A long time ago, in a culture far, far away, a political philosopher sketched out the details of an ideal society.
His name was Plato, and his portrait of this desirable and sustainable human community is his famous “Republic,” couched as a dialogue between his teacher, Socrates, and a number of his students.
The “Republic” has not suffered from a lack of attention in philosophy and political science courses, in Cliff Notes, and in “philosophy for dummies” venues; I have found it coming to mind as I have watched and listened to our current efforts to manage our own “republic.”
It has caused me to reflect on the relationship of leadership and education.
After discussing several concepts of justice as a foundation for a healthy society, Socrates and his friends arrive at an understanding of justice as a feature of the common good.
From here, their attention turns to building a society that will reflect this kind of justice.
Left to its own devices, they discover, a given society will move through several stages or cycles that reflect the unguided human condition.
It often begins as a monarchy or aristocracy, where an upper class, usually with inherited privilege, rules. After a time, a timocracy develops, where accumulated wealth and power, rather than inherited status, assumes a leadership role.
The process then leads to an oligarchy, where control and power become concentrated in a few who have managed to gain excessive wealth and property.
In this process, whatever concern among the rulers there might have been for the common good tends to erode in favor of a concern for protecting privilege.
With time, unrest can develop with this imbalance; resistance can lead to rejecting this order, perhaps through revolution, and to establishing a democracy, where the direct will of the people takes control.
What might seem to be a good stage of the process is seen by Plato to be one of its worst, for democracy sets the stage for inevitable chaos; the burden of that confusion leaves the society ripe for the tyranny of a dictator who promises to bring order; and the cycle begins again.
The solution to this seemingly universal problem is the intentional creation of a republic, whose leaders (he calls them “guardians”) are educated to transcend the passions and appetites that lead to corruption, and who understand “the GOOD” that is more comprehensive than special advantage.
Personified in the well-known image of the “philosopher king,” the ideal of leadership is a perspective that is deeply educated and able to discern the essence of complex issues.
Not to be confused with the more prevalent and popular passionate embrace of an ideology, true philosophical understanding knows that truth is always beyond our limited perceptions of it and seeks with humility to move in its direction.
Socrates suggests that the keys to this desirable and “just” society are clearly education and leadership, working in a partnership with each other to nurture and support the best possibilities for the common good that human community can achieve.
Broad and thorough education for both populace and leaders, and a concept of leadership that places high value on the fruits of such education as a condition of service, are essential to the well-being of the republic.
When education fails to be comprehensive and rigorous in its development of the mind to embrace the complexities of life rather than to be seduced by simplistic solutions, and when leadership loses its vision of the common good in favor of preserving particular advantage and holding position and power, the republic, Plato says, begins to decline.
Any of this sound familiar?
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).