Philosopher kings and our republic


Two years and a midterm election into his presidency, we are still trying to figure out Barack Obama. Stanley Kurtz says he's a socialist, whereas to Dinesh D'Souza, he's an anti-colonialist. James T. Kloppenberg, in his book Reading Obama, argues that the president is philosophically driven, coming from the tradition of American pragmatism. Obama is a kind of philosopher president. Whether he is or not, he has been trying to govern as though he were a philosopher king. Hence, the election results.

In The Republic, Plato presents the philosopher king as the ideal form of government: rule by one wise person who is whole-heartedly devoted to the truth and therefore incorruptible. The philosopher king, by this definition, would understand the science of all things, including the science of government, its technique and its proper ends, and so also the science of what is good for human beings as such. Because of his unparalleled wisdom and public-spiritedness, he would, of course, govern without the restraint of law. After all, any restraint upon science would be, to that extent, the rule of ignorance, which cannot be good.

President Obama has emphasized his administration's scientific foundation from the start. He signaled this in his inaugural address:

"We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do."

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Most recently, he criticized the mass of angry voters for being hostile to science in their hostility to his administration:

"Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does [sic.] not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we're hardwired not to always think clearly when we're scared. And the country's scared."

To reject Obama's policies is to oppose the rule of reason. Is it any wonder that even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, according to Rupert Murdoch, "I never met in my life such an arrogant man"? But philosopher kings just seem that way to those who don't know any better.

For these past two years, Obama has pressed ahead with reordering American society scientifically: government from the center by technocrats. We have seen a federalization of healthcare, of home financing, of our colleges and universities (all the major expenditures of life), and his government was eager to regulate all energy consumption. In this way, he has sought to move our government (as he promised he would) beyond left and right, which is to say beyond politics into scientific administration. As political questions become administrative matters for technocrats to decide-questions about right and wrong, about my good, your good, and the common good-the reign of the philosopher king extends itself.

But philosopher kings are antithetical to republican democracy, that is, to the structured system of popular self-government. Politics presupposes that there are questions pertaining to our life together that science cannot answer, questions like how best to help the poor, whether we should execute murderers, and what constitutes a marriage and grounds for it dissolution. There are answers to be had, but they're controversial, and modern science by its very nature can't settle them. So we vote, and we abide by the majority decision, at least until we vote again.

The 2010 election was about big, presumptuous government. The people rebelled against government over-activity and Washington's disconnect from the people. The president thinks his problem has been a failure of communication. But it's deeper than that. Unwittingly, he has been working from the wrong model: Plato instead of Aristotle. In The Politics, Aristotle holds that, for a free people, i.e., a law-abiding people who are capable of participating in government intelligently and responsibly, the best form of government combines a strong executive, a selection of the best citizens, and an active role for the people at large. Under those circumstances, the benevolent but autocratic rule of a philosopher king would be unjust because it would deny capable citizens the chance to govern themselves.

As the recent election results suggest, most people have concluded that politicians who don't trust a free people to govern their private affairs and their common affairs don't deserve to be in office. And voters are unlikely to have forgotten that by 2012.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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