Nations always seek capable, selfless leaders, but people such as this seem to be in short supply. Now more than ever this is essential, as we sit on the cusp of great change, where a single slip may leave us plummeting towards the void, where a single decision may allow us to soar.
The rapidly increasing competency of science has placed great responsibility on our leaders to navigate current issues: climate change, a potentially lethal threat, nuclear war which may plunge us into a dystopian nightmare, even the rise of artificial intelligence, which may be our greatest advance, or a harbinger of destruction. These problems are mounting, tensions rising, and deadlines nearing. We need strong leaders. Fortunately, Plato can teach us a thing or two in this regard.
The question is, how do we select and prepare the most competent people? How can we ensure the leaders able to address these issues are put into a position where they have the power to? Should we take children away from their parents, as Plato suggested, or confiscate all their possessions, or maybe through arranged marriage ensure we pass down the best genes?
Plato says a few seemingly crazy things. But while he might not give us all the solutions, he can provide us with a rough model to strive towards, principles we should abide by, and give us insight into what we should be cultivating in our leaders.
In his book the Republic Plato proposes an ideal state, Kallipolis, and describes how it would function. Essential to this utopia is selecting and preparing only the best leaders. You can learn more about the Republic here.
I will discuss each step in Plato’s preparation of a leader, attempt to extract its principles, and then suggest how we can apply these principles to cultivating better leaders in our current age, in a realistic(ish) way.
Plato’s preparation of a leader
A core problem of political philosophy is to ensure the selection of capable leaders. Plato prescribes a rigorous 50-year training, that starts at birth. Just a tad extreme. What we can glean from his sentiment though is the need for some sort of formal, standardized preparation, and more meticulous selection.
The formal training of leaders
A doctor is required to undergo rigorous, even arduous preparation, as the results of his work can lead to the death of a few people. Politicians hold the lives of thousands (sometimes more) in their hands. So why do they not undergo more extensive preparation? Why is their election based largely their eloquence, their ability to persuade. Is a formal, standardized regime not required, one that will ensure a high standard of politicians?
The proposed training, which would take place in a special school (akin to medical school) would be compulsory for those applying for political office (with increased training the more prestigious the position becomes), globally standardized, and as accessible as possible (geographically and financially). Through this we might hope to reduce the role affluence and persuasiveness play in selecting leaders.
The purpose would be to turn rulers into balanced individuals, who can temper theoretical knowledge of politics with the virtue of their heart and practical know-how.
Let us now look at Plato’s preparation of a ruler, extract what we want, and discard that which is unrealistic, or inapplicable to modern society.
To prevent prejudice and erroneous thoughts from entering the minds of leaders, Plato proposed that children be taken from their parents at an early age, and raised separately to them. Probably a bad idea. But what it does highlight is the need for extreme measures to make sure leaders formulate their own, balanced, understanding of the world.
The issue of preventing prejudice with the massive influence of media is difficult at the least. One solution might be to attempt to give politicians a balanced, academic (versus a personal, emotional one some might tend to formulate) opinion in current matters throughout their careers. Additionally extensive training in detecting false information, meticulously rooting out the truth, might be beneficial.
Leadership starts in the body
Plato has this idea that good leadership starts in the body; if one is dependent on others (and other things) for essential functions, it leads to a life of luxury and indolence. Those who are fit of body and possess vitality will be independent, strong, and fit of mind. For how can you rule others if you cannot rule yourself?
This is quite a profound notion, something to strive for in a leader. It is unfortunately difficult to guarantee and enforce. A feasible solution might be strict health tests for those in office, or required exercise regimens. Some might call it body-shaming, but our leaders must be held to a higher standard than others, and if something is beneficial, then it is necessary.
A gentle soul
why musical training is so powerful, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the secret places of the soul, bearing grace in their movements and making the soul graceful—Plato
Plato taught that musical training was needed to gentle and make graceful the soul, shaping the character of future leaders. Music does certainly have some ennobling quality to it, something that touches the heart. A required hobby of similar nature in the proposed training is not the worst idea.
How different everything is for the craftsman who transforms a part of the world with his own hands, who can see his work as emanating from his being and can step back at the end of a day or lifetime and point to an object — whether a square of canvas, a chair or a clay jug — and see it as a stable repository of his skills and an accurate record of his years—Alain de Botton
A man who has never gone to school may steal a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad —Theodore Roosevelt
Working with your hands keeps us honest, and guides us away from craftiness, the machinations of the intellect. In some sense manual labour is necessary. Furthermore, the creation of beauty, of craftsmanship, is a rewarding process, and balances an individual out. It is catharsis, an expression of oneself that warrants soul searching, dealing with your own emotions, if it is to be beautiful. I believe we can ensure our leaders are well balanced through such practices.
An education of amusement
Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind—Plato
Leaders should be free to explore their own interests in this training, not forced into specific subjects. There should be time for them to explore non-political subjects at a university level, to indulge their own interests.
An exposure to philosophy
Integral to Plato’s preparation of a leader is exposing potential leaders to philosophy. Today this can be applied more broadly to many academic fields; political philosophy, sociology, history, law, the sciences etc. This is important as it provides leaders with an academic, theoretical understanding of things, which complements practical knowledge.
It is not possible to run a course aright when the goal itself has not been rightly placed—Francis Bacon
However philosophy specifically is still important to society, and therefore to its leaders as well. Philosophy is the study of the ideal form of something (such as the ideal state in political philosophy). Knowledge of how an ideal society would function is important for a leader as it serves as a guiding force, an ultimate goal they are striving towards, ensuring a unified approach, not haphazard and short-sighted. Leaders must know clearly what they are aiming for to make truly good decisions.
Additionally, philosophy has many personal benefits. It develops the values and moral compass of leaders, changes how they think about things, and fosters a dynamic intellect. It is therefore important for leaders.
Plato advocated, wisely, for 15 years of practical training, where leaders to be would be thrust into the real world, and forced to provide for themselves. The purpose was disillusionment, to allow the leaders to experience and therefore understand the lives of their subjects, and adjust their beliefs in accordance with reality. It would ensure self-sufficient leaders who realize the reality of a situation.
This is something sorely missing in modern politics, as most politicians are privileged and affluent, those who never really encounter reality. Only through this experience can they truly understand those they rule, understand their needs.
The best solution in my mind would be sort of projects that the leaders to-be engage in, such as volunteering at shelters, working at restaurants etc. This would allow them greater insight into the lives of people, and to govern far better because of it.
A communal life
Rulers of Plato’s state would live a communal lifestyle, not owning anything. This is done to prevent greed, a corruption of the soul. It forces the leaders to find meaning in serving, not in the luxuries of rulership. But is this a practical idea, or just a hopeless platitude?
A proposed and previously discussed application of this is to prevent leaders (in high political positions) from owning stakes in companies, for fear of this skewing their decision making. Such a law would ensure that our leaders serve not for a love of money, but to the benefit of all. This is one of the most desirable qualities we should attempt to ensure in our leaders.
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants—Isaac Newton
While many of Plato’s ideas we may find ghastly in modern society, it is not to say that his work is useless. Far from it. His utopia is far from a complete picture, and may err in our eyes, but it does bring us closer to one, and therefore it is important that we heed its lessons. Only by building on the thought of the past will we be able to see further.