Plato: Notes on Statesman

June 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

The primary topic for discussion in Statesman is the expertise in knowledge for how to rule well. An argument is made between sections 292 and 293 that sets up the precise definitions and characteristics for describing a type of government. It is determined that the way by which we should assess constitutions not by the numbers of its rulers, its wealth or poverty or its consent or constraint but as a branch of knowledge. A breakdown of the discussion:

Forms of government:
1) monarchy
2) when power is in the hands of a few
3) the rule of the many (Athenian democracy)

Take into consideration whether they involve constraint or consent, poverty or wealth, regard or disregard for law.

1) Monarchy can become kingship or dictatorship
2) when power is on the hands of the few can be divided as aristocracy and oligarchy
3) Democracy tends to get the same definition regardless of constraint or consent

This division of characteristics (wealthy, poor, consenting, constrained, law abiding, lawless) implies that they are excluded from being perfect systems. Plato now directs the discussion to a previous argument (The Republic – book 2??) that government by a king was a branch of knowledge. There are two branches of knowledge: an evaluative kind and an instructional kind. The instructional kind is further divided into the king that is responsible for inanimate things and the kind responsible for living creatures. By pointing out these categories it becomes clear that to understand a constitution (the organizing principles of the polis) such knowledge (even perhaps perspective) is required. So the question becomes ‘which of these systems in fact possesses this knowledge?‘ It is also implies that if to be a ling requires this knowledge the amount of candidates for kingship is limited to very few as in any particular field of expertise there are only ever few experts.

Visitor: The only true system – the political system par excellence – is one where it can be shown that the rulers are genuinely and not merely apparently knowledgeable. (The Statesman 293c)

This leads to an absolutism whereby the leaders based on an ideal notion of knowledge can decide the destiny of the city and all its people and they are morally justified, even if such a decision involved purges or lack of legal ethics and code. The young Socrates objects to this lack of need for the leader to abide by a legal code.

Visitor: Because legislation can never issue perfect instructions which precisely encompass everyone’s best interests and guarantee fair play for everyone at once. People and situations differ, and human affairs are characterized by an almost permanent state of instability. It is therefore impossible to devise, for any given situation, a simple rule which will apply to everyone forever. (The Statesman 294a)

Thus far a specific type of knowledge/expertise has been cited as the fundamental criteria for leadership of the polis. This expertise gives a mandate to the leader to make decisions without moral constraints (if the decision is taken in view of the knowledge and expertise of the leader it is vindicated). Next comes the discussion of how to educate such a person into such a role. Imagine a personal trainer instructing a group of athletes. They can’t find time to create individual regimens for each athlete and so create a collective regimen which will benefit the most amount of individuals. The argument goes that the same applies to a legislator. So a legislator creates imprecise laws that can date and become defunct and inefficient. If one is to go back on their original instructions and issue new instructions a bad faith occurs whereby the point of law making becomes absurd if the laws are changeable and not trustworthy. Not just this, but the laws become a constraint for the leader to deal with the unstable nature of human community and environment. The visitor cites the common response to this argument about the restrictive character of law:

Visitor: It’s the view – which is certainly plausible – that if a person knows of laws which improve on those of his predecessors, he should get them established, but only once he has persuaded his state to approve them, and not otherwise. The Statesmen 296a

The visitor points out that a decision can be made that affects the situation of the individual to which the individual may object, but for whom the decision is just and moral. The argument is about constraint by law and by ignorance via the influence of those who do not possess the correct knowledge. The visitor argues that the ruler with expertise is more effective at keeping the citizenry safe by making available his expertise, rather than enforcing a legal code. The one parameter:

As long as these wise rulers have the single overriding concern of always using their intelligence and expertise to maximize the justice they dispense to the states inhabitants, there’s no defect in what they do, is there? 297b

The availability of the wise rulers will be scarce as per the previous discussion point, and thus so will be the actual perfect society. An analysis ensues of the extent to which existing societies reflect this perfect set up. Plato has opposed the notion that not only are people not equally equipped to exercise political rule, but those who are equipped are extremely rare and reserve the right through their knowledge and expertise to rule with absolutism. It must be said however that Plato arrives at this absolute ideal by recognizing that generalized legislation and a static political system and economy cannot work as they do not adhere to the unpredictable and unstable character of human community and the environment in which humans live.


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