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. At worst, the result will be an Intellectually Supported Tyranny. 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 occasionally 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.
- In the Elseworlds comic Superman: Red Son, Lex Luthor posthumously 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.
- 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 still tried to avert this trope, considering overt involvement in politics somewhat counter to their philosophy. Their increased involvement over the years was part of their downfall eventually, as their greatest enemy was able to distract them with political intrigue and ultimately frame them for trying to stage a coup and make themselves this trope.
- 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.
- 1984: Subverted. The philosophy embraced by the ruling party is a brutal kind of nihilism, expressed through openly evil totalitarianism, which O'Brien explains is their entire goal, rather than justifying it by some higher ideal as say Communists or Nazis did (whom he speaks of contemptuously).
- 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 for 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.
- While not "royalty," Professor Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter fits this trope perfectly. He "rules" over Hogwarts under a laissez-faire, hands-off approach as part of an effort to teach the students (Harry especially) about perseverance, self-reliance, and resilience. He uses his pensieve to search through his own memories and study the psychology of evil. He even possesses the Socratic idea of self-knowledge, as he is fully aware that even he is not immune to the corruptible influence of power, having turned down the offer of becoming Minister several times for this very reason, all traits befitting Plato's definition of the philosopher-ruler.
- From A Song of Ice and Fire is Stannis Baratheon, along with Tyrion, is one of the best read and most introspective aristocrats in the entire series. His conversations with Davos Seaworth and Jon Snow, features him discoursing at length on what being a ruler means, certain ideas of justice and how it applies to the situation and context at hand. He keeps reminding everyone, including his treacherous brother Renly and others, that Kings are supposed to be lonely, and distant, since it's impossible for anyone with that much power and responsibility to have true equals, and its a burden that he wears heavily. Ironically he is one of the most disliked men in the realm and perceived as an Evil Overlord. Stannis isn't quite there early in the books, however after his defeat at the Blackwater by the Lannisters and the Tyrells comes round to a better way of thinking.
- 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.
- President Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing is the democratic equivalent. A thoughtful man, loves to study history, theology, and just general trivia, was a Nobel Prize-winning economist before entering politics, and also utterly dedicated to his job as president of the United States.
- One of the civics available to Imperial and Dictatorial governments in Stellaris is called "Philosopher King". It increases the ruler's skill level by 2, giving new rulers the equivalent of an 8 year head start.
- 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.
- In Erfworld, King Banhammer of Faq tried to be this, dedicating himself to being an Actual Pacifist and shunning military pursuits — in a world that is literally built on fantasy wargaming rules. Subverted in that he was not actually a very good philosopher. In fact, he's downright terrible at it, accepting his own wisdom as fact and lacking the strength of will to challenge his own preconceptions or examine his own ideas too closely, simply accepting them as self-evident and moving on. His Meaningful Name referred to his tendency to ban everyone from his court discussions who doesn't agree with him, making the whole thing an echo chamber. It ultimately got him killed.
- Kill Six Billion Demons is host to this trope. An important figure in the comic, Zoss the Conquering King, is said to have had great wisdom and knew many names of YISUN. Such was his wisdom, he ushered in an age of philosopher kings in Throne. Too bad their successors, the Demiurges aren't so enlightened.
- Solomon David, the Demiurge of Pride, considers himself an enlightened king. Ultimately, his belief in Might Makes Right and his willingness to use force as a first solution undermines this claim, putting him in contrast with more self-aware Demiurges like Incubus and Mottom (who are, admittedly, considerably worse rulers because they're not even trying).
- 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.
- The Legend of Korra: Tenzin, a philosophical pacifist, is de facto leader of the Air Nomads.
- 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)
- 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.
- Saint Alfonso X el Sabio (the Wise), King of Castile (112-1284), the patron saint of scientists and scholars.
- Emperor Julian, known as "The Apostate", actually wore the Philosopher'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. He has been a Christian previously, hence his "apostate" title.
- 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 Egypt, in favor of worshiping 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 artistic 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 proselytizing 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.
- 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."
- King Solomon of ancient Israel and Biblical fame, who is the most renowned for his wisdom. His cunning in resolving a dilemma has become a trope in itself. Traditionally he was considered the author of several books in The Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and Wisdom Of Solomon, by far the most philosophical of any in the text. Of course, modern historians find little evidence of Solomon's life outside Biblical texts (which were written long after the fact), so to what degree this really was the case may be forever unknown.
- King James I of England was a brilliant scholar, writing extensively on political philosophy, theology, and even occultism. It's unknown if he contributed, but he did sponsor the biblical translation that bears his name. Notably, he did a lot of philosophizing about being a king, systematically defending the divine right of kings and an absolute monarchy. He also encouraged this behavior in his Basilikon Doron, asserting that a good king would be well-read in the Bible and well-studied in mathematics, the common law, and world history.
- Nezahualcoyotl could also could as an example of this trope as he was the ruler (tlatoani) of the city-state of Texcoco in pre-Columbian era Mexico. But aside from that he also was a was a philosopher, warrior, architect, and very prominent poet. He was skeptical towards the indigenous gods that required human sacrifices. He practiced his faith in a peaceful way; in lieu of human sacrifice, he offered incense and fasted. He even went as far as to built a temple and prohibited human sacrifice in his city. Nezahualcoyotl is credited with cultivating what came to be known as Texcoco's Golden Age, which brought the rule of law, scholarship, and artistry to the city and set high standards that influenced surrounding cultures. He also established an academy of music and welcomed worthy entrants from all regions of Mesoamerica. His rule was so focused on the academics and high culture that historians still call it "the Athens of the Western World."
- Frederick the Great of Prussia was one of history's most skilled tacticians (Napoleon Bonaparte himself said that Frederick was the greatest military strategist who ever lived), but was also famous for his patronage of the arts and sciences, his talent as a composer and musician, and his own philosophical treatises and books. Frederick invited many scholars and philosophers to visit his court, and is generally remembered as one of the Enlightenment's most, well, enlightened rulers.
- In the Minor Arcana, this archetype is represented through the King of Swords, a strong king wielding a sword in his right hand, representing mental power, clarity and truth.