Future Lawyer Blog

Changing the idea of Political Office from Plato’s Republic and applying it to UK Politics

Member of the 2023-24 Lawbore journalist team, Victoria Rivera, attended ‘Plato and the idea of Political Office’ on the 19th October. Gresham College have provided free public lectures since 1597 (!!) and each year have an extensive programme of events on a wide range of topics (law included). Most of these are also recorded. Have a look at their back catalogue and get booking on an upcoming lecture(we also add these to the Lawbore Events Calendar).

Is politics merely a stonewalling or a show of apathy of the oppressed group, a robe for the rulers to exploit the ruled?

This is a central and pivotal question that must be asked, and is one which still has much political and legal significance in today’s society.  This is a notion that has gripped the minds of political theorists and political philosophers for many years.

Professor Melissa Lane

The speaker at this event was Professor Melissa Lane, a Professor of Politics at Princeton University and an Associated Faculty in the Department of Classics and Department of Philosophy there. Her extensive knowledge on Ancient Greek philosophers’ such as Aristotle to Plato certainly showed through her excellent lecture. She presents Plato’s work The Republic and shines a new light on this classic work, applying it to the politics of England, especially politicians holding political office.

Many students in the fields of philosophy, humanities, and political science have found Plato’s works to be very difficult to interpret (me included). Professor Lane has used many of Plato’s teachings. For example, Plato explained that in any democracy in whatever form, there should accountability, corruption, negligence, incompetence, and scrutiny for all officeholders, especially in political office.

The most riveting aspect of the presentation was Professor Lane’s ability to apply Ancient Greek accountability to the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which seventy-two lives were lost and many more survivors and others lost members of their families, their friends, their homes, and their wider community. The public inquiry is still being prepared, but much of the testimonies from former Prime Minister David Cameron and others are in the public realm.

Professor Lane quotes an interesting question which was posed by Stephanie Barwise KC, who said in December 2021:

“Grenfell is a lens through which to see how we are governed.”

Stephanie Barwise KC, a barrister for the bereaved survivors of the Grenfell disaster

By applying Plato’s philosophical work, specifically in The Republic to the Grenfell disaster it could be argued that it was a political, legal, and moral failure of political officeholders. But we will not know for sure until the final report is released, then the truth of what happened will be brought to light.

The term ‘negligent’ was often brought up during the presentation and for those of us coming here from the legal sphere, we understand this within the legal context of torts. However, Professor Lane uses this term in a way that is unique to Plato’s work which is ‘political negligence,’ which would consist of the following: gaslighting, stonewalling, or not caring enough to bother responding to citizens or pursuing their good.

Professor Lane emphasises that politicians need to “walk a fine line” which would mean not caring about power for their own good, but caring about exercising it for the good of others. Additionally, in Plato’s The Republic it is highlighted that the best rulers are those who do not want to rule, but who are willing to rule nevertheless for the sake of others: “…take the initiative, concerning being knowledgeable, capable, and also being caretakers (kedemonas) of the city…” (Plato, The Republic, Book 3, 412c 13-14, trans Lane). The role of acting as a caretaker is one that all societies need in many ways, especially in political and legal context.

Reviewer Victoria

The notion of political office is one that carries great responsibility because it is extending oneself for the greater good which is encompassed by the ‘for the people’ mantra. Plato’s concepts can still be seen today, from US politics to UK politics, but what seems to be lacking is that of political and legal accountability for politicians.

Victoria Rivera is an international student. Originally, she is from Los Angeles, California and has moved around quite frequently (living in other countries as well). She is pursuing her LLM in Public International Law and wants to pursue a career in being an IP attorney in the US or a glorious career in legal journalism. She loves to talk and interact with people, and is a big fan of Star Wars, Ted Lasso, and Japanese anime. Fun fact: she loves to write short stories and read romantic novels. 

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