Plato was the first major thinker to develop a human typology. Before Friedrich Schiller or Carl Jung, he divided humanity into types. In his Republic, the great Greek philosopher analyzed the relative suitability of different types for political leadership.
These divisions were set by the passions or qualities that dominated each individual. Some people were ruled by greed, others by combativeness and still others by philosophical contemplation. Plato did not consider those ruled by greed, the businessmen, to be suitable leaders.
We have suffered much recently from the business interest of politicians. The Bush family, from the oil industry, waged needless wars in oil-rich Iraq. In a move resembling Aeschylus’ tragedy The Persians, Vice President Dick Cheney reaped financial rewards through Halliburton after pushing the younger Bush into the second Iraq invasion.
All of this should cause us to cast a jaundiced eye on one of the current candidates: the real estate developer Trump.
But we should also remember that George Washington, one of our greatest presidents, was the wealthiest American in time. Washington was not merely a successful farmer, but an entrepreneur in a number of business projects.
Yet the case of George Washington is complicated.
Plato also opposed the ruling of the state by military people: the people ruled by combative passions. World history seems to bear this out. We only need to look decades. Nevertheless, the U.S. has had considerable success with its general-presidents, including Eisenhower and Washington.
Plato said that the state should be ruled by philosophers: those devoted to the pursuit of right reason. He said that his ideal republic would not be realized until either philosophers became kings or kings philosophize.
Perhaps, in the 21st century, such a view seems patently unrealistic. Excepting Jan Smuts of South Africa, philosophers have long kept away from the practical world of business and politics. In the confines of academia, they have, over the past century, become narrow specialists.
But the great thinkers of the ancient Greek world, running from Greece across the Mediterranean to Magna Graecia in southern Italy, were not narrow specialists. Most of them worked in science, or at least in the natural philosophy that led to science. We need only think of mathematical discoveries of Pythagoras and his disciples.
The great teacher Socrates turned from scientific investigation to dialectical analysis. Yet his followers immersed themselves his science. Plato, following the Pythagoreans, did considerable work in geometry. Plato’s student Aristotle, hailing from a family of physicians, became the most accomplished scientist of the ancient world.
The question of scientists, of course, brings up other questions. In his novel The Shape of Things to Come, H.G. Wells envisioned a future war-torn world saved by scientists. But would we want Sheldon Cooper, the physicist on Big Bang Theory leading us? Brilliant scientists often miss many practicalities, and fail to read the subtleties of human behavior.
In ancient world known to Plato, philosophers often not merely scientists but also statesmen. Pythagoras and Empedocles were political leaders. Parmenides created a constitution for the city of Elea. Even Plato involved himself in politics, until he was jailed by the king of Sicily for a short time. In this context, the concept of a philosopher-king was not so farfetched.
Plato, who came from an aristocratic family, had a strong distrust of democracy. His Republic cannot, in every aspect, be a guide to us in continuing to shape our own democracy. Yet it can be helpful in making us look at human types and passions.
We can infer that the best leaders are well-rounded persons with complex compositions and wide-ranging backgrounds and interests. It would also be best if philosophy, as the pursuit of wisdom, remained a part of a leader’s personality.
When selecting a president we should look for a candidate with executive experience. It would also be helpful for the candidate to possess legislative experience, as that infers the ability and willingness with others.
Hillary Clinton, as both former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, has both legislative and executive experience. Barack Obama, a former Illinois state legislator and U.S. Senator, had legislative experience, but was hampered by his lack of executive experience.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, a quite successful president, had executive experience as leader of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II. While he did not serve on a legislature, Eisenhower had something close to legislative experience in his Allied command. For the Allied forces combating Germany and Italy were loosely-contacted nations, often with opposing interests. General Eisenhower showed considerable political skill in keeping these nations aligned.
Today Donald Trump is one of the two major presidential candidates. As head of several corporations, Trump has abundant executive experience. But the corporate has far different rules than the political. The behavior we tolerate in business magnates is far removed from what we expect of political leaders.
It doesn’t help that Trump has only worked in business. Plato would not have recommended him for leadership of the state. Trump would probably admit that in his work he has been motivated by greed. But what other qualities has he shown himself to possess?
As I’ve pointed out, George Washington was an enterprising capitalist. But Washington had abundant executive experience in the service of the state as commander of the successful effort to free the colonies from English rule. He also possessed considerable legislative experience as a long-time member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Interestingly enough, Washington also had judicial experience as a judge in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Trump has nothing comparable.
I do not write these words to tell others how to vote but rather to encourage analysis. Our system of selecting presidents seems have hit a dead end. The people who win nominations are most often a far cry from the people most needed to run the country.
George Bernard Shaw said that the challenge of question of how to best pick leaders is the great mystery of civilization. Now, in the early 21st century, it’s apparent that both parties have recently failed to provide satisfactory leaders.
We need more open elections. Voters need more options.
I conclude with the now-remote question of how to find the greatest leaders.
Our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, were far different people than the people they started out being.
Washington, as a frontier surveyor and commander in the French and Indian war, was a major opportunist. He did whatever he needed to help his ambitions. Abraham Lincoln, early in his career, was little more than an ambitious and crafty frontier lawyer.
These two men eventually showed great nobility of character. Lincoln ended up with a truly altruistic vision, and Washington was selfless and even humble in the service of his country. In essence, both men had the ability to evolve.
Franklin D. Roosevelt perhaps lacked the stature of Washington or Lincoln. But his scale of achievement far exceeded the presidents of recent decades. He started out as a somewhat superficial person. It was the onset of polio that changed him, and gave him considerable compassion for the sufferings other people.
Franklin Roosevelt, too, had evolved. It was this compassion and strength that helped him lead the nation through both the Great Depression and the Second World War.
How can we find such an ability? To do so we would have to look closely, beyond all the hype and hysteria that confronts us today.