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30 November 2013
“I had much the same experience as many other young men. I expected, when I came of age, to go into politics. The political situation gave me an opportunity. The existing constitution, which was subject to widespread criticism, was overthrown…and a Committee of Thirty given supreme power. As it happened some of them were friends and relations of mine and they at once invited me to join them, as if it were the natural thing for me to do. My feelings were what were to be expected in a young man: I thought they were going to reform society and rule justly, and so I watched their proceedings with deep interest. I found that they soon made the earlier regime look like a golden age. Among other things they tried to incriminate my old friend Socrates, whom I should not hesitate to call the most upright man then living……When I saw all this, and other things as bad, I was disgusted and drew back from the wickedness of the times.
Not long after that the Thirty fell, and the constitution was changed. And again, though less keenly, I felt the desire to enter politics…Unfortunately, however, some of those in power brought my friend Socrates to trial on a monstrous charge, the last that could be made against him, the charge of impiety; and he was condemned and executed.
When I considered all this, the more closely I studied the politicians and the laws and customs of the day, and the older I grew, the more difficult it seemed to me to govern rightly. Nothing could be done without trustworthy friends and supporters; and these were not easy to come by in an age which had abandoned its traditional moral code but found it impossibly difficult to create a new one. At the same time law and morality were deteriorating at an alarming rate, with the result that though I had been full of eagerness for a political career, the sight of all this chaos made me giddy, and though I never stopped thinking how things might be improved and the constitution reformed, I postponed action, waiting for a favourable opportunity. Finally I came to the conclusion that all existing states were badly governed, and that their constitutions were incapable of reform without drastic treatment and a great deal of good luck. I was forced, in fact, to the belief that the only hope of finding justice for society or for the individual lay in true philosophy, and that mankind will have no respite from trouble until either real philosophers gain political power or politicians become by some miracle true philosophers.”
Excerpt from the Seventh Letter of the ancient Athenian philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) written when Plato was an old man looking back to his mid-twenties. The Committee of Thirty took power in Athens in 404 BC but were overthrown the next year when democracy was restored. It was under the democrats that Plato’s mentor, the Athenian philosopher Socrates (469-399 BC), was condemned to death.
[The translation from Plato’s Seventh Letter can be found on pages 14 and 16 of Desmond Lee’s introduction to his second (revised) version of Plato’s “Republic” published by Penguin Books in 1974.]
If, nearly 2 500 years later, it all sounds too familiar, that’s because it is. Plus ça change….‘ο ἄνθρωπος πολιτικὸς has not learned much in the intervening two and a half millennia.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
4. Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
5.Ladder (21 June 2012)
6. A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
7. A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.