The Wisdom of the Statesman Part 12

Last week the Stranger suggested that it would be impossible to rule a large city by referring only to written law, which he says would be unable to cater for all the various scenarios that arise. He further suggests a more effective manner when the leader rules through reason citing the example of a helmsman who is guided by an inner system of knowledge not a list of written rules and stresses that large numbers of people would never be able to acquire this level of knowledge which is based on reason.

He continues as follows:

Str: Then let’s revert once more to the images, to which it has frequently been necessary to compare the kingly rulers.

Y Soc: What were they?

Str: The noble helmsman, and the physician who is worth as much as a thousand others; yes, let’s see if we can construct some outline based upon the people themselves.

Y Soc: Of what sort?

Str: As follows: suppose we were all to form the notion that we are suffering outrageous treatment at the hands of these people; for they both, in like manner, preserve any of us whom they wish to preserve, and mistreat any whom they wish to mistreat. They do this by cutting us, burning us and imposing charges to be paid to them, like a tax, out of which they spend a little or even nothing upon the patient, while they and their members make use of the rest. And what’s more, they finally take money from relations, or some enemies of the patient, as payment, and then kill him. The helmsmen, for their part, perform countless other outrages of the same sort. They form conspiracies and abandon us on sea voyages, cause shipwrecks on the oceans and cast us into the sea and perpetrate other misdeeds. Now suppose, bearing these afflictions in mind, we were to decide upon a resolution in this regard, no longer to entrust autocratic rule to either of these two professions, neither over slaves nor over free men: a resolution to convene an assembly of ourselves, either of the entire populace or of the wealthy people alone, and to permit private citizens and the various professions to contribute an opinion on sea-faring, and on disease, and on how we should employ drugs and medical instruments in relation to the treatment of the sick, and indeed, about the ships themselves, and the nautical equipment we should use on those ships in the face of dangers affecting the voyage itself, from wind and sea or also from encounters with pirates, or even perhaps in a sea battle that has to be fought in longboats against other vessels of that kind: a resolution whereby the opinions of the majority on these matters, whether the advisers be physicians, helmsmen or private citizens, once written down on wooden or stone tablets, or established as unwritten traditional practices, are to be the basis for navigating ships and for treating the sick, now and forever, for all time.

Y Soc: You have described some very odd notions.

Str: Then consider what happens after this. For in each case, once the annual term of the rulers has passed, it is necessary to set up a court consisting of men, either preselected from the wealthy classes or chosen by lot from the general population. The outgoing rulers must be brought before these people for scrutiny of their conduct, and anyone who wishes may accuse them of not navigating the ships, during their year in office, in accord with the written edicts, or in accord with the ancient practices of our ancestors; and the same goes for those who were treating the sick. And the court must decide what penalty or fine should be imposed upon those who are voted down.

Y Soc: Surely anyone who desires to rule and is willing to do so under such circumstances, would fully deserve to suffer any penalty at all, or be fined any amount whatsoever.

Str: And what’s more, it will be necessary to institute a law, applicable to everything of this sort, whereby anyone who is found to be investigating helmsmanship, navigation, health, and the truth of medical science in relation to the breaths or heat and cold, in a manner contrary to the written edicts, and is becoming in any way wise on such matters must, in the first place, be referred to neither as a physician nor as a helmsman, but as a star-gazer or a babbling sophist. Secondly, anyone who is permitted to do so may drag him into some courtroom, charged with corrupting younger people and persuading them to practice helmsmanship and medicine without regard to law, and ruling over ships and sick people in an autocratic manner. And if he is presumed to have persuaded anyone, young or old, to act contrary to the laws that have been written, he must be punished with the most extreme penalties, for none should be wiser than the laws. Nor indeed, need anyone be ignorant of medicine and health, or helmsmanship and navigation, for anyone who wishes is permitted to learn the written enactments and the traditional practices that are in place.

Well, what if the requirements that we are describing were to apply in the case of these two branches of knowledge, Socrates, and also to generalship, to all forms of hunting whatsoever, and to painting or any part at all of the imitative arts, and to carpentry or to manufacturing as a whole, regardless of the kind, or even to agriculture and to the entire skill that is concerned with plants, or we might also imagine it applying to some kind of horse keeping that proceeds upon written edicts, to the entire business of herd-minding, to prophecy and every aspect encompassed by service, to draught-playing, or to the entire science of number whether pure, or as applied to flat surfaces, solids or moving objects; what precisely would the outcome be, if all of these were conducted in such a manner as to operate on the basis of written edicts and not on the basis of the relevant skill?

Y Soc: It is obvious that all of the skills would completely cease to exist for us, and could never come back into existence again, because of this law prohibiting the conduct of investigation; so that life, which is difficult even now, would, at that stage, not be worth living at all.

Str: What about this? If we were to insist that each of the activities we mentioned be conducted according to the written edicts, and that someone be elected or chosen by lot to oversee those edicts, and yet this person, disregarding the edicts either for the sake of profit or to do some private favour, were to undertake a different course of action contrary thereto, devoid of understanding; wouldn’t this evil be even greater than the previous evil?

 Y Soc: That’s very true, anyway.

Str: Indeed, in my view, the laws rest upon considerable experience, and in each case certain advisers have given their counsel in a pleasing manner and have persuaded the populace to adopt them, so anyone who dares to act contrary to these would be perpetrating an even more grievous error and would be subverting all human action to an even greater extent than any adherence to written laws.

Y Soc: Yes, that is inevitable.

Str: Accordingly, the second-best course for those who enact laws and written edicts on any matter at all, is to allow no single person or any group ever to do anything whatsoever that is contrary to those laws.

Y Soc: Rightly so.

Str: Wouldn’t these be imitations of the truth, in each case, as received from those who know, and written down insofar as this can be done?

Y Soc: It must be so.

Str: And indeed, we said if you remember, that the one who knows, the person who is actually a statesman, will use his skill to perform a great variety of actions relevant to his own activity, disregarding the written edicts whenever an alternative seems better to him, even if it is contrary to his own written directions to other people who are not present.

Y Soc: Indeed, we said so.

Str: Now, wouldn’t anyone at all, one person or any group of people, who is faced with established laws and undertakes some different course of action contrary to those laws, because such a course is better, be doing, to the best of their ability, the same thing that a true statesman does?

Y Soc: Yes, certainly.

Str: Now, if they were to do this sort of thing without being knowledgeable, they would endeavour to imitate the truth but would imitate it extremely badly. Alternatively, if they possessed the relevant skill, this would no longer be an imitation but the original itself, the very truth.

Y Soc: Entirely so, I suppose.

Str: And indeed, from our earlier discussion anyway, there is an agreement between us that no large group of people is capable of acquiring any sort of skill whatsoever.

Y Soc: That agreement still stands.

Str: Therefore, if there is a kingly skill, wealthy people, in general, and the entire populace could not ever acquire this knowledge of statesmanship.

Y Soc: No, how could they?

He paints quite a bleak picture of mankind being ruled by a predetermined set of rules administered by people who might not have any real understanding as they have memorized the rules verbatim. Or they might not be ethical and might use their influence for nefarious means, a sight all too common today where we see elected leaders doing as they please with scant regard to the welfare of the people but in line with the rules. The real crime is suggesting other laws that would be better then the written laws and those who are found guilty of this face censure and punishment, The best these systems can be are good imitations of the true law.

 Str: So whenever the wealthy people imitate this, we then call a constitution of this sort an aristocracy; and when they pay no heed to the laws, we call it an oligarchy.

Y Soc: Quite likely.

Str: Yes, and whenever a single person on the basis of the laws, imitates the one who knows, we call him a king, making no distinction, by name, between the one who exercises sole rule on the basis of the laws by means of knowledge, and the one who does so by means of opinion.

Y Soc: That’s what we are likely to do.

Str: Therefore if a single person who really is knowledgeable happens to rule, he will, unequivocally, be given the same name, king, and no other. Consequently, the five names of what are now called constitutions become just one.

Y Soc: So it seems, anyway.

Str: And what about a situation where a single person rules in accord neither with the laws nor the traditions, and pretends to be a person who knows by arguing that it is really necessary to act contrary to the written edicts and do what is best, and some passion and ignorance dominate this particular imitation? Surely we must refer to any such person in that situation as a tyrant?

Y Soc: Of course.

Str: So we are saying that a tyrant arises in this way, a king too, and an oligarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy; from the disgust of humanity with that one sole ruler, and their disbelief that anyone worthy of such rule could ever arise; someone who would be willing and able to rule with knowledge and excellence, dispensing just and sacred ordinances properly to everyone, rather than maltreating, murdering and inflicting evil upon whomsoever he wants, whenever he wants. But if a person such as we are describing were to arise, he would be loved, and would dwell there as the benevolent helmsman of what is, strictly speaking, the only proper constitution.

Y Soc: Of course.

Str: But nowadays, when as we say a king does not arise in our cities in the way that a single queen-bee springs up in a hive of bees, immediately distinct both in body and in soul, we need to gather together and write down our ordinances, in pursuit, it seems, of the traces of the truest constitution.

Y Soc: Quite likely.

Str: So, Socrates, need we wonder at the extent of the evil that arises and will continue to arise in such constitutions, when they are based upon such a foundation as this: the performance of actions in accord with written edicts and customs not accompanied by knowledge, when it is obvious to everyone that any other skill conducted in this way would ruin its very own productions? Or should we wonder instead at something else: at how naturally strong a city is? Of course our cities have now been suffering under such behaviour for countless ages, and yet, some in particular are stable and are not overthrown. However, on occasion, many of them flounder like ships and perish, or have perished, or shall yet perish, because of the depravity of the helmsmen and the sailors, who have attained a huge level of ignorance in relation to matters of the utmost importance, who are not knowledgeable about matters of statesmanship in any respect, but think, that of all branches of knowledge, they have acquired this skill with the utmost clarity in every respect.

2,500 years later and the world still grapples with the same problem, being subjected by and large to a system of rulership that enslaves rather then liberates. The major tragedy is that these people believe that they are doing a good job and the general populace largely accept this weak system of tyranny. It is said that a country gets the government it deserves which begs the question, how culpable is the general populace. We can clearly see in times of strife when common people riot that they commit the very acts that they find abhorrent in their leaders. One thing this global pandemic has shown us is that the medical experts largely don’t know how or what causes the virus. They can eloquently pontificate on all sorts of complicated details and refer to reams of data but they have no KNOWLEDGE of the virus itself.

 Next week we’ll look at these different systems of government and examine which is least difficult to live under and which is the most oppressive.