Former NJ Gov. Tom Kean is reported to have told the Skidmore College commencement:
Plato said, “The penalty for not participating in government is to be governed by your inferiors.” Think about it. It may be happening.
Since we are currently ruled by Bush, Cheney, Rove, Frist, Hastert, and their accomplices, this seems like a remarkable thing for a Republican politician (whose son is now running for the Senate from New Jersey as a Republican) to say.
“Inferiors” suggests to a contemporary ear considerations of social class, and Kean had an aristocratic upbringing (St. Mark’s and Princeton). Some commenters are, consequently, reading this as a snobbish comment. It may well be that, of course, but the Platonic context suggests that the relevant inferiority is of character, not status.
Kean was paraphrasing, not quoting, but his paraphrase is reasonably accurate. The reference is to Republic I, 347. Socrates says:
… the good are not willing to rule either for the sake of money or of honor. They do not wish to collect pay openly for their service of rule and be styled hirelings nor to take it by stealth from their office and be called thieves, nor yet for the sake of honor, for they are not covetous of honor. So there must be imposed some compulsion and penalty to constrain them to rule if they are to consent to hold office. That is perhaps why to seek office oneself and not await compulsion is thought disgraceful. But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule. It is from fear of this, as it appears to me, that the better sort hold office when they do, and then they go to it not in the expectation of enjoyment nor as to a good thing, but as to a necessary evil and because they are unable to turn it over to better men than themselves or to their like. For we may venture to say that, if there should be a city of good men only, immunity from office-holding would be as eagerly contended for as office is now …
Plato’s Socrates is of course aware of the intense social snobbery of his rich and aristocratic young companions, and frequently plays on it. But in the Platonic schema, a judgment of “better” or “worse” within any kind is based on the arete — which one might translate “specific excellence” — of that kind: the quality that enables that sort of thing to fulfill its purpose. Since the purpose of a knife is cutting, its arete is sharpness, and the better knife is the sharper. Similarly, the better racehorse is the swifter. Since the function of a human being is to live well in a polis, the specific excellence of a human being is dike, justice. The better man is the more just, and the worse man the less just.
So Kean was merely noting that under the current ruling clique we are governed by our moral inferiors. Yes, it took him long enough to speak out, but better late than never.