I have now explored a small portion of Plato’s Republic, and have yet to hear Socrates’ explanation of justice. All thus far is preamble, the foundation work. I am having flashbacks to my Ethics course in college, during which I was assigned to read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, a very deceptive title indeed unless by the work groundwork Kant meant the entire foundation plus the first two stories of the building.
The section of text ahead of me is something with which I already have some familiarity: the Guardians. Guardians are the protectors and enforcers of the Republic, those persons charged and burdened with the responsibility to ensure domestic stability as well as mediate extranational issues. Plato describes the rare gifts a person should possess in order to act as a Guardian, and provides great detail about lifestyle, compensation, romance.
Most interesting is the level of integrity required of these leaders. A requisite for a great leader is that the task of wielding power is not the leader’s primary desire; in fact, the great leader wishes to avoid such a burden, and takes it up with reluctance only in the absence of adequate alternatives. The great leader is motivated by a philosophy very foreign to most politicians: a concern for the welfare of a society. This concern overrides all others, even personal and financial concerns. Socrates tells us that wealth is an obstacle to public service; maintaining it and growing it is a distraction from the required work, and at worst an impediment to objectivity.
It is undeniable that what he describes is an ideal and not something that was even remotely a reality. But once again I am struck with the relevance of these writings to today’s Western world, in which corruption and destructive self-interest often seem to reign.