Plato on the virtuous citizen
January 24, 2017 10:06 PM   Subscribe

In Gibbon's Decline and Fall, chapter 49, he mentions: And some credit may be due to the asseveration of Boethius, that he had reluctantly obeyed the divine Plato, who enjoins every virtuous citizen to rescue the state from the usurpation of vice and ignorance. Is there a specific quote from Plato on this topic, or is there just more of a broader discussion, with no particular reference Gibbon was thinking of?
posted by Chrysostom to Religion & Philosophy (3 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure, but the thing that jumps to my mind is the following bit from Plato's Republic, Book I, around 347 or so:
For this reason, I said, money and honour have no attraction for them; good men do not wish to be openly demanding payment for governing and so to get the name of hirelings, nor by secretly helping themselves out of the public revenues to get the name of thieves. And not being ambitious they do not care about honour. Wherefore necessity must be laid upon them, and they must be induced to serve from the fear of punishment. And this, as I imagine, is the reason why the forwardness to take office, instead of waiting to be compelled, has been deemed dishonourable. Now the worst part of the punishment is that he who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself. And the fear of this, as I conceive, induces the good to take office, not because they would, but because they cannot help --not under the idea that they are going to have any benefit or enjoyment themselves, but as a necessity, and because they are not able to commit the task of ruling to any one who is better than themselves, or indeed as good. For there is reason to think that if a city were composed entirely of good men, then to avoid office would be as much an object of contention as to obtain office is at present; then we should have plain proof that the true ruler is not meant by nature to regard his own interest, but that of his subjects; and every one who knew this would choose rather to receive a benefit from another than to have the trouble of conferring one.
This is from the Jowett translation (not the best one, but available for free online here). The thrust, as I read it, is that good people consent to govern because if they do not, they will be ruled by bad people.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:01 AM on January 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't have a specific line number as a reference for this but you could probably draw something out of Plato's (unread and unappreciated) Laws (which is far more didactic than the wandering and uncertain conversation in the Republic) to confirm that claim.
posted by dis_integration at 5:42 AM on January 25, 2017

This is the relevant passage from Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (Boethius is addressing the personification of philosophy who has visited him in prison where he is waiting to be executed on trumped-up political charges):
And yet it was no one but you who commended Plato's opinion that commonweaths would be blessed if they should be ruled by philosophers or if their rulers should happen to have studied philosophy. You took your cue from him and said that the reason why it was necessary for philosophers to take part in government was to prevent the reins of government falling into the hands of wicked and unprincipled men to the ruin and the destruction of the good. [tr. Victor Watts]
The specific reference to Plato in this passage that is footnoted in my Penguin Classics edition of the Consolation is Republic 473d:
Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race. [tr. G.M.A. Grube]
There may be other relevant passages in Plato that are more quotable though.
posted by mayhap at 8:44 AM on January 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

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