I am reading Yu-Lan Fang’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy alongside Plato’s Republic. According to Fang, the leitmotif of Chinese philosophy is that of ‘sageliness within’ and ‘kingliness without.’ Plato speaks similarly of the Philosopher-King as being the one who, just because he has wisdom, is also fit to rule.
Years ago, I believed that the philosopher could be both a contemplative and a statesman. As I get older, however, I have come to consider this view undesirable and hubristic, if not logically impossible. From the very beginning, Confucians have been involved in ruling, yet their kingliness seems to come with a certain cost: a lack of sagacity. In contrast with Confucians, Daoists made their way into the mountains and urged that the best form of government is one in which its subjects can act as freely and as naturally as possible. Laozi believes that the wise man attends to himself and, were he to be ruler (though it is said of Chuang Tzu that it did not seek it out and actually turned it down), would in many cases do well to leave well enough alone.
The implication of this brief argument is that the philosopher, when it comes time, is most surely and acutely confronted with a radical choice for how it is that he will live: will he take care of the soul, or shall he take care of the city? If he takes care of the soul, then he cannot also be king; he can only be a teacher of pupils who come to him willingly in order to inquire of themselves. If he takes care of the city, then he cannot also be wise. For he will be involved in the messy affairs of ruling that will require deliberation, practical judgment, calculation, chess play, and compromise. A statesman who had made that wager can only hope that, by putting himself wholeheartedly in the service of the commonwealth, he can sleep at night despite his necessarily bloody hands.