Bertrand Russel once called Plato the original intellectual fascist (in “A History of Western Philosophy,” which is well worth reading.)

In The Republic, Plato tries to come up with the ideal form of government and decides on a caste system, where children are educated, and then, based on their character and aptitude are divided into workers, enforcers, and rulers. The rulers are to be those who are philosophers by nature and training — those who love wisdom and are uninterested in wealth.

It’s easy to sneer at Plato, but there’s a reason why Whitehead’s line that “All of Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato” has a lot of truth to it.

And one has to remember the context: Athenian democracy, the most famous in the Grecian world (and the most famous in Western history) had failed and been defeated by Sparta, after a reign of abuses which turned its allies against it. Entire cities were destroyed, with men killed and women and children sold into slavery. The most glorious city in their world, conquered and occupied.

Plato was never a democrat, and he hated Athenian democracy for killing his teacher Socrates, but he was looking at a real problem: those who became leaders in democracy were very often unsuited to rule. Pericles was great, aye, but he led Athens into a war it lost.

There are really two problems: the selection of leaders, and how they are treated. Lord Acton said that “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Tends is important; it doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens to most. When you’re powerful, you don’t have to care about other people without power, and over time, most people tend not to.

Further, powerful people spend time with other powerful people as equals or near equals and, in time, they become their own faction, and look after their own interests and not those of people without power.

The story of “crusading politician goes to the capital and gets corrupted” is ancient. A cliche. It’s a cliche because it happens most of the time; there are exceptions, but they are exceptions.

So, for any and all societies, the question is: How should we select leaders?

As I’ve said before, there can be no question that all societies on Earth have failed the leadership selection test (with the possible honorable exception of tiny, powerless Bhutan). We have failed because we knew of climate change and ecological collapse and we did nothing; indeed, we put our collective foot, hard, on the accelerator.

There’s an argument that this is just how humans are. There have been multiple collapses in history, including ecological, and we never seem to do anything to stop them.

But there’s another argument that we can find a better way.

Leadership and followership are related. I had this first brought home to me when I was in elementary school. From the third grade to halfway through sixth grade, I was in a class where the boys had two leaders. They were best friends, and they were friendly, inclusive of everyone, and tolerated no bullying. It wasn’t that they stopped it, though on a couple occasions did I see them step in, it was that their example was so much the opposite that it just didn’t happen.

Then, halfway through sixth grade, I went to another school and the leader of the boys was himself a bully, and bullying was rife.

Throughout my life, I’ve seen how groups and organizations become like the people who run them. Leadership is incredibly powerful, just by example, even before any “power” is used.

So the most important question in improving human society and groups is improving how we select and treat leaders, and by this measure, representative democracy has rather obviously failed.

This is noted often by conservative neo-reactionaries, but such folks are misguided at best. The eras of nobles or aristocrats (two different things), or of kings, were not better — they were often awful. The rise of agricultural kingships lead to cruelty of a type and scale hard for us now to imagine, and that continued throughout their history. One common punishment in Tudor England was opening someone’s stomach, pulling out their intestines and burning them while the person was alive; crowds would gather, treat this as entertainment and have a party while it was going on.

The answer to democracy’s failures isn’t some foolish nostalgia for a time which was worse; we need to find something genuinely new, or we will keep stumbling from catastrophe to catastrophe, and at some point said catastrophe will wipe us out.

So I suggest to readers to consider the question, which Plato tried to answer, of how to select, train, and treat rulers — and I would add that they should act in the best interests of all, especially including those they don’t know, both who are alive at the same time the leaders are, and those who will be alive after they are dead.

This is the human problem. If we can’t solve it, we can’t have good societies — save by chance and for brief periods.