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Plato and Nietzsche on Authority Essay

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Nietzsche and Plato have many similarities in their discussion of political philosophy. Both dislike and hold contempt for democracy, and both favour a meritocratically chosen elite holding authority. There are even many similarities between the characteristics that they require in the group. However, there are differences too. Nietzsche doesn’t outline a strict theory of authority, as Plato does. His governmental ‘system’, although it hardly is, could be interpreted, and has been, in many different ways. And, although both of them think that they have justified their authority, there have been several discussions on to whether they are, and in what society they would be relevant.

These discussions are perhaps at the core of finding the key differences and usable elements of their philosophies.

The notion of authority can be discussed in two main senses. For one, it can be used to discuss a person or group’s right to rule. The other is when you talk of someone being an authority on a topic.

Both of these involve the subordination of personal judgement to that of another and most political theorists would consider this subordination to be binding. One of the main problems is if you should surrender your own personal judgement independent of the content of the authority’s ideas – both Nietzsche and Plato would say that one should, as their leaders are both an authority on a topic and have the right to rule. When authority comes from knowledge, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the authority has power, for example as in a teacher trying to control a class at a school. However, in politics, an effective authority must be allied to power.

If the authority is recognised, then it is de facto authority. If it is justified, then it is de jure authority, and most de facto authorities claim that they are both de facto and de jure. Plato and Nietzsche both argue for a de facto authority (sensibly – who wants to impose an authority that is ignored?) and they both outline what they believe to be justification for this authority. This justification is at the centre of much of political philosophy, as it is important to discover if the justification works. Authority differs, therefore, from justified power, as justified power in itself does not involve subordination of judgement – if they’re not recognised, then they cannot require that people follow their rule.

Legitimacy is also an issue. In a democratic state, electoral fraud would lead to a leader being illegitimate: there is also no guaranteed way to prevent electoral fraud. However, as Nietzsche and Plato are both anti-democracy, illegitimacy this way would obviously be an issue. However, if either of their desired leaders were to ‘seize power’ (either by force or just accidentally falling into power), there would be definite issues with people who didn’t believe their justification. In this case, their authority could be considered illegitimate.

Plato, especially in Republic, gives epistemology and metaphysics substantial roles in political philosophy. In Plato’s ideally just city, philosophers would gain power, or, at the very least, rulers would have to engage ‘sincerely and adequately’ in philosophy. Plato also suggests a rigorous training program for his philosopher-kings – they must have their emotions properly trained. Would this lack of emotion make for a good authority? Many would say that you cannot be emotional about your leadership because then your judgement would be swayed by too many subjective factors. However, the thought of a leader without emotion is particularly daunting – how would they know what would affect the population, and more importantly how? Emotions are an important part of human life, and a great leader would have to understand (and this would usually be best understood by feeling the emotions oneself) human life to be effective. Plato argues that this would come from knowledge of the Forms, the perfect example of something – there is one for every notion that exists on earth. The Form of tables, the Form of emotions, or even the Form of drinks are all said to exist.

The meticulous training includes imparting knowledge about these forms and prepares the mind for this abstract thought by rigorously training the rulers in mathematics. The philosopher’s knowledge of the Forms would include knowledge of the Form of Good, which is the ‘keystone of the system’, and therefore is essential for order. If one takes the Forms to be a true (or even just realistic) idea then it is sensible for a leader to understand what the true notion of good is. If one knows ‘good’ then one can use this mould to create a ‘good system’, which is surely more reliable than basing it on subjective ideas. The Forms are like a religion, which makes Plato’s system almost a theocracy (unlike the authority of Nietzsche) – and this has been implemented as a political system before.

In the past, however, people have become dissatisfied with the religion that they are ‘forced’ to agree with. Atheism is becoming more and more accepted than before, as many new scientific discoveries render God less and less plausible, and as Nietzsche would put it, less useful as a concept. All this taken into account means that knowledge of the Forms probably wouldn’t be useful for an authority (especially in a modern era), but it is not necessarily a bad idea for an authority figure to be well versed in philosophy. Philosophy introduces abstract thought (like Plato suggested) and calls for knowledge in logic. Abstract thought is useful when trying to find theories that fit with the real world – where would physics and chemistry be without abstract thought concerning the atom?

Another key question on the subject of religion was raised by Nietzsche. Is there anything that can be taken from religion, even if one wasn’t to be imposing religion onto a state, as Plato does? Nietzsche believes that, although religion in itself is too dogmatic and God is useless as a concept, the passion behind religion is admirable, and would be one of the key characteristics of his ‘new philosophers’. Nietzsche’s ‘new philosopher’, as opposed to the more traditional concept of Plato, would be more like a contemporary artist than a contemporary philosopher. They would not even necessarily be searching for the truth.

These ‘new philosophers’ are the Ubermensch – and coupled with this ‘think outside the box’ attitude, they have a strong Will to Power, which makes them the perfect leader. They crave solitude, when independence is not necessary or normally preferred, which Nietzsche says is an example of exercising the will to power over oneself – he also calls it a ‘privilege of the strong’. Plato agrees, and says that the ‘philosopher follows truth alone’. These new philosopher ‘overmen’ don’t follow the rules that are currently put in place by Christianity and ‘slave morality’ like ‘self-sacrifice for one’s neighbour’ and ‘self-denial’. Similarly to Plato’s philosopher kings, these Ubermensch/new philosophers are uncommitted to anyone or anything, and they are not afraid to break the boundaries currently put in place by political authorities.


Of course, these philosophers that are in power must be significantly different from those that we call ‘philosophers’ today. Nietzsche says that ‘every great philosophy so far has been just the personal confession of its author’ – meaning that philosophy is subjective and just based and what you want to believe and think. Here, social class, education, religion, parents and friends all play a part in what you write down as your philosophy. As previously mentioned, Nietzsche wants to use people who a free thinkers, someone that yearns to be ‘set free from the crowd’. Plato agrees when Adeimantus says that ‘people who study philosophy too long become weird, roguish creatures, useless to society’ – philosophers aren’t currently as useful to politics as they should be, according to both theories of authority.

There are other examples of when a more metaphysical concept has been implemented by an authority. Religious people often hold God (rather than the Forms or the free thinkers of Nietzsche) as the ultimate authority, and although we have discussed briefly the problems with making this the law of a state (as in theocracy), this religious politics may not be a bad idea. For example, if those with authority look to God for advice on political matters, it gives them a chance to think about and ‘receive information’ (either from God, or simply thinking it through in prayer, or even through the morals in religious scripture – this needn’t be a discussion of religious philosophy) about what may be the better decision. Obviously, if we take the Forms to be incorrect (as most people do), then God would be the ultimate good, which means that those that ‘understand God’ would have to hold the power, rather than philosophers.

Of course, there has to be a line drawn between looking to God (or another spiritual being) for advice and forcing views on other people. Plato would argue that the people don’t know what is good for them, and so should trust whatever the authority says, but this isn’t a realistic idea for people of today, who have fought for free speech for centuries. Nietzsche would both agree and disagree with this. He would agree in that the Ubermensch are the only ones that can be truly rulers, and that the vast majority of people don’t know what’s good for them. However, he wouldn’t necessarily say that this was a bad thing, as if slaves are happy being slaves, then they have less of the Will to Power and therefore do (in a sense) know what’s good for themselves personally.

Of course, even if we convert Plato’s theory on Authority to be based around any religious ideals then it is still an argument against democracy in that if an Authority must have something to be a ‘good’ ruler, there is no point in asking the untrained masses to vote for a ‘good’ ruler. They wouldn’t, presumably, be able to understand the Forms, or God, sufficiently enough to choose an Authority (or even understand that there could be an Authority) that would do the job to Plato’s standards.

Another Plato’s philosopher kings rely on their knowledge of the Forms to provide their moral code, which is then implemented upon the Republic. The Form of the Good provides the perfect moral code upon which to base the real (material) moral code. This is one of the main reasons why Plato requires his rulers to have philosophical knowledge – they need to know the moral code upon which to base their own. Nietzsche, on the other hand, believes that everything is subjective, based on experience and opinion of the individual. This means that his philosopher supermen don’t need to implement a moral code; their only morals are the will to power.

Even if this seems like a good idea within the context of Plato’s Republic, this Authority wouldn’t make sense in today’s politics. For example, there are many various types of religion, and within those religions, thousands of sub-sets. This means that, even without using the Forms, that this theocracy idea couldn’t be imposed without some force (the implications of which will be discussed later). Secondly, using one type of morality based on dogmatic principles wouldn’t hold sway for a similar reason – there would be complaints (or even uprisings) about the lack of freedoms this gives. These are practical reasons for the change not to take place.

However, there are implications even if this were to be used in an ideal society (where all good ideas based upon an interchangeable ultimate value would be easily implemented with consequences). It’s not ideal, from many viewpoints, to force everyone to hold the same viewpoint (although Plato would argue that there is only one true viewpoint) and Nietzsche’s subjectivism would agree. Human nature would be indulged in an ideal world, if happiness was the ultimate value, and this calls for freedom to be a central concept of any Authority.

Freedom to vote, to those in the UK, seems to be a basic human right with few restrictions. This means that democracy would seem to be part of an ideal society in pursuit of happiness. There are good reasons for this – we all have subjective opinions (as Nietzsche rightly said) and these need to be reflected in the way we are governed by an authority. For example, in most other situations, we would consult someone who we believe to be an ‘authority’ on a subject. If we are ill, we talk to a doctor. If we want to dine out, we will consult a restaurant critic. Therefore, it seems sensible to leave governmental decisions to those with political knowledge. However, the teaching of medicine is universally taught in a similar (if not identical) way – there is little room for a subjective opinion.

The more subjective something is, the less we can trust it. The restaurant critic, for example, will sway our views either way, but it probably won’t be the final judgment. The reason it will still sway us is that there is still ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food. Politics, however, is different. Everything in politics is completely dependant on moral views, upbringing, teaching, the media and even the way your brain works. We cannot trust teachers of politics to be completely impartial when teaching the political theories. Teachers of religious studies are usually biased towards Christianity in this country, and politics teachers would probably be the same. People wouldn’t be happy with simply ‘going along with’ what the politicians say – that’s why people have died for democracy. Everyone has different views, and democracy is the best way to incorporate all (or most) of these when creating a government.

There is, however, a problem with the amount of democracy to allow. The current system in the United Kingdom is for people to vote in a representative that they trust to make similar decisions to those that they would choose. Of course, the representative cannot be trusted to have exactly the same views, and therefore, should the vote be more open? If people were allowed to vote on any topic that interests them, what would happen? The government may be forced to ban petrol cars.

The main question is, is it really democratic once elected? The system in the UK is not fully democratic. Plato would argue that the only way for a government to make truly ‘right’ decisions (and therefore decisions that the public would have to agree with – there’s nothing to disagree with if something is ‘right) is for them to know ‘good’ – be trained in abstract thought and philosophy. So democracy, to be worthwhile, perhaps needs to be more democratic, or Plato and Nietzsche have the right idea.

Jeremy Bentham famously associated utilitarianism with democracy – he believed that one vote per person would lead the ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. This is because human nature naturally tends to lead us towards pleasure, as opposed to pain. And, because everyone has this same desire towards pleasure, democracy would effectively allow all of us to vote for pleasure, so to speak. This seems like a more feasible idea than relying on someone who, although in theory ‘doesn’t have personal interests’, probably would be biased. Humans do tend to avoid pain, so an open vote would lead us away from pain.

Change Nietzsche quotes on asceticism!

Another important feature that both Nietzsche and Plato mention in their political philosophy is asceticism. Nietzsche mentions that the tests of self-deprivation that (Christians mostly) pervade Western society are bad – “wherever religious neurosis has appeared on earth, we find it tied up with three dangerous dietary rules: isolation, fasting, and sexual abstinence”. However, further on in Beyond Good and Evil, he seemingly changes his mind. He advocates “appropriating, injuring, overpowering those who are foreign and weaker; oppression, harshness, forcing one’s own forms on others, incorporation, and at the very least, at the very mildest, exploitation” which would surely induce suffering, especially when considered with a modern mind. He then goes on to say in 270 that “Profound suffering ennobles; it separates.” Even earlier on, in 40, he says that “everything deep loves a mask” – surely a sign of internal suffering is being hidden? Presumably, ‘deep’ is a good thing, as his description of his ‘new philosophers’ necessitates that they are ‘deep’ creatures.

Plato, on the other hand, consistently advocates an ascetic lifestyle, especially when he is discussing his people in authority. They do not care for pleasures of this world: those of body or money. We can apply the same thoughts to asceticism as we can to Plato’s philosopher without emotion. If a leader doesn’t care for pleasures of this world, then surely they cannot truly understand the pleasures of this world – whether they are philosophers or not. If the authority was supposed to be similar to a Christian God, then it would be omnipotent, and therefore know and understand everything a priori. However, neither Plato nor Nietzsche advocates a Christian God as the best authority – and neither of them suggests that the leader would be omnipotent. Therefore, it would make sense to disagree with asceticism on the grounds that it would cause the perfect leader to have a lack of understanding about typical human pleasures.

It will be evident by now that Nietzsche (and Plato, to an extent) advocates an oligarchy (albeit meritocratic) – both place small groups of people in charge of the general public. They both have similar attitudes towards democracy, as well. Plato dismisses democracy – he thinks that ‘liberty’ (557b) and equality (558c) lead to a break down of all the essential characteristics of a philosopher-king. Evidently the very existence of a ruling class of philosopher kings is controversial to the central themes of democracy. ‘liberty’ leads to a lack of self-discipline. He doesn’t believe in ‘equality’ as some humans are superior. Nietzsche has a similar idea – he mentions that “Every enhancement in the type “man” up to this point has been the work of an aristocratic society”, which shows that he believes that an ‘aristocratic’ society will further man’s development.

Although Plato seems to advocate a meritocratic oligarchy (although he wouldn’t admit it), he doesn’t recommend that his republic be based around money (also known as a plutocracy) where a small group of rich people, similar to an aristocracy, rule the lower classes. This would lead to an economic inequality between classes, which would create an environment which leads to and breeds beggars and thieves. It could also lead to a revolution between the rich and the poor. Another argument against plutocracies occurs in chapter VIII, Socrates says that wealth doesn’t allow a pilot to navigate a ship, so wealth wouldn’t allow an authority to rule a republic.

Money seems to be a key problem with many theories of authority. It is often said that money corrupts people, so it could be argued that in any governmental system where the authority gets paid or is chosen because of its wealth would be corrupt. However, it is not practical to impose this – most people associate power with money either subconsciously or consciously. The authority, even if chosen democratically, would want some reward for having to rule a country, and money is the usual and probably most desired reward.

In ‘The Prince’, Machiavelli justified using force to gain and retain political power, and it, therefore, justifies any actions simply done to gain power. This may, of course, have influenced Nietzsche, who also advocates gaining power by force. In 257, he mentions that every ‘noble’ (not in the typical sense) civilisation has descended from ‘barbarians’, and that any decent (and therefore aristocratic) society ‘requires slavery’. Plato agrees with this, he says that the ‘most majestic society and man’ is ‘tyranny and the tyrant’.

Although there are sections in The Republic where Plato seems to advocate violence, such as 465 where he says ‘Arguments can be settled with fists, there and then, as they arise’, when he discusses his perfect State he seems to believe that it will just come into being. For example, in 502, he mentions that the only way it could come about by a philosopher ‘wiping the slate of human habits and society clean’. This could, obviously, mean the annihilation of the human race, but it seems to mean just cleansing the mind of incorrect ideas. He then acknowledges that putting it ‘into practice would be difficult’ – which it wouldn’t, if they just forced people into obeying, which makes it seem like he hopes that one day, it will happen, but he is not going to force it.

More examples of this anti-force opinion occur when he is discussing the types of government that he is against – timarchy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. He explains that oligarchy and tyranny can only come about by using force – ‘private wealth’ means that people feel that they have the right to ‘keep the populace down by force’. Democracy, he believes, causes excessive liberty, which then causes its own downfall. From this comes a tyrant, who ‘is not afraid of murder’ and ‘stirs up war’. Another point he makes is that ‘it is simply never right to harm anyone at any time’ – which obviously is a specific way of showing his feelings on violence and this would apply to taking a country or state by force.

Of course, this helps to illustrate a key difference between power and authority. For example, we all have in us the physical strength to murder (although, obviously, we don’t usually have the mental state to want to do it) and this is power in one sense – just like a dictator killing thousands of people because he can. However, an authority differs from this in that it would be classed as capital punishment. So what is the difference? Why does an authority have the right and others do not?

If an authority is de jure (with justification) – although it may be difficult for some to think when murder would be justified – then all its actions could be seen as justified by proxy, as if an authority is justified, the decisions they make would be somehow related to the reason they are in power. For example, Plato justifies his philosopher-kings by saying that they are the only ones who can have true knowledge of the forms, and, if this is true, then they know the Form of Good. So, if they murdered someone, then it would be based upon something they’ve seen in the innate Form of Good.

The balance between freedom and authority comes into question when discussing issues like the above. Even though the authority may be justified on its own terms, it may not be necessarily right. Using Plato as an example again, the theory of the Forms is now commonly thought to be incorrect, and people wouldn’t accept that as a reason to allow capital punishment. Even if there was a truly irrefutable source of justification, people will always have differing views, especially on such an important topic. So how does an authority find the perfect balance between power and authority?

Authoritarianism is a social theory popular with dictators and the like. It supports, at the totalitarian end of the spectrum, the total subjection of personal opinions (usually through oppression) and enforcing strict control upon those that live in the state. It often involves what many political philosophies would see as an erosion of civil rights and freedoms – lack of a private life and suppression of religious beliefs, for example. Obviously, there are differing degrees of authoritarianism and even the most democratic and liberal state must exercise its authority upon those within the state, but finding the right balance is important.

Both Nietzsche and Plato advocate the subordination of those under the command of the philosophers, which means that their theories would be less easily accepted today than they would have been in the past. As previously mentioned, people have fought (and still are, particularly from the 20th century until today) for their civil rights and this includes their freedom, which means that an authoritarian government, like those advocated by Nietzsche and Plato, would be more difficult to impose today than ever before.

This calls into question obedience to the state. The more democratic the state, the more free speech and dissent is usually allowed. However, as neither Plato nor Nietzsche advocate democracy, it is required to understand when disobedience would be allowed. Of course, both would say that their state would be obedient at all times, but this is unrealistic. In a theocracy, the state executes the law of God. In Plato, God can be easily exchanged for ‘The Forms’.

However, what would happen if people were to disagree with Plato’s theory, as many do? Would they be justified in breaking the law of something that they don’t believe in? A true authority would mean that the law would either be unbreakable morally or that their authority was so powerful that people could not, or would not, break the law. However, as has been seen, it is difficult to see where Plato or Nietzsche’s arguments would lead to such an authority. Although disobedience of the law is obviously illegal, sometimes mass disobedience, in the UK at least, can lead to a change of law. Plato would disagree that this is even possible.

If duty to the State is accepted, it is still possible to find examples when the law can be disobeyed. As the duty of the state is to protect the people (and, for my example, this includes their freedom), state infringement of this freedom could cause the person involve to break the law to retrieve their liberty.

Another issue arises (in the case of democratic government and perhaps in Nietzsche’s subjective government) in that if the majority part enforces a law, should the minority who didn’t vote be forced to follow it? It wasn’t their choice for that law to be enforced. Of course, with major things that infringe on human rights, like murder and domestic violence, should be universally enforced, but what about poll tax and property protection? If it was enforced by a government of authority that imposed itself, this could be an issue in that it is unfair to enforce laws that almost all of the population disagree with.

In some cases, it could be considered immoral, but Plato would disagree, as the Rulers are following the only moral code that exists. Plato’s philosopher kings rely on their knowledge of the Forms to provide their moral code, which is then implemented upon the republic. The Form of the Good provides the perfect moral code upon which to base the real (material) moral code. This is one of the main reasons why Plato requires his rulers to have philosophical knowledge – they need to know the moral code upon which to base their own. Nietzsche, however, believes that everything is subjective, based on experience and opinion of the individual. This means that his philosopher supermen don’t need to implement a moral code; as previously mentioned, their only moral is the will to power.

Nietzsche never specifically argues for a government system like we have today. For example, he mentions that his free spirits should be in power, but also says that religion should be allowed for the common people. This shows, slightly patronisingly, that he is not expecting the ‘common’ people to understand the rulers (much like the lower classes today are note expected to understand politics) which is obviously a very sweeping judgement, and could be considered as harsh and pro-Big Brighter – in support of a tyrannical state. Although Nietzsche did support tyrant, he did appreciate the subjectivism of morals and opinion, and was not advocating forcing ones views upon others (unlike Hitler).

His lack of respect for democracy is not the only thing that calls into question modern government. He doesn’t even specify if there should be a (totalitarian?) leader at all, merely that the free spirits would ‘hold power’ as such. His appreciation of subjectivity means that a leader would not strictly work: all views are different, so no leader would be truly right. The free spirit seems merely to be an authority to show others with the will to power what they can achieve.


Both of these systems involve elements of the totalitarian about them. Plato seems to advocate both communism in monetary matters and lifestyle and the complete opposite when it comes to defining differences between peoples. He argues strongly for different classes of people, like Nietzsche, and for an authority that is placed in power with no choice. It’s not as bad as it seems, if one agrees with the justification of the argument – however, it would be a long struggle for people to accept it. Nietzsche, on the other hand, has often been blamed for inspiring Hitler (which is untrue, as Nietzsche despised racism and anti-Semitism), and it is easy to see why, as he advocates gaining authority by force, relishes in aristocratic barbarianism, and believes that there are ‘levels of people’.

This means that their theories on authority aren’t very practical, and neither de jure or de facto, particularly by modern standards. A preferable system, therefore, would be a mix of Plato’s equality for women, Nietzsche’s appreciation for the artistic nature, and … (include other philosophers). Of course, it’s unforeseeable to be able to find a perfect authority, one who is justified, true, moral and recognised. As Nietzsche said, all philosophy to date has been ‘personal confession’ – if this is true (which it seems likely to be), then there will never be a perfect authority, justified and recognised by all.

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