Philosopher-Kings

Freedom’s Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey

If I wished to punish a province, I would have it governed by philosophers.
–        Frederick the Great

Plato would disagree – to summarize, a philosopher should lead the polity, ensuring that the subjects get what is good for them, whether they know it or not.  It is the authority of the expert.  In many ways government since the Enlightenment (both tyrannical and relatively liberal) has carried this mantle.

I have previously written something on Plato’s philosophy (forms, etc.), so I will not cover similar ground here.  However, there are several points raised in Casey’s account that are worthy of exploration.

Casey describes Plato’s basic philosophical outlook: “…virtue is primarily a matter of knowledge…no one knowingly does wrong…”  I have stared at these words, read these over and over.  I cannot think of the words to describe my reaction.  To be clear, my reaction is negative.

Plato is credited with the idea of “the noble lie” – keep the enemies guessing and keep the commoners loyal and in their place.  Consider the myths that are intended to hold together a nation – not even a nation-state, just a nation.  These exist for every population that considers itself a nation. Freedomu2019s Progress... Gerard Casey Best Price: $80.11 Buy New $62.02 (as of 05:30 EDT - Details)

Casey offers a typology from C.D.C Reeve, further expanding on this point.

–        You have a false ideology if you believe that you live in a good society when you don’t and believe this because what you are told by your leaders is false

–        You have an ideology falsely maintained when you believe you live in a good society – and in fact you do – even though you believe this because of falsehoods told by your leaders

–        You are ideology-free when you believe you live in a good society, and you in fact do, and your belief is maintained by a world-view that is true.

A sustainable and healthy society is described by the third possibility.  I believe Plato advocates for the second.  Today, I think it is safe to say many live in a world described by the first – and the second will almost always devolve into the first.  I would describe as “woke” those who recognize that they live in a “bad” society based on a world-view that is true – in other words, they see through the lies to the truth (or something closer to the truth).

Plato is suspicious of family and property, while having nothing to say about slavery despite living in a society where slaves play a central role.  Given that virtue is merely a matter of knowledge, Plato sees that the state has a central role in education.  Since no one knowingly does wrong, there is no place for punishment – only education (or re-education).  This sounds lovely, expect that those who refuse to be re-educated are to be killed….

Casey examines this further via C.S. Lewis, who notes that to the Humanitarian, to punish a man is nothing more than revenge, therefore it is barbarous and immoral.  But whatever is done to “cure” the man is equally compulsory and wholly lacking justice.  From Lewis:

There is no sense in talking about a “just deterrent” or a “just cure.”  We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter.  We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds.  Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a “case.”

I really have to read more Lewis.

If virtue is a matter of knowledge, the only “cure” is education.  If education doesn’t work, then what?  It seems death is the answer.  If the intent is to deter others, then what of the justice for the criminal?

Libertarians will suggest that punishment isn’t the point, but that the victim – or the victim’s survivors –should be “compensated.”  But such an equation does not work in very many cases.  The list of exceptions I can think of are endless.

Society – any community – will not survive such thinking.  I write very little about this topic of punishment, etc., because each community will figure out what works for them.  There is not a blanket libertarian answer to this question; there is no simple theory that can be applied in all cases – or even in a large subset of cases.  Call it punishment, deterrent, compensation, whatever – to the guilty party, the issue is the same: he will lose some level of freedom and/or property due to his action.

I spend no time reading those who expand on such thoughts from a libertarian perspective.  Societies have figured out this stuff for millennia; Western societies based on Christianity have guidelines on how to proceed.  I can’t touch this.

The issues of punishment, deterrence, cure, etc., are both tremendously complex and totally subjective.  To address every possibility would take something as long as the Federal Register.  Is this what libertarians are after, or is it more libertarian to expect that communities will figure this out?

Of course, a common cultural tradition would help.  After all, shooting a child as punishment for picking an apple will likely be an issue in most places.

Conclusion

The enlightened leader, deciding what is good for the people whether they want it or not.  This was Plato’s vision.  This has played out in the twentieth century globally – certainly and especially in the communist east, but also in the west.  The difference is only one of degree.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.