There’s a reason why our politicians are so unpopular.
by Jacob Wilkins
odern politicians receive plenty of criticism from the public. We often vote for the person we dislike the least rather than the person we genuinely admire.
Plato — one of the most renowned and influential philosophers of all time — discussed the shortcomings of politicians more than two-thousand years ago. Despite how old his ideas are, they still shed light on the political issues of our time.
The ideal ruler
Plato argues that philosophers would make the best rulers. They love learning and possess outstanding knowledge. Pride and desire do not concern them. Instead, they are driven by the pursuit of wisdom, truth, and virtue.
Any pleasures they do feel relate to the mind. Self-control, therefore, is paramount — a good leader cannot be a slave to their vices. Those who are mean-spirited are also unfit to rule. How can they possibly do what’s right for their people if they do not care for them?
Unfortunately, the chances of someone who fits this description gaining power is remarkably slim.
The parable of the ship
When explaining the poor standard of politicians, Plato asks us to visualise a ship. The crew represent the politicians, and the navigator (or stargazer) represents a philosopher.
The crew spend their time quarrelling over who will control the ship. Each is convinced they ought to be at the helm, despite the fact they’ve never learned the art of navigation. In other words, they want to compete for the captaincy and control the vessel, but they have no knowledge of where to take it.
The navigator, meanwhile, has wisdom. They understand the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and have knowledge which exceeds those competing for the captaincy.
Plato then summarises the parable:
‘And you won’t be far wrong if you compare the politicians who at present rule as to the sailors in our illustration, and those whom they call useless visionaries to the true navigators.’ — The Republic, Plato
The essence of the parable is that those who are good at winning the competition are not the ones with the most wisdom. How can they be? If they spend their time pursuing power, knowledge is a lesser priority.
The philosopher, on the other hand, has no interest in power or any experience of competing for it.
Plato continues this discussion, arguing that politicians come from a less-than-ideal environment, like a plant that is forced to grow in unsuitable soil.
In the parable of the ship, Plato describes how the competing crew members will use villainy to achieve their goals. They might throw their rivals overboard or dose the current captain with drink or drugs.
Such an environment does not lead to virtue. The problem with politicians isn’t just their lack of knowledge relative to that of a philosopher, it’s also the dog-eat-dog culture they arise from.
What’s more, politicians lean on the desires of the masses, as they often strive for popular approval. Again, this sways those in power away from wisdom and the pursuit of absolute truth.
This last point is a controversial one. Many of the most prosperous nations today are democracies. And as such, Plato’s condescending view of the masses doesn’t fit with the ideas of our time. Yet, some of his thoughts on this topic are certainly valid.
The message of the ship parable is that politicians aren’t the wisest, most knowledgable individuals in society. Their time is dedicated to obtaining power rather than seeking the truth.
Meanwhile, the competitive, deceitful environment politicians arise from is also a problem. It means those in power aren’t just lacking in wisdom, they’re lacking in virtue as well.
Whilst Plato’s thoughts do shed light on why our leaders are so unsatisfactory, we shouldn’t tar all politicians with the same brush. Those of us who live in democracies can always try and vote for the lesser evil.