Leadership in crisis – why the West needs Plato more than ever

The Victorians saw Plato's Republic as an indispensable guide to reform of the public sphere - we should follow their lead.

Cave of Plato, Jan Saenredam, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, 1604.
Cave of Plato, Jan Saenredam, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, 1604. (Photoby Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Benjamin Disraeli, speaking in the House of Commons in 1872, said of then Prime Minister William Gladstone’s Cabinet: ‘Behold, a range of extinct volcanoes; not a flame flickers upon a single pallid crest.’ ‘Extinct volcanoes’ would be far too generous a phrase to describe the current crop of Western leaders – if political regimes could be said to decay from the head downwards, then we are in some trouble. The political scientist Wilfred Pareto said that leaders can be divided into two types – lions who are distinguished by their machismo and foxes who are distinguished by their intelligence. In world politics, the lions are on the rampage because the foxes have abandoned the public weal.

In America, the proportion of people who say that they trust government has fallen from about three-quarters in the early 1960s to less than a third today. Across the rest of the West, opinion is moving in the same direction if not quite as sharply. Governance has emerged as a central feature of the Covid-19 crisis: we have learnt that good government can make all the difference between living and dying. One problem with poor government is that it is self-sustaining. The lower government falls in public esteem the more likely it is that able people will shun it. And the more able people shun it the more government becomes a butt of jokes, even the object of outright contempt.

The problem of good government and leadership is nothing new. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, England’s political system was known as ‘Old Corruption’ because it was so self-serving. An entrenched elite treated the state as a source of jobs and benefits. The state was so disconnected from the forces of industry and commerce that were transforming society that many liberals wanted to reduce government to a night-watchman. These tensions are never far away from the contemporary scene. Modern politicians routinely take up lucrative jobs in the private sector when they leave office – often working for the industries that they once regulated. Indeed, ‘reciprocal nepotism’ is now so commonplace on Capitol Hill, with members of Congress giving jobs to the children of friends in return for their friends giving jobs to their children, that Melanie Sloan, of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, comments: ‘Members of Congress basically are profit centres for their entire families’.

How did the Victorians shake themselves out of this cycle of decline? A cohort of reforming politicians and educators realised that a successful commercial society required a successful modern state. They suggested a solution: a collective immersion in the wisdom of Plato. They set about revitalising the patronage-ridden civil service and educational world by opening opportunities and jobs to competition. They treated Plato’s Republic as a near deified talisman against the twin evils of self-indulgence and short-termism. In the present day, this spirit requires us to set down self-help guides and leadership manuals in favour of the same text that inspired the Victorians. Not only does Plato provide a comprehensive explanation of why a republic needs a leadership class, he also provides a guide to producing one.

The great philosopher’s starting point is that government matters. A republic is rather like a ship at sea, he says. Whether the ship can survive the ever-changing hazards that confront us – storms, pirates, jagged rocks – depends on the quality of the ship’s leadership. If the ship is well run, then at least it has a chance; if it is badly run, then it will flounder and everybody aboard will drown. What does being ‘well-run’ mean? Plato asks a simple question: should we give the job of steering the ship safely to the members of the crew at large, when they can’t agree on where they’re headed and most of them don’t know the rudiments of navigation? Or should we give it to a captain who has spent his entire life studying ‘the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and other professional subjects’?

The metaphor of the ship is a way of driving home Plato’s wider point about the importance of ‘guardians’. Plato argues that a successful republic is run by a class of people whose job it is to think about the long-term success of the polis. What threats are there on the horizon? What trade-offs do we need to make in order to ensure success? How might we be scuppered by known unknowns and unknown unknowns? Despite being an aristocrat, Plato argued that potential guardians – or men of gold as he described them – might occur in every class of society – and indeed might be women as well as men. If they are to escape decay, successful societies have to re-allocate leadership positions in each generation. The second job is to train the guardians through a prolonged education that involves not just academic education but also character-training designed to ensure that guardians put the public good above private interests. Morality is arguably even more important than intellect because the leaders possess so much power over everybody’s lives: if they are corrupt they will not only lead the country in the wrong direction – from the light to the darkness in Plato’s view – but will also set a model of corruption that the rest of society will only too happily follow.

If a society run by educated guardians is the best sort of society, in Plato’s view, a society run by the masses is the worst. Plato conceded that democracy is in many ways the most attractive form of society, because it combines the maximum of opportunity for the regular citizen with the maximum of freedom. But these attractions are purely superficial – democracy is like a ‘coat of many colours’, he says, that looks good when you see it in the market but turns out to be threadbare after you’ve worn it a couple of times. Voters invariably favour the short-term over the long-term and the exciting over the wise. And they are usually drawn towards bad leaders – demagogues who can weave wonderful fantasies about the state’s future but are really nothing more than charlatans, lying their way to power or buying votes with other people’s money. Plato was particularly scathing about aristocrat-demagogues who enjoy the advantage of the best education that money can buy but nevertheless prefer to pander to the mob rather than to guide it to the light.

Democracy’s fetishisation of freedom inevitably gives way to anarchy. Fathers pander to their sons, teachers to their pupils, humans to animals, and ‘the minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable’. Anarchy produces class struggle, as the poor attack the rich and the rich retaliate; class struggle produces war and disorder. When all this becomes intolerable the masses will turn to a dictator who can restore order.

If tyrants are the unavoidable consequence of democracy, they are also the antithesis of philosopher kings. They regard power as an end in itself rather than a means to an end, and they are governed by their passions rather than their reason. Thus the paradox at the heart of tyranny: even though tyrants have absolute power over other people, they have no power over themselves. Slaves to their own passions – ‘ill-governed’ in their own souls as Plato puts it – they use their positions to inflict those passions on the entire population. A tyranny is a psycho-drama in which everyone is caught up in the tyrant’s raging ego.

Many of Plato’s suggestions for producing successful guardians strike us today as at the minimum bizarre. He believed that the guardians should be banned from getting married or owning private property in order to focus their minds on the common good. He was so keen on producing the best guardians that he advocated eugenic breeding programmes (guardians would be compensated for not getting marred by being allowed to participate in regular orgies with women selected for their brains and beauty). But even if he was far-fetched in his solutions, he was right in the problems that he identified. Guardians will cease to be guardians if they put themselves and their families among the public good, degrading public offices and turning the people against them.

William Gladstone, the greatest liberal reformer of the nineteenth century, believed that, if the seventeenth century was the age of the rule of prerogative, and the eighteenth century one of rule by patronage, the nineteenth century should be ruled by virtue, and Plato was to be the new age’s guiding force.

Gladstone was so fluent in Classical Greek that, in 1858, he gave a speech to the inhabitants of the Ionian Islands (a British protectorate) in the language. Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby and the greatest school reformer of his age, adopted many of Plato’s signature ideas: that education was as much about shaping character as shaping intellect; that group loyalty should trump individual self-expression; and that physical education was as important as book learning. The two most influential civil servants of the age, Charles Trevelyan and Cyril Northcote, abolished patronage in the civil service and introduced open competition in order specifically to promote the rule of a Platonic ‘natural aristocracy’.

Benjamin Jowett, the master of Balliol from 1870 until his death in 1893, devoted his life to two great projects: producing a definitive edition of Plato and turning his college into a production line for Platonic guardians. Though he failed at his first task – his edition of The Republic was only completed after his death by his friend and biographer Lewis Campbell – he succeeded spectacularly at the second. Balliol became the leading educational institution in the empire. Jowett’s pupils included Lord Curzon, a future viceroy of India, Lord Grey, a future foreign secretary, Herbert Asquith, a future prime minister, Cosmo Gordon Lang, a future archbishop of Canterbury and Charles Gore, a future bishop, many of whom remained loyal to the cult of Plato for their whole lives. Florence Nightingale, who was one of Jowett’s closest friends, wrote to ask him if a young soldier she had met in the Crimea was one of his pupils: ‘He talks to his men about Plato and tells them they don’t do what Plato would have them do, and don’t realize Plato’s ideal of what soldiers ought to be.’

The Plato cult intensified as the franchise was extended in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sweeping up socialists as well as conservatives and working-class autodidacts as well as public school products. H.G. Wells wrote several novels about utopias run by Platonic guardians. A.D. Lindsay, master of Balliol from 1924-1949 and a staunch supporter of the Labour Party, preserved some of Jowett’s spirit, producing a popular Everyman edition of The Republic and lecturing to Worker’s Education Association classes on the philosopher.

America’s East Coast establishment also followed Britain’s lead. Educational institutions such as Groton and Yale put both Plato and Christianity at the heart of their syllabus. Members of the elite trained to take over from Britain as the world’s leading power by studying the philosopher. McGeorge Bundy, who was appointed dean of Harvard at thirty-four and went on to be national security advisor to both Kennedy and Johnson, chose The Republic as his subject of study when he was elected to a junior fellowship by the Harvard Society of Fellows. According to a friend, he ‘saw himself as one of the guardians, the chosen elite’.

There was a certain amount of priggishness in the cult of Plato. But it nevertheless produced an elite that was remarkably public spirited by today’s standards: too dignified to put its fingers in the cookie jar and too well-educated to be blown hither and thither by the latest intellectual fads. The old elite didn’t hog publicity for the sake of publicity – most of them were happy to work in the background without any public credit – and they wouldn’t dream of piling up vast private fortunes. This was a world of modest but tasteful cottages in the country, not swanky apartments in Belgravia or Manhattan. Dignified public service was its own reward.

The Plato cult eventually ran out of momentum when critics such as Richard Crossman, in Plato Today (1937), and Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, the entire first volume of which was devoted to Plato, argued that Plato was an antiquated and dangerous figure. Plato, of course, viewed democracy with outright hostility (though it must be remembered that in Plato’s Athens ‘democracy’ didn’t mean representative democracy but direct democracy in which an assembly of all the citizens made decisions and important jobs were allocated by lot). Yet in the nineteenth century, proper use of The Republic was viewed as a reinforcement to modern democracy rather than a guide to its replacement.

Improving the intellectual and moral quality of people going into government strengthens modern electorates’ faith in its leaders and handing some power from electorates to experts can also strengthen the core of democracy – or as an American academic, Gareth Jones, has put it, 10% less democracy can be better democracy. Giving independence to central banks has kept inflation under control; Sweden’s decision to ask specialists to review the pension system to prevent it from going bankrupt has put the public finances on a sound foundation (not something that can be said of the United States which contemplated a Swedish-style solution but backed out at the last moment). Plato’s most important insights hold true regardless of his strictures about democracy: that government matters immensely – and can make all the difference between a society thriving or going into decline.

The Covid-19 crisis has shocked us by revealing the weakness of Western government, particularly in the United States and Britain, and the strength of the Chinese government. The Chinese may have unleashed Covid-19 on the world but they eventually got to grips with the disease far more effectively than the Anglo-Saxon world. This not only revealed superior ruthlessness but also the fact that the Chinese have been quietly improving their state machinery while Western governments left theirs to atrophy. We are poised between two futures – one in which the West succeeds in reviving itself and another in which it continues to decline and hands global leadership to China, a regime that has no time for freedom or democracy. If we continue to neglect government, then we are doomed to see global leadership passing to the East, but if we re-energise our government, mixing a bit more wise leadership into our liberal formula, we may be able to resume our successful voyage. The philosopher and the cult of Plato provide us with both a model and inspiration for how to fix the ship of state. Like our predecessors, it’s up to us to heed his words.


Adrian Wooldridge