Plato, Machiavelli and Aristotle: The Philosopher Kings of business

Wittgenstein for wealth managers - a step too far?
Businesses can learn a lot from the classics – try imitating Socrates in your next meeting.
Every few years, typically following moments of crisis or ructions in the global economy, a bevy of articles appears extolling the virtues of a classical or philosophical education for business leaders. Choose Montaigne over macroeconomics, we’re told – inward reflection can help to navigate inflection points in our careers and the world of commerce.
Now seems to be one of those moments. Since 2007, well over 1,000 Google employees have taken the company’s internal Search Inside Yourself course, according to the New York Times, with waiting lists stretching to more than six months. David Brendel, one of a growing number of “philosophical counsellors” based in the US, blogged for the Harvard Business Review in September about his success in weaning bosses off self-help manuals and onto the great thinkers – less chief executive than chief existentialist.
And The Economist’s Schumpeter columnist last week argued that businesses should shun the typical corporate retreat in favour of a more cerebral “inward-bound” course: “You will learn far more about leadership from Thucydides’s hymn to Pericles than from a thousand leadership experts.”
In truth (from the perspective of a philosophy graduate-turned-business journalist), attempts to marry the humanities with commerce often fail. Writer Alain de Botton’s (author of The Consolations of Philosophy and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work) contrived Aristotelian reimagining of the purpose of banking, for example, can probably be safely ignored by the captains of that industry.
And it’s difficult to work out what a technology consultant or software architect could glean from Kant’s opaque Critique of Pure Reason – metaphysics of the mainframe computer, anyone?
But that’s not to discount the project in its entirety. With firms spending millions on “business ethics” courses for executives, surely the academic discipline’s founders are worth a read. Brendel cites neurological research showing that self-reflection tasks help activate a part of the brain crucial for the integration of “emotional, motivational, and cognitive information”. It’s difficult to say the same about most corporate communications and leadership coaching guides.
And isn’t the examined life supposed to be worth living for its own sake? Here are a few books to get you started.

PLATO: THE REPUBLIC

The Greek master’s blueprint for a perfect society (ruled by a class of arch-rationalist Philosopher Kings) is one of the most-read classics. But it’s less the conclusions of Socrates (Plato’s teacher and literary mouthpiece) than his mode of investigation that businesses may be interested in.
The Socratic Method consists of iterative questioning: “How would you define ‘justice’?”, “what about this case, would your answer change?”. The flaws in his interlocutors’ understanding are brutally exposed, and everyone leaves with a renewed sense of intellectual humility. It’s a remarkably effective way of finding faulty concepts (“what do you mean by ‘overqualified’?”), and is often used in classes at Harvard Business School.

MACHIAVELLI: THE PRINCE

One of the most namechecked but least understood works of the Renaissance, this isn’t the self-help manual for sociopaths it’s often made out to be. It’s a guide in the subtleties of power-wielding, and Peter Fleming and Andre Spicer of Cass Business School argued in a recent paper that the “political intelligence” advocated by the great Italian theorist is one of the most overlooked aspects of business.

ARISTOTLE: ETHICS

If a little dense (all that remains of Aristotle’s work is his lecture notes), the Ethics introduces a broad idea of happiness, or eudaemonia – best translated as “flourishing”. In a world where success is often defined by job title, it’s a reminder that there’s more that matters.

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