On Willing and Unwilling Leaders

Early in Plato’s Republic, Socrates debates a sophist, a teacher of rhetoric named Thrasymachus, about the nature and worth of justice. Thrasymachus’s position, no more unknown to us today than it was in Socrates’s and Plato’s day, is that justice is the advantage of the stronger. Based on this view, justice simply names the rules set out by rulers to benefit themselves; justice is contingent on the interest and will of the rulers. Whether a political association is ruled by one, a few, or many, the people in charge create justice through law and decree, to which the citizens must conform under the threat of punishment. The most successful ruler will be the one who knows how to use justice to his advantage, who is clever enough to make, preserve, and enforce rules to advance his interest. The best ruler is an expert manipulator. As such, there’s no justice by nature or by divine design; justice is merely a tool of crass power.

But, Socrates points out, if justice is a tool used by rulers with expert knowledge of ruling, then it should benefit those who don’t have the expertise. Like the physician who heals the patient or the housebuilder who erects a house for the customer, the ruler—as a skilled technician of sorts—should benefit those over whom he rules; if justice is some sort of tool to be employed expertly, justice should resemble other comparable types of knowledge and advance the interest of the weaker not the stronger. Indeed, experts don’t benefit directly from their expertise at all; rather, they expect payment. Even if some experts offer their services free of charge some of the time, like a physician voluntarily caring for the sick, most experts do not, and certainly not all the time. Skill serves people other than the expert. Because ruling is not intrinsically rewarding, rulers, Socrates says, are paid in the form of money or honor, or they pay a penalty for not ruling.

Socrates’s young and politically ambitious friend, Glaucon (who happens to be one of Plato’s older brothers), is confused about this—not surprisingly, as most readers are, too. He knows about money and honor, but wonders what sort of penalty do rulers try to avoid? “Then you don’t understand,” says Socrates, “the wages of the best people.” The best people aren’t motivated by wealth, or by public praise and recognition. The best people, those most suited to rule, will rule only if they fear being penalized for not doing it. And this is the penalty: “to be ruled by someone less worthy.”

I’m quite sure that many leaders and would-be leaders, political or otherwise, are very fond of Socrates on this point—indeed, I’ve heard candidates for academic leadership positions express this view. “Yes, I should indeed be in charge because I’m better than the others. Because I can’t stand to be ruled by bad and stupid people, I indeed owe it to myself and to others to step up and rule them.” I’m quite sure the politically ambitious Glaucon hears this very message. But this is to almost entirely miss Socrates’s point. To be sure, being ruled by an evil person is a terrible punishment, one we should try hard to avoid. But before deciding to rule I should be pretty sure that I’m not one of these people, and since most of us are at least a little bit arrogant, most of us are also pretty bad at appraising our own merits. As such, we shouldn’t be so keen to infer that we are among the good ones, namely the ones who should take control.


Rather than appealing to a feeling of moral and intellectual superiority, Socrates’s point should inspire some humility. His point is not “you should rule because you’re better,” but rather “if you desire power you shouldn’t pursue it.” Being desirous of power is a telltale sign that you are not suited to it. When he describes the best rulers, the so-called philosopher kings, much later in the book, this quality is made abundantly clear. The best ruler has no interest whatever in ruling. The best ruler wants to focus on moral cultivation and the study of goodness, beauty, and justice itself; the person most suited to rule wants to spend time in leisured contemplation of the highest things, including divine things, unencumbered as much as is possible by the exigencies of the workaday world; he does not wish to be burdened with utilitarian things, such as politics. Engaging in politics takes one away from the highest pursuits. If we want the best rulers, Socrates says, we’ll have to force the best people to rule. In short, the best ruler is in an important sense unwilling. Of course, no one could actually be forced against his will to rule. Rulers cannot be slaves. But they can be unwilling in a mitigated sense: they can see their leadership role as an obligation to serve others, which happens to also be disadvantageous to them. I imagine Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger experienced something of the sort in 2005, if not much earlier.

I’m quite sure it doesn’t follow that all unwilling rulers are good rulers. An incompetent buffoon could lack ambition and this lack would make him no less incompetent. I’m less sure that all good rulers are unwilling. It seems at least possible that decency could be paired with some modest amount of ambition. After all, none of us is without sin, and none perfectly virtuous; pride isn’t foreign to any of us. If we wait for the politician who is without pride, we’ll be waiting forever. I am, nonetheless, very confident that everyone ambitious enough to think they would be benefiting others by taking on some leadership role should do some genuine soul-searching before pursuing power. Cultivate moral rectitude, including humility, first, then consider ruling, and then only if you mostly would prefer not to. This seems to be Socrates’s lesson.

It is said by Xenophon, another pupil of Socrates, that Plato asked his teacher to keep an eye on his older brother Glaucon to help him curb his political ambitions. Since we know almost nothing about the historical Glaucon, I think Socrates was successful. Indeed, Glaucon had a real chance to participate in political power, since members of his family led a successful oligarchical coup against the Athenian democracy in 404 BC. Plato reports that he was invited to join, but refused. We can infer that Glaucon could have joined, too, though he, too, did not. Either his ambition had been tempered or he had learned the lesson that, because his ambition was not tempered, he ought not to rule.

Are Socrates’s thoughts on ambition unfamiliar to us today? Leaders in our states, bureaucracies, universities, and even, sadly, the Church too frequently display exactly the sort of lust for power and privilege Socrates warned us against. Let me not be utterly ungenerous. I don’t mean to say all politicians or bishops or academic deans or managing technocrats are unsuited to their roles, let alone that they are bad people. Indeed, I’ve personally met some who are not. But, in the interest of truth-telling, many are unsuited and others are downright vile; too many are greedily moved by the spirit of self-aggrandizement rather than anything like genuine service to others. Too many leaders are all too willing.

Machiavelli: The Anti-Socrates
Our willing leaders seem to take their inspiration not from Socrates, but from the great theorist of brute power: Machiavelli. His Prince gives advice to ambitious rulers and potential rulers on how to gain and keep power. Rulers should use whatever means, even wicked means, to achieve their intended ends. In politics, evil and good don’t matter; only expedience matters.

The best ruler must be clever and uncompromisingly strategic; he can do good or bad if he pleases, so long as doing so promotes his political interest. Consider the following advice to new princes: “if you take control of a state, you should make a list of all the crimes you have to commit and do them all at once. That way you will not have to commit new atrocities every day, and you will be able, by not repeating your evil deeds, to reassure your subjects and to win their support by treating them well.” It’s fine to be immoral, so long as one is also pragmatic. Machiavelli doesn’t say that bad is good, mainly because neither good nor evil has any intrinsic worth. But evil can be the way to a political good: namely, the preservation of political order, which also means the preservation of the ruler’s authority.

Another practical lesson is that rulers should cultivate fear rather than promote love. A prince, he says, “ought to be both loved and feared; but, since it is difficult to accomplish both at the same time, I maintain it is much safer to be feared than loved, if you have to do without one of the two.” Love depends too much on citizens’ feelings; a ruler can’t control those. Instead of making himself lovable to the people, the prudent ruler inspires constant fear in them. Fear can be controlled. Love, being utterly gratuitous, is too unpredictable to be useful to crass political power. There can be no genuinely Christian ruler, just a ruler pretending to be Christian for political ends.

The Prince includes a famous image that tells us much about Machiavelli and his intellectual and political heirs. A prince, Machiavelli says, cannot count on luck or fortune. He must control fortune itself. Fortune is like a woman, to be defeated, controlled, and beaten. The virtue of a prince resides in violent mastery of lady fortune. The image is terrible, to women of course, but to men, too. But the horror is even more apparent when we place this beside another image that precedes it by about a page and is unfortunately much less famous: fortune is like a torrential river that can erode its bank and destroy everything along the way if not controlled. The image sounds innocuous, but it isn’t. Fortune is nature—not just material nature, but the whole of creation. The ruler must vanquish nature by transforming it to conform to his will. The ruler presumes to become like God, but, in so doing, he becomes a demon. God is the author of all of nature and the standard of good and evil, and of truth and falsehood.

But for Machiavelli, God’s standard needs to be beaten into submission by the ruler. Right and wrong, justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness are at his command; they are remade in his own image. If successful, the prince bears a grotesque similarity to God. Whereas God’s creation reflects him, displaying beauty and goodness in every aspect to the point that the stewards of his creation are made in his image, the ruthless prince’s creation reflects him, too: it is a monstrously inverted world where nothing is true, where goodness is pure utility, and justice is the advantage of the strong.

If I’m at all right, we are in a bind. On the one hand, we need good rulers and leaders. This should go without saying. On the other hand, the very people who want to lead are probably the least suitable; indeed, they are most likely to try to turn us upside down. How do we show the all-too-willing rulers the door while convincing the unwilling rulers to come in through it? I don’t have a decisive answer, but I can invite my reader to turn within and ask: how much do I want to rule, lead, manage, and boss others around? If you do, then don’t. If you don’t, then do—maybe. We need good leaders now at least as much as ever, if not much more. We thus need more people who are honestly disinclined, people who despise power, people who disdain ambition. We need them to step up and lead.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Edvard Lorkovic


Edvard Lorkovic is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Humanities at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. A generalist by choice, if not by formation, his teaching and research focus on moral and political issues in ancient and late modern philosophy.