True Meritocracy

The Profound Origins of Meritocracy

In the grand tapestry of human governance, few threads gleam with as much ambition and idealism as that of meritocracy, a system where the worthy rise based on their talents and virtues rather than the wealth of their lineage or the power of their connections. Let us journey through time to trace the origins of this compelling ideal.

Plato’s “Republic”

The notion of meritocracy, while not explicitly named, found a philosophical champion in Plato, the illustrious Greek philosopher who flourished in the fourth century BCE. Let us journey through the intellectual landscape of Plato’s works, particularly in his seminal text, “The Republic,” where the seeds of meritocratic thought are deeply sown.

Plato, a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle, sought to answer profound questions about justice, governance, and the ideal state. In “The Republic,” he crafts a detailed vision of an ideal society, where justice prevails not by mere chance but through the careful structuring of society according to the natural aptitudes and virtues of its citizens.

At the heart of Plato’s ideal state is the tripartite division of society into three classes: the producers (craftsmen, farmers, artisans), the auxiliaries (warriors), and the guardians (rulers). This division is determined by a rigorous process of education and selection, aiming to assess the intrinsic qualities of each individual.

Plato’s meritocracy is underpinned by the concept of the “noble lie” — a myth told to citizens to ensure they accept their place in society. According to this myth, all people are born out of the earth with certain metals mixed into their souls: gold for rulers, silver for auxiliaries, and bronze or iron for producers. This allegory serves to instill a sense of purpose and acceptance of one’s role, but crucially, Plato insists that these metals are not hereditary. A gold child can be born to bronze parents and vice versa, and such children should be identified and educated in a manner befitting their higher potential.

The guardians, those imbued with gold, are chosen for their superior intellectual, moral, and philosophical qualities. They undergo the most stringent education, designed to cultivate wisdom and virtue, qualities that Plato deems essential for just rulers. This education extends well into adulthood, culminating in the study of philosophy and the contemplation of the Forms — the highest form of knowledge in Platonic philosophy. Only those who excel in this educational process and demonstrate a true capacity for philosophical understanding are selected to become rulers.

Plato’s system is thus distinctly meritocratic, but it is also deeply philosophical, tied intrinsically to his metaphysical views about the nature of reality and justice. The rulers are not merely administrators; they are philosopher-kings, embodying the highest virtues and understanding, tasked with governing the state not for personal gain but for the common good.

While Plato’s ideal state never materialized in reality, his ideas about governance based on merit rather than birthright have echoed through the ages, influencing thinkers and political systems long after his time. His exploration of these themes in “The Republic” provides a foundational dialogue on meritocracy, contemplating the intertwining of ethics, education, and governance in shaping a just society.

Confucious: China

Let us delve deeper into the story of how Confucian philosophy seeded this transformative idea and how it eventually flowered into the imperial examination system, a cornerstone of Chinese administrative culture.

Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 BCE, was a thinker whose ideas would deeply influence the fabric of Chinese society for millennia. At the heart of his teachings was a profound respect for education, ethical conduct, and governance by morally upright individuals. Confucius proposed that rulers should be wise and virtuous, chosen for their ability to lead effectively and justly, rather than solely by the accident of noble birth. This was a revolutionary thought in a world where hereditary privilege often determined leadership.

The full realization of Confucius’s meritocratic vision, however, took centuries to unfold. It was not until the Tang dynasty, particularly under the reign of Emperor Taizong around 600 AD, that the imperial examination system began to take shape. This system was designed to select the best minds for government service through rigorous exams, thus implementing a form of meritocracy.

These examinations were not trivial in nature or scope. They required a deep mastery of the Confucian classics, poetry, calligraphy, and legal and administrative matters. As the system evolved, during the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), it became even more structured. The examinations were held at multiple levels — preliminary, provincial, and the prestigious imperial exams in the capital. Success in these exams was a gateway to becoming part of the elite bureaucratic class, regardless of one’s familial background.

The exam halls were austere places where candidates were scrutinized for days. They were assigned specific topics on which to write essays that not only demonstrated their knowledge of Confucian texts but also their ability to apply this wisdom to governance. These essays were then anonymously reviewed to ensure impartiality.

This system had profound effects on Chinese society. It created a pathway for talented individuals from non-noble backgrounds to rise to significant positions of power and influence, which helped to stabilize and strengthen governance by basing it on intellectual and ethical merit rather than inheritance and nepotism.

However, like all systems, it was not without its flaws. Over time, the emphasis on rote learning of Confucian texts could stifle creativity and innovation. Moreover, while theoretically open to all, in practice, the ability to spend years studying for the exams was a luxury often only the wealthier classes could afford, potentially re-creating different forms of elitism.

Despite these issues, the imperial examination system stands as one of the earliest attempts to institutionalize meritocracy in human governance. It had a lasting impact on Chinese society and even influenced other cultures, embodying the Confucian ideal that leadership should be based on merit and moral integrity, not merely birthright. This system continued in various forms until it was finally abolished in 1905, marking the end of a unique chapter in the history of meritocracy.


The concept of meritocracy, where individuals rise to power and position based on talent and virtue rather than inherited wealth or status, has ancient philosophical roots. Plato’s “Republic” envisioned an ideal society with a class of philosopher-kings chosen for their superior intellect, ethics, and philosophical understanding after rigorous education.

Confucius in ancient China also promoted the idea that rulers should be wise and ethical individuals appointed by merit. This took form centuries later in the imperial examination system of China, a series of grueling tests on Confucian texts and governance which allowed talented individuals from any background to join the bureaucracy based purely on merit. While imperfect, the examination system institutionalized meritocracy in a way that profoundly shaped Chinese society and governance over many centuries until its abolition in the 20th century.

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