The ideas and theories of major philosophers John Stuart Mill and Plato are without a doubt essential to our study and interpretation of politics. One of Plato’s greatest works, The Republic, and Mill’s On Liberty and other essays, offer us some crucial insight about the concepts of knowledge and political structure that should ultimately be assessed. In the Republic, Plato offers us this idea of a knowledge hierarchy, in which there are only a few people who possess not only a higher degree of knowledge, but dialectical thought. These few people are the only ones who can access the Good of the Form, which sets them apart from the rest of society. This concept is part of the development of Plato’s political hierarchy.
According to Mill, there are also those, known as competent judges, who have both the knowledge and experience that allow them to judge certain pains and pleasures that no ordinary citizens can truly do. They are the ones that can truly determine which pleasures are essential more valuable than others. Although the structure and concepts of Plato’s political hierarchy are different from Mill’s outlook on government, in this paper I will be arguing that Mill does in fact also have this political hierarchy rooted within his knowledge hierarchy; I will be explaining this by elaborating more on how his knowledge hierarchy correlates with the development of his political hierarchy, as well as explaining Mill’s belief in a government composed of certain people who possess certain crucial components.
Before examining and explaining why Mill does in fact have a political hierarchy, a brief understanding of Plato’s political hierarchy is in order; this understanding will help identify some of the similarities between the two. In The Republic, Plato establishes his ideal society that consists of a three part class system of people: the producers, auxiliaries, and guardians (). Each class group must perform their appropriate functions in order for the society to thrive at its full capacity; this is where we see education play a big role, as well the meat of Plato’s hierarchy. The producers are those who have received minimal education and are essentially the working class who have very little say in how society should run. The auxiliaries are the soldiers of society who have received extensive training and years of education that set them far apart from the producer class.
Most of them become the enforcers of the law, but those who stand out from the rest move on to the highest class known as the guardians/philosopher kings. Philosopher kings possess what Plato refers to as noesis (dialectical thought), which is the highest form of knowledge (). With that said, they are the rulers in the society/government Plato thinks is most appropriate; they are the ones who are most capable to decide what is good for the rest of the society ().
In regards to Plato’s political and philosophical views, both education and the amount of knowledge one obtains plays a highly important role. Mill also has a similar stance when it comes to the importance of knowledge and experience; this importance sets a precedent when we discuss why Mill does indeed have a political hierarchy. For example, when it comes to deciding what types of pleasures are constituted as either higher or lower, competent judges (those who have both knowledge and experience in both) are the only ones who can truly distinguish and prioritize between the two.
The concept of competence is also relevant while discussing the political views of John Stuart Mill. In particular, he argues that there are not many people who are “fit for high duties” (Mill 526). Therefore, the society cannot reject the services of such individuals (Mill 526). Overall, their work can be critical for promoting for the interests of the majority. To a great extent, this thinker lays stress on the need for creating a meritocratic social system in which the positions of authority are occupied by the most qualified members of the community. Additionally, in his essays, the philosopher advocates the idea that representative government is the ideal form of polity (Mill 257).
In turn, the representatives should be sufficiently qualified to develop and implement laws that best serve the interests of citizens. In order to achieve this goal, they should be knowledgeable enough to distinguish higher and lower pleasures since they underlie the interests of people. Yet, one should mention that this philosopher does not argue that a certain group of people are inherently more ready to act as competent judges. Therefore, the political system should not exclude people who have often been marginalized due to the existent norms. For instance, he supports the political rights of women. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that the political hierarchy developed by John Stuart Mill is rather inclusionary.
It should be noted that some of these people can be distinguished due to the so-called “opportunities of experience” (Mill 80). In other words, these people should be experienced enough to make rational judgments about the policies that best fit the interests of people. Apart from that, these people can be distinguished due to their intelligence and ability to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of a certain decision (West 63). Such people can ensure that the principles of utilitarian ethics can be properly implemented (West 63). In addition to that, John Stuart Mill accepts the premise that the selected officials may not be competent enough to promote the welfare of the community. This is why this thinker emphasizes the role of professional advisers who can help politicians make informed decisions (Mill 396). Moreover, Mill’s argument implies that people do not always select the most competent individuals. In some cases, these politicians may not be able to apply the principles of utilitarian ethics. This is one of the points that should be considered because it indicates that people may not necessarily choose the most qualified candidates. As a result, the public interests can be endangered, and one should make sure that this risk is reduced to the minimum.
Nevertheless, it is important to mention that John Stuart Mill does not reject the idea of democratic elections as a form of participation in political life of a country. In particular, he does not advocate a purely elitist viewpoint according to which political life should be the domain of a very limited group of people such as philosopher kings (Plato 153). This is one of the details that distinguish him from Plato and many of his followers. To some degree, his political hierarchy is based on the premise that politicians should strive to increase their knowledge of the issues that affect the welfare of the community. It should be noted that Plato perceives democracy as a flawed or at least inefficient system of government. In turn, John Stuart Mill accepts democracy as a norm. However, he also accepts the limitations of this political system that does not always meet the standards of meritocracy. This is one of the similarities that can be distinguished.
The arguments of both philosophers imply that the most talented and educated should rise to the positions of power. This is the ultimate goal that should be achieved by the society. So, in this particular respect, their approaches are similar to one another. Nevertheless, Mill’s writings imply that this principle can be compatible with the idea of a representative government.
Thus, one can say that the political and knowledge hierarchies can be closely related to one another. The political decisions should be based on the in-depth insights into the interests of the community. Moreover, political leaders should be able to distinguish lower and higher pleasures which are critical for utilitarian ethics. Although, the political philosophy of Juan Stuart Mill is much more inclusive, especially in comparison with the ideas expressed by Plato, his discussion also suggests that the preference should be given to those individuals who have the sufficient skills to promote the interests of the majority. Moreover, professional advisers should help them avoid potential pitfalls.
The main similarity between Plato and John Stuart Mill is the assumption according to which people are unequal in their ability to act as political leaders. Moreover, both of them lay stress on the need for a meritocratic political system. This theme permeates the writings of both philosophers. Nevertheless, John Stuart Mill believes that the representative government can be improved or modified so that it could reach the standards of meritocracy.
Mill, John. On Liberty and Other Essays, Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2008. Print.
Plato. The Republic Of Plato: Second Edition. New York: Basic Books, 1991. Print.
West, Henry. An Introduction to Mill’s Utilitarian Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.