It is therefore of the utmost importance for the philosophical ruler to include among his advisers and counsellors people from his own class who have been trained in similar disciplines to sustain him in resisting all forms of flattery and in continuing to practise the "gymnastics of the soul". If the genuine philosopher-ruler needs such counsellors, how can we expect a bunch of jumped-up demagogues to govern well without them?
We must not expect the policies pursued by a philosopher-king to be uniformly popular, even if they are just. Socrates therefore offers some good advice concerning the presentation of policy.
"O my friends, do not attack the multitude. They will change their minds if, not in an aggressive spirit, but gently and with the view of soothing them and removing their dislike of over-education, you show them your philosophers as they really are and describe their character and profession. Then mankind will see that he of whom you are speaking is not such as they supposed. If they view him in this new light, they will surely change their notion of him, and answer in another strain. Who can be at enmity with one who loves him? Who that is himself gentle and free from envy will be jealous of one in whom there is no jealousy? Nay, let me answer for you, that in a few this harsh temper may be found, but not in the majority of mankind.
"And do you not also think, as I do, that the harsh feeling which the many entertain toward philosophy originates in the pretenders who rush in uninvited, and are always abusing them and finding fault with them; who make persons instead of things the theme of their conversation? Nothing can be more unbecoming in philosophers than this.
"Further, do we not see that many are willing to do, or to have, or to seem to be, what is just and honourable without the reality. But no one is satisfied with the appearance of good the reality is what they seek. In the case of the good, appearance is despised by everyone."
Socrates finally attempts a definition of "the good" with which I have no desire to quarrel:
"Now, that which imparts truth to the known and the power of knowing to the knower is what I would have you term the idea of good. This you will deem to be the cause of science, and of truth in so far as the latter becomes the subject of knowledge. Beautiful as are both truth and knowledge, you will be right in esteeming this other nature to be more beautiful than either. As light and sight may be truly said to be like the sun and yet not to be the sun, so in this other sphere, science and truth may be deemed to be like the good, but not the good; the good has a place of honour yet higher."