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The True Source of Political Power
"A ruler rules over the ruled." That axiom suggests that the ruler has power over the ruled but it does not indicate where the power comes from. Some may muse that the ruler gets his power second-hand by instilling fear in the ruled. Although I agree that the power of the ruler is always second-hand, I believe that it is derived from something other than fear. In the following paragraphs I will contemplate various philosophical texts and seek evidence to support the notion that the power of the ruler is always second-hand and perhaps in the process I might find a good candidate for the true source of power.
Power of Fear
Referring to the text by Etienne de la Boetie, ‘The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ (1548), La Boetie considered a ruler who may have instilled fear to the ruled causing them to have “a lack of courage”. He then challenged the idea by questioning how the masses can be afraid of a single man, the ruler. This makes fear an unsuitable candidate for the true source of power. La Boetie also inspects whether the “indifference” of the ruled gives power to the ruler. He suggested that apathy was unreasonable when the ruled “sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him.” This leads to a stronger candidate which is willing or wilful obedience. La Boetie was hinting all along that the power of the ruler is derived from the obedience of the ruled. Although he eventually showed that the power of the ruler is second-hand, he did not elaborate on the reasons behind the obedience of the ruled. One possible reason is that the ruler actually manipulates speech to gain power from the ruled.
Power of Lies
This is why sophists would disagree that the power of the ruler is always second-hand. They offer paid services where they train wannabe rulers in the art of speech and how to convince others through spoken words without necessarily speaking the truth. This divergence between speech and reality is highlighted when Gorgias of Leontini, a travelling sophist, gave two opposing speeches as advertisement of his skills. Once, he delivered the ‘Encomium of Helen’ where he “by means of speech removed disgrace from a woman (Helen of Troy)” but he also made another speech where he attacked Helen’s innocence. The fact that his speeches are independent from reality and are able to sway his audiences effectively proves how powerful a sophist’s speech can be. Considering such power, a sophist ruler might be able to persuade others to his cause through his mastery of sophistic speech and this suggests that he has first-hand power through his own speech.
Power of Truth
Nevertheless, all hope is not lost as Plato, the renowned philosopher, managed to find a flaw in the sophists’ idea of power. In Plato’s ‘Republic’, Socrates, through his dialogue with the sophists, showed that a sophist ruler’s power was unstable mainly because they avoided the truth in their speeches. Socrates suggested that without the truth a ruler does not have real power. This is mainly because truth is more convincing and safer than lies as sooner or later the truth always comes out causing the sophist ruler to lose stability and power when the ruled learns of the truth. A philosopher king is therefore better than a sophist ruler due to the truth in his speech. Truth in speech would lead to legitimacy that brings about stability and consequently, true power. However any ruler’s power can never be truly stable as it is dependent on truth which is unstable. With the paradox in mind, any ruler’s power to rule in a significant time period is then considered to be dependent on the truth and so is actually always second-hand.
Therefore, Plato actually made a stronger argument compared to La Boetie with regards to the power of a ruler always being second-hand by focusing more on the truth rather than the ruled. The sophist ruler may attain power through their own speech but it is limited if not based on the truth as people are more likely to believe in truths for the long run. Essentially, a philosopher king can and will always derive true power from 'Truth' thus always having second hand power.
A proper discussion on 'Truth and Politics' is actually incomplete without considering real life examples of the various politicians that have been in power. Do participate in the poll below so that I can learn and find out more about you, my readers. Also, if you are up for a debate or would just like to share your thoughts on the subject matter, feel free to drop me a message in the comment box at the bottom of the page.
How do the politician(s) in your country stay in power?
Boétie, E. D. L. (1975). Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, The. Ludwig von Mises Institute.
La Boetie, E. D. (1998). On voluntary servitude. Trans. David Lewis Schaefer. Freedom Over Servitude: Montaigne, La Boetie, and On Voluntary Servitude. Ed. David Lewis Schaefer. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 191-222.
MacDowell, D. M. (1982). Encomium of Helen. Bristol Classical Pr.
Poulakos, J. (1983). Gorgias' Encomium to Helen and the defense of rhetoric.
Cross, R. C., & Woozley, A. D. (1966). Plato's Republic, A philosophical commentary.
Annas, J. (1981). An introduction to Plato's Republic.