In hindsight, the Obama campaign was most notable for the passion it excited. After a period in which apathy seemed endemic to prosperous democracies, politics as mass movement was reborn. Volunteers swarmed states not their own; devotees assembled in the thousands. Among them stood the intellectual, proudly.
The politically engaged intellectual tends to consider himself above the cheering, jeering crowd. They are the sheep; he is the shepherd. Yet there he was, losing himself in the flock. Why?
“The greatest punishment for being unwilling to rule is being ruled by someone worse than oneself,” bemoaned Plato. In his own (scrupulously unbiased) eyes, the intellectual has long suffered this fate. The philosopher-king of Plato’s Republic is the most sophisticated proposal ever made for his relief. What puts a thrill up the intellectual’s leg is the hope that Obama might turn out to be a philosopher-president.
Plato was not naïve. Most leaders claim to be working for the common good, guided by deep ideals. Many even believe themselves. But ultimately their lives are organized around the pursuit and retention of power. Plato’s ideal ruler would be different because he would be a philosopher. Only someone who does not want power can remain uncorrupted by it, and the trappings of power mean nothing to a true philosopher except insofar as they help him in his chosen task, the pursuit and transmission of knowledge. In a poorly structured society, he is not able to philosophize freely. Socrates was put to death. That is the greatest punishment for being unwilling to rule.
But if the philosopher rules for his own sake, why is he better than any other politician? Plato’s answer is that the pursuit of wisdom is itself a necessary component of ruling well; we need to know what it is we’re aiming at before we can try to reach it. True ruling is the art of enabling one’s subjects to be as excellent as possible, to live the best lives they can, given their various abilities. But what constitutes the best life? This question is rarely discussed by politicians, but it is the fundamental concern of philosophy. Only on the basis of philosophical reflections on the good life can a ruler design institutions to facilitate lives that are as stable and rewarding as possible. So non-philosophers—even those with the best intentions—can never rule well.
These “philosophical reflections” are not as mysterious or mystical as one might initially suppose. On Plato’s view, the philosopher tries to work out what each thing is in its best possible form and how it best fits with everything else. He considers the good of the whole and how the parts can function to create and sustain it. In other words, he asks of politics the same question he asks of everything he encounters: “what is this thing for?”
Even if the philosopher were willing to rule, would the people have him? Plato thought it unlikely.
In Republic, Plato’s image for political life is a ship. The owner is stronger than everyone else, but he doesn’t know much about sailing. The sailors are fighting over who should be captain, and they crowd round the ownertrying to get appointed. An unschooled onlooker might be confused into thinking the art of captaincy is the art of taking and retaining the helm. Meanwhile, the true captain sits on the margins, unrecognized. Unlike the others, he considers the seasons, winds and stars; everyone says his head is in the clouds.
In a democracy, we, the people, are the shipowner. Despite the fact that most of us have not seriously reflected on the means or ends of statecraft, we consider ourselves competent to elect a statesman. Politicians encircle us with their seductive dances, and the one who wins our hearts we call our president. He who ponders what statecraft is actually for, we dismiss as an idealist.
Democratic institutions are set up to reward electability, not wisdom. We choose the candidate we like. But there’s a difference between getting what you want and making the best choice for yourself. Democracy enshrines consumer satisfaction, rather than the good life, as the goal of politics. And just as the customer is never wrong, so the elector never blames himself.
Still, it would surely be wrong to conclude that a wise man could never be elected leader. Kings are selected for their genes, not their wisdom; yet Plato thought it possible that a king might just happen to be wise. Why couldn’t the same be true of a democratic politician? Might Obama, with his measured words and considered air, turn out to be a philosopher-president?
Even if Obama is as much of an idealist as the intellectual hopes, he might not be a ruler in Plato’s sense. The office of United States president is an executive post. Plato’s rulers would not administer; their auxiliaries would do that. The task that demands philosophical wisdom is setting up and maintaining institutions that facilitate the good life. In this respect, philosopher-kings are more like Ayatollahs than presidents.
In America, the Ayatollah-role—overseeing practices and institutions with an eye to an ideal—is split between the president, legislators and judges, with journalists, pressure groups and preachers looking over their shoulders. This means no one does it. The idea is that competitive tension will at least avert disaster (imagine Ayatollah Bush) and at best enable individual preferences to be aggregated into the common good. From Plato’s point of view, this is like expecting the best sailing to emerge from sailors fighting over the helm. If no one takes the helm, or everyone takes it for two minutes, the ship will go almost nowhere. In terms of the good life, almost nowhere amounts to the lowest common denominator: secure borders and increased GDP. This may be better than fundamentalist Christianity or Islam, but it still strands us far from our highest potential.
The most efficient means in the world can only be good if directed towards worthy ends. Plato illustrates this—in another work, Gorgias—with a different ship metaphor. He points out that a wise helmsman would be modest about the value of his skill:
For he’s enough of an expert, I suppose, to conclude that it isn’t clear which ones of his fellow voyagers he has benefited by not letting them drown in the deep, and which ones he has harmed, knowing that they were no better in either body or soul when he set them ashore than they were when they embarked.
If the destination is bad, it cannot be good to get there. Combining this with the earlier image of political life as a ship, we can say that the art of politics as taught by an expert like Machiavelli stands in need of philosophy as taught by Plato. The true ruler knows what his journey is for: the best possible life given our potential.
With the correct destination in mind, the captain can create a team that pulls together so we can reach it. There will be sub-teams: rowers; lookouts; anchormen; cooks; cleaners; petty officers; general hands; and so on. The captain needs to know what each role is for so he can guide us through difficult times. In moments of crisis certain functions will have to be sacrificed, and he will have to decide which ones. There’s no use having a cook during a storm, for example: he should go on deck to help with the emergency reefing.
Although the U.S. political system does not normally allow captaincy, in times of crisis— the Civil War, the Great Depression, JFK’s assassination, 9/11—factions come together to demand leadership. Now imagine such a crisis befalling America at just the time when the president happened to be wise. Such a man would be able to restructure our institutions to enable everyone to achieve their potential. Right when everyone was worrying that economic failure would shipwreck us, for example, he would have the foresight to consider what growth is really for, what its proper place in a flourishing society should be.
The intellectual dreams of Obama as philosopher-president, and it could happen. But Obama’s electoral success demonstrates only one thing: his electability. The real philosopher-ruler must work out what things truly are in their best possible form. For all his talk of hope, it is not clear what Obama is hoping for. What is his vision of the future? What does he consider to be a successful human life? How does he see the various portions of society knitting together? Is he an idealist without an ideal?
“I serve as a blank screen,” Obama once wrote, “on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” For Freud, the purpose of politics—regardless of what it should be—is, in reality, libidinal satisfaction. Libidinal instincts can be gratified not only directly (e.g. through sex) but also through fantasy. Fantasy is a species of imagination. In imagination our judgments reach out beyond what the facts strictly license; in fantasy they do so by distorting reality in ways that gratify us. Since to work out ideals is to imagine, idealists are inherently vulnerable to idealization.
This is an easy reproach to make against Plato. What is the philosopher-king but an idealized philosopher, finally granted the power he needs to set everyone straight? Especially when juxtaposed with the image of the philosopher’s humiliating marginalization on the ship of politics, the philosopher-king can seem less an ideal than a revenge fantasy.
The specter of fantasy also hangs over the intellectual. He is just as prone to it as anyone; perhaps more so, since he tends to mistake cleverness for wisdom. Michael Ignatieff, leader of the Canadian opposition, has as good a claim as any to be a philosopher- politician: a first-class thinker—at once novelist, historian and theorist—who may become ruler. Why does the intellectual not fall at his feet? What is the relevant difference between him and Obama?
When the intellectual in the crowd sees Obama above him, he imagines a better version of himself: more eloquent, better looking, loved and respected. Time may tell whether his faith in such a figure is more than a narcissistic fantasy. But for now one thing is sure: the thought is gratifying.