The Republic

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Philosopher-King Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Education Theme Icon
Justice Theme Icon
Specialization Theme Icon
Philosopher-King Theme Icon
Soul Theme Icon
Truth Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Republic, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Philosopher-King Theme Icon

Since only a philosopher can truly know the Forms, the ideal abstracts of objects and ideas, only the philosopher has true knowledge. All other knowledge is based on the physical and impermanent. For instance, we can see particular beauty in the physical world, but it is subject to change. The ideal Form of Beauty, in the world of Ideas, is abstract and never changes. The philosopher, because he understands the Forms, understands truth and true knowledge. The philosopher-king, since he has knowledge of the Forms, and he understands how to rule, is best suited to lead.

Philosopher-King ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Philosopher-King appears in each section of The Republic. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Philosopher-King Quotes in The Republic

Below you will find the important quotes in The Republic related to the theme of Philosopher-King.
Book 5 Quotes
And he who, having a sense of beautiful things has no sense of absolute beauty, or who, if another lead him to a knowledge of that beauty is unable to follow—of such an one I ask, Is he awake or in a dream only? Reflect: is not the dreamer, sleeping or waking, one who likens dissimilar things, who puts the copy in the place of the real object?
Related Characters: Socrates (speaker)
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

While outlining the concept of the philosopher king, Socrates distinguishes between those who love individual beautiful objects and the abstract idea of beauty. He says that people who equate the two are making a fundamental mistake.

The difference between examples and essential forms is one of the most important features of Socrates and Plato’s philosophies. In this model, objects in the human world are only imperfect examples or instances of ideal qualities that exist purely in a world of forms. To believe only “in beautiful things,” then, would be to only comprehend the examples existing in the human world and to lack “knowledge” of the more important dimension of the forms. As a result, one jumbles “a likeliness” with “the thing itself.” Socrates brings up this point to define a hierarchy of humans, in which some can better perceive the forms; thus he makes use of his philosophical model in order to further the social model that sanctions better privileges for the ruling class, made up of those who can perceive the forms.

To make this point, Socrates uses the metaphor of a dream, an analogical device that recurs often in his philosophy. The dreaming world, by this account, is the physical human one, whereas the “wakened state” would grant one access to the ideal forms or essences. This has nothing to do with whether one is actually asleep or awake, as both states can leave one stuck in the world of likenesses. But the metaphor allows Socrates to articulate the way that two forms of perception may co-mingle, one of which is less accurate than the other.

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Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils—no, nor the human race, as I believe—and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.
Related Characters: Socrates (speaker)
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

When asked about the feasibility of his ideal city, Socrates claims that it depends on the identities of the rulers. To successfully create this society, there must exist a class of philosopher kings.

Two directions are possible to lead to the development of this class: either, Socrates explains, philosophers may take on the roles of rulers, or the current rulers must immerse themselves in the study and life of a philosopher. Both roles are significant in their own ways. A king holds “political greatness” while a philosopher holds “wisdom,” but only in their fusion are they truly competent. Pursued alone, each end reflects only the “commoner natures.” Thus Socrates’ model of political rule returns once more to the question of balance, here between intellect and political control. The proper relationship between these two things, he believes, can be found in the role of the philosopher king, who in his inherently just nature will bring a city into a similarly just existence.

Much has been written and debated about the efficacy of Socrates’ rulership model, and a few of the criticisms of it are worth pointing out here. For instance, why must a ruler necessarily be intellectual or philosophical? Other qualities like charisma and diplomacy are perhaps more essential—while intellectual questions could be left to a team of specialized advisors. Or consider, for instance, that the just nature of a ruler may not necessarily lead to a just society: Socrates tends to a assume a one-to-one relationship between internal identity and external results, but a ruler must navigate complex social systems and bureaucracies. These endeavors may take skills like cunning and compromise not attributed to the philosopher king. Finally, we should note that Socrates chooses to elevate his own profession over those of all other citizens. Though he argues that this is a just practice that will benefit all, it also smacks of self-aggrandizement and power-seeking. Thus while his model may be appealing, the merits of its idealism should be treated with skepticism.

Book 6 Quotes
But that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else be longs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not—the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? W ill he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?
Related Characters: Socrates (speaker)
Page Number: 153-154
Explanation and Analysis:

Adeimantus challenges Socrates on how much philosophers actually benefit society. Socrates responds that this criticism only reflects the flawed viewpoint of that society, rather than any issue with philosophers themselves.

His argument makes use of yet another well-composed allegory. Here, a society is a ship and its ruler a captain or pilot, in which case the philosopher king would be a “true pilot.” Socrates explains that while an ordinary captain is overly attentive to the voices around him and does not pay sufficient attention to environmental factors, a “true pilot” observes all the forces surrounding the ship as well. He considers his “steerer's art” not just to be the narrow question of naval mobility, but rather a process that demands constant and careful attention to “the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds.” This is an analogy for how the philosopher king must be deeply concerned with knowledge in and of itself—carefully understanding the natural and human worlds before proceeding in his undertakings.

The crux of this metaphor is that external, normal observers would likely consider this “true pilot” to be mad for investing too much of his time in learning knowledge that seems unrelated to the actual job of piloting. The pilot would seem overly distracted by the natural world and insufficiently attentive to the desires of the ship’s inhabitants. Yet Socrates believes this behavior is precisely what is required by a just ruler: the ability to stand apart from the crowd and attune one’s thoughts more directly to rational reality. Socrates thus brilliantly turns Adeimantus’ criticism on its head—considering the unconventional views of philosophers not only acceptable, but also the very grounds for their merit.

Book 7 Quotes
But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
Related Characters: Socrates (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Sun
Page Number: 179-180
Explanation and Analysis:

Education, Socrates explains, is essential to develop the sensibilities of the philosopher king. He explains that Truth must be illuminated through education, just as physical objects are lit by the sun.

Despite finding rigor and structure to be necessary in education, Socrates argues that truth will be essentially self-evident when revealed to someone. To substantiate this point, he uses the metaphor of light shining onto physical objects: those objects are entirely obscure at first, but as soon as they are revealed, no question remains of their existence. The phenomenon of light therefore allows Socrates to articulate how something could be both obvious and obscured—and thus corroborates the critical role of education. For while a philosopher king may have a set of naturally just qualities within himself, these characteristics will not be able to manifest without the proper education.

Socrates also implies that there is a normative weight to any truth once it is glimpsed. Put another way, when someone comes into contact with what is “beautiful and right,” he will not be able to deny its efficacy and must conform his behavior to it. Other models of knowledge would argue that truth is more or less appealing based on one’s character or on the way in which one experiences it, but Socrates believes that truth carries an inherent significance that will be felt no matter how it is perceived.

Book 9 Quotes
But now that he is under the dominion of Love, he becomes always and in waking reality what he was then very rarely and in a dream only.
Related Characters: Socrates (speaker)
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

While delineating between different forms of flawed governments, Socrates describes the character of the tyrant. He explains how passions such as love occlude the vision and mental acuity of a tyrant.

Socrates returns to the metaphor of dreams and sleep in order to draw clear lines between relative states of awareness. He believes that erotic love causes one’s perceptions to warp as they normally would while asleep. They become increasingly distant from the world of forms and are only able to invest in or connect with the superficial occurrences of the perceivable world.

More broadly, this condemnation of the “dominion of love” speaks to the way that Socrates demands that one resist his appetites and adopt a stoic relationship to the world. Denying the value of pleasure, Socrates contends that the passions prevent one from behaving rationally and justly: they cause one to focus on illusory and temporary desires instead of more significant questions of justice. As a result, they are associated with tyranny, for the tyrant will similarly seek only to further his own pleasure. A just society, therefore, must be ordered by those who are emancipated from personal pleasure and who will therefore be motivated by rational thought rather than narrow desires.