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12 - Philosopher-Kings and Counselors: How Should Philosophers Participate in Politics?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2022

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Summary

The most famous, or infamous, proposal in Plato's Republic concerns the rule of philosopher-kings. Throughout the long history of the philosophical reception of Plato, this theme has been explored, restated, and rejected in countless ways. One of the most original treatments of it comes from the Andalusian philosopher Averroes, in his Commentary on Plato's “Republic.” The title of this inventive work must not be construed too narrowly. On every major theme in the Republic, Averroes deviates, either by omission, addition, or editorial commentary, from Plato. His treatment of the philosopher-kings will make use of all these techniques. Before turning to this topic, I wish to make some general remarks about the work as a whole.

Averroes announces his departure from Plato in the first sentence of the work, with the somewhat cryptic promise to remove all dialectical arguments from the Republic while preserving the demonstrative arguments (CR 21.4). Dialectic is associated, etymologically and semantically, with dialogue. Sure enough, Averroes expunges not only the dialogue form of the original but also its principal characters. This choice should not simply be attributed to ignorance: even if we were to assume that Averroes had only a summary of the original, he would surely have known of the existence of the characters Socrates and Thrasymachus through Alfarabi. In fact, Averroes himself mentions Thrasymachus and his arguments about justice in his Middle Commentary on the Topics.

The form with which Averroes replaces the dialogue can hardly be described as a straightforward treatise. Averroes attributes the arguments he presents to a variety of sources, as indicated by expressions such as “we said,” and “Plato said.” In addition, Alfarabi and Aristotle are often cited, paraphrased, or even plagiarized, in what is ostensibly a commentary on Plato. This implies a dialogue of sorts between not only Averroes and Plato, but Aristotle and Alfarabi as well. One is tempted to say that the discussions between Socrates, an aged father, a sophist, and several young Greeks is replaced by a discussion between four great political philosophers across the ages, orchestrated by the latest representative of this august group. On this point, it is useful to recall Leo Strauss's observation, that no Platonic dialogue relates a discussion among equals. If dialectic involves a superior person such as Socrates leading less accomplished interlocutors by the hand, then Averroes's new, demonstrative form consists of a dialogue between equals to whom historical accident never granted the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting.

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Plato's Republic in the Islamic Context
New Perspectives on Averroes's <i>Commentary</i>
, pp. 253 - 274
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2022

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