The Philosopher King

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It is a more enlightened age. Perhaps a future, or a past long forgotten, when rulers are noble and just, and rule for their people, not just for themselves. Perhaps it is an Age of Reason, in which older, barbaric measures of manhood such as war and business have been phased out, and replaced solely with pure, unclouded Thought. Only those who have the capacity to Think have the right to Rule. In this realm, the Philosopher King is found.

Originally conceived by Plato in The Republic, which was his vision of an ideal society, the Philosopher King is someone who, since he Loves Wisdom (that is what the word "philosopher" means, after all), is more likely to seek out wisdom for its own sake, and thus more likely to rule wisely than one who, say, Loves War (or Jenga or Fellatio). The fact that Plato was himself a philosopher probably had a lot to do with his choice as well.

In science fiction, a Philosopher King can be a scientist, or even an entire class of scientist-rulers. In fantasy, a Philosopher King can be a wizard or some other hyper-endowed magic user, with the caveat that he has to learn the craft, not just be born to it. The trope often goes hand-in-hand with Crystal Spires and Togas.

Tyrants with an ideology with partially philosophical (or pseudo-philosophical) underpinnings such as Pol Pot and Adolf Hitler are not true Philosopher Kings in the concept of this trope, but rather subversions of the concept, since the Philosopher King is envisioned as purely benevolent. Pursuing a philosophy with force usually leads into Gone Horribly Wrong - or Gone Horribly Right. It is sufficient to say this has happened in the Real Life, so any specific examples of subversions are redundant. One must also distinguish Kings who occassionally reflect and pontificate about their times and fashions, i.e. the tendency in Historical Fiction to portray figures of the past as more reflective and self-aware of their times and eras than the figures in question could have reasonably been.


Examples

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    Comics 
  • In the Elseworlds comic Superman: Red Son, Lex Luthor convinces the Soviet-raised Superman to stop controlling the Earth and forms a new world government of scientists, artists, writers, and philosophers. This government ushers the human race into a new age of prosperity, all revolving around a cult of Luthor.

    Film 
  • Things to Come: The H. G. Wells-scripted 1936 film ended with a society run entirely on the principle of scientific progress, in which humanity has cured the common cold before heading to the Moon(!)
  • The Jedi from Star Wars, while not technically rulers, certainly exert enough power over the Old Republic to fulfil this trope to some extent.
  • Played uber-straight in the 1978 Superman: The Movie, in which the scientist Jor-El acts as judge and juror in the banishment of Zod.

    Literature 
  • Nineteen Eighty Four: Subverted. The philosophy embraced by the ruling party is Nihilism, expressed through openly evil totalitarianism.
  • Gore Vidal's Julian is a sympathetic depiction of an actual Roman Emperor with philosophical interests and his tragic attempts to live by it.
  • The Republic: The Trope Namer.
    • Plato was the main inspiration behind Giovanni Gentile, the philosopher behind Fascism. It can be said the Fascist Italy was Plato's utopia Gone Horribly Right.
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: The novel by Douglas Adams, features the Ruler of the Universe; a man who has so utterly embraced solipsism that he views both memory and future events as unreal, and anything outside the closed door of his shack as purely hypothetical. Thus he is completely surprised by his surroundings every day, and continuously makes discoveries, such as the ability to put pencil to paper, that most people would assume you only need to make once. This makes him the perfect person to exercise power, since he has absolutely no preconceptions about anything, and the six people who ultimately control the Universe first come to him for advice before enacting anything.
    • In the original radio scripts, after the Vogons take over the Galactic Civil Service, the philosophers who had previously managed the Galaxy were sent to the Tax Return Office to lick stamps.

    Live Action TV 
  • The Time Lords of Doctor Who were a perfect example of this trope; their society was divided into Colleges or Chapters, and every Time Lord is sorted into one or the other by the age of eight. The Doctor, The Master and The Rani all belonged to the same college, the Prydonians, known for producing manipulators and renegades.

    Webcomics 
  • Existential Comics, pictured in the trope image, parodies this, depicting Plato as the ruler of a small city state. He rules the city as if he were participating in one of his famous dialogues, responding to an invasion by trying to get the messenger to define "justice" and "army." Naturally, it ends with him getting stabbed through the gut.

    Western Animation 
  • Dexter's Laboratory: In the TV Movie Ego Trip, we see a future in which Dexter's technology has created a utopia, with himself as a kind of benevolent dictator.
  • Equestria in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is ruled by Princesses who must undergo rigorous academic training before assuming the title, attaining a level of understanding in magic far beyond what is expected for the lower orders.
  • Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time also fits this trope, as she divides her time between scientific experimentation and ruling her kingdom.
  • The closest thing the Gummi Bears have to a leader, Zummi, is also the keeper of their lore and magic (although to be fair he didn't know about any of it until the start of the series)

    Real Life 
  • Marcus Aurelius probably fits this trope best, as he was considered one of the five "Good Emperors" of Rome by Niccolò Machiavelli and was also a highly respected Stoic philosopher.
  • Emperor Julian, known as "The Apostate", actually wore the Philsopher's Beard (i.e. the Roman hipster fashion) and wrote satires defending it. He also wrote several learned tracts defending Hellenism and criticizing Christianity. As an Emperor he sought to revive Hellenistic cults and make it a popular religion, and better defend antiquity from the influence of Christianity.
  • The Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, father of Tutenkamen, is often considered by historians and scholars to be the first monotheist, a man who abjured the Ancient Gods of Egpt, in favour of worshipping the Sun God Aten who is one. He changed his name Amenhotep to Akhenaten, created a new city Akhetaten (located today at Amarna) and promoted a program of aristic revolution. The art from his reign shows human figures with greater realism, and even portrays the Pharoah and his family in domestic settings rather than the frozen Godlike beings of the hieroglyphs and tombs. Letters from his regime, and the prayer to the Sun God, authored by the Pharoah have survived and are set to song by Philip Glass. Upon his death, all his programs and initiatives were overturned but some argue that he inspired other monotheistic religions, such as Judaism.
  • At first, Ashoka was nowhere near this trope; but then he got sick of war and became a great ruler, particularly noted for religious tolerance and the promotion of learning and trade. Under his rule, the great Buddhist conferences and the schism between Hinayana and Mahayana took place and his actions led to missionary activity and proseltyzing of Buddhism in neighboring countries. Ashoka's pillars and rock edicts reflect a monarch who wanted to have a confessional relationship with his subjects, given that it's the only record in history of a ruler admitting to his war crimes and preserving it for historical memory.
  • The Mughal Emperor Akbar was illiterate but he was fascinated by religion and enjoyed hanging out with intellectuals. Under his reign, he promoted a concept called "Din-E-Ilahi" which was a personal and elitist religion that recognized multiple faiths, syncretized elements from Hinduism and Islam, was hammered out by debates in the palace which the Emperor attended...and which did not long survive his reign.
  • Ideally, the Emperors of China were expected to follow the teachings of Confucius; whether they did or not largely determined how the (Confucian) historians would later treat them.
  • Calling him a King is certainly pushing it, but Maximilien Robespierre developed a philosophy of Democracy based on Deism and The Enlightenment. This led to his promotion of a state Cult of the Supreme Being as a Take a Third Option between Dechristianization and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (both of them being highly unpopular policies). Robespierre essentially wanted Democracy to become a new kind of religion and symbols and festivals of nationalism to become The Moral Substitute of religious sentiment, basing it on concepts of civic religion discussed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the classic epigram of Voltaire, i.e. "If God does not exist, it is necessary to invent him."
  • Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan is a unique example, subverting the "king" part rather than the "philosopher" part. He was the first Vice President of India and its second President. He was also a professor of philosophy and remains one of the most distinguished scholars on Hinduism and comparative religion in the world. He notably embodied the spirit of the trope, as he described democracy not as parliamentary institutions, but as "rule by moral standards."


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