Friday, May 9, 2014

"Statesman": Who Watches the Watchmen?

A lot of interesting thoughts went through my head as I read Plato's Statesman. This dialogue mainly consists of an unnamed visitor and another Socrates (not Plato's teacher) attempting to define a statesman.

In the first part of the dialogue, the young Socrates and the visitor narrow down what a statesman is by dividing categories into two and then selecting which one applies to the statesman. Their conclusions at this point are that the statesman possesses a specialized theoretical knowledge related to statesmanship (as a doctor possesses a specialized knowledge in the art of medicine) and that a statesman is a herdsman of sorts over his people.

From there the dialogue takes an unexpected and fascinating turn. Plato outlines a view that seemed very mythological and I'm not sure how much of this was traditional Greek mythology and how much of it is the speculation of philosophers. Of all the parts of the dialogue this was the section I most wanted extra clarification on. This is how it went, as much as I understood it: In the previous age, the Age of Cronus aka the Golden Age, the world was under control of "the god" and humanity was taken care of by him as a divine herdsman. Everything necessary for humanity's survival was provided for by the god, without humanity needing to work for it. There was also no need for political institutions. Then the rotation of the world reversed (whatever that means), the world entered its present age, and was no longer taken care of by the god but was run by itself Epicurean-style. Because humanity now had to take care of itself, gifts were given to humanity to aid them (e.g. fire from Prometheus, crafts from Hephaestus). 

There are a lot of interesting implications and connections with other things here. I just wish I knew more about the origin of these ideas. I'll have to research it some time.

After this, the three major forms of government - monarchy (rule of one), aristocracy (rule of few), and democracy (rule of the people) - are defined and it is decided that the art of the statesman must reside in one person, or at most a few, because specialized knowledge, the attribute that defines the statesman, cannot be possessed by everyone. 

The nature of laws are then discussed. It is decided that written laws can never adequately express justice, because situations change and every situation is different. Rather laws serve as general rules, and the ideal statesman is able to operate outside of them if needed to implement justice, as a doctor will sometimes go outside of general practice guidelines depending on the patient. At about this time my spidey-sense started tingling. Surely, no man can be trusted with this level of authority?

Plato addresses this. The reason why democracy emerged and laws are treated as, well, law is because statesman have abused their power. Plato wasn't a fan of democracy, because it was the democratic process that led to his teacher Socrates' death. The end result of the dialogue is pretty impractical. The dialogue, it seems, is devoted to defining an ideal that, to my eyes at least, will never be realized by a mere mortal. It seems that the statesman Plato is describing would have to be more than human. In true Platonic fashion, rule by this ideal statesman is the ideal form of government, which all other forms of government are a copy or imitation of. I  think I agree with Plato, at least as far as this dialogue goes, that the rule of a wise and good statesman would be the best form of government, but unfortunately I don't think he currently walks among us. Ultimately, I side with democracy, but I do so with a heavy heart. I share none of the enthusiasm of someone like Rousseau, because I view democracy largely as a safety check. We can't trust any one person with power, so we must distribute it evenly. It doesn't exactly make me feel good about humanity. Lucky for me I don't place my hope in humanity, but the true Statesman.

This quote from the 51st Federalist Paper went through my mind frequently as I read the Statesman: "The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."