Politics in Minutes (2016)

Plato: Republic

One of the first questions for the early Greek political philosophers was: what is the purpose of government? Until then, it had been taken for granted that a community should have a leader but, now power had been transferred to the people, Athenian thinkers began to ask what sort of society and what kind of government would be best. Plato, in his book Republic, argued that the role of government is to ensure that citizens are able to pursue a ‘good life’ – not simply one of pleasure or happiness, but also a virtuous one.

The only people with the insight needed to recognize and understand the virtues that constitute a good life, and the wisdom to put them into practice, however, are philosophers. Ordinary people have only a shadowy knowledge of these concepts and require guidance to lead a good life. This, Plato said, is the role of government, and the only people qualified to provide it are philosophers: government should therefore be in the hands of a guardian class of ‘philosopher-kings’.