Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Obama the Platonist Philosopher King?

ὁ βάσιλευς φιλόσοφος 
In a recent WORLD Magazine article, D. C. Innes makes the following observation
James T. Kloppenberg, in his book Reading Obama, argues that the president is philosophically driven, coming from the tradition of American pragmatism. Obama is a kind of philosopher president. Whether he is or not, he has been trying to govern as though he were a philosopher king. 
He then goes on to give a pretty good, concise explanation of Plato's "Philosopher-King" ideal. 
In The Republic, Plato presents the philosopher king as the ideal form of government: rule by one wise person who is whole-heartedly devoted to the truth and therefore incorruptible. The philosopher king, by this definition, would understand the science of all things, including the science of government, its technique and its proper ends, and so also the science of what is good for human beings as such. Because of his unparalleled wisdom and public-spiritedness, he would, of course, govern without the restraint of law. After all, any restraint upon science would be, to that extent, the rule of ignorance, which cannot be good.
While I am not interested in making political commentary here, I am interested in discussing Plato's ideal and whether it is transferable to the Christian cosmology (view of the world). 

For Plato, the philosopher-king was the ideal ruler because he could live in both worlds, so to speak. As a philosopher, he understands the true nature of things independent of their material appearance (the world of "forms"). As a king, he lives in the world of shadows and rules those who falsely believe the shadows are the real world (here you should recall your reading of Plato's Allegory of the Cave in high-school, but just in case it's not so fresh, here's a refresher).

There is much that the Christian can relate to in Plato's Analogy of the Cave. We too believe that there is a higher order of reality that supersedes the transitory experiences of this life. The fleeting moments of insight, pleasure, and unity are not in the end, the whole picture. There is an ultimate consummation of these things. Fleeting insight will be transformed into an unfaltering gaze upon the God of all knowledge. Momentary pleasure will be settled into unending delight in the Creator. And the connections we sometimes experience with others in this life will become a deep harmony with all the created order in the next.

Of all the great theologians of the church, none was more influential nor unabashedly Platonic in his thinking than Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD). Indeed he affirms about the Platonists "we prefer these to all other philosophers, and confess that they approach nearest to us" (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.VIII.9.html). However, he differs in at least one crucial way -- he recognizes there can be no human philosopher-king. Unlike Augustine, Platonists do not believe in the Fall (in a biblical sense) nor in the depravity of man. Christians believe the only lover of wisdom (i.e. philosopher - φιλοσ + σοφια) fit to rule mankind is the Author and Source of wisdom.

In the same manner, the human philosopher-king is incompatible with a democracy (or more properly, republic) such as ours. The checks and balances instituted by America's founding fathers were instituted to counter human depravity by keeping power from the hands of the few and providing a process of nonviolent reform. They lacked faith in any one man to both know and do the Good. But there is One in Whom such faith should be placed, though, as His disciples slowly learned, He did not come to rule as an earthly king.

So in philosophy and politics alike, , we must concur with, not with the Greek Philosopher (Plato), but with the Latin Doctor of the Church (Augustine), and place our ultimate hope for change in no mere man, but always and only in the one God-Man fit to be our Philosopher-King (Jesus Christ).