PLATO: Statesman

Statesman by Plato

  • One purpose of the Statesman is to define the ideal Statesman, but the main purpose is to improve the dialectical capacity of ourselves and others.
  • As teachers command their students to learn the letters that compose certain words in order that they become better spellers in general, we investigate the nature of a Statesman, and other such things, in order to become better dialecticians in general, not just to arrive at a definition of our investigation. The process is more important than the result.
  • One method of dialectics, which can assist others in understanding an abstruse concept, is to relate the concept to something that is similar and perceptible. For example, the highest truths are those that can only be grasped by the mind, but if we relate these truths to truths that can be grasped by the senses, then they become more intelligible to us. Furthermore, this practice of giving an exact account of perceptible truths improves our ability to give accounts of the higher order of truths that can only be grasped by the intellect.
  • When we desire an accurate definition of something, we begin with a general conception, and then divide that conception into similar parts, and those parts into further parts, until we arrive at the simplest definition. For example, there is the management of things. This management can be divided into the management of living things and lifeless things. The management of living things can be divided into the management of things living in water and things living on land, and so on until we reach the art of managing human beings.
  • There are two types of knowledge: theoretical and practical. Theoretical is concerned merely with recognizing the difference and similarities between things, and therefore judging them. Practical knowledge commands actions upon the basis of theoretical judgments.
  • Practical knowledge can be divided into two parts: one directs others to action, and the second directs one’s self to create something.
  • In this dialogue, one of the interlocutors also gives an account of a myth surrounding the reign of Cronus. The god directed the affairs of the universe, but after the completion of a certain cycle he relinquished his control. The universe, by necessity, began to revolve the other way. When the universe if governed by Cronus, the universe receives life and immortality. When it is not governed by Cronus, then the universe is subject to decay and death. In the cycle before our time, human life was reversed, men sprung from the ground and passed from old age to youth. There was no poverty, property, or wars. Mankind dwelt in the open air, they had no need for shelter or clothing; for the weather was mild. Essentially, the interlocutor describes the Garden of Eden. When Cronus abandoned the humans to their own devices, one immediately recognizes the similarity in the biblical story of God casting Adam and Eve out of Eden. When the new cycle began, people were generally good because the instructions of God were still impressed upon their minds, but as time passed, the impression of the commandments began to fade, and evil grew until it finally surpassed the good in the world.
  • The interlocutor criticizes the Law, stating that it is an obstinate tyrant that cannot account for the differences of individual cases, but rather attempts to lay down one general principle for all. Mankind and its actions are so complex as not to admit for any universal and simple rule. It is far better to have a wise man rule than the Law.
  • The following is a brief outline of the work provided by the translator of my text: “(1) By a process of division and subdivision we discover the true herdsman or king of men. But before we can rightly distinguish him from his rivals, we must view him, (2) as he is presented to us in a famous ancient tale: the tale will also enable us to distinguish the divine from the human herdsman or shepherd: (3) and besides our fable, we must have an example; for our example we will select the art of weaving, which will have to be distinguished from the kindred arts; and then, following this pattern, we will separate the king from his subordinates or competitors. (4) But are we not exceeding all due limits; and is there not a measure of all arts and sciences, to which the art of discourse must conform? There is; but before we can apply this measure, we must know what is the aim of discourse: and our discourse only aims at the dialectical improvement of ourselves and others.—Having made our apology, we return once more to the king or statesman, and proceed to contrast him with pretenders in the same line with him, under their various forms of government. (5) His characteristic is, that he alone has science, which is superior to law and written enactments; these do but spring out of the necessities of mankind, when they are in despair of finding the true king. (6) The sciences which are most akin to the royal are the sciences of the general, the judge, the orator, which minister to him, but even these are subordinate to him. (7) Fixed principles are implanted by education, and the king or statesman completes the political web by marrying together dissimilar natures, the courageous and the temperate, the bold and the gentle, who are the warp and the woof of society.”


“There is a time when God himself guides and helps to roll the world in its course; and there is a time, on the completion of a certain cycle, when he lets go, and the world being a living creature, and having originally received intelligence from its author and creator, turns about and by an inherent necessity revolves in the opposite direction.”


“Deprived of the care of God, who had possessed and tended them, they were left helpless and defenceless, and were torn in pieces by the beasts, who were naturally fierce and had now grown wild. And in the first ages they were still without skill or resource; the food which once grew spontaneously had failed, and as yet they knew not how to procure it, because they had never felt the pressure of necessity. For all these reasons they were in a great strait; wherefore also the gifts spoken of in the old tradition were imparted to man by the gods, together with so much teaching and education as was indispensable; fire was given to them by Prometheus.”


“The sun and the stars once rose in the west, and set in the east, and that the god reversed their motion.”


“The best thing of all is not that the law should rule, but that a man should rule supposing him to have wisdom and royal power because the law does not perfectly comprehend what is noblest and most just for all and therefore cannot enforce what is best. The differences of men and actions, and the endless irregular movements of human things, do not admit of any universal and simple rule. And no art whatsoever can lay down a rule which will last for all time. But the law is always striving to make one;—like an obstinate and ignorant tyrant, who will not allow anything to be done contrary to his appointment, or any question to be asked—not even in sudden changes of circumstances, when something happens to be better than what he commanded for some one.”


This dialogue is not primarily concerned with providing a definition of the ideal Statesman, but rather is concerned with the dialectical method, and what exercises one can do in order to improve his or her dialectical capacity. The act of dividing general concepts into ever more particular concepts is such an exercise. For example, there is the general concept of the universe which is composed of inanimate and living things. One can further divide both of these parts, and the subsequent parts, and so on ad infinitum.


Besides this focus on the dialectical method, one of the interlocutors relates an ancient myth about the reign of Cronus. The myth tells of how the universe experiences cycles. During one particular cycle, the universe is governed by the gods; the sun rises in the west and sets in the east; men are born from the earth and age backwards; the weather is mild and man has no wants; there is no war or death; it is a utopia. However, after this cycle ends, a new one begins in which the universe begins to revolve in the exact opposite direction since the gods have abandoned the government of it. Evil and death enter the world by degrees until destruction and vice surpass the good in the world. This myth has obvious similarities to the story of the Biblical Fall. Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden; they are essentially removed from the protection and government of God, and exposed to the evil and corruption of the world. Their fall from innocence causes other evils, such as the first murder, which causes further evils until the good left in the world is insignificant compared to the atrocities that occur. I am delighted when I anticipate reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. The story seems to be one that is universal and applicable in all circumstances.


The myth also has similarities to the notion of eternal recurrence, made famous by Nietzsche. If the universe experiences cycles in which time moves forward, and then backwards, and then forward again, then one might suppose that one will have to live this life over again. Nietzsche did not mean for his idea of eternal recurrence to be accepted as an accurate explanation of reality, but rather as a way to determine if the life one is currently living is worthy of living again. If it is, then one ought to persist in one’s manner of living; if one discovers that they do not wish to live their life over again, then changes ought to be made.

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