The Nature of a Philosopher

This question arises in Plato’s Republic, when Adeimantus holds forth that philosophers are vicious people. Plato counterargues with his simile of the wild and dangerous animal. I do not personally find it very persuasive.

Plato differentiates between two arguments against the claim of ‘viciousness’: the first, that fundamentally philosophical minds are easily corrupted, both because of these qualities, and because of the public’s influence; the second, that philosophy is decidedly different from sophistry, which could illicit the accusation of viciousness, as sophists teach falsely regarded by the people as great teachers.

The first argument Plato poses states that philosophers are lovers of truth and thus must hate falsehood; furthermore, due to their dogged pursuit of truth, Socrates states that a natural conclusion to arrive at is that philosophers must have all the other aspects of a ‘good’ person: a ‘just, sound character and self-discipline’, ‘courage, greatness of mind, quickness to learn and a good memory’. I agree that, based upon Plato’s definition of a philosopher embodying all those beneficial qualities of courage, justice, ability to learn, and memory, a person who has one good trait often has others which are connected in some way, such as their speed of learning and considerable memory.

However, his premises do not lead logically to his conclusion; for example, a person who pursues truth does not necessarily hate falsehood, and in fact, if they are a superiorly minded human such as a true philosopher, the person should be able to acknowledge falsehoods in order to fully understand and evaluate a situation. He also uses a simile of a flourishing plant to illustrate his point of the pressure society would inevitably place on a philosopher, and that the philosopher would be greater affected than an ordinary person. Similarly, in his simile of the plant, there is a lack of logic. If the plant is truly extremely robust, any change to its environment should not deal a harsher blow to it than to a weaker plant; even if the person is indifferent, they would not be in a more advantageous situation than the good, as, while the bad environment may not cause harm to or a significant impact on the indifferent, the same environment should not change the good if that is their true character.

Finally, Plato also states that philosophers could be very visible to the people and thus liable to being challenged. However, in the simile of the ship, where he addressed the issue of a philosopher’s uselessness, he describes philosophers as often being overlooked and completely blindsided by the public. This seems to contradict his later point about their being the focus of attention in a crowd due to their natural gifts.

The second argument brings forth the actual simile of the wild and dangerous animal which represents the citizens, and the animal tamer, representing a sophist, often mistaken for a philosopher by the people. Socrates states that this type of man would analyse the behaviours the animal exhibits: ‘a man…made a study of its moods and wants; he would learn when to approach and handle it, when and why it was especially savage or gentle, what different noises it made meant, and what tone of voice…’, becoming skilled at techne, a talent at superficial analysis of the animal, and not grasping logos, true rational thought. This type of man would be a sophist, as he differs from a philosopher in that he does not consider the fundamental nature of the creature, and questions not the true meaning of right and wrong of the creature’s actions; therefore, Plato concludes that he cannot rule in the best interest for the animal.

One could argue that this is an inhumane and narrow-minded comparison, actually failing to consider the best for society if Plato diminishes them to a beast – an object to be observed and dealt with regardless of human emotion; it raises questions about whether or not philosophers should be allowed the responsibility of ruling if they view humanity so, something popularised by paternalism and J.S. Mill’s concept of freedom. I personally do not find it such an issue as it is simply an analogy, and if one considers the emotions of all humans within a society, it would be impossible to make decisive choices.

Additionally, a sizeable community of people will always require a governing body and legislation; if we acknowledge the fact that one individual can only have had one lived experience, be it social or economic, there can never be a single, optimum person that can responsibly pass laws with completely accuracy as to what is best for society.

This also raises the question of the ‘responsive leader’ and ‘resolute leader’, where the former is malleable and the latter would adhere to the path already set, and populism in a democracy. The sophist would be more responsive to the public’s voice as their purpose is to gain popularity and satisfy the people’s desires; in a democracy, this is one of the main problems: as each representative politician is voted for by the people, very rarely do we see high-ranking officials who have only ever expressed what is good for the people since they must gain popularity to be voted for – thus, one must fulfil what people personally desire.

In conclusion, I believe that the simile of a wild and dangerous animal is not effective at providing a counterargument of Adeimantus’ accusation of philosophers’ viciousness. The first part of Socrates’ argument says that, as a prerequisite, the philosopher has all the ‘good’ qualities: thus, why he is labelled a philosopher. These same qualities make him susceptible to public influence; he is further in danger of this because the qualities he possesses make him very visible to society, which in turn opens him up to being ‘carried away with the stream’. However, this seems to be a contradiction as the very existence of a philosopher, for Plato, is a figure close to mental perfection, yet if they are so easily swayed by the regular people then surely, they do not deserve to be entitled ‘philosopher’. Plato seems to present some illogical arguments: that an individual who possesses a love of truth would also hate falsehood and possess all other ‘good’ traits. The second, his simile of the wild and dangerous animal, which is to the beast tamer as the citizens are to the sophist, distinguishes between philosophy and sophistry, for the latter is the field, often confused with the former, that may be vicious. His analogy brings into question the right of leaders to pass legislation on behalf of the citizens (J.S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’) and the contrast between sophistry and philosophy when it comes to the type of leader and role in democracy. I believe that his comparisons are indeed accurate, but do not resolve the issue of a philosopher’s viciousness. In society, a sophist would probably be regarded as superior, using Plato’s reasoning, as the public would be more favourable towards their pandering, so the people are not confusing sophistry and philosophy, and we are still left with the question of a philosopher’s viciousness.

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