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Once Upon A Time There Were Philosopher Kings

Politics / Social Issues Nov 24, 2014 - 05:43 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Not That Socrates
Newswires report, November 22, that Portugal’s former prime minister, José Sócrates spent another night in detention after a court judge questioned him in an investigation of suspected tax fraud, corruption, and money-laundering during his time in office. For the other Socrates, and Plato, there was only one form of government which would not slip and fall. The Republic which would not dissolve and disappear in corruption, deceit, designer wars to fool (and kill) the people, degeneracy of all sorts and kinds such as cult-food and and money-sport replacing good eating and healthy exercize. A society which would not be lost in a storm of rhetoric and fake logic replacing any kind of debate or discussion. The people could only benefit – but to get it they would have to struggle, moderate their desires and avoid greed.

Capitalism is human nature and crony capitalism is also human nature. Sometimes called “philosopher kings” or the “natural aristocracy” their essential role, described by Socrates and Plato was to govern with zero corruption. Their role and goal was not to amass personal fortunes of the Bill Clinton-Tony Blair type. They would take office knowing that if they did “go crony” like the elected democrats of almost any western developed country today, and an even larger slice of non-western societies today, they would simply be executed. Killed for betraying the people.

The real (or first) Socrates was himself killed – executed by a kangaroo court decision judging him guilty of denying the gods (in the plural) and corrupting the mindset of youths being prepared to die for and by the crony elite of their corrupt nation, called “democratic”, in a designer war about and for nothing. Socrates said that he wasn't particularly surprised about being judged guilty by a crony court, and rejected all attempts by his friends (the Crito dialogue) to plead for clemency.

Kangaroo Money

Missing in any of the mountains of talk (most recently by Thomas Piketty) about the pros and cons of capitalism and its alternatives or so-called alternatives including Marxism, communism and anarchy, tyranny, Christian socialism, oligarchy, Islamic economics and finance, the way of Buddha and several others we could mention, is the basic problem of money. Once upon a time, you could barter for goods or more conveniently use tokens, but the tokens would have to have some value themselves. They could for example be cowrie shells or metals dug from the depths of the Earth or rocks hewn from a Sacred Mountain but somebody would have to be In charge of the token business.

Later, bank notes or bills of trade or share certificates, or various papers of promissory worth became even more convenient denoters of value but still depended on the probity and luck of their issuers, and their ultimate transferability to metal tokens or actual goods. Things got a bit riskier, which certainly suits the gambling streak of human nature and today employs millions of persons clicking their mouses at the right time, in front of a trading screen. Cowrie shells, gold and other metal coins, and then paper money were replaced by electronic blips in a Super Mario game that Mario Draghi, of the ECB today and Goldman Sachs yesterday, firmly approves of. Such is the trusting and hopeful nature of the herd that the shell game goes on.

The vast army of more-or-less policed humans, released from agricultural and industrial servitude, with a vast army of energy slaves lightly toils onward like a man on a bicycle. When or if they stopped, and were unable to also consume, the bicycle would fall to the ground. The youth cohorts of the consumer herd would most likely become suicidal, attack their parents or the police, join ISIS or Daech, or fall off the sofa instead of watching TV news-sport-advertising and would become openly useless.

Besides, there is no alternative. Globalisation ensures that wealth is more concentrated than ever before, as real wages and incomes fall. The State moves in to co-opt and control the more openly-useless members of society – not even able to flip a McDo hamburger or invent a new app for the cellphone cult!

So What Are You Going To Do About It?

Nearly 2,400 years ago, the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato, followed a couple of centuries later by the condensed and formalized works of Aristotle who like them explored political philosophy. Aristotle concluded that “it is evident that the form of government is best in which every man, whoever he is, can act best and live happily.”

By the late 18th century this question was far from academic and arguments based on their theories were daily debate and dispute in the French and American revolutions. In Philadelphia, nearly 2,000 years after Aristotle’s time, a group of men tried to write a just and equitable constitution. George Washington, James Madison, and the other framers of the Constitution were dedicated to constructing a just government. Americans had overthrown a tyrannical and colonialist British government. They wanted to create a national government free of tyranny, governed by the rule of law with checks and balances avoiding extremes of wealth and poverty. Like their French counterparts however they had to grapple with many of the same political questions that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle tried to resolve..

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle developed important ideas about government and politics. Two of the many political subjects they wrote about were tyranny and the rule of law. Tyranny occurs when absolute power is granted to or seized by a ruler. Also and in reality if not in theory, in a tyrannical government the ruler and his clique have to become corrupt. They can dilute this reality a little, but not a lot by creating an oligarchy – which we call crony capitalism today. The oligarchy will ensure there is Me Too politics, when or if they create a fake democracy to decorate their system and process of permanently enriching themselves and impoverishing the Born Losers – anybody who believes the lies of the Me Too political parties.

The rule of law has no place in a tyranny or oligarchy (or the technical third option of Plato, called Timocracy). The Born Winners are exempt from the law, and this exemption is the first unjust privilege of their position of power. As Socrates and Plato said and wrote, the rule of law should serve as a safeguard against tyranny and the lawmakers must not be above the law. When this happens, the rulers are corrupt.

Athenian Democracy

Both Socrates and Plato, and Aristotle lived in the democratic Greek city-state of Athens. In Athenian democracy, all male citizens directly participated in making laws and deciding jury trials. Yearly elections decided who would fill important government positions. Citizens drew lots to see who would staff the remaining posts. One not-so-minor detail was that all slaves and unnaturalised foreigners could not vote. They could only listen to the open-air debates, somewhat like the huge numbers of illegal economic migrants who do not vote in the elections of today's “mature democracies”.

Even in Socrates' time, in Plato's time and more so in Aristotle's time Athens had suffered “democracy fatigue” in major part due to internal corruption and nearly constant wars with neighboring city-states, especially Sparta. Sparta became a “warfare state” well before Athens, and dragged Athens down to a permanent war footing. The last major war with Sparta ended in 404 BC with Athens’ defeat. Shortly after, Athens was colonized and fell under the control of Macedon, a kingdom north of Greece.

Plato developed and canonized the method of Socrates concerning government and democracy, of asking questions about a subject and getting the students and listeners to think critically about it. This is known as the Socratic method, used by many professors in law schools, and supposedly in the parliaments of democracies, but even in the times of Socrates this often led to criticism of Athenian democracy and its politicians. An increasing number of elite Athenians saw Socrates as a threat to their city-state and this was the cause of his kangaroo trial with only one possible verdict

Democracy Does Not Work

A few years after losing its last war with Sparta, Athens put 70-year-old Socrates on trial for not accepting the gods of Athens and for corrupting the young. Socrates denied the accusations, but he was found guilty and sentenced to death. When Socrates died, Plato concluded that democracy was a corrupt and unjust form of government. It was intrinsically weak and would always drift towards oligarchy and tyranny, whatever it might have been at its foundation. He left Athens for a long decade and only returned in  387 BC, and founded the Academy, of which Aristotle was a student and then director.

Plato wrote 'The Republic' in this period. Apart from this being still today one of the world's most important works on politics, the context of Socrates's death, Plato's self-imposed exile and his loss of faith in democracy helps explain why 'The Republic' features an examination of the meaning of justice and how different types of government will be nearer or further away from the ideal of social justice. In this book, Plato sets law against tyranny. Whether the tyranny is economic, ideological, intellectual or other – for example the cult of war – only law can oppose it.

Plato looked at four forms of government including Timocracy or a type of tyranny where a ruler – initially only – rules with a strict code of honor replacing law and justice. Plato found all of them to be unstable. He thought that timocracy, as in the warfare state of Sparta, would tend to last longest before it fell apart: He notably said that the accumulation of gold in the treasury of private individuals is the ruin of a timocracy. This concentrated wealth will incite the ruler and his small group of trusted leaders to invent illegal ways of spending the treasure trove. He said that with no laws to govern what they do, they and their wives and lovers would recklessly spend, whereupon their rivals would seek to emulate them, and in turn the citizens would become avid for wealth. Their previous timocratic code of honor, allowing them to rule-and-fool would be gone, replaced by a daily scrabble for wealth based on all and any means – from pillage and plunder to trade and the loan of money at high rates of interest. And the poor would be despised and disowned.

Is Democracy the Stepping Stone to Oligarchy?

Plato described what he called and wrote as being the next inevitable step. Under certain conditions of the type he described, a timocrat (a single ruler) would emerge because he or she could protect and serve a threatened nation. We might for example call Winston Churchill or Napoleon Bonaparte timocrats. They served their nations when their nations were threatened but they were, for the least, uninterested in any law which might hinder the wealth and power of the elite which they chose (and which chose them), and surrounded them at all times.

An oligarchy, as defined by Plato is a state in which rich and poor are separated at all times and the poor, like the rich are made to plot and scheme against each other – in other words divide and rule. Simply due to this division however, the state will be weak and unable to defend itself if attacked, made more certain by the rich oligarchs concentrating all wealth amongst themselves and refusing to spend on an army or navy and weapons of sufficient numbers and quality to fight off attackers. They will be forced to use mercenaries, but their meanness will betray them and will turn against them.

The poor will then overthrow the oligarchy and set up a democracy, the rule of the people, but the weakness, here, is that any member (of the poor) can become an elected lawmaker and will be rapidly contested and opposed by other members of the poor who resent what they see as the unfairness and injustice of “anybody becoming powerful”. Born in liberty, Plato said, the democracy will be torn apart by the desire and demand for Limitless Liberty. In other words anarchy ensues, and is quickly replaced by an oligarchy or a tyranny, which will be harder and bloodier to overthrow, having learned the lessons of history.

Stressing moderation, Plato long before Isaac Newton warned that “the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction”. Total liberty is anarchy, which never lasts very long. Plato said that the “excess of liberty, whether in states or individuals, seems only to pass into [an] excess of slavery.”

Also he noted and as we see every day in the “mature democracies” of today, a democracy, like an oligarchy, pits the poor against the rich. The poor see the rich plotting their slavery and further impoverishment, and they seek protection. Plato went on to describe how the people will always find some providential champion who they want to set over and above them, draped in an image of greatness. In other words their frustration with democracy is “the root from which a tyrant springs”, after an initial stage during which the tyrant rises in the wraps of an apparent protector - with a mob at his disposal. The tyrant makes good use of his mob, during a putsch or coup or civil war aimed at creating a tightknit power elite in the shape pf the tyrant's henchmen, sealing the total power of the Tyrant. Plato noted that a tyrant can be driven out, but can also return, using the same promises or hints to the people of the abolition of debts, new wealth for all and the partition of lands.

Law and Madness

Plato deemed tyranny the “fourth and worst disorder of a state.” While a certain level of reason can operate in democracy, to the extent it is tolerated by the oligarchs when they emerge, tyrants lack “the very faculty and instrument of judgment”—reason. Plato said the tyrannical man is enslaved because the best part of him – his ability to reason – is subjugated by his passions and follies. Likewise, the tyrannical state is enslaved, because it is devoid of reason and order.

As in a state of anarchy, there are no checks and balances in a tyranny, no outside governing power controls the tyrant’s selfish behavior. For Plato, this is why laws must exist and be applied to prevent and guard against tyranny. In 'The Republic' he called the law an “external authority” that functions as the “ally of the whole city.”  In the Crito dialogue, Socrates refuses the offer by his admirer, Crito, to try for a pardon, explaining that when a citizen chooses to live in a state, he “has entered into an implied contract” with the State that “he will do as its laws command him.” In Plato’s “Laws”, his last book, he summarizes his stance on the rule of law:

“Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men can enjoy the blessings that the gods shower on a state”.

Plato went on to define his ideal State, governed by an incorruptible aristocracy that the State nurtured by lifelong training and education to be wise and trained in how to run a state, just as captains of ships or airline pilots are trained in how to run a ship or plane. The classes of society would be drawn on to select these “philosopher kings”, from the age of 50 years and include continuing education and activities designed to reinforce their capacity of reasoning and ability to be wise. They also will obey the law, and for them the first law is to rule. Long before Macchiavelli, Plato observed that hereditary kings ad princes are very often reluctant to govern, and constant prey for emerging oligarchs and warlike generals seeking adventure.

Aristotle The Pragmatist

Plato had been his teacher but this in no way meant Aristotle agreed with Plato, except for key concepts of political power and governance. For example, Aristotle agreed with Plato's argument that:

“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and when political greatness and wisdom meet in one, . . . cities will never have rest from their evils” . . . .

Aristotle came from the Kingdom of Macedon that had subjugated Athens. When Aristotle grew up, he studied philosophy at Plato’s Academy for 20 years, leaving when Plato died. He traveled and then tutored the king of Macedon’s 13-year-old son, Alexander (later called Alexander the Great).

When Alexander became king of Macedon in 335 BC, Aristotle returned to Athens to set up his own school, called the Lyceum. He studied, catalogued, lectured, debated, and wrote about every area of human knowledge. His works (like Plato's) were however only published long after his death. Aristotle disagreed with much of Plato’s philosophy for reasons we can oppose as Plato being an idealist, while Aristotle was a pragmatist, very specifically seeking to apply logic in all possible domains, and always treating what is before what might be.

Ironically, Aristotle was at one time accused of exactly the same trumped-up charges that Socrates faced. When Alexander the Great died, anti-Macedonian forces took control of Athens. Because he was linked to Alexander, Aristotle was accused of rejecting the gods of Athens, like Socrates. Unlike Socrates, he did not stand trial by fleeing to a remote home in the countryside, saying (legend has it) that he did not want Athens to “sin twice against philosophy” - its first sin being the execution of Socrates.

Like Plato, Aristotle wrote extensively on tyranny and the rule of law. He hoped that his work “Politics”, a collection of essays on government, would provide direction for rulers, statesmen, and politicians.

In “Politics”, Aristotle rejected Plato’s ideal state. He said that it fails to address conflicts that will arise among its citizens. He claimed Plato’s ideal state will in fact be “two states in one, each hostile to the other”. He said that Plato's division of society into “ideal classes” over which philosopher kings would rule would essentially and only push down rivalry, and division, conflict and plotting to the levels of society below the rulers, whether they were corrupt or not

Unlike “The Republic” Aristotle's “Politics” avoids defining an ideal state and form of government, and instead looks at a range of practical constitutions that city-states can realistically put into effect. As he said, his study of 26 city states in the Greece of his time was an attempt to not only consider what form of government is best, “but also what is possible and what is easily attainable”. His classification was of “true” and “false” systems of governance, with the true types having a regard for the common good and governed in strict accordance with the principles of justice. False systems were those which only protect the interest of the rulers. He said they are defective and perverted forms of governance, and are naturally despotic.

Constitutions, Monarchy and the Free Man

Aristotle could be called ambiguous about monarchies, because on a purely theorectical basis, he said, they might be the philosopher kings that Plato championed, but in practice tend towards tyranny. If or when a monarchy had a constitution they would not tend towards being a “True” constitution, which serves the common interests of all citizens, but would tend towards “despotic” or tyrannical constitutions which only serve the selfish interests of monarchs, their heriditary families and close-linked interest groups. In other words, tyranny perverts monarchy, because it seeks to preserve the interest of an elite. Aristotle said: “No freeman, if he can escape from it, will endure such a government.”

He also believed that tyranny is the “very reverse of a constitution.” because apart from those laws and principles which serve the interests of the monarch or the tyrant, all other laws will have no authority. The constitution will be a hollow shell, instead of providing laws which which are supreme over all.

Aristotle held views similar to Plato’s about the dangers of democracy and its slide to oligarchy, anarchy and tyranny. He feared that democracy like the others will pit the rich against the poor but he accepted that these types of governments took many forms. The worst were those with no rule of law. In democracies, which may have started with laws, the drift to lawlessness sees the emergence of providential saviors - demagogues – who pave the way for the tyrant. He wrote that “The decrees of the demagogues correspond to the edicts of the tyrant”.

As he said concerning oligarchies: “When . . . the rulers have great wealth and numerous friends, [their] sort of family despotism approaches that of a monarchy; individuals rule and not the law”. Aristotle defined demagogy as the last sort of democracy notably because the demagogue will use passion, rhetoric and other speaking tricks to thwart and demean the rule of law.

Aristotle stated that “the rule of law . . . is preferable to that of any individual.” He also argued that what we call a middle class, today, persons with sufficient education to analyze and discuss proposed changes to a constitution and the laws it defines and provides, will be a useful check and balance on the drift to the excesses of oligarchy arising within a democracy – because the middle class acts as a “soft oligarchy”.

What Can We Learn From This?

Concerning both Plato and Aristotle one reproach we can make is that their laudable belief in the key role of law in a stable and just system of government and governance sets the question of who will write and found these laws and the Constitution which sets them out? How will those laws be changed when social, economic, technological, environmental and other circumstances change? Just as important and still very much the case today, will the State and its laws be entirely separated from religion?

Socrates himself was accused (among other things) of promoting monotheistic ideas in a polytheistic State. Aristotle was accused of “supporting the wrong gods”. Concerning family law and man-woman relations, societies have changed from matrilineal and matriarchal to the opposite. Polygamy can be legal still today in some countries, but forbidden in others. Monarchies, called “constitutional monarchies” still exist today and in Japan's case a “constitutional imperial” State exists.

Aristotle's argument that a large educated middle class can act as a form of oligarchy within a democracy, to prevent the drift to small tightknit oligarchies followed by all-out tyrannies, has to be related to the real world. In the Germany of the 1930s, its middle classes trooped out to vote for Hitler's NSDP! In the US and UK, its middle class voters supported the 2003 race to war in Iraq of Tony Blair and George Bush. As Plato noted, the enemy warfare state of Sparta was a major cause of Athens' loss of democracy. Athens had to be placed on a permanent war footing to resist Sparta, and democracy was the collateral victim.

The role of the middle classes and “middle class politics” in any way hindering the oligarchs responsible for the 2008 financial and economic crash and the enduring Bad Banks scandal has been zero or nearly zero. Aided by technology, the financial elites have been able to ignore the laws of the countries they operate in.

Plato's definition of Timocracy and its attractions for the people in the case of attack and the threat of violence is highly applicable to the so-called “mature democracies” of the west, today. As he said, timocracy is one form of tyranny; during conditions of national emergency it feeds upn itself and displaces previous forms of government. The laws of the warfare state apply – written by and to the benefit of the power elite.

We can note that both in the USA of the late 18th century and in France, following comparable struggles for Liberty, this liberty was one of the first victims of the long drawn out process of attempting to create and maintain a just and honorable State. Therefore we cannot expect miracles, which to a certain extent was a key conclusion of Aristotle.

[Note: much of this article draws on the major discussions regarding “ideal forms of government” that are published by the US Constitutional Rights Foundation]

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2014 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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