Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Manifesto pledges, arguments, debates: but do any of them discuss the real issue at hand - what makes for good government?

Socrates had strong views on the subject.

In his dialogue Gorgias, Plato puts Socrates head-to-head with Callicles, who proclaims the gospel that might is right, and that by effective use of rhetoric a politician can rise above the common herd and get whatever he wants. Socrates was talking in the context of a radical, direct democracy, where all decisions about the running of Athens were taken by male citizens over 18 meeting in Assembly; and he demolishes Callicles' position by pointing out that he will achieve his ends only by sucking up to the people so that they give in to him. But, Socrates wants to know, is that what leaders of the people are actually for? He now uses analogies from everyday life (e. g. doctors are there to use their knowledge to make you healthy) to get a reluctant Callicles to agree that the job of the leader was to use his knowledge to ensure that citizens made decisions based not on self-interest but on a strong sense of justice, guided by self-discipline.

In other words, it is only if leaders make citizens better people morally that citizens stand any chance of making the just, moral decisions that will best serve the state and therefore themselves, resulting inevitably in self-fulfilment and happiness for all. …

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