Plato Centre and Senator O’Donnell Host Debate on the Role of Seanad Éireann

How can Plato’s concept of ‘Philosopher Kings’ inform one of the more contentious debates in Irish politics, the role of Seanad Éireann, and what are the implications for our current political landscape? This was the challenging topic that The Plato Centre at Trinity College Dublin and Senator Mary Louise O’Donnell posed for a unique discussion and lecture which recently took place in the Trinity Long Room Hub.

In a first for the College, The Plato Centre and Senator O’Donnell invited all the members of the Seanad Éireann to a special lecture entitled ‘Senators As Philosopher Kings: What Can Plato Teach Us today?’ in order to critically examine the role of senators of the state and add new insights to the public debate about this controversial topic.

The lecture, conducted by Emeritus Professor of Greek, John Dillon, and Dr David Horan, of the Plato Centre in the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy at Trinity presented Plato’s ideas about what constitutes a state as well as his views of public responsibility which argue that people need to change their way of thinking if they want a different type of Oireachtas.

Pictured at the lecture (l-r): Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell, Dr David Horan and Professor John Dillon

The aim of the gathering, which was suggested by Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell, was that the philosophy of Plato should meet the contemporary politics of Ireland. Politics would thus be inspired and invigorated by philosophy while philosophy, for its part, would be made to descend from its ivory tower and engage with the realities of modern Irish life.

The discussion met with expectations: over the course of two hours, a thoroughly energising, stimulating and thought-provoking exchange of views and ideologies took place which began with Professor Dillon’s radical statement, from Plato, that political governance is, or should be a science and not something that any citizen (of almost any age) can enter upon at the drop of a hat. Professor Dillon cited Plato’s image of the so-called Ship of Fools; all inexpert mariners who decide that the most popular person, who best pleases his fellows, should be the one to navigate the ship – to certain shipwreck. He described Plato’s concept of the true, proper and indeed lengthy process of education required of a ruler or guardian of the state, an education that culminated in the somewhat mystical vision of The Good.

Dr Horan spoke of Plato’s allegory of The Cave where people argue over shadows and images of justice without knowing what justice really is. He said that the Senate, because it is less central to day to day politics, has the opportunity to orient its debate in a more universal direction and give true inspiration and vision to the nation. In this way Senators may truly become philosopher kings in the Platonic sense; transcending the shadow world of transient preoccupations and engaging in a more cogent, reasoned and reflective form of debate and discourse.

The lecture was followed by responses from the Senators. With the Seanad under greater public scrutiny and with increasing questions about its merits, the event provided a novel opportunity for Senators to address the criticisms that it avoids national issues and instead, concentrates more on that which is local, parochial, provincial and insular. The Senators spoke of the need for true national vision in politics and the desire among elected representatives to be properly educated and prepared for office, perhaps in the manner envisaged by Plato. The issue of Water Charges was a repeated theme and led to a discussion of the guidelines for true and productive Socratic dialogue presented by the Plato Centre. The Senators said that the guidelines, listed below, are inherently respected by the more reflective members of both houses:

o   The aim is to uncover the truth not to win an argument – this is a joint endeavour

o   Be willing to be proved wrong if found to be in error

o   Really understand the viewpoint of the other person

o   Question all assumptions about the issue rather than proceeding from assumptions

o   Accept the possibility that the other party is just as likely to be right as you are

o   In the discovery of truth good questions are more powerful than lengthy speeches