Gresham College Lectures

Plato and the Idea of Political Office

October 27, 2023 Gresham College
Gresham College Lectures
Plato and the Idea of Political Office
Show Notes Transcript

Is politics merely a gaslighting of the oppressed, a cloak for the rulers to exploit the ruled?

Plato’s Republic confronted the challenges of political office (archē). By working through the ideas of this dialogue and comparing them to the present day, the lecture offers a new way of understanding the role of officeholders and the ethical demands placed on them. It argues that Plato took the risk of abuse of power far more seriously than has been generally recognised.

A lecture by Melissa Lane recorded on 19 October 2023 at Barnard's Inn Hall, London

The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website:

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Earlier this year in Buckinghamshire, the incoming mayor of High Wickham was weighed in on ceremonial town scales. And the outgoing mayor was told out as the bucks free press reported, the mayor making ceremony was first held in 1678 to we to measure whether local officials had gotten fat over the past year at the taxpayer's expense, in which case in the 17th century they might have been pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables. This is a graphic idea, a graphic illustration of the basic idea of political office as requiring accountability in ancient Greek, the giving of an account that office holders should have to render this account to determine whether they've used their powers to engorge themselves or to benefit the citizen body. So giving an account of one's tenure of office means at a minimum, a financial accounting showing that public monies were spent properly and not appropriated privately, but that financial accounting might then have to be defended with a reasoned explanation, answering complaints, and that broader sense of a, a battle of claims. And counterclaims means that political office will always potentially involve a trial by rhetoric. And this is why I've taken political office as the topic of this inaugural lecture. Indeed, I think of rhetoric as a field as akin to Gresham College itself, which has been described by two of its historians as lying at the very center of the traffic between practice and reflection. And that's how I'll try to pursue the study of rhetoric and office. Tonight. I'll ask you to move back and forth with me between actual political practices, both today and in Greek antiquity and reflection on their purposes to think about their, whether there are ways in which there purposes could perhaps be otherwise perhaps even better achieved. And I'll be arguing that that's exactly what the philosopher Plato was engaged in. He too was engaged in reflecting on ancient Greek practices and developing his radically new ideas about politics through that reflection. So my focus is on political office conceived as a species of rule. So you can see that an ancient Greek office and rule are actually expressed with the same noun and verb arcade in the case of the noun and arcane in the case of the verb, A political office then, and as a form of rule involves both an order of roles of practices or institutions in Greek attacks and order through which can be achieved a purpose, a telos of office, which in the case of politics then as now is ideally the good of the ruled. So a taxes is a framework, an ordered set of roles and practices through which that Telus can be pursued. But a gap can always arise between the taxes and the Telus. For at least three basic reasons. Officials may act incompetently, they may act corruptly, they may act negligently. In other words, they may not know what to do. They may do the wrong thing to benefit themselves or their mates, or they may fail to do the right thing. And while ancient Greek polities were different from our own in some important ways that I'll address as we continue, I believe that those three basic challenges remain applicable. Indeed, they're all too recognizable and common. So my plan for tonight is this. I'll start by illustrating with one particular elected office in modern Britain, just how these powers and purposes, um, can be related. And I'll compare its accountability regime with those of ancient Greek offices to show how much more demanding were the audit procedures in ancient Greece. And so that will lead to a first payoff of the lecture. I'll conclude its first half by reflecting on how procedures of that kind might potentially have helped prevent a recent British political trauma. And then in the second half we'll come to Plato and I'll demonstrate that Plato, on my view, was doing exactly the same sort of thing. Plato was reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the taxes of office in his own time in the fourth century, BCE before the common era, and was arguing that the proposed political constitution of his dialogue, the Republic, might provide even more robust ways to prevent exactly these three problems. So in dreaming of a, of an ideal republic, Plato was not ignoring the fault lines of everyday politics. Rather, he was precisely thinking through at a radical level how those fault lines could be addressed as cracks appear in the foundations of political life. Today, my hope is that reflecting on these past practices in Athens and reflecting on Plato's past reflections on those practices might give us a more reflective understanding of the predicaments that we face. So what do I mean by a political office? So let me define it as a position with a limited set of powers where the limits typically include term limits, limits on eligibility to, uh, of, to serve of other kinds and especially accountability mechanisms. And the powers typically include the power to issue commands. So office lies at this intersection of power and accountability. To put it more rhetorically, a political office has an ordered set of powers including the power to issue orders because the powers of any given office on this definition must be limited. Political offices are typically plural. We find multiple offices each part of an overall constitutional mosaic. So extra credit for the discussion on this definition is a monarchy, a political office. So the more typical case that I'm going to focus on, um, is the case of an elected official. And I'm going to look especially at the case of elected mayors. So of course, uh, we meet tonight in London where there is an elected mayor, Sadiq Khan. And of course we are in the city of London, where there is also an elected Lord Mayor of London elected by a more limited franchise within the city. For those who may be watching or listening outside Britain, you can perform a similar test on elected office holders elsewhere, such as the Mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu. But I'm going to focus now briefly on the mayor of Greater Manchester in this region. Uh, who at present is Andy Burnham. And this is an image of Manchester, the new B network of transport there, because the public information about that mayor's role speaks very directly to the kinds of powers and limits that I've just described. So consider this statement, um, from the website about the mayor of Greater Manchester. We see that the mayor is accountable and that he has certain powers including the power to lead on certain issues. So there it is the accountability intersecting with powers to command as well in some cases as the duty to consult. And the mayor has a number of powers, again, that are executive in function, including powers to decide and issue orders on topics including transport, the fire service and so on. So of course this office is structured in terms of ordered powers and limits on office. There are term limits, there are limits on eligibility, and there is this important power to command. So what about accountability then? How is the mayor of Greater Manchester accountable? Well, the website again stresses complaints, procedures, oversight committees, and an innovation of the current mayor. Mayor's question time, which was instituted now being held quarterly for local people to have the opportunity to quiz the mayor about a range of local issues. Now, question time sounds like a great initiative of the current mayor to enhance accountability, but I want to compare it now with an even stronger mechanism of that kind. The annual accountability audits that were practiced in ancient democratic Athens, and in fact also more broadly in other constitutions in ancient Greece. So in Athens, this kind of audit had to be held by law at the end of every single office holder's term, which were was typically one year. It required office holders to account for all public monies and in Athens also to answer any charges or complaints raised by any citizen before specially appointed boards of auditors who had the power to investigate. And if prima facie warranted to refer for judicial trial, those trials could result in fines, exile, or even death for political malfeasance. And the community maintained control over the actions of officials in their private lives until they had passed their audits and any ensuing trial. So as the historian Jennifer Tolbert Roberts has observed, it was only when a person's euna were complete that they were able to resume the use of their property and their freedom in ordinary ways. As she writes, the state had a lien on the property and civic freedom of all officials until their accounts were settled. So this mechanism went far beyond what political offices require. Today, an ancient Athenian would say, don't rely on public inquiries, occasional media exposes, or even well-meaning voluntary question times. Instead, impose regular retroactive, open, transparent, consequential procedures of accountability on each and every office holder. And by instituting such demanding formal procedures, one could also protect office holders against trial by media, which is a danger, especially in the modern age. Indeed, the more that this regular accountability is built into a system, the less that the fate of an individual would lie in ad hoc claims and accusations in for a, where there's no organized chance to answer them. So accountability as an institutionalized practice of claim and response, a practice of public rhetoric, if you will. And this is Parles and Athens builds in more safeguards than accountability by hashtag alone. So that's an introduction to to ancient Athenian offices with answerability to audit built into their core definition. Lemme pause to just say a bit about the parallels and the differences between those ancient Greek offices and political offices. Today in Democratic Athens, all of these office holders, like the mayor of Greater Manchester, had term limits, limits on eligibility. In most cases, they had to be over 30 years of age and specialized selection procedures. Now in Athens, it's interesting that not all those elections were made by election. Indeed, most office holders were chosen by lottery, but it sometimes overlooked that about 100 of 700 executive office holders in Athens were in fact elected. So all of the military office holders and some of the highest financial ones. So we might talk more in question and answer about the significance of that use of lottery for some of those offices. But what I wanna emphasize tonight is that all of those office holders, however they were selected, were subject to these audits, these individual annuals stringent audits. And in addiction, all Athenian office holders were also subject to a prior check. So whether you were chosen by lot or election, you then had to be submitted to this check called Doki Maia before you actually were allowed to take up your role. And this was a scrutiny to make sure that you were a citizen in good standing, for example, that you had paid your taxes and fulfilled other basic civic duties. So that means that even when they use lottery, the Athenians never believed that just anyone who might happen to be selected should be judged as competent to serve. Rather, they impose this basic competence threshold that was about fulfilling your civic duty. And the offices so defined had a set of powers that were primarily executive, and some of them also had judicial roles in presiding in certain kinds of suits in the courts. Now, to be sure, ancient Athens was far smaller than most modern states. The number of full male citizens in Athens at its peak was about 30,000 in a total population of about 250,000, which included women, children, resident foreigners who were not enslaved, and people who were enslaved. And of course, the presence of legal slavery. Slavery and its central economic and social role is a profound and crucial difference from then to now. Already in 1764, Jean Jacques Rousseau insisted that for this reason, as he wrote, ancient peoples are no longer a model for modern ones. They are too alien to them in every respect. So Rousseau emphasized that it was slavery that enabled even the poor male Athenians the leisure to attend the assembly, to sit in the, uh, law courts while Rousseau's PO point challenges those who seek to recuperate the more participatory parts of ancient Greek politics today, I think however, that it does not dispute the fact that some individuals then, as now were regularly selected for fixed terms of political office. And indeed, as I've said some then as now were actually elected to do that. And another difference that ancient societies lacked modern bureaucracies, so they didn't draw a sharp distinction between political office and civil servant office is similarly, I think not a decisive difference from my point of view tonight, because that difference nevertheless is consistent with a core commonality, this commonality of roles in, uh, issuing orders for the good of those being ruled while being subject to limits on their powers, including liability to be held to account. So despite these differences, I think that these commonalities still give us strong grounds for considering ancient Athenian and modern democratic offices in tandem, not withstanding and not denying the very real differences that nevertheless obtain between these eras. So let me now come to a conclusion of the first half of the lecture by testing how a Greek inspired approach to accountability might play out in practice. And I want to test its potential bearing on one particular and profoundly painful political catastrophe, the Grenfell Tower disaster in which 72 lives were lost, and many more survivors and others lost members of their families, their friends, their homes, their wider community. And I know that this is a very painful image again, um, to consider. The public inquiry is still preparing its final report, but much of its work, including former Prime Minister David Cameron's testimony is already in the public domain and it's been, uh, written about in an important work by Peter Apps as well as a verbatim recent national theater production. Now, to be sure not all the failings documented by the inquiry so far were those of elected office holders or civil servants. The inquiry has also been tracking choices made by companies and others. So the causes of the disaster are complex, but I think that nevertheless, we owe it to the bereaved, the dead and the survivors to take up a challenge that was posed by Stephanie Barwise KC, who, who stated that Grenfell is a lens through which to see how we are governed. And I speak tonight as a dual citizen of, uh, Britain and the United States, although always in an American accent. I want to take up this challenge then by putting an ancient Greek filter of accountability over this lens with respect to the actions of government in the months and years before the 14th of June, 2017. So imagine if the elected counselors of the Royal Borough of Kensington, of Chelsea, or the ministers for the Department of Communities and local government had been subject to a regular, open, transparent, consequential procedure of accountability every year in which ordinary citizens could have raised questions that had to be answered on pain of referral to a court for consideration of malfeasance. Had greenfeld been located in an ancient Greek palace, every single elected office holder in the years leading up to the disaster would've had to pass that kind of audit as an individual, no hiding behind the collective no right to refuse to respond to ordinary citizens raising challenges as some of the tenants who tried to raise the alarm in the years before the disaster tried to state. And these are words from the verbatim national theater production. Um, but they track very closely, um, words in the public inquiry. Ed Defar stated, in retrospect, they said that we were barraging the council with emails. We were challenging the council, we were trying to hold them to account. We don't have a right to write emails. So I hope you find that idea powerful. Now, in the second half of the lecture, I want to trace how Plato engaged in his work and in particular in the Republic in a very similar kind of process to the reflection that I've just followed, reflecting on the purpose of political accountability, the adequacy of existing institutions and how they might perhaps have been reformed to achieve that purpose in different ways. So in other words, if current regimes of political office might seem to lack sufficient accountability mechanisms compared to the ancient Athenians unions, their mechanisms, those in ancient Athens also appeared lacking in certain respects in Plato's eyes when he returned to considering that telos of accountability. Again, the purpose of pursuing the good of the ruled. And so I'm going to introduce Plato's Republic, introduce its, um, reflections on rulers and office holders, and then conclude by showing how on my reading the Republic was an attempt to grapple with those same three challenges in incompetence, corruption, and negligence that we've already encountered. So Plato's Republic is the one of his dialogues on which I'll concentrate tonight. It's divided into 10 books. Um, each book is like a very long chapter, and it's written in the form of a dialogue led by Socrates, and for most of its length, portraying a conversation between a character named Socrates and two of Plato's actual brothers. So these characters were all based on real people, but for tonight's purposes, I'm simply going to read The Republic as Plato's own dramatic presentation and is conveying his own ideas. And my aim in doing that before I describe the constitution of the Republic in detail, is to argue again that rather than ignoring the problem of accountability, Plato was trying to solve it at its roots. So I'm going to be seeking to rebut a famous reading of the Republic offered by Carl Popper in 1945 who had argued that Plato was the first totalitarian, rather than, as I read him, a constitutionalist thinker Popper claimed that the republic hinges on the general assumption that political power is practically unchecked or the demand that it ought to be so. So for Popper, Plato's Republic is demanding that political power ought to be unchecked. I'm going to show how I think it is profoundly checked in the constitution that the Republic sets out and on popper's account. Plato had simply ignored the question, which he took to be the question of modern liberal politics. How can we organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage? On my reading, this is exactly the question that Plato in the Republic was trying to answer. So to set up that argument, then I'm going to introduce the roles in the Republic as modeled on another important dimension of practice and democratic Athens, which was a structure of relationship between office holders and a higher set of rulers whose role is to safeguard the office holders and keep them oriented to the good of the ruled. So in Athens, this was a special council, a more ancient kind of council called the Opus Council, and it was composed of selected and tested ex office holders. And then as an assembly decree stated in 4 0 3 BCE, the laws should be placed under the caring charge of this council so that the office holders notice that word again, the ar high, that's the plural of that word. RK that we met before would use only the laws that have been laid down. And as another Greek thinker also emphasized, then the opus council, when Athens was well ruled, had played this role of caring for the good of the city. So this word caring is going to return in our reading of the republic. So as I understand the republic, then it's playing out a similar relationship between higher rulers, the famous philosopher kings and queens who safeguard those who hard to hold office under them. So let me show you the evidence for that claim, um, in the text of the dialogue. So we have unambiguous use of the language for political office in Plato's Republic, indeed at the heart of the constitution that it describes. In one passage, Socrates refers to the office holders, the officials, the archive, again, who may be either men or women. And in another passage, he uses a proverbial phrase referring to those holding the highest offices. So this is at the very heart of the Constitution. We find this language of office holding. And crucially, these office holders then are described as the trainee philosophers, those aged 35 to 50 who are to be made metaphorically to go back down into the cave. The cave here represents the city, and they are to be compelled to exercise rule in matters of war and such offices belonging to young people. I find it charming that the 35 to 50 year olds here are described as young. So these office holders then are subjected to a kind of term limit. They're only going to serve between the ages of 35 and 50, and they're scrutinized in advance. They're chosen for those roles by the senior philosophers, and after they've held those roles, they're going to be tested and held accountable for their performance in those roles, again, by the senior philosophers. And these senior philosophers are able to play this crucial role of safeguarding rule in the city because as philosophers, they have perfected the ability to give an account. Logan did deny, we saw that phrase earlier. The very same phrase is used to give an account in philosophy as is used for giving an account in the context of holding political office. So this is a version of that double structure of rule that we saw in the case of Athens, the senior group of rulers who are taking care that those junior to them will perform their duties properly. So how would this constitution cope with those three problems of preventing incompetence, corruption, and negligence? And I'm going to con to consider each of those in turn as I move toward conclusion. We can put that question in the terms of the later Roman satirist juvenile who asked, who will guard the guardians and guardian is of course another word that's used by Plato to describe the philosopher rulers. So first we have the problem of incompetence. This is of course, you might think the easiest problem to see that the republic is designed to solve. Clearly, if you're going to invest heavily in philosophical education, the reason for doing so would be in order to cultivate a kind of competence. The reason that this is so important is that in Plato's view, neither election nor lottery is a good guarantee that the people chosen through those roots will have the knowledge and skills necessary to do the job. Now, that might be more intuitive to us about lottery, but Plato thought that equally about election, at least about election, outside a system of good education and good laws. So Plato's proposal that philosophers should rule as guardians of the polity is clearly a way to address the competence problem. But I wanna emphasize that it's equally a way to address the problem at the heart of accountability, it's equally a way of trying to solve that problem of keeping power oriented to the good of the ruled. So it's not competence instead of accountability, as it were, it's competence as a form of accountability. And we can think of this as a political version of Gresham's law in economics discovered by the founder of this college, that bad money tends to drive out good. If there's no sustained and deliberate mechanism for choosing competent rulers, bad rulers will tend to drive out any good ones who might happen to make it through. So an important part of the way that this competence is to be established is that each incoming cohort of office holders has to be tested by the previous ones, by their seniors. In other words, and again, to me, this is crucial no more than in Athens. Does anyone in the constitution of Plato's republic get to be self certifying? But you might think, well, no cohort of guardians gets to self-certify their own individual competence for power, but one might object. The group of guardians over time will get to choose how to reproduce itself. And so it risks becoming a self certify cabal over time, though every given cohort has to be certified by their predecessors. Now that danger of a self-appointed elite is a profound one, and its dangers are real. And this opens the door to the second dimension of that potential gap between taxes and telos, the possibility of corruption. But in fact, what I'm now going to demonstrate from the text of the dialogue is that the republic takes great pains to prevent corruption and indeed to prevent the kind of corruption that Lord Acton would later warn would result from act absolute power in his dictum absolute power corrupts absolutely Plato's. Socrates in the Republic indeed takes extreme measures to prevent the rulers from having absolute powers. And in particular, he seeks to prevent the rulers from possessing any substantial wealth or property so that they simply can't use their powers to acquire for their private good. There's no possibility of engorging themselves because they have no way of amassing wealth or holding property. So as we see in the text of the dialogue, none of the guardians should acquire any private property that is not wholly necessary. None of them should have a house or treasury into which anyone who wishes cannot enter. That's to prevent them from being able to squirrel wealth away. And for them alone in the city, it is unlawful to touch or handle gold or silver. And as you see from that reference to unlawful, he actually goes on to state that all of these provisions should be established as law. So law here is being used to put radical restrictions on the powers of these rulers and office holders, and notice that these laws are introduced to govern even the wise. And the just. Plato was already assuming that these people would've achieved unusual levels of wisdom and virtue, and yet he still argues that the more powerful and elite, the more society needs to find ways to reign them in without strict legal constraints. The rulers won't be guardians, but exploit exploiters. If they acquire private land and houses and coined money, they will become despots and enemies instead of allies of the other citizens. So without private wealth or property, the rulers and office holders of this constitution are to live on their wages. They are to be paid wages by the public. And indeed, Plato actually directs that they should see the public as, and I quote their pay masters and their provisioners. So the very idea of a public servant here is given real teeth. The guardians are guardians who rule, but at the same time, they are servants who depend on others who are employed by others to rule for their good. And the challenge of maintaining that balance so that rulers and office holders see themselves as servants of the public, but without becoming mere tools of passing public opinion, is one that we continue to face. So Plato emphasizes that the price of power must be to sind from its usual perks on pain of otherwise becoming despots in the city rather than public servants. So finally, what about the danger that public officials might act negligently? And I use negligent negligence here in a broad sense that might include gaslighting citizens, stonewalling them, or simply not caring enough to bother responding to citizens or pursuing their good again, as was illustrated in the public inquiry into Grenfell. So this is a fine line that office holders must walk between not caring about power for their own sake, but caring enough to exercise it for the good of others. And a paradox of the republic is that the best rulers are those who don't want to rule, they don't want power for its own sake, but they're willing to rule for the sake of others. So what is Plato's answer to this? It is, again, that need for the philosophers to care. Caring is actually central to the competence for which the guardians of the republic will be selected. And the larger quote from which this is taken is that they, they, we need them to be people who are knowledgeable, capable, and also they people who will be caretakers of the city. This is a different word for caring, but it's, uh, the same idea. Indeed, this word is a word for legal guardianship as of an orphan, someone who is acting as a guardian on another's behalf. Now, you might think again, well this is paternalistic. Democratic politics doesn't have room or need for guardians. But think of the need to have rulers and office holders who will act as guardians for future generations, for non-human animals, for rivers, for wetlands. The, the role of acting as a caretaker is one that all societies need and in different ways have sought to protect. And so this brings us full circle. When we think about avoiding negligence, it brings us back to competence, because for Plato competence is not a merely technocratic skill. It always has to include the cultivation of this orientation, a virtue of character that will ensure that you care properly about the role that you, you are charged with fulfilling. So to conclude, we can learn both from Athens and also from Plato, to appreciate the ways that accountability mechanisms can be beefed up. And also to recognize ways in which any mechanisms that are merely procedural might still go wrong. Failing to care about stewarding public power, failing to respond, to engage, to pay attention, to take seriously. These are profound political dangers that no legal or political mechanism can entirely prevent, but that we need to think about how we might avoid. And it's that enterprise in which Plato, as I read him, was engaged. So we need office holders if they have aggrandized themselves and used public powers for private gain to be held to account and appropriately punished. If they've served well, they deserve appropriate civic honors. But those honors should not be a matter of mere procedure if once elected always to be honored. On the contrary, in Plato's laws, if an, if an auditor acts improperly, they are to be stripped of the honors that they would otherwise have received, Plato would suggest that those who violate the spirit of their public trust, who act incompetently, corruptly or negligently do not deserve the honor or the honors of their office. It is up to us to reflect on what these ideas might now mean. Thank you. Thank you very much, Melissa. Um, as you might expect, there's a flurry of questions that have come in, and there's one which is very popular. And, uh, speaking as someone who works in a public service and is subjected to audit, not infrequent intervals, the question is this, it seems that the power of accountability in this era depends on the power ethics and the ability of the auditors. I can see a problem there,<laugh> ab. Absolutely. Well, and this, this, this question actually gets to the heart, I think of what Plato was concerned with because in Athens you might think, well, who audited the auditors in Athens? And actually what happened was that the board, which had been chosen to come in next, their first job was to audit the people who'd gone before. But of course, at that point, they hadn't any experience in doing this, and they didn't have any special qualifications that made them more qualified or, or capable of carrying out the audit. So that's exactly why I think Plato wants to have this two-tier structure. I think he, he thinks it is crucial that the auditors do have to have a special kind of education, a special kind of scrutiny, because if not one can't trust that the buck, as it were, um, would, would safely stop with them. So I think this is a, a real challenge for, for modern systems, and I don't mean at all to suggest that it's easy to, uh, resolve or improve the systems of accountability that different public services have. I think a lot of thought has gone into them. You know, there, there's a lot of different ways in which they might be improved. But I think that being aware of that, always that potential gap, that whatever the procedures, they can be misused, there can be failures, and in particular if people don't have the requisite sort of sense of public service, the ethos of public service, that no procedures are actually going to be, um, sufficient safeguards. And were the auditors subjected to the same rigors by trial if they didn't do it well? Yes. Yes. So how much, exactly, how much fear was involved in being engaged in public office? I think there was fear and actually, um, just as there's the famous dictum that the all political officials end in failure and Athens, that was often kind of literally true. In particular, the Athenians would get frustrated with the generals. And if the generals lost a battle or behaved in some way that they thought had been inappropriate, they would put them on trial. So many generals in Athens were convicted, some of them in ways that historians might judge to be unfair. So I do wanna acknowledge that other side of it. I think that, again, what that shows us is, you know, any system is subject to abuse in a way. I think the Athenian system did have certain strengths, and those strengths are ones that were missing, but it also had certain weaknesses, you know, just as our systems have certain strengths and weaknesses. So my invitation is really that we should just, that we should think this through. Um, rather than that we should simply adopt any, any other system wholesale. So this, this question comes from one of your professor or colleagues, I won't tell you which one, <laugh>. Um, how do you think a modern press and media would've altered the behavior and activities of Athenian poli politics? Yeah, so, so this is, um, what I think is interesting about the ancient model. And I actually had the opportunity to talk about some of these ideas some years ago with the uk, uh, civil Service Leadership Academy. And we were talking about exactly this kind of problem that some civil servants can feel that they're subject to too much audit and sort of too much scrutiny that they don't have the chance to answer necessarily, and especially that which comes through the press. Um, my sense is that these public institutions, because they were universally accessible, they were regular, they were common, they were frequent, everyone was familiar with them. I, as I tried to suggest, I think this gave more of a fair chance to the office holders as well, because they had the chance to, to answer those charges that were made. I think the challenge with the modern media is that it's often very difficult for people to answer, um, objections. And of course, you know, we, we know that it's not impossible that objections or complaints are made that are without foundation, and those also should be properly investigated and handled. So I do think the modern media would've made it more difficult. But I also think that the Athenian institutions had ways of coping that our modern institutions don't have precisely because of the structured way in which complaints could be brought and, and then, and then answered. I'm gonna roll two questions into one. Um, so if you, um, go back to, I've forgotten the Greek word, unfortunately, about the scrutiny that candidates Would be Mia. Yeah, Yeah. No wonder I've forgotten <laugh>. Um, if this, the question that comes forward is talking about the political climate in the US and I should imagine a particular president is in somebody's mind as they answer, ask this question, how, um, would that scrutiny have taken place? And how much depth of investigation might be necessary, for example, yeah. Did this person pay taxes? Yes. I mean, I think it's, it's, it's certainly I think, important to see that that's not a trivial requirement. You know, I think if that requirement were, we're applied, it would rule out a number of people who, you know, in, in the present system in the United States, are eligible to stand for office. And, you know, I think that when one thinks about that, I mean, there are, um, you know, if you apply for naturalization or to sponsor someone for immigration, for a visa or something like that, in, in fact, that is one of the questions and tests that's applied. And it's not clear why that should be applied in those more private domains but not applied to public officials. I don't think that the test in Athens was especially kind of, um, detailed. It didn't require sort of massive powers of investigation. Their systems of taxation were more straightforward. So it wouldn't have been so difficult to kind of get to the bottom of whether someone's tax affairs were an order. But I, I may, I gave that that example precisely because I think it's one that is potentially profoundly consequential and would actually have an impact where it, um, to be adopted. I mean, in this country, for anybody who's a, a board member, a non-executive board member has increased scrutiny for a thing called a fit and proper person test, which is just gonna get a bit, a bit tougher. It wouldn't seem a bad idea to apply that to one or two politicians. Well, that, I mean, I do think it's interesting that we apply these tests in certain domains and not others, and that somehow we've imagined that politicians can be free from those sorts of requirements. And, you know, again, the Athenian example invites us and the platonic example indeed invites us to, to consider why should that be so, and what, what sorts of tests might be appropriate. So Before I open the questioning up to people in the room, um, someone who clearly, um, has read Plato. So, um, he, he said that Plato states the heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.<laugh>. Can these words be seen as a cautionary statement for current political offices?<laugh>? No, absolutely. This is from Book One of The Republic, and it's an incredibly powerful idea. Um, I think this idea that, again, it's this sort of problem of incentives. Paradoxically, the people who are best suited to rule are the people who don't want to rule. And someone has to think about what are the, the reasons that would, you know, make someone willing to stand for office. And again, I think that, you know, the, the fear of being subject to an unfair, um, kind of media attack and, you know, trial and accountability only by media is something that deters people. And we know, um, from, from evidence that it deters particularly women, people of color and others who are more vulnerable to those sorts of social media and media attacks. And so, you know, I think again, the, the, the, the, the thinking about what are ways in which accountability can be both reigned in and made more real, so that it's more fair to all parties, to the parties who need the hearing and the parties who want to be fairly heard. I think that balance is always important to keep in view. I just wonder if the major difference between Athens and present day is today in this, well, globally we vote for parties, political parties rather than individuals, both at local and general elections. And I wonder if that's where we're going wrong? Yeah, thank you. That, that role of parties is a really difficult one for political theorists to get to grips with. There's actually been relatively few studies in political theory of the role of parties as opposed to, of course, in empirical political science. Um, I, I, I mean, party polarization, party control I think is a significant issue, but I don't think that it's responsible for these kinds of gaps in accountability. I think those are sort of problems of the actual institution of office, um, rather than being due to the parties. But I don't think the Greeks can, can offer us much counsel on that important dimension of modern political life. Thank You. I, I think of the three problems you spent least time on incompetence. Mm-Hmm.<affirmative>, uh, how would you stop a self perpetuating incompetence? Because an incompetence auditor will not be able to audit another auditor? Yeah.<laugh> No, absolutely. Um, that, that puts it exactly, and, um, I mean it's, it's actually very interesting because in the, in another dialogue of Plato called the Laws, which I mentioned, he treats this role of auditors, um, at great lengths. So there he doesn't have philosopher kings or queens. And so as a result, the auditors take on even more importance. And it's actually very interesting because when he says, well, how will they be kept accountable and you expect it's gonna be another tribunal or something like that. And that's actually the point where I ended where he says, what we have to do is strip them of their honors. If we find that they have acted wrongly, and these are honors that they should receive in life and after death, they should be among the people whom the city is proudest of and who, you know, are buried in Westminster Abbey, as it were, that that level of honor. But then he says, so he thinks that it's that level of being concerned with reputation, that will be the way in which, um, people, people can be controlled. But I find it very interesting because he introduces it as, oh, this is going to be another mechanism. And then it turns out to be this question that you need to have people who are subject to caring about how they're viewed in the city. But you're absolutely right that, you know, there's, that, that is a point where any system can go wrong. But again, part of my, my message is no system is ever going to be perfect. No system is fail safe, but we have to think about the strengths and weaknesses and try to shore them up as best we can. Yes. I wonder whether you've give them thought to the Swiss system of direct democracy, which Yes. Does mean, uh, that, um, individuals who are elected are directly much more directly accountable than they are by our representative system, which enables MPS to completely misrepresent the views of the public on a whole range of significant issues. Uh, and I think the direct democracy, in my opinion, is not, not the, not the Plato system, if you like, but it's a lot nearer to it than, um, but I'd like to know your comments. Yes, thank you very much. So, so the, the role of direct democracy and indeed the role of different kinds of electoral systems, including the role of parties or otherwise, I think it is a very important thing to think about. And having lived in the US and the uk, you know, I can think about the differences between those institutions as well. I guess, you know, many political theorists are kind of in love with the idea of direct democracy, and they think this would solve all our problems. And you are not suggest no, you're not suggesting that. But, but I guess I, my response would be, I think it could be an improvement, but I don't think that it by itself solves this basic issue, which is that political office holders do have powers that have to be held to account. So I, I, I see it as a kind of variation that might have strengths and weaknesses, but not as a way of avoiding that problem. And that's partly why I bring Athens into the, into the frame, uh, in, in the argument, because I think many people look at ancient Athens, which many people read as a direct democracy, and they say, oh, look, they had direct democracy, so they don't have all these problems that we have, but actually they had a direct democracy in certain respects, but they still had office holders who were elected or chosen by law and had to be held to account. So the direct democracy didn't dispense with these issues of scrutiny and audit and so on. Those problems still, the, the need for those mechanisms still existed. So, but, you know, one thing one can say about direct democracy and what people would say in defense of Athens is that there's a kind of competence that can be gained by learning through doing in a way. And so there are forms of competence, um, that, that I think that would apply to, and if you have more citizens who've held office, then they will better understand what the demands of office holding are. And I think that would be a real advantage. Thank you. Personally, I rather dislike the word accountability because it's smacks of blame culture, uh, so that we focus on who can we blame and hold to account rather than finding solutions to difficult problems. Do you not, do you not think that this focus on accountability can get in the way of building consensus and finding agreement on, on wise decisions for solving difficult problems? Yeah, I think you, this is an important point. And the, uh, anthropologist, Marilyn Strahorn did a series of important work some decades ago where she emphasized the downside, if you will, of accountability. The fact that you set targets and then people only work to those targets. And I know, again, in the health service that there's an important role of discussing what went, what went wrong as it were outside the context of sort of blaming, because one wants to learn all lessons and people otherwise might be defensive. So I absolutely recognize that that issue, and that's, that's partly why I wanna say no regime is perfect. You know, there is always this danger. You set up a mechanism of accountability and that constrains you to care about some things and not others and so on. And perhaps to have an excessive emphasis on blame. But at the same time, I think we are, we have seen, when you don't have accountability, you also have very profound problems. And that was what the Grenfell example was meant to show. So, you know, I, I, again, I wanna just say these are real problems that we have to live. They're not, there's no easy philosophical solution. Um, it philosophy is a, an aid to us in thinking them through, but it's not going to give us the kind of magic solution. We have a, a question from the professor of music at the front. First of all, he can't, he can't get away with being anonymous.<laugh> Did Plato talk at all about, uh, the right to a private life of a office holder and the distinction between the moral, perceived moral fiber of a office holder and their ability to serve effectively? Yeah. Thank, thank you Milton <laugh>. Um, it's, it's so lovely to see you and other fellow Gresham professors here. Um, so, so the question was about the private life of an office holder. And I actually do think this is one of the most profound sort of challenges that the Republic poses, is that the more power you have and the less conventional accountability, the less you're entitled to that sort of, um, warding off of inquiries into your private life. I think he saw that, that that stripping away private family life, private property, he saw that as a real price that people had to pay if they could be trusted with power, otherwise, as he also says, they will turn into wolves rather than guard dogs. That analogy is, is a platonic one. And you know, I, I think that this is an important question in the United States in the context of the ethics of Supreme Court justices, where at the moment they're not even held to the same standards as other federal judges. There is no, um, code of ethics for Supreme Court justices, but arguably, I think in this light, they should be held to a higher standard, and their family members are reasonably to be held to a higher standard of disclosure and kind of constraint precisely because the Supreme Court occupies this kind of position where it's otherwise, um, in, uh, in power for life and disposing of sort of the final decision making power, um, in these profound ways. So, so I think it is an uncomfortable subject. And of course, then you get into the problem again, well then why will people be willing to do it if it's going to intrude on their private lives? And again, I don't think that's an easy problem to solve, but I I, I think there's something deep in that reflection, um, that, that Plato offers. So I'm from the states as well, so I'm very glad to see another fellow. American, could you hold the microphone Just a bit closer? Thank you. Oh, um, so one of the questions I have is that I've read Plato's Republic when I was a young undergrad, and one of the quotes that still stuck with me was when he said, if women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things. So in some ways he was champion, um, equality and education. And in many places we don't see that, especially if you look at developing countries or developed countries, there's still some disparities going on. So in the context of today, how much of, um, of Plato's argument plays again, in the, in the sense of like bringing equality not only amongst genders, but also race, sexuality, um, and things like that. So yeah. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you so much for highlighting that, that point. And that was why I exactly used the language of philosophers, kings and philosopher queens, and indeed philosophy nine non-binary people. Because in Plato's view, gender is simply not relevant to the question of whether you have the capacity needed to serve. And he, I'm sure as you remember, he actually compares it to the question of, some men are bald and some men are not bald, but that makes no difference to the question of whether they're qualified to hold political office. And then he applies that analogy to the case of, of women and men. And I think that's a really powerful point. I mean, this is why people often will say kind of in the spell of Popper, you know, Plato is an authoritarian, is a totalitarian, he's so conservative in many ways. He was also profoundly radical because he was not willing to be guided simply by the conventions of the time. And his challenge to the que the role of women and arguing that women should have equality as of ruler as rulers is exactly an example of this. And actually, when I've done work on the later readings of Plato over the centuries, he is sometimes appropriated by conservatives and fascists that that has been true. He has also been appropriated by feminists, by socialists, by radicals. He's been appropriated by people with all kinds of projects, by liberals, you know, by everyone, precisely because his thought is so protean. And so I've tried to kind of bring out these different dimensions, um, of his thought. Hi. Um, so isn't one way of characterizing democracy, uh, a system where we're all auditors and we first scrutinize and then we hold to account for incompetence and negligence, hopefully. So they're not, it's not two systems, but perhaps one could learn from the platonic system as to how to improve the electoral system. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you very much. And, uh, it's lovely to see you, to see you here. Um, yes, I love that, that way of putting it, that in a democracy we're all auditors. I think that's, that is actually an important way of thinking about our role. So in a way, our, we often think in a democracy, oh, you know, all we do is elect, but we should also think we elect and we hold to account in an appropriate way, which doesn't, you know, witch hunt and kind of, um, you know, treat people unfairly, but which does recognize that part of what we're doing when we elect is precise and in other ways is precisely to hold to account. I mean, I was very struck, this is, this is taking the example one step further, but I was very struck with the Paris Climate Agreement that the, there, the only teeth of the climate agreement were, was that civil society would be able to scrutinize the goals which each country would set for itself, and then raise issues in the media about whether or not those goals were being met. And so that's even a system which just depends on this claim and counterclaim on the role of rhetoric. So I think the more that we think of ourselves as empowered to play that role, um, you know, that perhaps, uh, with appropriate virtue and, and, and moderation, the, the better off that we would be. Um, yeah. I wanted to ask, um, in ancient Athens, was the focus of, um, leaders accountability based more on the consequences of their policies or on their perceived intentions? Um, because I would think in modern day politics, um, it would pose, like having that system would pose the risk of, um, people not being able to make short term sacrifices, which most people, um, wouldn't see the longer term benefits. Yeah, no, that, it's an interesting question. What was the focus of the accountabilities? I think it was primarily focused on, as it were, results or outcomes. And then you could defend yourself in court by, if it, if it came to a court trial by arguing, well, you know, effectively we did the best we could. At the time this outcome couldn't have been foreseen. We were seeking to achieve this other outcome. We made a reasonable balance of risk and so on. But the kind of initial focus would be, well, what actually did you do in your office holding? What were the results? And then, you know, can we kind of judge that you were, you know, kind of acting appropriately within the spirit of your role and having brought about those results, even if they were unfortunate. And again, as I said, it's not that the ancient Athenians always got that right, you know, they did sometimes as it were witch hunt or, you know, kind of treat people unfairly because they were frustrated by an outcome or something like that. So, so again, you know, we're not necessarily going to do better than they did, but we also should try not to do worse than they did. We should try to see that role, um, of, of, of holding, holding one another appropriately, um, to account.

Well, um, I, for 1:

00 AM absolutely not frustrated by the outcome of our interview for the professor of Rotary <laugh>. I hope you'll agree with me that, uh, we made a very wise choice. I hope you'll come back and see Melissa again, but tonight, professor Melissa Lane. Thank you very much indeed. Thank You so much. Thank.