Lecture Six

January 3rd, 2010

Plato's Five Forms of Government

Who will rule us now?

by David Horan

If our efforts to improve our society and our world meet with frequent failure and sometimes with disaster, is there some very fundamental point which we are missing? Are we perhaps looking at all of the issues that concern us—be they economic, political social, personal or ecological—in completely the wrong way?

In Plato's great philosophic masterpiece, the Republic, Socrates makes the very provocative suggestion that we should allow ourselves to be ruled by Philosopher Kings.

His companions immediately warn him that this outrageous proposal will lead to violent attacks upon his person. However, it was typical of Socrates to use extreme propositions, which are difficult to take seriously, in order to focus attention upon a vitally important issue. Important as this question was 2500 years ago, its urgency for us today is inescapable. As materialism and greed increase, and great eternal realities are often regarded with scorn, the question may not be "who will rule us?" but "what will rule us?" Will it be wisdom and justice, or entirely different forces?

In the Republic, Socrates describes five forms of Government that differ both in their form and structure and in the nature of their rulers. But at a more profound level these five types of city differ in the nature of the people who live in them and their values, aspirations and understanding of themselves; and the type of person determines the type of city and the type of government.

For us this raises many questions:

  • Will new systems of government lead us to a new world order?
  • Can we blame those who govern us for the problems we face?
  • How can we change our values and those of our society?
  • Is there a political or economic solution to the ills of the world?
  • What part can philosophy play in relieving the suffering of humanity?

Even before Plato and Socrates, Heraclitus made the great promise: "It is natural for all mankind to know themselves and live wisely."

Can this great and ancient maxim offer practical assistance in our personal and political lives today? Plato and Socrates were aware of this wise saying of their venerable predecessor and they sought to make it practical and real. This lecture will consider the meaning of wisdom and self-knowledge, and their place in dealing with the ills that afflict our world.

About the Presenter

David Horan is a senior member of the Dublin School of Philosophy, and, in conjunction with the Dublin School of Philosophy and the Irish universities, he has organized the public "Day With Plato" event for the past 21 years, introducing thousands of people to the works of Plato. He has produced dramatisations of the dialogues of Plato each year for this event and more recently has produced three film versions of Plato's dialogues. He has run Plato Study Weeks since 2004 with the Dublin School in Ireland and in Italy and has facilitated four Plato Summer Schools in Melbourne. He has lectured extensively on the dialogues of Plato and has conducted study days and weekends on Plato in England and Holland. With his wife Frances he has been conducting group tours to Greece for 12 years, combining the study of Plato with visits to the sites of the ancient world. This year he led a two-week seminar on Plato's Timaeus at the European Cultural Centre in Delphi, Greece.

David is currently producing a new translation of the entire dialogues of Plato—a substantial project that began in 2008 and will run for some 10 years. Apart from the translation work, his current research interest is self-knowledge in the dialogues of Plato. This work is being conducted at the Centre for the Study of the Platonic Tradition in Trinity College, Dublin.

During his 2009-10 visit to Australia, David conducted another Plato Summer School in Melbourne and was invited to facilitate events in Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, Wellington and Auckland.

David Horan