Plato’s strategy in the Republic is to explicate the primary notion of societal or political justice and then parallel it to the concept of individual justice. Before he can prove that justice is a good thing, Plato must first state its definition, by showing justice in its perfect form in order to discover the true essence of it. Therefore, Socrates claims that the only way to have a perfect state is if the state has a perfect leader, thus he introduces the concept of the philosopher-king.
Plato identifies political justice as harmony in a structured political body. An ideal state consists of three main classes of people: producers, auxiliaries, and the guardians (rulers); a state is just when relations between these three classes are right. Justice is a principle of specialization: a principle that requires that each person fulfils the societal role to which nature fitted him or her, and does not interfere in any other business.
Socrates describes philosophers as “those who love the sight of truth” (475-e). He claims that what makes philosophers different from lovers of sights and sounds is that they apprehend the Forms. While lovers of sights and sounds love beautiful things, they are unable to see the nature of beauty itself. The Philosophers, on the other hand, believe that beauty exists and can see both it and the things it participates in. In order to back up this claim, that only philosophers can have knowledge, Socrates paints a metaphysical and epistemological picture.
He divides the concept of knowledge into: what is, what is not and an intermediate between being and not being. This intermediate between knowledge and ignorance is what he defines as an opinion and casts it as a fallible power. Furthermore, knowledge is the strongest infallible power that is set over the “being” or what is. Given that only philosophers can have knowledge, Socrates emphasizes that they are clearly the ones best able to grasp what is good for the state, and so are in the best position to know how to run and govern it.
Plato offers a more intuitive explanation for why the philosophers are virtuous. He idealizes them as being focused and determined because they are fond of learning the function of the being, which does not wander between coming to be and decaying. At the end of Book IV, Plato argues that the nature of the state and the individual are the same. Furthermore, he promotes the notion that when the virtues of reason, passion, and desire act in perfect harmony the individual and consequently the state will become just. Though it is not directly stated, it is fair to make the allusion that Plato would have assumed the same for the Philosophers. Their desires also incline strongly for learning, therefore, weakening other pleasures of the soul. Their emotions and appetites no longer provide a strong impetus toward vice, making the Philosophers moderate in character. Courage also considered as an important characteristic, is defined as “the power to preserve through everything its belief about what things are to be feared” (429-c).
Since the Philosopher devotes his being to understanding the essence of universal truth, he does not consider individual human life as a priority, making him fearless of death. Even though, the Philosopher possesses all the needed virtues, Socrates fails to explain how such a special ruler will be able to relate with the common folk. A person of such immense talent would most likely be needed in other parts of the state as well, but according to Plato, he should be given the power to rule, erasing all possibilities of a Philosopher’s individual choice to devote his life to a different task. And while the Philosopher is portrayed as a perfect leader for the state nationally, there is no mention of why he would be so attached to the state or how international affairs would be handled. Lastly, one can’t help but worry that despite having a philosophical nature and possessing all needed virtues, there is no guarantee that a philosopher would not become corrupted, as it is hard to be a good person in a bad society.
Socrates explores the nature of the guardians further to describe the different types of corruption to which the philosophic nature is susceptible. Using the analogy of the seed (human soul) and its environment, Socrates argues that, in most cases, alien soil produces noxious weeds. Sophists and spurious educators are indicted in this corruption, for they create values outside and inferior to virtue. Socrates compares their morality, which derives from the masses they serve, to the understanding and rationalization of the “tempers of a mighty strong beast.”
His analogy of the mighty beast criticizes the majority, or mass, notion of morality. What is the opinion of most men, in fact, of the world, is almost always not the opinion or should it be said, knowledge of the philosophers. The masses are neither wise, nor temperate, nor courageous; as a result, their desires do not reflect the good, because of their lack of strenuous education. And thus, because the true philosophers must hold to a minority truth or renounce their nature, they are condemned to persecution by the multitudes the very people that need them the most. Socrates seems to create a paradox: the city cannot do without philosophy, but it can also hardly tolerate it.
Antagonism between the philosophic nature and the binding pressure of the multitudes ensures that a potentially great philosopher is lost or warped. No government exists in which he may utilize fully his innate and learned gifts. Often, says Socrates, the dejected philosopher seeks refuge in solitude, contrary to a previously made point that a true leader will want to lead not for power, but for fear that somebody less competent than themselves will rule. The fact that Philosophers would give up on lawlessness around them to do work quietly alone contradicts Plato’s description of a rightful leader. The problem of how to ease the clash between philosophers and the majority, making it possible for philosophers to assume their rightful position as rulers is, logically enough, the next topic. Erasing the state and the manners of men to achieve a clean surface on which to sketch the new plan is Socrates’ first, though seemingly impossible solution (the other is the philosophical education of kings).
In summation, the relationship of the philosopher of the state is one of exploration and criticism. Only by balancing the traits of reason, passion, and desire will the individual being to understand notions of the greatest good. After this understanding has been reached, he or she must attempt to share these values with the citizens of the state. Unfortunately, the people whom this philosopher is trying to educate about the greatest good are too caught up with the trials of their own lives to comprehend a society in which justice is absolute. As the ultimate fate of Socrates demonstrates, being a philosopher is not a simple task. Generally, people are uncomfortable with trading their freedom for a world in which justice is absolute. Since the masses are not entitled to the education of the guardians, a desire to be rich, powerful or famous will prevail over the values of the philosopher. His ideals, no matter how noble, will almost always fall upon deaf ears.