In certain places, philosophy is a mandatory subject at school and/or university. To many, this is an unceasing source of annoyance. What is the purpose of learning abstract and seemingly intangible thoughts about an ideal future?
On one hand, this one dimensionalism is understandable. It can be hard to understand the relevance of something if its connection to oneself is not evident. But antithetically, the same people are ready to accept abstractions in other dimension of life. Prototypes in business, hypotheses in the science, personal dreams for the future; they are all abstract inferences about an uncertain future. Philosophy, however, is considered a task with no perceivable end.
What such judgements fails to take into account is that abstract thoughts and conceptualisations lead to development. If no one had ever sought to abstractly conceptualise an optimal condition, any good development or occurrence would simply be the result of a sheer luck. Philosophy, and more specifically political philosophy, should therefore be considered an ongoing dialogue seeking to conceptualise and determine how an optimal society would look. Instead of simply accepting the world as it is, the philosopher seeks to find out what is meant by better and how to reach it.
Plato considered the supreme responsibility of the true statesman to be improving the citizenry; to make the demos better people. The genuine statesman ought to create harmonious order by shaping the individual into a responsible and farsighted citizen. A citizen who does not allow petty desires to cloud one’s vision of conciliated order. The sophist and the demagogue, on the other hand, will seek to manipulate and play upon the desires, opinions and bad inclinations of the populace. They will seek to stir degradation to acquire power and prestige. This politician is unwilling to make necessary, yet unpopular decisions, and to engage in comprehensive endeavours for the future. In short, this leader seeks to satisfy the short term pleasures of the citizenry for their own gains, rather than to truly improve society.
In our time, we have come to the conclusion than any democratic decision is a good decision. If an opinion enjoys a majority, we believe that this opinion should be enacted. However, according to Plato, as well as modern thinkers such as Fareed Zakaria, this is a slippery slope. While we live in an era of blissful and even rampant relativism, to claim that all opinions are equal is a difficult argument to back up. To hate someone because of the colour of their skin is not an enlightened or a productive opinion. Thus, we can define it as bad. Equally, politics can be defined as bad if rests on unsubstantiated claims and leads to destructive results.
Unfortunately, the modern voter has a tendency to feel entitled to have their opinion heard, without additional duties. ‘I am a citizen and I have rights’, is the tacit assumption among the general populace. But as a citizen one also has responsibilities. These include being highly educated and informed on political matters, and to consider the wellbeing of society before one’s short term gains. But such feelings of responsibilities are more or less completely absent from the modern equation of democracy.
Today, we have no philosophy to guide us. Our only guide is public opinion; the opinion of the populace is the new philosophy and the new god. Now, the beliefs of the people, no matter how destructive or intolerant they are, are considered to be the embodiment of the good. As such, a demagogue who can rally the petty inclinations of the masses will always run supreme. According to such standards, Donald Trump is as good a politician and possible president as anyone else.