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Philosopher King

By Robert Fritz

Thinking about Plato the other day, I realized how much I hate his idea of the philosopher kings.  In case you haven’t read Book VII of the Republic recently, Plato thought that only those who had mastered philosophical wisdom have the right perspective from which to lead.

When I was at the Boston Conservatory, my composition teacher said that composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez could run Germany and France because of their ability to be organized.  This is a variation of the philosopher king, except this is the artistic king.  I suppose every profession thinks that only those who are in the trade should be in charge.  So we can have the film director kings, or the computer programmer kings, or the bus driver kings, or the hairdresser kings.

The trouble with the notion of philosopher kings is in the philosophy bit.  Whenever we begin with a philosophy and try to apply it to practical things, bad things can happen.

I love philosophy as an intellectual discipline and a creative exploration of ideas.  But, since there isn’t a method to prove or disprove philosophic theories, there isn’t a lot that can be said as to their validity.  Some philosophers use higher mathematics to delve into higher levels of philosophical thought, but the math doesn’t prove the reality of the philosophy, only the wonders of mathematics.

Composer Paul Hindermith (1895-1963) wrote his most inventive music before he wrote a book on music theory (this is the music worlds version of a philosophy book.)  After that, he rewrote many of the pieces of his earlier period to be consistent with the book, making them less interesting, less expressive, less dramatic, stiffer, and less fun.

This is the limitation that comes from ideals imposed on life, on art, on government, on education, on human beings.  Consistency to the ideal thwarts the creative spirit of innovation.  It limits the imagination.  It puts the mind in jail.  It imposes a synthetic construct on real life.

In the creative process it is sometimes important to break all of the rules that have been established by years of traditions or rulebooks.  The reason one would do this is not for revolution itself, but because, to reach a new and original vision, the confines of traditional thought makes it harder or impossible to accomplish.  You can’t get there from here.  First you need to go somewhere else.

What is the use of having philosophic ideals anyway?  Like any ideal, they are imposed on life.  Here is how you should live, here is what you should think, here is what it means, here is what to like and what to hate.  Ideals try to place order where we are unsure there is order.  Yet, rather than an exploration of pattern recognition, which is the discipline of discerning order through rigorous observation and understanding relationships of similarities and differences, ideals come prepackaged, ready to be force fitted into any situation.

Okay, so my advice is to rid yourself of ideals, philosophical or otherwise.  At least, don’t use them within your own creative process, and if you are using the creative process to create your life, then don’t let ideals in the door.

Some people think that they would be lost without ideals.  “How would we know what to think, how to act, what to do?”

By real things, such as aspirations and values.  These are the best organizing principles for creating what you want.  Aspirations and values do not come from an idealistic context.  They are real.  For example, ethics and morals are simply ideals of real values.  A value, which refers to measurement, is the ordering of what is more important and what is less important.  If, for example, you value both truth and kindness, and you attend your sister’s concert debut who loves to sing but is tone deaf, one of these values will become more important than the other.  If it were kindness you might say, “Sis, you were great.”  If it were truth you might say, “Sis, you were terrible.”  And if you tried to balance these two competing values you might say, “Gee, Sis, for a woman who can’t carry a tune in a basket, you sure sounded great.”

The most important questions in life cannot be answered by ideals.  These are questions like what do I want to create?  What do I care about?  How do I want to live my life?  Who do I love?  What matters most to me?

So, while students study Plato’s notions of how philosophers should run the world, thankfully, they don’t.  

©2010 Robert Fritz

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Updated: 10/24/10