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Guardians and Philosopher Kings

In what follows, I want to address three different but interrelated issues pertaining the proposed structure of Kallipolis that seem to have produced a great deal of confusion as to their interpretation. The first is the question of whether the guardian is a philosopher or a craftsman. In his paper “Ruling: Guardians and Philosopher-Kings,”[1] Peter J. Steinberg writes that according to some accounts, Socrates views ruling as a craft, and according to other accounts he views it as a philosophical activity. But which of the two interpretations is correct? I believe that this first issue can be addressed in light of the second issue. The second issue is the difference, if any, between the philosopher-king and the guardian. Many readers take certain textual evidence in the Republic (502d—503b, for example) as showing that “The guardians of the Kallipolis are clearly understood to be philosopher-kings.” (Steinberg 1216) As I will try to show, there is an important difference between guardians and philosopher-kings, one that will also shed light on the previous question, i.e., whether the activities of the guardians are philosophical or crafts-like. And the third issue, after having properly identified guardians and philosopher-kings, is to explain why the philosopher-king, to use the image of Socrates’ allegory, must descend back down into the cave. Why in the world would they bother concerning themselves with the petty problems of society if they could dedicate their entire time to philosophical contemplation?[2] In this regard, I will take the position that philosopher-kings are not compelled to engage in political life; rather, their actions of voluntarily descending back into the cave result from their nature. Thus, contrary to some views, philosopher-kings do not sacrifice their self-interest to justice or their happiness when they return into the cave, but rather act according to their nature.

As I suggested in the introduction, the first issue, i.e., ‘Are guardians philosophers or craftsmen?’ can be answered by addressing the second, ‘What’s the difference (is there a difference) between guardians and philosopher-kings?’ On this score, it is useful to understand the proposed education that needs to be imparted to aspiring philosopher-kings. The point of education is to educate capable individuals so that they will naturally choose protecting the city over their self-interest. It is obvious that the ideal ruler is one who thinks and acts as she does out of love. That is, a ruler loves justice and, out of her lover for it, shapes the city accordingly. This explains why such rich and meticulous education is imparted to guardians. Throughout books 2 and 3, Socrates explains how guardians will undergo intense physical training as well as philosophical and musical training, and will take many other subjects that will enrich their soul and create an internal harmony between the mind, and the body. This education is especially aimed to keep the guardians away from any source of corruption and ensure total dedication to the commonwealth. Socrates suggests the abolishment of riches among guardians, and even the abolishment of certain literature that, for example, deals with heroes defying the laws or disrespecting the gods. The purpose of such a meticulous and intensive training is to select and educate individuals who will in the end naturally choose to dedicate their lives to the well being of the city over the pursuit of materialistic values. It seems to me that the disputes over whether guardians are happy, and later on philosopher-kings are willingly returning to the cave, stem from a misunderstanding of this point; that is, education is supposed to shape the guardians’ souls in such a way that they will naturally love ruling the city and be happy with their social role. It would be quite bizarre if it turned out that Plato’s ideal ruler were individuals who detest their lifestyle and were reluctant to rule—despite undergoing rigorous training for the very purpose of ruling.

The way Socrates describes Kallipolis, and the way he shows what justice in the city is and who the just individual is, bespeaks my interpretation of the nature and identity of the guardians and philosopher-kings as two different phases of the philosopher-kings’ education. Rachana Kamtekar expresses the point that guardians and philosopher-kings are not synonymous. Guardians study to become philosopher-kings, “Musical and physical education, which are designed for the whole guardian class (future philosopher-rulers and their helpers, the military and police force), aim to produce habituated political virtue in the soul (430a-c, 522a.)”[3] Also, she argues that the education that guardians undergo serves to instill political virtue in them; the purpose is for guardians to value political virtue for its own sake rather than for its consequences.[4] Consequently, guardians who become philosopher-kings will have an internalized standard of conduct that they uphold even in the absence of rewards.

An ideal city must possess the four virtues, wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Wisdom is found in the class of guardians and courage is shown by the dedication of its soldiers. These soldiers, through the education they have received, have acquired the power to preserve the belief in what they should fear, namely, the loss of their integrity, which is their dedication to protecting the city at any cost. (429a-430a) Temperance is indicated by the harmony among all the different classes in the city. Every member of each class maintains his or her social place and doesn’t desire to become a member of a different class. That is to say, if a city has temperance, a craftsman would never wish to be a ruler because being a craftsman represents the highest achievement of his potential, just as a guardian would never desire another position than being a guardian. Another way to put it is that a temperate city is one whose citizens are happy to be who they are because they achieved their vocations according to their nature, and therefore will never wish to be something else. Finally, justice in a city thus constructed and ordered is what keeps its various groups separated and at the same time makes all the groups work in perfect harmony, just as in music when a series of distinctive notes make up a beautiful melody. So this suggests that each individual has a specific role in the city, which is assigned on the basis of the individual’s natural aptitude. Or in other words, a just city is one whose classes, and individuals, are happy with their social and political roles—shoemaker love being shoemakers, doctors love being doctors, and guardians love being guardians.

In his discussion of individual justice, Socrates makes the same point about justice in the city, that each part of the soul must function according to its nature. Just like the city, the just soul possesses wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Justice is the power that keeps the parts of one’s soul separated, each doing its own proper work. Socrates’ discussion about inner conflict is very illuminating. Wisdom in the individual, according to Socrates, is what makes an individual deal properly when he experiences an inner conflict. Arguably, the more justice is present in an individual’s soul, the better he deals with these conflicts; the better he will be able to deal with appetites. And if the individual is completely just, then inner conflicts may never exist as the individual always chooses what is right. In every soul there are an appetitive part, and a rational part. Take for instance a married man who has an opportunity to commit adultery, but decides not to. What occurs is that the appetitive element in his soul impels him to have sex with the woman, but the rational element stops him from having extramarital sex.  However, sometimes the appetitive element prevails over the rational element; and as in this case, the man decides to have extramarital sex.

But there is in the soul a third element, which Socrates calls “spirit.” A person’s spirit works like this: to take the same example, the man’s appetite steers him in the wrong direction, i.e. to have extramarital sex; but the man’ spirit in the form of anger allies with the rational element to fight against the appetite. So it seems to me that the point of education for the guardians and future philosopher-kings is to create the kind of individual who does not have an appetite for adultery in the first place rather that one who does have that appetite and needs to control it. Translating this into the political life, it is obvious that Plato wants to create rulers whose appetite for power, wealth, and other selfish purposes does not exist at all. The point is to create rulers who naturally have a preference for ruling and for intellectual questions and naturally have an aversion for riches, fame, and other materialistic things.

Now let us imagine a city where a shoemaker dislikes shoemaking and instead desires to rule, and a guardian who dislikes being a guardian and instead desires to make shoes, and a soldier who dislikes protecting the city and instead desires to cultivate vegetables. Could this be a good and just city? Obviously it couldn’t. Ideally, each class should do its own work and not meddle with another’s because they love what they do. Likewise, could an individual whose appetites prevail over reason be at peace with himself? The answer is again no. Justice in the individual, then, is an internal order of the parts of the human soul. When in fact the parts in the soul do their respective work, Socrates suggests, justice is produced as in a healthy body, whose organs function properly. Injustice, it follows, is the opposite, that is, a state of internal discord.  At this point, it is clear that justice must be the highest good—which is desirable for its own good and the good it can generate. The point is that according to Plato’s ideal city, the philosopher-rulers become rulers because they have a desire to do so. No one forces them to become philosophers or rulers. Accordingly, it is their natural aptitude that they are following. Consequently, as true philosophers they are lover of justice and ruling is an expression of their natue.

The foregoing reflection about the purpose of education illuminates the distinction between guardians from philosopher-kings. Guardians, we learn, are educated to be watchdogs. Apparently due to certain textual evidence, some readers may be led to regard guardian and philosopher-king as synonymous. Steinberg suggests this reading, as he points this out in his paper. Specifically, Steinberg points to a passage (although he says that there are others like this, which appear to show that guardian is the same as philosopher-king) where Socrates says, “…And let us now dare to say it: philosophers must be established as the most precise guardians.” (503b) Steinberg takes this passage as “unambiguous” as to showing that the guardian of Kallipolis is to be understood as synonymous with philosopher-king.[5] I have to admit that these passages seem to show prima facie interpretative issues. However, the discussions about the education of the guardians in books 2 and 3 are not to be considered in a vacuum. What is described at this stage with regard to the education of the guardians is the groundwork education that will naturally form future philosopher-kings. To suggest that guardians and philosopher-kings are synonymous, as suggested by Steinberg, is a gross oversight. Guardians are philosophically gifted, but not yet philosophers. They study philosophy, among other subjects, but have not yet attained true knowledge of the forms and the Good. Keeping this in mind, the issue of whether ruling is a craft or a philosophical activity turns out not to be an issue at all. Philosopher-kings must attain the knowledge of the Forms and the Good in order to become rulers; this entails that ruling is a philosophical activity. Another point to consider in showing that Plato distinguishes guardians from philosopher-kings is that the discussion about education that continues in book 7 sees guardians as approximately eighteen-year-old individuals who have the potential of becoming philosopher-kings. (537a-538a) These individuals referred to as guardians, according to Plato, are the most distinguished individuals in the military class. Thus they are clearly not yet philosopher-kings.

Guardians are philosophically endowed but during their early stage of education they are rulers insofar as they are the military class holding executive and legislative power. As I pointed out earlier, Socrates is creating Kallipolis from scratch, and therefore at this point philosopher-kings, presumably, do not yet exist. Throughout book 7, Socrates meticulously describes the different phases of the guardians’ educational journey. He distinguishes at least two important stages at twenty years of age and at thirty. (537b-537e) Still, at thirty years of age, although their aptitude measures up to the assignment of greater honors and access to dialectical power, these guardians are not yet ready to be philosopher-kings.   In fact, after six years, Socrates explains, they must go “down into the cave again.” (539e) Socrates says “again” because at this time these guardians are at the last stage before becoming philosopher-kings. Now these thirty-five-year-old Guardians, after years of mastering dialectics, are sent down into the cave, again, and compelled to “take command in matters of war and the other offices suitable for young people…” (540a) Finally, it is after approximately fifteen years of public office that those who “have survived the tests and are entirely best in every practical task and every science must be led at last to the end…” It is this “end” that Socrates refers to that exemplifies the difference between guardians and philosopher-kings. In other words, some guardians around fifty years of age have mastered all tasks and all sciences, and as a result become philosopher-kings. Thus, the confusion that a guardian is the same as a philosopher-king needs to be addressed by looking at at Book VII. There, Socrates gives a description of the true difference between philosopher-king and guardian. It will be clear then why a guardian is only required to have right opinion as opposed to philosopher-kings who must have true knowledge of the Good and the form of justice in order to shape the just city according to the form of justice. The difference between opinion and knowledge is a difference in the kind of objects of knowledge or opinion. This difference is evinced in Plato’s division of the world, the intelligible and the sensible. A justice of a court, for example, knows the laws of a particular state or county and their applications. But such laws are contingent. They are subject to possible change. Thus according to Plato, this hypothetical judge has a right opinion of justice. But a philosopher, according to Plato, has the knowledge of justice because she understands the actual Form of justice, the metaphysical paradigm that exists in the sensible realm. In other words, to know, true knowledge, is to understand timeless, and unchanging objects; on the other hand, understanding contingent, changing objects, or concepts such as justice, is to have a right opinion about them.

Having shown the distinction between philosopher-kings and guardians by pointing to book 7, it is clear to see that the activity of philosopher-kings must be philosophical in that only true knowledge of the forms—philosophical knowledge—enables them to rule Kallipolis according to the true form of justice. I will now discuss the third issue, whether philosopher-kings voluntarily return into the cave without being deprived of their freedom and happiness. To this end, I want to begin by pointing out that Socrates was not unaware of this alleged difficulty. At the beginning of book 4, Adeimantus expresses this concern, “How will you defend yourself, Socrates, if someone objects that you are not making these men very happy…I mean, the city belongs to them, yet they derive no good from the city.” (419a) And to paraphrase Socrates’ answer, these men are happy as they are. (420b) To address this issue, we must consider Plato’s metaphysics. Specifically, the concept that applies here is Plato’s Forms. The forms constitute a systematic order that the philosopher strive to imitate. This is important because like the forms, the philosopher-king is not reluctant to hold political office. If the forms inspire the behavior of the philosopher-kings, then the philosopher-kings’ acceptance of political office is a natural expression of the their nature—just like the expression of a form is to shape and confer particular content and meaning upon the sensible world.

Richard Kraut proposes an interpretation according to which the philosopher returns to the cave to express her gratitude to the cave dwellers for contributing to her education. This interpretation is interesting because it considers the concept of being just as a virtuous character trait of the philosopher; thus, justice in the philosopher requires repaying his debt for what the cave dwellers have done for her. My interpretation agrees with Kraut in that the philosopher return into the cave to benefit society. Also, because by nature the philosopher strives to imitate the forms, and in a political context to imitate the form of justice, imitating the forms entails that the philosopher descends into the cave to order the city in accordance with the form of justice. Where my interpretation differs is the idea that successful education forms individual philosophers that are naturally inclined to imitate the forms. In other words, the philosopher is one who chooses to hold political office because it is the natural choice to make according to her nature. So, the question of whether she might be reluctant to hold public office turns out to be the wrong question. My interpretation differs from that of several scholars who argue that the philosopher returns into the cave. Annas, for example, writes that “[The philosophers] are not seeking their own happiness. Nor are they seeking that of others. They are simply doing what is impersonally best.”[6] But this view is inconsistent with the passage at 519e1-520a3 discussing how the philosophers must rule for the benefit of the whole city.

Those who, like Adeimantus, object that the rigid educational process proposed by Plato does not seem to make these men—and let us not forget that women too will be rulers—very happy, I believe, fail to appreciate the goal of education. Namely, the educational journey on which guardians embark, which culminates in a harmony of their souls whereby they attain knowledge of the Good, is conducive with their happiness and return into the cave. The point is that the philosopher, having acquired knowledge of the Good, understands himself as an integral part of the just city, and therefore is impelled by his own nature to hold political office. On this view, Timothy Mahoney argues that philosopher-kings do not sacrifice their lofty philosophical lives of contemplation to justice because ruling the city is an important aspect of their happiness,

Given the organic conception of the universe, the philosopher correctly sees himself or herself as a natural part of his or her own polis, which is in turn an integral part of the much larger universe. As a result, the philosopher correctly understands his or her contribution to the good of the polis to be the specific way in which he or she contributes to the good of the universe as a whole: by making the polis as good as it can be, he or she makes this part of the universe good and so contributes to the well-functioning and good of the universe as a whole. Thus the special allegiance the philosopher has to his or her own polis does not conflict with fulfilling the philosopher’s aim of actualizing the unrestricted good. On the contrary, the philosopher contributes to this actualization most effectively by performing the task which he or she is assigned in virtue of being a part of a larger whole, i.e., his or her own polis.[7]

Adding to Mahoney’s argument, I see a pertinent analogy between the education of Plato’s philosopher-kings and the spiritual journey of any individual aspiring to become a member of the clergy. What should we say if one were to object that the life of a priest, including the education received and the many privations seem not to make the individual who chose to become a priest happy on the whole? I think we should say that one is mistaken. For, a priest, if sincere in his pursuit of his faith whatever that may be, will naturally choose a spiritual life over a materialistic one. A priest’s highest and principal objective is his detachment from materialistic means in order to favor a spiritual life aimed at the knowledge of God. Naturally, from the point of view of a regular citizen, a life like the one of guardians is a life of privations, an unhappy life devoid of all those things that make normal people happy, riches, sex, properties, abundance of foods, etc. But from the point of view of a priest, whose ultimate goal is to know God, the aforementioned goods would be utterly worthless. Similarly, there is nothing more rewarding and blissful than knowing the Good and the forms. Thus, the question of whether the guardians “derive no good from the city,” as Adeimantus laments is a false dilemma. A guardian does not derive any good from gold or silver or even the ownership of the city because he or she is not the type of individual who derives any good from the materialistic aspects of life. The guardian’s goal is the attainment of knowledge of the Good, which enables them to rule the city in accordance with the form of justice.

I think it would still be deflationary to say that the spiritual and intellectual journey undertaken by these individuals is meant by them for the derivation of any good. Just as in the religious analogy I proposed above, I think it would be incorrect to say that an individual who decides to become a priest embark on a spiritual, life-changing journey for strict personal gain as an individual making a money investment in order to derive more money. I would say that the aim of a priest might seem personal from a superficial viewpoint. In reality, his attainment of the knowledge of God is not an egoistic goal, but rather aimed for the benefit of others. Similarly, the life of the guardian is not to be seen simply in terms of making the guardian happy or unhappy. His choice is not comparable to a business choice whereby an individual is driven by an egoistic force to gain some good out of the deal. The life-choice made by a guardian is to be regarded as a mission deriving from the internal order of that individual’s soul. And the final goal, the attainment of the knowledge of the Good is ultimately aimed for the benefit of the whole city.

At any rate, I want to argue that even if the philosopher-kings are indeed less happy when they have to return into the cave than they are when they are outside the cave, we need to remember that the allegory of the cave is one thing, while the life in the city is another. What I mean to say is that being in the cave is in fact really living in the city. And being outside the cave contemplating the forms is, again, nothing more than life in the city. Philosopher-kings do not live in a Platonic paradise. They do not think in a vacuum, either. So the question of whether they really sacrifice their happiness can be simply discounted by saying that if the philosopher-kings who, through their education and philosophical contemplation, have attained the required skills to rule justly choose not to return into the cave, one possibility is that while they are engaged in contemplation someone else will rule, perhaps someone who simply does not possess the same skills as they and will rule unjustly. In other words, since aside from the allegory there is no distinction from outside and inside the cave, where would these philosophers engage in their contemplation if the city does not exist or, worse, if corrupted politicians rule the city? Clearly, then, based on this argument, philosopher-kings decide to return into the cave because if they do not do so there might not be a cave to return into in the first place. As remarked by Socrates in 521a, ruling is the natural and best way of life for guardians. And if individuals other than the philosophers rule the city, “[a well governed city] is impossible.” (521a5) And it also follows that it is not a question of being less happy; rather, they want to rule for the sake of their own happiness, as well as the interest of the whole. And furthermore, once these philosophers have attained true knowledge of the Good and Forms, I would think that ruling the city—descending into the cave from time to time—would hardly take away from them the joy of knowing the Good.

The view that the philosopher returns into the cave, that she decides to rule the city willingly, is best exemplified by Plato in the dialogue Crito. I think the discussion between Crito and Socrates while in prison attending to be executed foreshadows this issue in the Republic. Socrates, who arguably represents for Plato the true philosopher, refuses Crito’s offer to escape from prison. At least I see this as a parallel with the question at hand. In the dialogue, Socrates approaches death with confidence and without fear. As a true philosopher, he is not afraid of death, but most importantly he sees no reason to deviate from his duty or from his nature. Socrates thanks Crito for his offer of facilitating his flight from an Athens ruled unjustly by unjust people, which resulted in Socrates’ condemnation and later execution. But he points out that his major argument for not accepting Crito’s offer is that his life lived in the city and the education acquired while in the city represents a silent contract between Athens and Socrates. (51d) To go back to our question, it can be said that the philosopher of Kallipolis would be utterly unjust and irrational if he refused to descend back into the cave after becoming educated for the purpose of knowing Justice itself and applying the knowledge thereof to rule justly. Once the guardian has become a philosopher-king and has attained knowledge rather than just mere opinion of the Good, his very existence is what dictates his action. Thus, if a philosopher-king is, as illustrated earlier, the perfect individual whose soul is ordered according to nature, it becomes clear that his descent into the cave is not a matter of right or wrong or happy or unhappy but rather a natural by-product, as it were, of his very nature.

With this discussion, I do not pretend to have resolved once and for all problems that have occupied Plato scholars for a long time. For example, the question of whether ruling is techne as craft or as art or is meant as philosophical activity is a complicated issue due to questions of language and translation. Also, there are more subtle issues regarding various aspects of the proposed education of the guardians and of philosopher-kings. For example, it may be argued that the very education of the guardians, which involves intentional deception, censorship of literature, mating through a lottery system, and more, would render them unfit for philosophy. Nonetheless, what I offer here is a more charitable reading, supported by some textual evidence, which views Plato as clearly defining and distinguishing guardian from philosopher-king. The former is the prototype of the latter. Guardians are much younger than philosopher-kings and, though they receive philosophical education, are not yet fully philosophers-kings since that entails true knowledge of the Good and the Forms. And finally, I hope to have offered an alternative view on the question of why philosopher-kings must return into the cave, arguing that given the education they have attained, and given Plato’s metaphysics, philosopher-kings are self-driven by their own nature to emulate the Forms, and thus they naturally engage themselves in political activities, just like the Forms “descend” from the intelligible realm to form the sensible world.























Annas, Julia. 1981. An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, Oxford University Press; 1 edition

(June18, 1981)

Caluori Damian, “Reason and Necessity: The Descent of the Philosopher-Kings”, Oxford

Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Vol. XL, Summer 2011.

Kraut, R., ‘Return to the Cave: Republic 519-521’ [‘Return’], in J. J. Cleary (ed.),

Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, 7 (1991), 43-62.

Mahoney, T.A. ‘Do Plato’s Philosopher-Rulers Sacrifice Self-Interest to Justice?’ Phronesis,

37 (3) (1992), pp. 265–82;

Plato, The Republic, C.D.C. Reeve, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; 3rd edition

(September 15, 2004)

Rachana Kamtekar In Gail Fine (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Plato. Oxford University

Press 336-359 (2008)

Steinberg, Peter J., “Ruling: Guardians and Philosopher-King, The American Political

Science Review; Dec 1989; 83, 4; P. 1207


[1] Steinberg, Peter J., “Ruling: Guardians and Philosopher-King, The American Political Science Review; Dec 1989; 83, 4; P. 1207

[2] In the words of Damian Caluori, this is “a problem that has occupied modern Plato scholars for a long time.” Caluori Damian, “Reason and Necessity: The Descent of the Philosopher-Kings”, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Vol. XL, Summer 2011.

[3] Rachana Kamtekar In Gail Fine (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Plato. Oxford University Press 336–359 (2008)

[4] Rachana Kamtekar “Imperfect Virtue” (Ancient Philosophy 18 [1998], 315-39),

[5] Steinberg p. 1216

[6] Annas, Julia. 1981, p. 267.

[7] Mahoney, Timothy, “Do Plato’s Philosopher-Rulers Sacrifice Self-Interest to Justice?”