Plato: the second best way of ruling – The Statesman (The Politicus)  

plato the statesman politicus


Plato’s Republic, considered being the foundational text of the western Political Philosophy, is a work of a poetic flight with the youthful imagery and idealism of a young philosopher from an aristocratic Athenian background. The republic is the abode of a future dreamland, unrestricted by trivialities and the lacunas of the present.  His student, Aristotle criticized him for focusing only on the theoretical best at the cost of the existing reality. He seems to have welcomed and heeded the criticism. In his late political works, The Statesman and The Laws, he tries to be practical and do away with the stamp of impracticality from his political philosophy. In these works, he pays sufficient attention to the actually existing states and their functioning. “Plato makes peace with the reality and acknowledges that there is room in political life for consent and law and constitutionalism”. (Barker, Greek Political Theory, p. 330). May be the stability of Athenian democratic system had softened his stand towards the existing political reality.  “The mood in Plato’s late political works has dimmed. Fiery ideals burn less bright; his view of man’s nature has fallen; his faith in radical reforms has given way to more modest hopes.” (George Klosko, The Development of Plato’s Political Theory, Methuen, NY, 1986, p.183) The speculations about the reasons of the shift in his views, is unnecessary here. His experiences of Cecily seem to be one of them to have influenced his thought. In The Statesman, Plato seems to be bit disillusioned with the ideals of the Republic, not due to any issue with the quality of the ideals, as their echoes are heard in the Statesman and the Laws. His disillusionment with the theoretical best of the Republic and shift towards the practical, second best way of rule seems to have emerged from the consideration of practicability. In the Statesman, the ideals of the Republic are replaced by the prevailing reality.  

The literary flavour of the Republic is missing in it. In The Statesman Socrates is only a peripheral character and totally absent in The Laws. The Statesman presents a clearer picture of social and economic structures, as they existed in Plato’s time (4th century BC),  than the Republic. (Skemp, p.43) In it, the statesman is presented as the royal weaver, who weaves the society in a fabric. There is neither scope nor the need of a detailed discussion on weaving. The weaver produces the fabric as the final product assisted by the providers of the tools and the raw materials and other helpers.  The statesman weaves the society with the assistance of various auxiliaries determined by the division of the society into practitioners of various arts social utility.

 Republic is not a utopia, addressed to no one. It is not a utopia but a passionate appeal to his fellow Athenians to overthrow the existing democratic rule and replace it with the Ideal State, guided by the philosophers.  For Plato, the democracy was the rule of numbers and not wisdom. Plato’s First City of the Republic, a simple city of “happy freedom” but lacking the guidance of reason resembles the existing Athenian democratic society.  In order to bring it under the guidance of the reason, he theorizes the ideal state. In course of time, possibly, he realized the non-practicability of the Ideal State in a foreseeable future.  So, in the Statesman, he theorises an alternative model, in which the statesman replaces the philosopher king. But when he argues that the exalted position of the statesman rests on knowledge of the art of the statesmanship, he transports the philosopher king-in-disguise from the Republic to the Statesman. “Plato elaborates the nature of the Statesman in such a way that he becomes more or less indistinguishable from the Republic’s philosopher king” (Klosko, p. 190)

The Statesman is the transitional text between The Republic and The Laws, his last work, which he was still working on, when he bade good bye to the planet earth (BC 347). The Statesman is considered to have been authored around BC 366-360, during and in the aftermath of his visits to Cecily to guide into philosophy, the successive rulers of the Syracuse, the Dionysus I and II respectively. (J.B. Skemp, Plato’s Statesman, Bristol Classical Press, Bristol, 1952, pp.17-18)

The characters of this dialogue are Socrates; Theodorus, a mathematician; an unnamed visiting philosopher from Elea (the Eleatic Stranger) and another young person, also named Socrates, a young student of the Academy (Young Socrates).  The mouthpiece of Plato in the Republic is Socrates. In the Statesman, his presence is nominal. He and Theodorus briefly introduce and reflect on the discussion to be taken over by the Eleatic Stranger and the young Socrates. They carry on the dialectical investigation into the nature of the statesman.

In the Statesman, Plato presents “the second best method of rule, which throws more light on the actual social and economic life, prevailing in contemporary Greece than the Republic and is more ordered and fundamental in method than The Laws. (Skemp, p.22) The invisible Forms (or the Ideas) of The Republic were never completely abandoned but the visible copies of the invisible are more closely studied. It proposes the governance by the Statesman, who is well-versed in the art of statesmanship. This is the work of the matured philosopher with the experiences of prolonged teaching at the Academy and few unsuccessful attempts to introduce the rulers into Philosophy. In a way the Statesman is an improvisation of the doctrines of the philosopher kings/queens of the Republic. But in it, there is no room for the communism of property and the family. This means that unlike the Guardians of the Republic, the statesman is not deprived of the family and the private property. Also, the prolonged description of the meticulously planned, protracted system of the education of the guardians with carefully prepared and censored course curriculum is missing. But the importance of education as a tool to politically mould the personalities, has not been ignored (Klosko, 192). Seeing the over emphasis on education in the Republic, Rousseau considered it as the “finest treatise of education ever written”. It emphasises that the true statesmen equipped with the knowledge of the art of governance (kingship), “know what the best for their cities is”. (R.F. Stalley, An Introduction to Plato’s Laws, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1983, p. 17)

The Statesmanship

A statesman is a political person having specific knowledge and expertise in directing political affairs. The central message of the Statesman is that the sovereignty lies with the rule of statesmanship, i.e., with the knowledge of weaving together into a fabric the diverse functional divisions and diverse personalities of the society and of directing the various divisions into appropriately practicing their functional arts.

        The Eleatic Stranger begins the discussion with the declaration that statesmanship is an art (or science). “The Statesmanship is an art….. It may well be practiced by an expert adviser not actually wielding the actual political power but guiding the wielder of it. It is a theoretic art rather than manual one, but it is ‘applied’, and not pure like mathematical calculation.” (J.B. Skemp, Plato’s Statesman, Bristol Classical Press, Bristol, 1987, p. 113) The Statesman is the specialist practitioner of the art of statecraft with the help of subordinate functionaries’ over the non-specialist population. Such a specialized knowledge resides in one person or a very small number of persons. It may not reside in the actual possessor of political authority at all, but in a competent advisor whom he consults and who is as entitled to be called as statesman as the ruler himself (JB Skemp,  40). In their attempt to define the art of the statesmanship, Eleatic Stranger (ES) and Young Socrates (YS) use the methods of analogies of the shepherd and weaving; the myths of Cronus and Zeus and the   division of the society among various functional strata performing different socio-economic functions under the guidance and the direction of the statesman.

Like in the Republic, Plato uses the methods of analogies; similes and myths in the Statesman also. To define the statesman, on the one hand he uses the analogy of the shepherd, who nourishes and tends the people like the shepherd does to his sheep. And on the other hand, he uses the analogy of the weaver, who weaves different strata of the society into an organic whole, like the weaver weaves the fabric. He also uses the myths of the divine age of the Cronus and the subsequent age of the Zeus for analogies to arrive at the appropriate definition of the statesman. Here the details of all the matters covered by Plato in The Statesman are unnecessary. Our concern is Plato’s account of a true statesman and his functions.

The Definition

The analogy of the shepherd

The Eleatic Stranger (ES) begins his definition with the analogy of the shepherd. The Statesman is practitioner of the art of “nurturing” or rearing the human herds, like a shepherd does to his sheep. The ES is not fully convinced with this definition and shares his dissatisfaction with the Young Socrates (YS). He feels that the art of statesman does not pertain to “rearing” and nurturing only but tending them, i.e., taking care of them also. “The statesmanship is therefore the art of tendance” (Skemp, 114)

The myths

  To improve upon this definition they take recourse to the comparative myths of the age of Cronus and the age of Zeus. The former was long past. It was “the golden age, during which the God directly controlled the universe. It was a time of plenty, there was no need to labour and there was no want. In those times, there was no need of property and there were neither the politics nor the war. But the age of Cronus came to an end ushering into the age of Zeus. God no longer controlled the course of things and men were left to their own devices.” In the age of Cronus, the divine Statesman was, “superior to his human flock, as sphered to his sheep”. In the age of Zeus the Statesman is as human as other people whom he has to rule over. (Klosko, 190-91). The inference can be made from the comparative discussion on myths that the idea of Ideal State is like the age of Cronus without the institutions of private family and the property. The task at hand was to find a true statesman in the age of Zeus. The message of the story of the myths indicates Plato’s disillusionment with the Ideal State of the Republic ruled by more than human philosophers.

Thus in identifying the statesman and his art, Plato through ES moves away from the belief in the ideal political system of the Republic. “The Statesman mastered the art (or science) of ruling and this is the sole identifying feature. His rule is to be untrammelled by either laws or the desire of the subjects. ….. The Statesman possesses the kind of wisdom that went into drawing up the original laws. Thus he should be allowed to adjust the laws to the changed circumstances.” (Klosko, p.190) In the Statesman Plato’s concern with the laws is to the extent of their being embodiment of social desires and aspirations. As the Statesman has mastered the art of the statesmanship i.e., the governance, he knows, what is best for the governed. He needs not always seek their consent. To justify his views in this regard he draws the simile of the doctor who administers the medicine to his patients irrespective of their consent, as long as he has the interest of the patient in mind.  The only condition is that he exercises scientific intelligence aimed at the good of the governed. It sounds like the echo of the philosopher king of the Republic. In the Statesman, Plato is quite ambiguous regarding the peoples’ consent. As mentioned above, he argues that a true statesman acting in the interest of people need not bother about their consent.  But at one point he also underlines consent as distinguishing factor between a Statesman and a tyrant. (Klosko, pp. 191-92)

The Weaving

The art of the statesmanship is the directive art over the other arts of the social and political utility required to its appropriate functioning. This art involves decision to tell other arts about when and how they should be applied.  “The General knows the art of war but only the Statesman is qualified to say when and how the art of war should be employed.” (Klosko, p.192) Every art, which ministers the needs of an organised human community, must be classed as contributory. For without the things provided by these arts there could be no community and so no art to rule; and yet we can hardly regard them as the duty of kingly art to produce any of these things.” The whole analysis of the society is in terms of functions of the particular professional with economic production at the base and the statesmanship at the apex point. The higher services are rendered by clerks, heralds and priests. The direct auxiliaries of the Statesman are the “educators; orators; judicatures; generals and magistrates.” (Skemp, p. 46) Unlike the Republic, in which Plato devotes enormous space to the education and training of the Guardians, in the Politicus (Statesman) there is no description of the training of the Statesman or the source of his art of ruling but describes the “prime function of ruling as is actually exercised in the community”. He not overtly but covertly tells us “that the true Statesman has that gift of insight into the nature of True Reality, which gives the moral strength fit for the exercise of his supreme task.” (Skemp, 51)

Plato explains the art of statesmanship as the directive art by the simile of the weaving, through the discussion between ES and YS. “The art specifically concerned with producing clothes, we will describe from the name of the product, as the ‘clothes working’ art, just as we called the art of controlling a state, statesmanship. We may also say that the art of weaving – at any rate that a very large section of it concerned with the production of clothes – is distinct in nothing but the name from the ‘art of the clothes-working’, just as the arts of Kingship and Statesmanship, as synonymous. Plato portrays the political art of statesmanship as weaving in terms of the process of weaving and the quality of the fabric it produces. The art of waving is presented as the paradigmatic analogy for the political art of Statesmanship in terms of incorporating different entities and joining diverse threads into a cohesive political unit. Plato through the ES defines the art of statesmanship with the example of weaving and “proceeds to a series of divisions in order to define this art. It must be distinguished from arts of manufacture of kindred fabrics, from separative arts, like the art of carding and from merely subordinate arts, whose products are nevertheless necessary for the weaver, such as manufacturing the shuttles. Only after distinguishing weaving from all these can we claim to have defined it.” (Skemp, 115)

After distinguishing the art of weaving from subordinate arts he proceeds to define the art of statesmanship “in the political human community. As there were subordinate arts, which merely produced the tools to make weaving possible, so there are subordinate functions in the human community”. (Skemp, 116).


         In his scheme of divisions and subdivision of the society, Plato specifies three such classes of the subordinate functions:

1: Primary producers of the physical requirements of the community. 2: Personal menial servants; labourers; traders and venturers.

3: Clerks, heralds, soothsayers and priests.

              He distinguishes the rule of the statesman from the existing six categories of law-abiding and law-flouting constitutions respectively, as monarchy and tyranny; aristocracy and oligarchy and democracy and democracy on the basis of numbers of rulers. And then opines that “statesmanship is the seventh constitution to be distinguished from all these six, as the God from the men. His relative assessment of the existing constitutions seems to anticipate Aristotle’s classification of the constitutions in terms of the number and the virtue in Politics. Both, the teacher and the disciple have similar relative characterisation of the pure and impure constitutions. In pure (law abiding) form rule of one, i.e. monarchy is the best followed by aristocracy and democracy, the rules of the few and the many respectively. In perverted (law flouting) forms the order is reversed, democracy being the most tolerable, oligarchy the worse and tyranny the worst.

              Coming back to divisions in the society, the auxiliaries or subordinates of the true statesman at the apex are: “the orators, military leaders and the judicature. …… The orator’s skill in public speaking and the military man’s strategy do not belong to the statesman as such but are to be at his service, entirely and unquestionably, as and when required. Likewise the statesman prescribes the rules for judicature.” (Skemp, 118) Apart from weaving various professional arts, the statesman’s duty also involves weaving different kinds of personalities also, as society not only consists of many people but many kinds of people. There are two basic kinds of personalities, “dominated by quiet and active principles respectively, or otherwise stated, possessing moderation and energy”. (Klosko, 192).  From this follows that society consists of dialectically opposite personalities and the art of statesmanship is to establish a dialectical unity between them or “to weave the different personality types.” This he seeks to do by tightly controlled education to counteract people’s natural tendencies and also by ensuring marriages between “different personality types so that the resulting children partake of both the natures.”(Klosko, 192). Another way he suggests is distribution of the offices between different personality types. “When a single magistrate happens to be needed, the statesman must choose a man possessing both the characteristics and set him in authority. Where several magistrates are wanted, he must bring together some representatives of each type to share the duties.” (Skemp, 234)        


 In the Statesman, Plato formally departs from the view of two worlds of the Republic, this- worldly visible world, i.e., the world of objects and the other worldly invisible world, i.e., the world of the Ideas or the Forms, in which the priority lies with the former. In it the focus is on this worldly or the living world. The rule of the scientific intelligence of the statesman with the mastery in the art of statesmanship and the ability to know what the best is for the people, echoes the rule of the philosopher king of the Republic and foreshadows the rule by law of the Laws. Thus we can say that the Statesman stands midway between the Republic and the Laws, or as mentioned above it is the transitional text between the two.

              In the Statesman Plato views governance as a specialized art to take care the interests of all the people in the state. It is a directive art of all the other arts. The practitioner of art need not be the real ruler who wields power over the people of the community but even someone who does not wield power but guides the real wielder of the power; the one whom the wielder of the power consults. The statesman possesses the knowledge of ruling justly in the interests of all the people. To drive his point, Plato uses the analogies of a shepherd who tends his herd and the weaver who weaves a fabric with the help of providers of the tools and the raw material as his auxiliaries. Like shepherd, the statesman tends the human herd and like weaver, the statesman weaves different section of the society in the social fabric with the help of his auxiliaries who practice different arts of social utility.        

              In nutshell the Statesman the rule of the statesmanship consisting of the knowledge of the best interest of the people and the ability to weave the different human threads into a fabric; like a weaver does in case of weaving the cloth and to nurture, nourish and tend them, like a shepherd. This means directing and coordinating the practitioners of various kinds of subordinate arts necessary to maintain the political community. As has been pointed out above that it is not necessary that the real wielder of power possesses quality of the statesmanship, it may be possessed by someone else, whom he often consults.

Ish Mishra is a retired professor of Delhi University

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