By D. R. Koukal
By chance the 2016 presidential season found me teaching a course I regularly offer called “Person and Society.” The animating idea behind the course is to examine the relationship between different philosophers’ views of human nature so as to see how these views inform their thinking about how society should be ideally structured. The course begins with the study of selections from Plato’s Republic where he famously—or infamously, if you like—argues that the perfect society would be ruled by philosopher-kings. Needless to say, the candidacy of one Donald J. Trump made this an especially interesting read for the class.
Many political commentators have drawn on the Republic to shed light on the 2016 election. The most prominent among these is Andrew Sullivan’s article “Democracies end when they are too democratic,” which was published in the New York Magazine in May 2016. In this piece and others like it, the authors draw primarily on Books VIII and IX of the dialogue, where Plato lays out his “cycle of regimes” that begins in aristocracy but which devolves through timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy before ending in tyranny. Sullivan et. al. emphasize the features of democracy that make it especially susceptible to demagoguery, which heralds the arrival of tyranny, and then go on to relate this to Trump’s political ascension.
While these analyses are compelling, my students and I would like to report that the earlier parts of the work, particularly Book IV, can also tell us much about Trump and what his presidency will likely portend for the nation. This part of the dialogue deals with Plato’s conception of the soul or psyche, and how it relates to his ideal political state. Since Trump makes no effort to hide his oversized personality, this allows an opportunity to inspect it through Platonic eyes. What this inspection reveals is a very troubling state of affairs emanating from the man who is now seated in the most powerful and demanding political office in the land.
But in order to fully appreciate this point it’s first necessary to lay out at least in outline Plato’s conception of a well-ordered society. He begins by setting down the economic foundation of his utopia. The talents of farmers, craftsmen, merchants, sailors, and laborers are put to work in addressing the fundamental needs of society. But as society continues to grow in size and luxury a second social class is needed, a class comprised of those who have the necessary talents to fight and acquire new territory to accommodate society’s growing needs. Warriors must have keen senses to discover enemies, speed to overtake them, strength to fight them, and courage to fight well. Warriors must also have thumos, which is alternatively translated as spiritedness, pugnacity, indignation, fierceness, or anger, all of which embody the appropriate attitude toward enemies.
But here Plato runs into a problem: how to keep the warriors from behaving fiercely towards one another, or the rest of society? It is essential that they be friendly to their own kind and harsh only to their enemies. Plato’s answer is to educate warriors like guard dogs who can make a rudimentary distinction between friends and enemies. He calls the ability to make this distinction the seeds of a “philosophical disposition” that indicates a fondness for learning. When this fondness of study is accompanied by the moral virtues of courage and moderation and the intellectual virtues of persistence, distress at realizing one’s own ignorance, and indignation at hearing falsehoods, all of these attributes indicate an aptitude for leadership that can be honed and further developed through a lifelong program of instruction that begins in a robust physical regimen and moral education through the arts, military training, mathematical studies, and the study of dialectic, topped with fifteen years of apprenticeship in public office and military command. Those who perform with excellence throughout every stage of this curriculum create a third class to complete Plato’s ideal state: the class of philosopher-kings, from which the leaders of society are exclusively drawn.
This is a point where my students typically resist Plato’s line of thought. A central tenet of the American ethos is that “anyone can be president,” but here Plato is arguing that only those with a certain kind of aptitude for leadership may lead, and then only after completing a rigorous education that trains them to this end. “This is plainly undemocratic!” my students complain, and they’re right to do so. But I counter with the following questions: “Isn’t it appropriate that a doctor be prohibited from practicing medicine until they’ve passed their boards? Would you live in a house designed by an uncertified architect? Would you allow a lawyer to represent your interests if they had failed the bar?” Obviously, these questions give my students pause. Obviously, knowledge, skill, and experience are essential in all human endeavors, at least if excellence is our standard. The next question should be equally obvious: why would we exempt political leaders from having the requisite knowledge, skill, and experience, even in a democracy?
This is a burning and vitally important question because it flies in the face of the American electorate’s current passion for political “outsiders” who pledge to come in and reform a corrupt political system. Plato would find this idea absurd, because such candidates would lack the knowledge and experience to effectively carry out any political agenda, much less an agenda of reform. Plato gives his reasons for this earlier in the dialogue. In Book II he observes that each member of society has many needs, but because we are not self-sufficient we need the aid of others to meet these needs. Each, therefore, contributes their own work to sustain society as a whole, based on a principle of mutual need. This in turn requires each individual to work at a single occupation in accordance with their talent, without meddling in the affairs of others.
Here Plato is basically saying that for the most part each of us is only good at doing one thing. Again, my students often push back, pointing to the fact that a person can be good at both practicing medicine and, say, making fine wooden cabinets. This is obviously true. But at the same time we don’t find that many polymaths among us. It is the rare person who can master a multitude of arts or occupations. Most of us find our area of natural aptitude, and then work on refining it. In most cases an excellent doctor will make shabby cabinets, resulting in customer dissatisfaction; on the other hand, a talented cabinetmaker dabbling in medicine will most likely result in either harm to or the death of the patient.
For Plato, being unhappy with a politician or a political order and turning to a political outsider as a remedy would be akin to being unhappy with your doctor and turning to your cabinetmaker for relief rather than another doctor. Just as any doctor must have a fundamental knowledge of the human body in order to have any hope of curing what ails it, any politician must have the relevant wisdom and experience to care for the body politic. Whatever one might think of the challenges facing our political system, any reasonable person would have to concede that an effective politician needs to be well-versed in the workings of the system of government they seek to rule, especially a complex system such as our own, and especially given our country’s central and complicated interrelationship with the rest of the world. What Donald Trump has abundantly shown is that he simply doesn’t have the wisdom necessary to perform the duties required by the office to which he has been elected.
This is not to say that Trump isn’t wise; it’s to say that he simply doesn’t have the right kind of wisdom for this particular job. At this point Plato would ask, so what is Trump’s natural aptitude? Where exactly do his talents lie? As we all know, he considers himself to be a world-class businessman of rare and unparalleled talents, with an unsurpassed record of success. From a Platonic perspective Trump hails from the producing class, which would be highly problematic in Plato’s eyes. On his view, a well-ordered society can only be assured by the rule of the philosopher-kings, who possess the right kind of wisdom for this task. Members of the producing class are guided by a kind of commercial wisdom, and members of the warrior class are animated by their fierceness aimed at enemies of the state, directed by a martial wisdom. What is required to unify society’s different parts is the more encompassing wisdom of the philosopher-kings—or at least leaders who are sufficiently philosophical—who, through an alliance with the warrior class, bring harmony to society by ensuring that each of its parts keep to their own proper social tasks.
By way of contrast, a society ruled by warriors will be overly pugilistic and too quick to embroil the state in needless and ruinous conflicts; a society led by the producing class will meet its ruin in greed and immoderation. It’s simply a mistake in reasoning to assume it’s necessarily the case that because a person is good at war or business they will also be good at politics. Trump has never served in the military, and his success in business, as it turns out, has been greatly exaggerated. Many journalists, particularly Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek, have shown that Trump’s track record in real estate and the casino industry is marked far more by failure than by success. So as it turns out, not only is our country currently being led by a member of the business class with no military experience; we’re being led by someone who isn’t even particularly good at business.
However, to be fair to Trump, there is one thing he is exceedingly good at. He is at heart a salesman, and what he most loves to sell is himself. Plato would likely be alarmed at this because an essential requirement of a leader is a fundamental love or care for society that requires no small sacrifice of self-interest. It is precisely here that Trump shows that he lacks not only the knowledge, skills, and experience to perform his official duties; more importantly, he lacks the temperament for the job, and this puts our body politic at grave risk.
This can be illustrated by Plato’s theory of the soul, which is analogous to the structure of his ideal society. On his account the largest part of the soul is appetitive in nature and seeks to satisfy the various kinds of desire we experience. The second largest part of the soul is the spirited part, which manifests indignation and anger. The smallest part of the soul is the rational part, which seeks and manifests wisdom. On Plato’s account a well-ordered soul is ruled by the rational part, which, with the assistance of the spirited part, keeps our appetites in check, and this allows us to cultivate the classic virtues of courage, justice, moderation, and above all, wisdom. By way of contrast, a soul is disordered if it allows the desirous or spirited parts to rule, leading to the vices of cowardice, injustice, ill-temper, and ignorance.
If there is anything that Donald Trump has conclusively proved throughout his campaign and short presidency is that he is entirely ruled by desire. And Trump’s strongest desire, the desire which all his other desires serve, is his desire to be admired and envied by all—as the richest, smartest, most successful man in any room. One doesn’t have to engage in deep psychoanalysis to discern this. Trump constantly tells us how great he is, almost every day, in every other tweet and at almost every public appearance. He tells us this with his eponymous jets and towers, the excessive opulence of his residences, the fastidious intricacy of his comb over, and the beauty of the women he wears as accessories, testaments to his virility even at the age of 71.
But as Plato’s student Aristotle noted, the problem with thinking that such accolades will validate you is that they depend on other people conveying them unto you (Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b24). When you have to award yourself such honors you just appear ridiculous. When people have the temerity to point this out to Trump, or to criticize or contradict him in any way, his response is always fiercely indignant. From a Platonic point of view, this shows that his thumos, the spirited part of his soul, is allied not with his rational part but rather with his desires, making his soul deeply disordered. His urge to publicly dominate, mock, belittle, and humiliate anyone who is even perceived as challenging the primacy of his desires appears to be insatiable and second nature to him.
For example, during the campaign Trump mocked a long-serving senator for being captured during the Vietnam war; a disabled New York Times reporter was subjected to a cruel pantomime from a public podium; a female debate moderator was accused of menstruating after she asked Trump pointed questions about his attitudes towards women; he belittled the parents of a slain Muslim soldier after their appearance on the stage of the Democratic convention. These are but a few examples of Trump’s intemperance during the campaign, and his short presidency has been no less tumultuous. Since his election he has adopted a bellicose attitude towards longtime NATO allies, while at the same time speaking sympathetically of authoritarian leaders the world over, as well as the white supremacists who recently marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has picked unnecessary battles with his own party’s Congressional leadership, which he needs to accomplish his political goals. He has shown himself to be impatient with the rule of law and the limitations it places on his office. Trump has castigated judges who have ruled against his policies and publicly humiliated his own attorney general—a former Congressman who was the first in the Senate to endorse his candidacy—for properly recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He has turned on and dismissed several senior staffers whom he had recruited to further his agenda, and recently replaced his chief of staff with retired Marine general John Kelly, whom he charged with bringing order to a chaotic White House. Predictably, Trump is already chafing at the newly imposed administrative structure, and control of the president’s frenetic Twitter feed remains beyond the reach of General Kelly.
Again, this is but a small sampling of such transgressions, and they continue to multiply almost daily. So far no one has been able to prevent such intemperate outbursts, even as they tend to damage the president politically. Indeed, he seems to grudge and hold on to even the most insignificant slights, which should be of no consequence to a man of his power. In fact, Trump’s lack of moderation in his feelings leads him to deploy this power in unjust ways, which in Plato’s eyes is also a testimony to a kind of inner cowardice because his seething fulminations testify to the fact that he is afraid of things that a rational person in his position shouldn’t fear. Given the state of Trump’s soul, its rational part is reduced to cleaning up the messes created by his disordered psychic life, making post-hoc rationalizations for his outbursts which are usually incoherent because they have no foundation in reason. He has shown himself more than willing to deny easily verifiable facts, or spontaneously make claims that are easily disproved. Far from becoming indignant at hearing falsehoods as is required of Plato’s philosopher-kings, Trump actually traffics in them in order to salve his exceedingly fragile ego. All of this shows that Trump has no mastery over his desire or anger; rather, they have complete and utter mastery over him. In other words, he cannot bring harmony to society because, from a Platonic point of view, he can barely hold himself together.
After the election results were announced last November, my students and I were extremely alarmed that the country had elected a president who stands in diametrical opposition to everything Plato claims is necessary for rational political leadership. Countless analysts and political commentators have struggled to understand how such a clearly unqualified candidate could have garnered almost 63 million votes and through the quirks of the U.S. electoral system ascend the political heights. What all of these election post mortems make clear is that there is no one, simple cause. A deeply polarized electorate, a widespread dissatisfaction with the political status quo, economic uncertainty, the distorting whining buzz of social media and propaganda, blunders in Democratic campaign strategy, low voter turnout, the lethargic performance of the corporate mainstream media, civic illiteracy, misogyny, racism, arguable electoral interference by the director of the FBI, and the apparent machinations of Russian hackers—all of these conspired to propel a dull, dishonest, bigoted, sexist, petulant, egoistic reality TV star into the Oval Office.
But none of these factors, even in combination, are sufficient to explain the election to high office a man of such low character. A fuller explanation would have to address the appeal of the man to his millions of voters, most of whom still support him. In his short but turbulent presidency, Trump has amply demonstrated that in terms of his character he is precisely the person he campaigned as; that was no persona we saw during the primaries and general election, but the man himself. Given that most of his supporters routinely dismiss in their president behavior they would never tolerate in Democrats (or even their own children!), it’s important to ask: why they are continuing to buy what Trump is selling?
I suspect that Plato’s answer to this question would be to point out that their continued support is informed by a psychic state as disordered as the president’s. In Trump they see a figure who reflects their own chaotic collective psyche and which gives full voice to their desires and resentments. They identify with his antagonism towards Mexicans, Muslims, and other immigrants, his fulminations against “political correctness,” his broadsides against a corrupt and out of touch political and media elite, and his frightful vision of an America in decline. Yet at the same time his supporters cannot recognize the fact that their champion can never satisfy their desire to “put these things right,” given that many of these grievances are based on flawed perceptions of vague and ill-defined menaces, misplaced fears, or fevered fantasies with little to no grounding in social reality. Moreover, these fears and anxieties have blinded them to the fact that Trump himself is incapable of addressing even the more plausible of their grievances because he lacks not only the necessary kind of knowledge but also the will to do so. If there is one single, relatively kind adjective to describe Trump it is self-serving; it’s the one constant among all of the various journalistic and biographical accounts of the man. Whatever doesn’t affect him doesn’t exist at all, in his mind. This means that empathy is not in his repertoire, which means he will advance the political interests of his supporters only if doing so also benefits him. Yet even as Trump’s string of broken campaign promises grows ever longer he retains the dogged loyalty of many who voted for him. Plato would say that their failure to put aside their passions and take an accurate, rational measure of the man—to, so to speak, “get wise” to Trump—has put them at his mercy. And it is perhaps for this reason that Plato was so wary of democracy, or “rule by the many.” Since the largest parts of society and the soul are comprised of desire and anger, it is the form of government most susceptible to demagoguery, which can only lead to social instability, and then, ultimately, tyranny.
The sum of Trump’s actions since his inauguration bear witness to his disharmonious effect, both on the domestic and international stages, and can be illustrated by a famous image from Book VI of the Republic. Here Plato describes a ship piloted by a captain who is ignorant of the art of navigation and surrounded by similarly unskilled but quarrelsome sailors vying for his favor, all while the vessel careens dangerously out of control. It is as if Plato witnessed the Trump administration first-hand. Plato’s image is meant to show the foolishness of entrusting the “ship of state” to such a person. Unfortunately, all of us—both those who voted for Trump and those who did not—are all trapped aboard such a vessel, steered by a captain of profound ignorance and unstable temperament. Only time will tell whether or not America will make it back to port in one piece.
D. R. Koukal was educated at Shimer College and Duquesne University. He teaches philosophy at the University of Detroit Mercy.
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