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According to Plato, a philosopher king is a ruler who possesses a love of wisdom, as well as intelligence, reliability, and a willingness to live a simple life. Such are the rulers of his utopian city Kallipolis. For such a community to ever come into being, Plato said "philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize".
In Book VI of The Republic
Plato defined a philosopher firstly as its eponymous occupation: "wisdom-lover." He then distinguishes between one who loves true knowledge (as opposed to mere experience or education) by saying that the philosopher is the only person who has access to ideas – the archetypal entities that exist behind all representations of the form (such as Beauty itself as opposed to any one particular instance of beauty). It is next and in support of the idea that philosophers are the best rulers that Plato fashions the Ship of State metaphor, one of his most often cited ideas (along with his allegory of the cave): a "true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship".
The concept of the philosopher king is closely related to the idea of epistocracy. Epistocracy is the idea that those who possess a certain level of knowledge or wisdom should rule over those who do not. An argument in favor of epistocracy consists of three main tenets: that there are objectively correct answers to some political questions (truth tenet), some people know these answers and others do not (knowledge tenet), and those who know those answers should have political authority over those who do not (authority tenet). The philosopher Jason Brennan identifies six possible forms of epistocracy: values-only voting (citizens only have the power to choose the ends of government and not the means of their achievement), epistocratic veto (an epistemic political body holds ultimate veto authority over a citizen legislature), plural voting (certain citizens get more votes than others), restricted suffrage (only certain citizens have the right to vote and participate in decisions), enfranchisement lottery (citizens are randomly selected and given the right to vote, though they must first possess a certain level of competence), and government by simulated oracle (policy choices are guided mainly by statistics and data rather than an uninformed electorate). One should be cautious to equate the concept of the philosopher king with epistocracy because many epistocrats are uncomfortable with the idea of one philosopher king or a small group of philosopher kings being the ultimate source of authority; some prefer a very large and diverse epistocratic polity. Epistocracy is subject to many criticisms and questions such as how exactly do we identify those more qualified to rule than others? Is it even possible for some one to have totally sufficient knowledge to become the ideal epistocratic ruler? And, could an epistocracy really produce better outcomes than its' main adversary democracy?
Archytas was a Pythagorean philosopher and political leader in the ancient Greek city of Tarentum, in Italy. He was a close friend of Plato, and some scholars assert that he may have been an inspiration for Plato's concept of a philosopher king.
Dion of Syracuse was a disciple of Plato. He overthrew the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse and was installed as leader in the city, only to be made to leave by the Syracusans who were unhappy with his opposition to democratic reforms. He was later re-invited to the city, where he attempted to establish an aristocracy along Platonic lines, but he was assassinated by plotters in the pay of the former tyrant.
As the student of Aristotle, some argue that Alexander the Great at least partially demonstrated certain qualities of a philosopher king. This view was put forward by Onesictritus who described him as a "[p]hilosopher in arms," as well as by Plutarch who also believed him to be both a civilized and civilizing philosopher king. However, Alexander remains a controversial figure in relation to the notion of the philosopher king, as various historians have characterized his life quite differently depending on the time period and geography of the chronicler.
It is widely argued that Marcus Aurelius is a prominent example of the philosopher king ideal. His Stoic tome Meditations, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.
Matthias Corvinus (1443–1490), who was king of Hungary and Croatia from 1458, was influenced by the Italian Renaissance and strongly endeavored to follow in practice the model and ideas of the philosopher king as described in The Republic.
Ayatollah Khomeini is said to have been inspired by the Platonic vision of the philosopher king while in Qum in the 1920s when he became interested in Islamic mysticism and Plato's Republic. As such, it has been speculated that he was inspired by Plato's philosopher king, and subsequently based elements of his Islamic republic on it, despite it being a republic which deposed the former Pahlavi dynasty.
Karl Popper blamed Plato for the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century, seeing Plato's philosopher kings, with their dreams of "social engineering" and "idealism", as leading directly to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin (via Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx respectively).
- Benevolent dictator
- Enlightened absolutism
- Government by algorithm
- Plato, The Republic, 5.473d
- Plato, The Republic, 6.488d
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