by ProfDave, ©2023

Plato used the metaphor of a “ship of state” in his epic work “Republic” (“The School of Athens,” Raphael, Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

(Feb. 26, 2023) — During the last months or so my mind has been jolted a couple times with how fundamental the malaise of our society really is.  First, in the middle of asking what makes the USA such a great place to live it struck me that the American uniqueness wasn’t just “systemic” – whatever that means – but moral.  Then Stonestreet reminded me of Nietzsche’s “mad man” – the consequences of dismissing God.

When the founding fathers declared independence – listen up, Kamala – they believed that all mankind were endowed by their Creator – with “unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  For the first time in history, so far as they knew, they had the opportunity to choose their own system of government.  They had seen several theories of monarchy and despotism, Plato’s Republic and miscellaneous oligarchies.  They could see that French democracy was headed for a bloody mess – the brutal dictatorship of mobocracy.

It was one of our founders who said that a republic was a bad system of government but all the others were worse.  The fundamental problem is that all human government is human and human beings are not just fallible but have an endemic tendency to wickedness.  Everything depends on controlling that tendency to wickedness.  It takes power and authority to get things done and to solve problems, but everything depends on the character – the integrity, humility and public spirit – of the one who wields it.  The Constitution tried to build in accountability.  The executive is responsible to the legislative branch; both are responsible to the judicial which is responsible to the law, the Constitution and to God.  All three branches are responsible (indirectly) to the people and the people are assumed to be responsible to God.

If the president, the king, the emperor or the Committee of Public Safety is selfish, dishonest, corrupt and/or dedicated to false principles the nation will suffer to the extent that they are effective at all.  Our system still leans heavily on the wisdom and moral integrity of the population and its leaders – a mixture of good and bad.  We need a consensus of which is which to be able to choose wisely. 

The enlightened despotism recommended by Plato was undoubtedly the best system of government: one philosopher-king with unlimited authority to solve all problems.  In the 17th century it was called “enlightened despotism” and it threw Europe into war and its governments into bankruptcy.  Their philosophies were unrealistic, and their pride or other vices got the better of them.  There have been great rulers and presidents in history, ruling in the fear of God, unselfish, wise, and dedicated to the public good – but not many.  Plato’s philosopher king does not exist.  Monarchy was a pretty good way of avoiding elections, but the virtue and ability of monarchs tended to deteriorate over generations.  Royals could be trained to look and act “noble” and in kindness towards lesser mortals– noblesse oblige, it was called but power is a temptation in itself.  In the end, any system that grants power to one man or to an elite to solve its problems is vulnerable.  The problem is human nature, so even democracy is vulnerable.

Plato was wrong.  Philosophy – anybody’s philosophy – cannot make bad people good.  The Hebrews knew that “the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked.”  And history has proven them right.  Our hearts deceive us.  We need help, a moral compass to choose right from wrong, a Higher Power to empower us to do it and wise peers to hold us accountable.  A “supreme leader” does not have those things.  Does a divine-right monarch (like George III) always follow God’s guidance?  Do “the People” always do what is right? Our framers thought not.  Revolutions are particularly vulnerable to violence and destruction.  Instead we were given a system of interlocking checks and balances to keep evil from getting too far.

The philosopher president?  We have been wandering around in the debate, resolved: the success of a nation depends not on the system of its government or its economy, but on the character of its leaders.  A governor who lies, cheats and steals will enslave his people, and a corporate executive who lies, cheats and steals will impoverish his employees and customers alike.  Ben Franklin defined a democracy as two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.  Now there’s a two-party system for you. 

Plato recommended a philosopher king.  I contend that it isn’t system, but character, so we can substitute a philosopher president or congress or what have you.  Plato may have been wrong about knowledge being the panacea for all the problems of society.  Teaching a child the right thing to do does not guarantee they will do it when you aren’t looking.  For the sake of discussion, let us tuck character under the umbrella of philosophy.  So our philosopher president will know what to do and will unfailingly do it.  A man or woman like that is going to be hard enough to find by 2024!

King David, king of Israel during the 10th century BC, was the role model for divine-right monarchy in the West – and usually did the right thing.  Mostly, he had the right attitude.  He wrote, “The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, ‘He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.’”  How do our leaders measure up?

How do we know that our ‘philosopher president’ is ‘just?’  Or that he/she rules ‘in the fear of God?’  David had clear ideas about justice.  He must carry out the law without any fear or favor.  What made those laws just?  They must be in harmony with the law of his God.  That is where the fear of God comes in.  David held his life and his throne as the gift of God and he, in turn, held in reverence the power, the wisdom and the goodness of the Almighty.  He answered to Him for his own delegated power.  How is our president different?

Plato’s philosopher king was an absolute ruler of perfect character and perfect wisdom.  It has been a long time since I read The Republic, so I cannot recall how he put a king into that form of government.  Presidents and prime ministers may have that stature in their dreams.  One historical example defined democracy as “the choice of a leader and the absolute authority of the same.”  How did that work for us?  His first name was Adolf.  The next candidate of that sort could be the Antichrist.  But I digress.

Our philosopher president has to get elected first, appealing to the electorate with integrity and wisdom.  But one fears that only a philosopher electorate would vote for that.  Since when do both parties and the majority of voters seek what is good and right and best for the nation?  It would be like finding a consensus team at a football game.  What about philosopher congressmen and senators: people who sincerely and objectively spoke and voted for what is best, without partisanship and self-seeking, not anyone’s dupes or puppets.  Only in the Millennial Kingdom!  But it would be something worth aiming for – the Holy Grail of the republic.

There are two — no, three — dimensions to a Philosopher President or dog-catcher: right character and right philosophy — divided into competence and wisdom. A Philosopher President must know where the levers are, and he must know the facts — the true facts. If he is misinformed or believes things that are not true, he will not be able to deal with the real world. The temptation is to believe your own speeches while ignoring reality. We have seen a lot of that lately.

Many popular ideologies that satisfy the wounded heart do not satisfy the demands of the real world as the Creator made it.  What is true is what is, not what we want it to be.  There is such a thing as true truth, whether you and I know it, understand it, like it or not.  A Philosopher President must recognize it, or his ignorance of it, and chart the course of the nation accordingly.  That requires character.

A Philosopher President cannot — must not — live and rule by lies. He/she tells the truth even when it hurts his reelection. Some secrets are necessary for national security, but he/she has no self-serving deception, no secret slush funds, no secret affairs, no leaks. He/she does not do corruption or bribery. He/she obeys the law, stays within the Constitution, and pays their taxes. He/she does not wield or yield to undue influence, does not play favorites but chooses the course that is, by sound judgement and advice, best for the nation.

Yes, integrity is vital to any positive use of power.  A person who is unfaithful to their values, their faith and/or their marriage vows is not going to keep their oath of office – or even allegiance.  A President will deceive his staff, his legislature, his foreign partners, and his public – and be sure his sins will find him out and the nation will suffer the consequences.

Harry S. Truman was sworn in as president on April 12, 1945, after FDR passed away while in office

“The buck stops here,” said Harry Truman. For a Philosopher President, responsibility stops at his desk in the Oval Office, but accountability goes back up and out. Real presidents so easily forget that they must answer to God above and outward to the nation as a whole – not just one race, interest group or party. Ouch! The character, leadership and executive measures of the national executive determine the fate of the nation and everyone in it, in small or large measures.

One of the reasons we have a president and not a king or a dictator is the terrible load the character of one of comprehensive authority and responsibility must bear.  “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

The reach of George Washington’s government was very limited.  Most citizens lived their lives with little reference to anything beyond the town hall.  Then came income tax, then social security and then the draft board.  With each extension, government takes on more responsibility, restricts evil and makes good more cumbersome, adds staff, regulations and costs.  Once it was up to private citizens, combining as necessary, to solve problems.  Now, after a quarter millennium, we turn to the state.  Trump, Biden, and their bureaucracies wield more authority and bear more responsibility than Washington or George III ever dreamed.  With each stage we extend more power and risk more damage through corruption.  Everything depends on the character of our Philosopher Presidents and their philosopher staff.

It would be great if we could have a benevolent national leader to handle all our issues and provide for our welfare with perfect justice and wisdom, leaving us perfectly equal and free from care. Right? This, as I understand it, is the socialist utopia, the dictatorship of the proletariat. Why doesn’t it work? From Supreme Leader down to the lowest office boy we are all human beings. Dogs might be better, but they are distracted by squirrels. Robots, perhaps? But they are programmed by people and ever liable to glitches and hacking. And somehow liberty fades away as power rises.

So we are back to the subject of character – not only the character of the President but of everyone else as well.  Two great flaws in our national character weaken our leaders: individualism and relativism.  As our ‘philosopher’ president ponders what words and action might be best for the nation, he/she is distracted by the ‘squirrel’ of what is best for him/her, his/her supporters and his/her party.  As he/she seeks information, he/she is tempted by “itching ears” to follow the party line, the narrative he/she finds most pleasing rather than the hard truth.  Say it isn’t so!  Post-modern relativism and nihilism have obscured the hard edges of reality and morality.  It is difficult to navigate without a compass and fly without a horizon, especially when encouraged to “do it my way.”

A Philosopher President – or any competent authority – needs to have a moral compass and a horizon of truth. In our contemporary society we have fundamental disagreements over what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil.  We literally don’t know which way is up.  It is not just that we are ignorant, but we are dishonest in the manipulation of data.  Is the border closed or open?  Are our streets safe or dangerous?  Is the economy going up or down?  Is it a crime or a constitutional right?  Is it a boy or a girl?  What is marriage?  Big bang or creation?  Who really won the election?  In dozens of vital matters, the truth is far less important to us than our preferred dogma.  We prefer our own spin to reality, lies to truth.  How can we trust our leaders?  How can we trust ourselves?

Just perhaps the Philosopher President we need is one who will bring the nation back to God.  We will never all agree on who the Almighty is, but at least the Judeo-Christian God would provide us with a compass, an horizon and an atmosphere of liberty and benevolence.  Nobody has to believe in Jesus or attend the same church.  We can respect sincere diversity.  Yet we need to compromise on the broad horizon of, say, human dignity and the Ten Commandments and to settle on the North Pole of truth. We particularly need truthfulness in science, in justice, in politics and in relationships.

You see, our greatest national problems are not “systemic” but the people in our system who have lost or thrown away their moral compass.  Freedom and widely disbursed authority seem best, but someone will take advantage.  Whatever system you choose, human wickedness trips us up every time. “We have met the enemy and he is us” (Pogo).  We need to bring back God.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.