City of Wisdom

In the Republic, Plato paints a vivid picture of the ideal city, in which the aim of all politics consists in the cultivation of a common life of wisdom, or the pursuit of wisdom — philosophy. Famously, this is why the ruler of the Plato’s city must himself be a philosopher, if he is to lead his subjects on the path to wisdom. This concept of politics is repeated in Plato’s Seventh Letter, where he recounts in detail his own failed attempts to teach philosophy to Dionysios, the tyrant of Syracuse, in the hopes of making him into the ideal philosopher-king. The role of the king, or the statesman, in Plato’s conception is principally to teach wisdom and virtue to the people.

Throughout Plato’s writings, the figure of the philosopher appears (most often in the person of Socrates, sometimes of Plato himself) as one who seeks to transform the public square into the space where wisdom is sought and practiced by all the members of the political community. This he does either by trying to teach philosophy either to the citizenry (Socrates commonly dialogues with ordinary folk) or to the rulers of the State. Philosophy has an unmistakable public character, indicating that wisdom itself is, for Plato, a common good: indeed, it is the possession of the Good itself.

The notion that wisdom is the goal of political life constitutes a running theme with many variations throughout the history of political philosophy and political theology. (In later installments, I hope to look at this theme in the peculiar flavor which it takes in Russian politics and political theology, both in the Orthodox Sophiological form or the Communist Stalinist form.) In the Enlightenment, the goal of cultivating a truly rational citizenry takes on a peculiarly individualistic flavor, while the role of the king as a philosopher and teacher seems to recede into the background, reduced to the function of a mere procedural facilitator. No longer is the use of philosophic reason the privileged monopoly of a philosopher-king. Rather, with the advent of the “turn to the self,” reason becomes the privilege of the sovereign individual, who exercises his reason autonomously and free from the fetters of socially imposed orthodoxies (e.g. tradition and authority).

In theory, liberal democracy is the political procedure that facilitates discourse among the multitude of sovereign rational individuals, who, though they are individuals, must necessarily meet in the public square. From their participation in this discourse as equally rational agents (in the eyes of the law), the ‘common wisdom’ is supposed to emerge, as by an invisible hand. In this scheme, the multitudes are not taught wisdom by any authority on high; they produce it of themselves, by the free exchange of ideas on the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ The procedures of democracy, on this account, are sharply distinguished from the authoritarian magisterialism of pre-modern political arrangements: they are mere mechanics, unbiased technologies, which automatically produce an optimal output from a pre-existing input.

The judgment of Enlightenment liberalism has been that liberal democracy produces Plato’s goal, a wise and virtuous citizenry, better than Plato imagined that his own authoritarian polis could have done. Allan Bloom, for example, in The Closing of the American Mind, attempts to argue that liberal democracy encapsulates the Platonic ideal of public rationality better than Plato’s own imaginary city could do.

Recent history forces us to acknowledge, on the contrary, that liberalism has failed. Allan Bloom was wrong. Liberal democracy and its neutral technological procedures have not yielded the Platonic ideal of public rationality or a common wisdom. The events of recent months alone are enough to demonstrate, painfully and forcefully, that liberalism has not produced a consensus of any kind, but only rampant dissension, factionalism, protest, rioting, mob violence, and class warfare — not to mention a still lagging problem of racism and anti-racist hatred. Liberalism has only caused the Hobbesian state of war, bellum omnium contra omnes, which it was meant to avoid. More than that, liberalism has brought about exactly the opposite of the Platonic ideal of a common life of wisdom: it has engendered only the dissolution of any common pursuit of the good, true, and beautiful.

Of course, Plato himself could have predicted this. The final book of the Republic contains an eloquent illustration of how democracy, or “[t]he absence…of any compulsion on a citizen to rule, even if he’s qualified to do so, or to be ruled, either, if he doesn’t want to…” (557e), only foments division and anarchy — and this not only in society, but also within the soul of the individual democratic citizen, who is given over to base desires, selfishness, and immorality, all in the name of democratic liberty. The history of modern democratic societies seems to have borne this out. America today is simply writhing in the pangs of democracy’s demise.

By contrast, Plato famously proposed a form of politics in which the State, or the leaders of the State, was charged with the task of educating the people. Statecraft was expressly a matter of teaching virtue and wisdom to the people. The ruler was to be himself a philosopher, the first among philosophers, who would lead his people out from the cave of ignorance into the light of wisdom and the pure vision of the Good. The end of political life thus conceived is nothing other than contemplation, a life of mystic insight into the Absolute that encompasses all things.

Accordingly, Plato envisions the State engaging in a tight control of speech, thought, and art within the city. The ruler must rule with a clear purpose, which is the cultivation of virtue and wisdom in his citizens: anything that threatens to undermine that purpose, such as subversive poetry, art, false doctrine or sophistry, must be rigorously controlled and even eliminated from the city. Plato has no scruples advising the State to exercise comprehensive censorship, to a degree that more modern and Enlightened apologists of free thought and free speech — reason unbound — would find not only distasteful but immoral. Yet such measures are the natural consequence of an idea of State as teacher of moral and intellectual virtue, a guide in the life of the mind and the soul, a leader on the path to Wisdom.

But more than the negative role of censorship, the State also plays a more positive role as teacher and educator, not merely by directing citizens away from what they may not say or think or do, but by directly educating them in the truth itself, and providing them with a way of life in which the habits of virtue and wisdom are concretely established in them. This positive role is illustrated with detail in Plato’s discussion of the education of the guardians: the State literally appears to sponsor a philosophical and moral upbringing for those whom it appoints as its protectors. The necessity of such an education for the guardians specifically arises from the risks of military tyranny: the guardians are the military class, and any danger of their exercising a violent tyranny can only be avoided through their proper education in philosophy and morals. The State functions as a kind of school. But although there is kind of pragmatic dimension to the education of the guardians, their education is not merely career-oriented, in the manner of our late modern schools. It is rather a school for the formation of the whole man, the perfection of his very humanity, the cultivation of all the faculties, physical, moral, and intellectual, which make him a man. Likewise for the education of the philosopher-king. Only a whole man, who is virtuous in all his faculties, can be entrusted with the guardianship and leadership of the city.

While the guardians protect the people of the city, the philosopher-king educates them in turn, passing on to them the wisdom that he himself has received, leading them up from the cave into the light which once upon he too beheld. In the Seventh Letter, Plato laments that Dionysios, the Tyrant of Syracuse, did not follow his guidance and cultivate a life of philosophic learning, so necessary for the right rulership of the people of Syracuse and Sicily, or any people. Thus Plato: “[If] philosophy and power had really met together, it would have sent forth a light to all men, Greeks and barbarians, establishing fully for all the true belief that there can be no happiness either for the community or for the individual man, unless he passes his life under the rule of righteousness with the guidance of wisdom, either possessing these virtues in himself, or living under the rule of godly men and having received a right training and education in morals.” The ideal city, in Plato’s mind, is thus one where the State is a school for the guidance and education of all men in wisdom and virtue, under the leadership of godly men themselves possessed of wisdom and virtue.

In our own time, States invest much energy and money in public schools — but schools that are, in fact, no more than factories for reproducing the social relations and moral ideologies of liberalism and capitalism. In a certain perverse and backwards way, the modern State reflects Plato’s conception of the State-as-school, but not teaching true wisdom or morals, but an ideology of moral license — more akin to the moral disposition of the democratic man, as described in the Republic, than to the virtuous man. This is the ideology necessary to uphold the image of a free and democratic society, where the individual is sovereign over his own life and identity, fully self-determining, subject to no man. Of course, we see in our own time that this very same ideology is imposed by increasingly undemocratic means, lending much credence to Plato’s other observation in the Republic, that democracy leads to tyranny: the desire for unlimited freedom only produces a tyranny to punish all who are perceived as threats to freedom. This observation may explain the forms of manic-authoritarianism that exist on both the right-populist and left-progressive wings of contemporary Western liberalism: both justify their undemocratic methods by appealing to the values of democracy. A tolerant democratic regime cannot tolerate the intolerant.

A truly Platonic approach to State-sponsored education, in a modern context, would invest rather in schools oriented to the virtuous life, and to the philosophic life, purely for its own sake. Contemporary China, for example, demonstrates a keen interest in the education of its people — not only, of course, their education in Marxist ideology, but more importantly their education in the ancient Chinese tradition of Confucianism. Confucian philosophy is no mere academic exercise, nor a mere preparation for a successful career-path, but a whole way of life. The teachings of Master Kong govern all the faculties of man: his intellectual, moral, social, and even physical dimensions, insofar as ritual and ceremony play an essential role in Confucius’ description of the good life (it would be interesting to compare this with the Neoplatonic idea of theurgy and its role in social-political life). The revival of Confucianism in modern China, often under the direct patronage of the Chinese Communist Party, is a worthy example of a State which seeks to ensure the moral and intellectual formation of its citizens.

An analogous approach in the West would include the State-sponsored revival of the classical humanities, a rich source of material for the formation of noble human character. The most generous thing a modern Western State could do for its citizens would be to establish schools of the humanities, at low to no cost, with the express intention of forming them in moral and intellectual virtue so as to make them good citizens, endowed with a sense of the common good. Such schools would not be mere institutions of academic research, but quasi-monastic houses of meditation on the noblest things. A State which made a priority of such an education would be truly following the advice that Plato offered in vain to Dionysios, a State that truly embodied the virtues of Plato’s philosopher-king.

Of course, such an institution would bear fruit only in the context of an overall reform of current liberal society, which, for the reasons expressed above, tends to woefully undermine morality, the common good, and a common pursuit of wisdom. A consumerist society driven by the unfettered desire for riches is inherently antithetical to the philosophic life — a problem that is not resolved merely by tacking on a philosophic education to a fundamentally dysfunctional social order. The whole order must instead be reformed. Indeed, the model of the philosophic life must be applied to the whole of society, at least on some level. Contrary to some recent interpretations of monastic life as a model for society, such a life is not meant to be one of recession from society as a whole, leaving the big bad world to dwell in the safety and secrecy of the monastery. Rather, it is meant to be the ideal towards which the social order as a whole, en masse, aspires. The philosopher-king who presides over a whole city — or in our world, a whole empire — must have as his aim the cultivation of wisdom in all his subjects, the building of a whole community of wisdom-seekers (philosophers).

Originally published at on July 21, 2020.



I write about Philosophy, Politics, Economics, Culture, and Religion.

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Jonathan Culbreath

I write about Philosophy, Politics, Economics, Culture, and Religion.