In the Socratic dialogue Republic, Greek philosopher Plato envisioned and proposed a utopian city-state ruled by a particular class of citizens who possess a firm grip of philosophy. He called the city “Kallipolis” and the rulers “philosopher kings” who are trained under a specialised 50-year-long scholastic program.
Plato believed that philosophers are the best rulers because they are able to demonstrate high moral standards and make just decisions stemming from their predisposition toward truth and rationality. They are not simply lover of wisdom but also a follower of truth.
Three classes of citizens in Kallipolis according to Plato
Kallipolis would have a rigid social structure organised according to three social classes—the bronze class composed of farmers and industrial workers, the silver class composed of the military and other government officials, and the gold class composed of the rulers or the philosopher kings.
Membership in either one of these social classes would be voluntary. This means that a citizen has freedom to choose granted that he or she would meet the criteria or fulfil the requirements set for his or her desired class. For example, gold class requires undergoing and completing a laborious scholastic training program designed specifically to nurture philosopher and rulers. The program lasts for 50 years (540a-541).
It is worth noting that structuring the society under three social classes is essentially akin to providing a system for deliberately training citizens either under one of the three broad categories of predetermined social duties and obligations. The bronze class forms the labour sector while the silver class forms the city administration and military defence sectors. The gold class comprises the entire governance or central leadership of the city-state.
Organising Kallipolis under three classifications of citizens also means organising the society based on the general distinctions across the population. Plato wanted to promote specialization.
The proposed social structure also coincides with the vision to create a society ruled by philosophers. Furthermore, the structure also highlights the fact that members of the gold class or the philosopher kings are superior to members of the silver and bronze classes in terms of leadership virtue.
Comparing philosopher kings against non-philosophers
Members of the silver and bronze classes or the common people and non-philosophers are inferior to philosophers because they lacked enough knowledge to become men of virtue. Plato called these people blind because of their inability to see truth.
Plato argued that the common people and non-philosophers are unable to promote conventions about goodness and justice. They also lack the capacity to determine when and why they should establish these conventions, or how and why they should guard and preserve them (484d).
In the manner of painters, Plato believed that rulers should possess a complete model in their souls for them to search, study, and reference the concept of truth (484b-d). It is in this regard that philosophers are fit to become rulers. He described them as individuals with a strong predisposition toward truth and rationality. They naturally love truth because their entire soul strives for truth.
The strong affinity toward truth means that the souls of these philosophers are also rational. Compared to the common people and non-philosophers, philosophers strive to fulfil the yearnings of their souls for truth and rationality (504e-505b).
Common people and non-philosophers or collectively, the blind people are unable to do these things. Based on how Plato regarded philosophers as superior in virtue, the common people and non-philosophers lack the capacity to oversee and govern a society because they are unable to promote truth and establish conventions because of absence of high moral standards.
50-year-long education for philosopher kings
Becoming a philosopher requires undergoing and completing education. This also means that philosopher kings are not born but made. Plato argued that education shapes or predisposes individuals toward truth and rationality (500e-501a). He explained that education is not only the practice of putting knowledge into the soul of individuals but also the practice of developing the right desire for knowledge, particularly truth and rationality (539c-e).
The point of view about education serves as the basis for the 50-year-long scholastic program that aims to train individuals to become philosopher kings (540a-541). Through this rigorous and lengthy education, Plato wanted to institutionalise how Kallipolis would create and appoint rulers. He envisioned a utopian city-state that deliberately trains individuals to develop a strong predisposition toward truth and rationality (455e).
Long-term education is also the reason why Plato believed that philosophers are better rulers. Unlike everyone else, the strenuous formal education makes philosophers better leaders. His envisioned society would thereby make rulers instead of merely appointing them based on unacceptable or random criteria for competencies.
Further comparing the three social classes of Kallipolis
The introduction of the three social classes also explained why Plato considered philosophers as the most qualified rulers. For example, members of the bronze class are naturally inclined toward money and material things. This is because their lives revolve around productivity. But this does not mean that they are mere materialistic individuals. This inclination is a natural offshoot of their social duties and obligations.
On the other hand, members of the silver class have strong inclination toward honour and character because of the nature of their vocations and positions in the society. They are public individuals and their lives centre on their social roles or careers as public servants.
The philosopher kings of the gold class are nevertheless ardent lovers of truth and rationality (434a-c). Shaped by their education, these individuals have become predisposed toward truth-seeking and rational thinking.
By organising Kallipolis under three social classifications of citizens, Plato was trying to acknowledge the predisposition of individuals based on which class they belong to. He specifically said that the three classifications have their respective perceptions of pleasures and standards of living (435c-441c).
In considering the aforementioned, rulers from the bronze class will have the tendency to focus their leadership on activities that would bring them wealth. Pleasure for them is dependent on material acquisition. It is possible that the society under these rulers would merely pursue unreasonable extravagance. This might create a corrupt or overindulged government because of the materialistic tendency of the ruler.
Rulers from the silver class might be unable to fully understand the needs of the people because of their strong inclination toward his or her character or self-image. Pleasure for these individuals centres on personal accomplishments. This might create an unproductive government that is unable to connect to the needs of the people because of the narcissistic tendency of the ruler.
The philosopher kings of the gold class would have a leadership that revolves around high moral standards. Their inclination toward truth and rationality would create a government that promotes justice. This inclination would make these individuals a better judge because they possess the mental capacity—developed from education—for determining the wrongness or rightness of an action or behaviour. Take note that pleasure for these philosopher kings depends on whether they have satisfied the yearnings of their souls for truth and rationality.
Conclusion: Why philosopher kings are better rulers
From the aforementioned discussion, Plato was suggesting that rulers are not born but made. Take note that his argument centred on a notion that philosophers are better rulers than the common people or non-philosophers because of their predisposition toward truth and rationality—a predisposition honed and shaped by their strenuous education specifically designed to make them virtuous.
This predisposition towards virtues also translates to having pleasure that can only be satisfied if these philosopher kings are able to fulfil the yearnings of their souls for truth and rationality.
Nonetheless, Plato was suggesting that philosophers become better rulers because the society has honed them to develop an affinity toward truth-seeking and rational thinking. In other words, the love for truth and rationality does not come out naturally.
The common people and non-philosophers are thereby inferior to them because they are not trained for truth and rationality. This lack of training predisposes them to a different definition of pleasure and satisfaction. This fact also makes these individuals inferior to philosophers in terms of virtuous.