“Dude, it can’t happen.” -or- Maybe it just shouldn’t.

October 3, 2003
By Justin Hemlepp

I had traveled from afar, and after the arduous ride to the home of Cephalus, my dear friend and lover of the Art of business, I was well-prepared for the festival of Bendis.

As I came upon Cephalus’ home, I discovered a party of several men surrounding him in his cushioned throne of a chair. All were listening intently to the wine-soaked ramblings of one man who seemed, despite himself, quite learned in the Art of argumentation, and dare I say sophistry.

So this is the infamous Socrates, the great corruptor of Hellenic youth.

Upon my entrance into the room, the men stood to greet me and introductions were made. Cephalus and I embraced:

Justus, you appear haggard and ill-kept from your travels. Come, let my servants escort you to the baths and the kitchen so you can return to us refreshed and properly prepared to accompany us on our quest.

What quest is that, my dear Cephalus?

Why, the most noble undertaking, the quest for Justice, of course. Our companion, the esteemed Socrates, was just beginning to explain to us the unjust characteristics of a democratic society, and consequently the poor constitution of the man so governed.

I most certainly was, Cephalus, but we shall, of course, wait for your weary friend to replenish his energies with the comforts of your fine home.

I would hear of no such thing, I replied. Socrates, please continue with your discourse as soon as you are able for I agree that the quest for Justice is of the most noble of expeditions and cannot afford to lie idle simply due to my hunger and lack of cleanliness.

That is very kind, Justus.

I thank you again, Socrates, but do please continue. For my kindness shall most assuredly amount to little if anything at all when not exposed to the light of Justice, whatever form it may take.

Without further digression then, I will. Adeimantus, do you recall the picture I painted for you earlier, the allegory in which many men were chained together, forced to watch mere shadows of the Truth fall upon the fire-lit walls of a spacious and hidden cavern?

How could I forget, Socrates? It was only then that I could understand the distinctness of Reality from its various appearances.

That is correct. And do you also recall that because merely a handful of men are capable of making the ascent from that cave, and then only with great difficulty and guidance, that those men when brought back into the world of Darkness would be the only fit to govern, as they alone can discern what the appearances truly represent?

Yes, of course. It was you that said, those exposed to the light would “see a thousand times better than those who live there [in the world of Darkness].”

I applaud your recollection, Adeimantus.

Thank you, Socrates. Perhaps I should bow?

Don’t be foolish, Adeimantus, we have not the time for such extravagant displays of gratitude.

You’re quite right.

Well it is obvious, then, that a democracy is among the worst types of government.

I don’t follow, Socrates, Glaucon replied.

Let me explain, Glaucon. We agreed earlier that a democratic society would evolve from an oligarchy when those without wealth come to realize the weaknesses of their rulers who are solely governed by the love of money , and how easily overcome such opulent masters would be.

I recall our agreement. You said that after the appetites of the many drive them to victory in their struggle against their masters, “liberty and free speech are rife everywhere; anyone is free to do what he likes.” But how could such lively and interesting principles indicate a declining state?

Well, surely these free people, with the ability to do and say whatever they may care to, are far flung from those in our orderly republic, whom do precisely what they are suited for, based upon their composition, and nothing else, for that is what we agreed is just. No doubt.

It must follow, then, that the free speech and liberty of a democratic society can only lead to the propagation of a multitude of erroneous ideas and catastrophic actions amongst its constituents, due to their lack of a connection with the Truth that flows from the Good. In fact, it is freedom of expression that pollutes the whole society with fanciful images derived from the perverted delusions of their creators. Poets, whose make-believe has been banned from our just republic , would roam freely among the cattle poking and prodding the most vulnerable and violent among them with their own individual interpretations of reality, risking a stampede.

That is a frightening proposition.

Not as frightening as the spectacle of watching these wolves tear at each other’s throats during a so-called legislative session, each calling upon his own brand of self-interested rhetoric he so valiantly and steadfastly calls “reason” to promote his own ends.

Now that you mention it, Socrates, democracy seems like a distant place, when viewed from within the reasonable and orderly confines of our ideal republic.

Quite the contrary, Glaucon, our perfect state rests safely, still further from the wretched chaos of the democratic state than you realize. I dare say, from that distance, such a polluted society could not even be imagined, let alone seen, from within our borders. Indeed, why not?

The constituents of our just society care only for the good of the commonwealth because, guided by their constitutions, of either gold, silver, or iron and brass , and the instructions of their philosopher-king they do not preoccupy themselves with the frivolous diversions of their misguided counterparts. Our citizens are unconcerned about the supposed rights conferred upon those individuals in the democratic state, understanding that a just state is not created by any number of happy people but by all citizens performing their one specific duty for the aggregate good of the republic. All of our citizens will be encouraged to excel at their one craft, as opposed to fleetingly touching upon the fundamentals of many trades, never fulfilling his awesome responsibility to his community. Most importantly, however, our Guardians will never encounter the opportunity to taste the corruption of money and the merciless power it possesses, thus protecting our citizens from the wrath of self-interested rule. Our republic will never fall prey to a demagogue “who merely calls himself the people’s friend.”

The democratic state, then, must possess few citizens with the capacity to obey a master, and none with the capacity to lead, it that correct Socrates?

It seems so, Glaucon. What a shame it is that so many could be marooned and destitute whilst living within the peace of ignorance and folly.

It is a pity, indeed. They truly live in the shadows, ignoring always the pensive man gazing toward the stars.

Who is this contemplative stargazer, Glaucon, said I.

Justus, you speak, Socrates said, I had come to believe you had passed into slumber from fatigue and ennui.

Not so, Socrates. I have followed your discussion quite intently and with great interest, but I don’t understand why the free people’s inattention to the man whose thoughts are in the clouds is significant.

Ah, fear not, Justus, your thoughts and reason are not clouded upon this account for Glaucon was simply referring to a parable I used to explain both the utility and the uselessness of the philosopher as a leader of men before our company was graced by your arrival.

I apologize, to all of you, and most especially to myself, for if I had known the topic of conversation was to be of such mammoth importance the dust from my chariot’s wheels would have choked those unfortunate souls I passed, as they stared, mouths agape in awe, at the fury with which my conveyance speedily passed them while racing to the home of my old friend, Cephalus. Alas, I must play a child’s game of catch-up, if such a game is possible with a subject of this magnitude. Consequently, Socrates, might I humbly inquire as to how the philosopher can be both useless and useful in the same instance, and why that quality makes him fit to lead?

Perhaps he would understand, Socrates, if you briefly recounted the parable for him. It can not be overlooked if our well-traveled friend is expected to participate in our debate with a keen ear and an informed mind.

That seems very reasonable, Glaucon, for we have traveled too far along this path to leave our newcomer lost and bewildered in the thick of the forest without a torch to guide his way. Dear Justus, the parable I told was simply that of a ship at sea. The ship’s master is burly and powerful, but lacking in many essential faculties. Its crew begs and pleads to be given control of the vessel, though they have no inclination as to what direction to sail, or where they should go, for that matter. All the while, the only man who could get them home was cast out by the complex fray of endless quarrels. He is the stargazer you are so interested in, Justus, the sole person aboard our doomed ship who can merely look into the sky and determine the proper course.

I see. Your stargazer is schooled in the navigational arts, and represents the philosopher who should be king. He is the only man who can discern the correct direction from the position of the heavens and is thus comparable to the only man who can seize the Good and build his ideal republic structured around it.

That is correct. Now that you have an understanding of why only the philosopher is fit to govern but in a democracy he never will, I believe we can safely continue along our journey. I hardly believe that journey could be safe, Socrates, I said.

Heavens, why not?

But it is obvious, Socrates. Have you not noticed your burden’s growing weight as it drags behind you with only one wheel intact, leaving deep ruts and scars upon the earth in your wake? Surely you know that you have disturbed the forest in your quest for Justice and the weight of her displeasure doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

What could possibly be meant by that?

Only that which is evident, that the forest, in retaliation to your reckless and careless haste will use her mighty boughs, limbs, roots, and leaves to entangle you and lead you astray, never to reach your journey’s end.

Surely you cannot believe that our conversation has been at all in haste.

I must. Though it is a tremendous act, normally beyond my humble nature to question the wisdom of learned men, I insist that we pause at least to inspect the wheels of our cart so that you can assuage my fears of their incapacity.

If we must, I will humor you, Justus. But tell me, where are these disabled wheels you see? I cannot express my gratitude enough, Socrates, for when you show me that our cart’s wheels are truly intact I can continue fearlessly upon our epic journey. I will first guide you to the only solid wheel that remains after such rough treatment, and then I will endeavor to show you the fissures upon which your other wheels have fractured leaving you struggling to bear the weight of your cargo.

I shall follow you, if the Truth is at stake.

Good, this wheel whose structure is sound is the division of the universe into the realms of Being and becoming, the latter being solely the world of appearances. Your allegory of the cave aptly illustrates this essential concept, but I believe that further explanations could prove this issue more readily and concretely.

How is that?

Very simply, your acquaintances, the Pythagoreans, search for concrete mathematical models, formulas, to apply to the world of flux which, when found, can unify apparently distinct phenomena in that ever-flowing, ever-changing river. The application of those formulas to changing particulars in the realm of becoming shows how both similar and distinct phenomena can be unified under a common theorem, thus proving the existence of a higher order of knowledge. These formulas are the representation of the unification of particulars in the world of Forms.

Quite right, but upon which principles do you still have question, if you are aware that nothing is as it seems?

Why just exactly that, Socrates. Is not your stargazer just a man among men? Will he not also become dizzy and seasick in the most violent of storms?

Of course he will, although wise, the philosopher is still a man and will bleed when wounded.

How then, I said, when his comrades need his skills the most, will the navigator ascertain the true position of the stars while blinded by pain and convulsed with nausea?

He could not.

Might perhaps, in this perilous situation, the stout master with his great weight be the only man aboard sturdy enough on his feet to grip the helm firmly? Could it also be true that, in this situation, although the burly man may not know the way home, he can keep the vessel intact until the storm subsides?

He might and he could.

Then how could it follow that such a man has no connection with the Good, however fleeting, when he has just saved his crew from certain death in the bowels of the hurricane? Surely he has acted in the best interests of his community, if even only to save his own life. It could not.

Let me lead you, then to the second defective wheel that the weight of your republic and its justly constituted souls has crushed. Did we not just agree that the philosopher-king is simply a man among men who will bleed when cut like all others?

If you speak of our navigator, then yes.

Then, as a man, is he not subject to passions and fits of pride?

Not the philosopher-king, he is governed by reason alone.

But have we not just determined, Socrates, that reason can be useless, at least insofar as it is dizzied by the spinning of particulars around it? We have proven that in at least one instance, the navigator tossed about the ship in the midst of a storm, reason can be subject to the fallibility of man, thus elevating spirit and appetite, at least for that moment. It seems we have.

Then is it reasonable to assume that this is the only instance in which the philosopher-king, being only a man among men, is to be fallible?

As a matter of fact, Justus, Socrates explained earlier that a breeding error within the Guardians, so ordered by the philosopher-king, would instigate the eventual decline of our perfect republic into timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and eventually despotism , Adeimantus answered.

Is that true, Socrates? Does the only person with access to the Good in your just society have yet a second instance of fallibility to stain his already blemished record? It must also be true that the philosopher-king could commit any number of follies other than those we have forementioned?

It is true, Justus.

Let us walk, then, to the last of your cart’s shattered wheels. Hopefully there we can find solace in discovering a more sound foundation for your argument. Are not your just republic and its just ruler merely reflections of their ideal Forms in the realm of Being?

They are.

Then you agree that, by definition, these particulars, like all others, must fail to meet their ideal standard of excellence no matter what precautions are taken?

Without question I do.

Than how can a republic, governed solely by one fallible man among men, be justly constituted if it is subject to the authority of that man alone? If he or his successors commit one flaw of judgment, its potential for disaster is great, if that disaster instigates the shift toward despotism.

Upon reflection, it seems a risky venture, indeed.

It is still riskier, Socrates, for it appears that a republic so constituted would be rapping at the despot’s door.

How is that, Justus?

Well, it is no leap of imagination to envision an individual whom is poorly constituted climbing the steps of honor to the throne of the philosopher-king, after the fallibilities of his predecessors combined to produce him. He would quickly realize the power of his unquestioned authority and how to utilize it, first reasonably, and then gradually increase his understanding of its power until it consumed him with its corruption.

Unfortunately, that is right, if his breeding had allowed iron and brass into his constitution.

I submit to you, then, a proposal: that although the passions and appetites of man will continue to lead him astray, it is the passions and appetites of other men that will check both his ambitions and his progress; thus, the only way to save the ideal republic from its inevitable decline is to pit the self-interests of all men against each other and prevent even the most reasonable, respected, and learned man from being at the helm with complete sovereign power alone. Otherwise, it will become exactly what it was constructed in opposition to, and not by way of a progression of, increasingly unjust governments, but directly, by virtue of the fallibility of a particular man, who falls impressively short of the ideals toward which he had been guided his entire life.

It seems you are correct, Justus. A society, governed solely by one man with the capacity for despotism, appears to be just one step from the despotic state.### Back to top

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