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philosophers and politics


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Plato (c. 429—347 bc)

Epicurus (341—270 bc) Greek philosopher, founder of Epicureanism

Marcus Aurelius (121—180) Roman emperor 161–80

Antigonus Gonatas (c. 320—239 bc)

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Plato in his Republic regarded good government as unattainable ‘unless either philosophers become kings in our cities or those whom we now call kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy’. He already recognized, however, that philosophers would either be reluctant to leave the contemplation of truth for the task of governing any but an ideal city, or would be ridiculed and rejected if they tried.

Philosopher‐leaders were rare in the ancient world: Cicero named only Demetrius 1 of Phaleron. The Romans themselves sent philosophers to rule Tarsus, but it was in the 2nd cent. ad that admirers of Marcus Aurelius could claim that Plato's ideal was finally fulfilled. Philosophers more commonly served their cities by educating and advising rulers or serving as ambassadors. In 155 bc when the Athenians wanted the senate to reduce a fine imposed on the city, they sent as envoys the Stoic Diogenes, the Peripatetic Critolaus, and the Academic Carneades. They succeeded in their missions, but also gave such attractive lectures that Porcius Cato 1 objected that they were seducing Roman youth from traditional values.

The charge of corrupting the youth, already employed against Socrates, was used at Rome as a reason for expelling philosophers from the city as early as 161 bc. As a preparation for public life, philosophy was suspect on several counts: (1) Philosophers, as Plato surmised, might reject practical politics. The Epicureans in fact advocated such abstention in normal circumstances. Stoics took the opposite line, so that their failure to participate was, or could be construed as, criticism of the existing regime. (2) Philosophers might insist on unrealistic moral standards in public life. The Romans were esp. prone to this view, so that whereas philosophers, except Epicureans, were regularly honoured at Athens and elsewhere in the Greek world for their contribution to educating the young, at Rome they were at first excluded from the privileges offered to doctors and teachers of rhetoric and literature for their services to the community.The Hellenistic schools of philosophy were not interested in discussing ideal constitutions, but rather in prescribing moral conduct for rulers of any kind and in teaching their subjects how to preserve their integrity and exercise free speech.

(1) Philosophers, as Plato surmised, might reject practical politics. The Epicureans in fact advocated such abstention in normal circumstances. Stoics took the opposite line, so that their failure to participate was, or could be construed as, criticism of the existing regime. (2) Philosophers might insist on unrealistic moral standards in public life. The Romans were esp. prone to this view, so that whereas philosophers, except Epicureans, were regularly honoured at Athens and elsewhere in the Greek world for their contribution to educating the young, at Rome they were at first excluded from the privileges offered to doctors and teachers of rhetoric and literature for their services to the community.

See kingship.

See kingship.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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