Plato, Contemporary Government, and the Aspen Institute




I don’t read Plato often.  In fact, I don’t even have Plato’s Republic on the bedside table.  But I’m reading Plato today, as I prepare for my upcoming seminar at the Aspen Institute’s Socrates Society.  The three-day seminar that I am taking, Humanity, Power, Leadership: Strategizing Success, moderated by Leigh Hafrey, includes extensive readings about the Rwanda genocide, all of which have been important and eye-opening for me.

The thing that I like the most about the Socrates Society, second only to the lasting friendships I have made there over the past eleven years, is the luxury of having time to engage in critical thinking and open discussion on subjects that we don’t consider every day.  Which brings me back to Plato:

"… the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst. . . . you must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life.  Whereas if they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering after their own private advantage, thinking that hence they are to snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and of the whole State."

                        Plato, The Republic, 428/427 – 348/347 B.C.E.

The relevance of this text today in the United States of America, where so much of our political system is consumed by "hungering" for the advantage of special interests trying to snatch "the chief good", is striking.  As our society faces large issues concerning the common good such as global warming and the equitable allocation of increasingly scarce natural resources, we should all wish for the ruler who is not only virtuous, but who can show enlightened leadership.  Plato’s text certainly raises a lot of fundamental questions, and I hope to come back from this year’s gathering of the Socrates Society with interesting answers after rigorous debate.

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