The ancient Greek philosopher Plato is famous for advocating the rule of philosopher-kings. This Aeon piece by a philosophy professor at Saint Mary's College instead suggests we would be better served by philosopher-citizens.
"In a climate of norm-breaking politicians, increasing polarization and distrust, and rising despair about the lack of productive political discourse, it is easy to wish our own leaders were more like Plato’s wise, magnanimous rulers, who selflessly promote the ideal city’s collective flourishing. ... In Plato’s account, a strong man who promises to fight for the people is chosen democratically but his untethered desires usher in a swift slide to tyranny. For Plato, to avoid this unhappy end, we need benevolent, virtuous rulers who are ruled by reason rather than their irrational desires. In other words, we need philosopher-kings. ... But, as much as we may want a figure to bring us together, the incentives and obstacles that constrain politicians make it impossible (and undemocratic) to expect even the most magnanimous leader to right this ship. ... But what if Plato is right about the importance of the philosopher for the flourishing city and wrong about the role she or he should occupy there? What if instead of a few philosopher-kings magnanimously steering the unruly mob, we focused on building a democracy full of philosopher folks? These folks could grow in the virtues that philosophers value and, as they do, demand better of their democratically elected leaders. Folks who expect transparency, who demand truth, who ask curious questions, and who recognize the limitations of their knowledge and the limitations of their leaders could ensure better engagement from the bottom up. ... I have begun to see this as a real option—the only option, in fact—for two reasons. First, building up philosopher folks provides some sense of hope that our collective, democratic future might be better than our present. Second, I have seen evidence that this is possible play out among students in my course, “Dialogue and Civil Discourse.” ... [T] here are several virtues, I believe, that are preconditions for productive political engagement and therefore imperative for philosopher folks to develop: intellectual humility, attention, curiosity and empathy. These virtues are required for being a clear thinker, a good knower and an engaged participant in a democracy. ... If philosopher folks commit to growing in these virtues essential for good engagement, we can imagine a future better than the present, in which polarization does not automatically short-circuit productive engagement. After all, these virtues are not the provenance of the political right or left."
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