The role of leadership in a state or an organization is one that requires a great deal of forethought and determination – an entire philosophy is dedicated to the employment of sound leadership principles when others are at one’s command. Plato’s “The Republic” discusses these aspects in detail, settling upon the idea of the philosopher-king as the ultimate solution for effective leadership of an organization or state. He explores the role of philosophy through a number of analogies that, in essence, argue for an aristocracy wherein the philosopher is allowed the power to make policy due to his greater understanding of the world around him. In the analogy of the sun, the Form of the Good is painted as the thing that the philosopher-king desires the most. Also, there is the analogy of the line, wherein there are four different levels of cognitive activity a human is able to reach; the fourth and highest level can only be reached by philosopher-kings, granting them higher understanding of the world, and the wisdom to rule it.
Central to his philosophy is the idea of the philosopher-king, detailed in Book VI of The Republic. These would be the rulers of society who would preside over the ideal city-state of Kallipolis. A philosopher would love wisdom, and would seek true knowledge instead of merely educating themselves; of course, they would have to maintain the ship of state, comparing a nation to a ship where the philosopher king would be the captain. "A true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship" (The Republic, 6.488d). According to Plato, those who sail the ship and work under it (the citizens of the philosopher-king’s rule) have not really seen a true philosopher, and so will ignore what he calls their “idle stargazing.”
When exploring Plato’s political stance, it is important to understand his use of the ‘allegory of the cave.’ In it, he describes the philosopher as someone who is able to free themselves from seeing just the ‘shadows’ of reality, and can now see the true shapes of it. This ties back to his ideal of an aristocracy in society, wherein those same philosophers would go back to the cave in order to share the true Forms of reality and knowledge with those still in the cave (who do not understand that they only see shadows).
The Allegory of the Cave dictates a situation wherein a number of people remain in a cave their whole lives, and have not experienced daylight. They are unable to look anywhere but right in front of them due to their bonds. They only see the shadows of figures in front of them made through fire flickering behind statues, leading them to believe these figures to be what ‘men’ and ‘women’ are. This results in a society of people who have specific ideas about the world that are misinformed, due to their limited experience and scope of knowledge. However, if a single prisoner managed to free himself and look behind him to see the fire, he would realize that what he thought he knew was folly.
Eventually, he gets out of the cave and enters the outside world, which is bright and unlike anything he had seen before. Looking at real objects, he understands why the statues were not real, and just copies of real objects. Seeing the sun, he sees that the sun is the source of all things. Through this experience with the outside world (enlightenment and philosophy), the man is more informed than the rest of the men in the cave, who only have limited experience of the world, and have no idea of these other things that exist outside their perspective. As a result, they require leadership by the man who escaped the cave in order to get out of the cave and towards understanding. This is how philosophy makes leaders, according to Plato – they are the only ones capable of understanding Forms and reaching that level of cognition through their experiences escaping the cave.
After all, individual men are quite different from the Form of men; there are only a select few who possess the knowledge and prescience to become rulers of others. These would be representative of the unenlightened followers of the philosopher-king, who allots for them parts to play in the society they live in. These decisions would be made rationally, because the rulers have the benefit of seeing true Forms, and therefore possess a greater understanding of the world around them. In this instance, the people can be happy knowing that their part is important to the overall whole of society, overseen intelligently by the philosopher-king.
This is in direct contrast with the idea of a democracy, where everyone in the cave, regardless of whether or not they had left it and seen the true Forms of reality, was able to dictate the rules of this society, and leaders are picked not by their knowledge and wisdom, but by their likeability and level of flattery towards the rest. Opinion rules this society and not knowledge. In order to prevent this, according to Plato, aristocracy must be established to let the natural rulers gain power over those who need to be ruled.
Plato idealized the idea of the philosopher-kings, and saw them as the primary way in which mankind could live in peace and harmony. The most industrious society, to him, would come under the leadership of the person who would truly be the smartest and wisest person among them. Like the allegory of the cave, this philosopher-king would be the one to lead them out of the darkness and into the light, because only he was capable of knowing what it looked like. "Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils,... nor, I think, will the human race." (Republic 473c-d).
This ties in with the idea of justice and how a philosopher-king would conduct it.
Justice is a large component of Plato’s philosophy, using it as the barometer by which rulers should be weighed in order for them to perform effectively. Plato sought to demonstrate the idea that justice is a worthy pursuit, and that just activites should be conducted regardless of whether or not they were advantageous to the person performing them immediately. He does this by comparing the philosopher-king in Book VI to the tyrant in Book IX, who is a wretched person so consumed with injustice to the point where it becomes untenable to do so. In contrast, a just soul would maintain calm and be level-headed as a leader, making this philosophy of rule much more appealing. Also, in light of the three character types Plato examines (loving money, loving honor, or loving truth), since the philosopher is the only one who can fulfill all of these pleasures, he is solely capable of providing judgment over others in a fair way. The issue of pleasure through philosophy is another reason they are fit to rule; philosophical pleasure is the only true pleasure – anything else simply is a means to stop normal human pain.
Being a good leader involves being a just leader; Plato makes clear that living and ruling justly makes life easier and more convenient, and therefore is the proper way to conduct oneself and one’s governing style. He emphasizes the need for order and harmony as a fundamental tenet of justice, reaching out for the Form of the Good and being just as much like it as possible.
Plato places a great importance of philosophy, to the point where he believes it is the primary means by which a person can rule, instead of military power or political sway. Philosopher-kings, by arming themselves with knowledge and wisdom, are essentially the smartest people in a given society, and would know more about how best to live than anyone else, who has not ‘seen the sun,’ to cite the Allegory of the Cave. Corruption would be the least likely to occur with the philosopher-king, due to their sense of justice that would stop them from being corruptible. The polis (state) is the most important thing to a philosopher-king, and so they would not rule from a place of personal pleasure or gain, but in order to serve the city as well as possible. The role of philosophy in a city-state, in Plato’s mind, is to equip the leader with the knowledge to rule justly – this would be the leader’s greatest weapon.
Plato, 2009. The Republic of Plato. Print.