a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Confucius’s Mistake, and Plato’s

This year I decided to put some Chinese philosophy on our curriculum, and I’ve been enjoying getting to know that tradition. But there’s something frustrating about classical Chinese political philosophy. It’s the same thing I find so irritating about Plato.

The wisest should rule. This is the core of Plato’s political philosophy. It’s an idea shared by Confucius and indeed most of the classical Chinese tradition. But I think it’s largely meaningless.

The ancient philosophical beard: who wore it better?

Plato presents rule by the wise as the answer to a question of constitutional theory. Who should rule? Ancient Greek thought gives a menu of options such as:

  • (a) the people;
  • (b) the wealthy;
  • (c) a hereditary monarch.

Plato wants to add another option:

  • (d) the wise.

But this option isn’t on the same level as the previous three. Options (a-c) imply concrete procedures: rules about drawing lots, holding elections, property qualifications, the line of succession etc. But how would one go about implementing (d)? Contemporary “epistocrats” bite this bullet and start talking about making voting rights conditional on passing political science exams. But Plato has no interest in thinking about how one would actually institutionalise rule-by-the-wise in a way that would distinguish it from other constitutions. He simply takes it for granted that his philosophy is correct and that those who know it should rule.

This shows an extraordinary lack of epistemic humility. But it’s also blind to the nature of politics, which is about making decisions in the face of disagreement. Procedures like the line of succession or rules for drawing lots are needed in order to resolve disagreement. Plato just assumes disagreement away; in the process, he assumes politics away. It’s a massive error. At best, we can read “the wise should rule” as stating an instrumental attitude to politics: the point is to make good decisions rather than (say) express good values. To my mind, this is a prime case of someone acquiring an undeserved reputation for brilliance simply because they came first; just one generation later, Aristotle is already much more sophisticated.

As you can probably tell, I am not a big fan of the founder of our discipline. So you can imagine I found it frustrating to encounter seemingly similar mistakes in classical Chinese philosophy. However, I think Confucius’s error is more forgivable. I think Plato does present himself as offering a constitutional theory. But while Confucians think the wise should rule, it’s not a comparative judgement between alternative constitutions. Instead, they take it for granted that the political system will be hierarchical. This makes sense given that historically there was never anything but monarchy in ancient China, whereas the ancient Greeks had first-hand experience of democracy and oligarchy. Confucius’s characteristic way of presenting this theme is negative rather than positive: where the ruler is not wise, The Way will not prevail in the land. The project of Confucius and his successors is not about making good men great, but about making great men good: it’s about educating those who rule rather than selecting them.

Consequently, just like Plato, Confucius (and I think the whole classical Chinese tradition) has no real constitutional theory. What they do have are very interesting theories of political ethics, and I’ve found the four-cornered debate between Confucians, Mohists, Daoists and Legalists about how to rule fascinating.

Sometimes people say authoritarianism is a deep part of the Chinese tradition. However, at least when it comes to the philosophers of the classical period, I have yet to find any arguments for autocracy. Not because they’re democrats; it’s just not on the agenda. And the idea of rule by the wise should not be seen as contradicting that.

I am a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I have worked on the justification of democracy, the relationship between democracy and the market, and the political theory of business corporations.


Listening to executive dysfunction


Visions of desirable futures for Iran after the Mahsa revolution

1 Comment

  1. Adam

    In Plato’s defence you could take his theory of the forms as an indication that he was never all that interested in the brass tacks of systems of government I imagine from his perspective a lot of that was shadow puppetry. I always liked to think of Plato’s political philosophy as the farthest point you could reach away from Machiavelli who was literally writing a guide how to win the game in city states of Italy.

    I think his dedication to ideals probably makes his work more ethereal and less effected by the ravages of time of something bound in time and place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén