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Socratic Excellence and the Aristocratic Ideal

By Gwendolyn Taunton

Extract from What is Best in Life? The Pursuit of Excellence & the Aristocratic Principle in Aristokratia III: Hellas

Aristokratia Volume III - HellasIf hybris causes the fall of heroes, then it is by areté that they arise. The concept of areté is crucial to understanding the ideas of Socrates and Plato, and through them, the aristocratic principle. In the work of Socrates and Plato areté is a universal, but non-essential part of human nature, and people differ in the degree of areté they possess. Areté—the aristocratic principle—in their writing undergoes a specific transition, taking on an ethereal aspect and becoming a virtue. This makes the task of providing a definition even more difficult. What exactly is virtue? Can virtue be taught, or is it part of an individual’s psychological composition and therefore an innate genetic trait? Neither Socrates nor Plato had to contemplate the prospect of genetically transmitted virtue and moral qualities as we do today with our advancements in biological sciences. Nor did they have to answer whether personality was the product of nature or nurture. They could only work with logic to search for an answer, and neither believed that areté (as a virtue) could be taught. Virtue is explained as,

[…] what makes one a member of the community. Everyone has some virtue, and he has got it through teaching which started in babyhood and continues throughout life. To ask who are the teachers of it is like asking who has taught you to speak your native language.

This implies that virtue is an innate social skill akin to Victor Turner’s use of communitas. It is a type of social intelligence derived from naturally occurring social bonds. This however, is a more complex theory. Though virtue is learned, it seems that the capacity for it is innate, and that the capacity for an individual’s virtue differs in proportion to that of others. Socrates appears to be of the opinion that virtue cannot be taught past its natural capacity and states this to Protagoras. However when Meno asks Socrates how virtue is acquired, whether by instruction or in some other way, Socrates replies that he cannot answer, because he does not yet know what it is, saying that “The fact is that far from knowing whether it can be taught, I have no idea what virtue itself is.” Whilst virtue is a characteristic, it is obtusely resistant to definition, dwelling on a plateau of unique abstraction, even for Socrates. Protogoras points out that even great statesmen are sometimes unable to pass on their virtue to their sons, so it also decided that virtue cannot be fully hereditary. Virtue therefore begins to take on a metaphysical existence, with Socrates concluding that it must be a kind of intuition or a type of wisdom, saying that it simply comes to a man “by divine inspiration without taking thought.” Socrates then proceeds to elaborate further:

If then virtue is an attribute of the spirit, and one which cannot fail to be beneficial, it must be wisdom; for all spiritual qualities in and by themselves are neither advantageous or harmful by the presence with them of wisdom or folly. If we accept this argument, then virtue, to be something advantageous, must be a sort of wisdom.

According to Socrates areté is both a virtue and a form of wisdom. One can therefore conclude that the form of aristocracy he advocated is based on excellence in wisdom and in virtue, with exemplary morality functioning as the observable evidence of the right to govern. Socratic aristocracy is therefore ‘ethical politics’. The idea put forward is that democratic political science presupposes that there are no formal qualifications for government. For all other occupations one is trained to gain employment—but for government there is no training and no certified accreditation—Socrates therefore concludes that subconsciously it is thought that the skills required for politics cannot be formally taught, as he outlines below.

Now when we meet in the Assembly, then if the state is faced with some building project, I observe that the architects are sent for and consulted about the proposed structures, and when it is a matter of shipbuilding, the naval designers, and so on with everything which the Assembly regards as a subject for learning and teaching. If anyone else tries to give advice, whom they do not consider an expert, however handsome or wealthy or nobly-born he may be, it makes no difference: the members reject him noisily and with contempt, until either he is shouted down and desists, or else he is dragged off or ejected by the police on the orders of the presiding magistrate. […] But when it is something to do with the country that is to be debated, the man who gets up to advise them may be a builder or equally well a blacksmith or a shoemaker, merchant or shipowner, rich or poor, of good family or none. No one brings it up against any of these, as against those I have just mentioned, that here is a man who without any technical qualifications, unable to point to anybody as his teacher, is yet trying to give advice. The reason must be that they do not think this is a subject that can be taught.

Therefore the ultimate conclusion of Socrates is that the types of specialized knowledge that cannot be taught are wisdom and virtue, and that these are the two most important qualities for a potential leader. The ideal leader therefore is one who is skilled in both: a philosopher. Socrates therefore offered a third way between aristocratic and democratic politics as his Athenian audience understood them. Essentially this is the practical dimension of Plato’s philosopher-kings, or what Micheal S. Kochin calls “academic politics.” According to this view politics is a game of flattery and propaganda “not an activity suitable for refined, ‘beautiful people’, or for real men.” One must also understand philosophy in this context relates to a highly educated group, the top intellectuals of Athens. The reign of ‘philosopher-kings’ does not necessarily imply philosophy as we understand it today, but all the academic disciplines—the sciences as well as the arts and humanities. According to Socrates the philosophers (and/or intellectuals) must be compelled to govern, and his alternative to democracy is an aristocracy based on intelligence, wisdom, and education rather than wealth or birth right. This is best described by Plato with the ship-of-state metaphor:

Imagine the following situation on a fleet of ships, or on a single ship. The owner has the edge over everyone else on board by virtue of his strength, but he’s rather deaf and short-sighted, and his knowledge of naval matters is just as limited. The sailors wrangle with one another because each of them thinks that he ought to be the captain, despite the fact that he’s never learnt how. They’re forever crowding closely around the owner, pleading with him to entrust the helm to him. They think highly of anyone who contributes towards their gaining power by showing skill at winning over or subduing the owner, and describe him as an accomplished seaman, a true captain, a naval expert; but they criticize anyone different as useless. They completely fail to understand that any genuine sea-captain has to study the yearly cycle, the seasons, the heavens, the stars and winds, and everything relevant to the job, is he’s to be properly equipped to hold a position of authority in a ship. In fact they think it’s impossible to study and acquire expertise at how to steer a ship or be a good captain. When this is what happens on board ships, don’t you think that the crew of such ships would regard any true captain as nothing but a windbag with his head in the clouds, of no use to them at all?

Only a properly skilled captain has the ability to control the ship, but spurred on by belief in absolute equality, the owner is challenged, not by those who can do the task better, but because each individual believes they have equal rights to do his job. The crew fight each other for power, but none of them seek to gain the knowledge that renders them fit to control the ship. Narcissism overrides wisdom, endangering not only the owner, but the whole crew. From this point of view, democratic politicians are portrayed as a group of power hungry incompetents eager for control at any cost, but unable to fill the role of the experienced and educated leader.

As painful as the idea maybe, too much democracy paves the way for egoism, wherein everyone believes they are entitled to an equal quantity of power simply by virtue of their existence. For all other important positions there are formal requirements—not so for politics. The most important positions in the state have the least formal requirements. This is the crux of the argument presented against democracy—by leaving the arena of politics open to all and the voting open to people who do not have the correct information on hand to select the best candidate, politicians are appointed who are incompetent and possibly even damaging to the polis. The following rule of logic applies: Mediocre men produce mediocre states, bad men produce bad states, but the Socratic leader appointed because of personal excellence will produce an excellent state. The state and the government are the mirror of the man who leads.

The ideal is therefore an aristocracy composed of virtuous qualified experts and what is called ‘aristokratia’ by Socrates is really a meritocracy of mind and spirit. Socrates’ alternative to democracy is an educated and intelligent elite which bypasses the idea of ‘class’. To Socrates the successful pursuit of any occupation demanded the mastery of a particular knowledge, skill, or technique; and this was above all true of the direction of the city’s affairs, on which the happiness of the citizens necessarily depended. The principle and raison d’etre of a state is to be sought not in mediocrity but in excellence, and it is not by its average that a nation is measured but by its genius. Plato also entwines this idea with Hesiod’s myth of the metals to ascribe social roles within the state. All members are born from the earth, but with different mixtures of gold, silver, copper, and iron. In an obvious analogy to this, Plato also divides the possible systems of government into five distinct groups, “the first is a monarch, typically accompanied by an aristocracy, the second a timocracy, or an aristocracy of talent, the third an oligarchy, the fourth a democracy, and, finally, a tyranny.” As the quality of the ages decline, so to do the quality of government and individual merits of the rulers.

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