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The Philosopher King

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"Solomon's wisdom was greater than all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else... and his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all the nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world who heard of his wisdom."

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 reason and rationalism. 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 maybe had something 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. In either case, this is a common figure found ruling over a Proud Scholar Race. 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 (although they might believe themselves to be Philosopher Kings of course). Pursuing a philosophy with force usually leads to 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 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.


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    Comic Books 
  • Subverted in Dungeon: The Early Years: Horus tries to justify his participation in a wizard-led by saying that if you can't make kings into philosophers, the next best thing is to make the philosophers kings. As this involves mass mind control (including on his own son), he eventually sees reason and kills his Evil Mentor.
  • In 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.

    Fan Works 
  • Prodigal Son: Discussed between Artemisia and Hiccup in Chapter 14. Even Artemisia declares that Hiccup falls into this trope due to his reluctance.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Ego Trip, we see a future in which Dexter's technology has created a utopia, with himself as a kind of benevolent dictator.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • In Superman: The Movie, the scientist Jor-El acts as judge and juror in the banishment of Zod.
  • Things to Come ends with a society run entirely on the principle of scientific progress, in which humanity has cured the common cold before heading to the Moon(!).

  • 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.
  • Julian is a sympathetic depiction of an actual Roman Emperor with philosophical interests and his tragic attempts to live by them.
  • Subverted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. 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).
  • The Republic is the Trope Namer. Plato was the main inspiration for Giovanni Gentile, the philosopher behind fascism. It can be said that Fascist Italy was Plato's utopia Gone Horribly Right. He was also quite popular with the Nazis. As a result, later anti-authoritarian philosopher Karl Popper judged Plato to be the precursor of modern authoritarian philosophies. Whether or not he was is debated, of course.
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe 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.
  • 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 feature him discoursing at length 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 it's a burden that he wears heavily. Ironically, he is one of the most disliked men in the realm and is 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, he comes around to a better way of thinking.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: The Time Lords' society is 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.



    Video Games 
  • 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.

  • Kill Six Billion Demons:
    • 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).
  • 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 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.
  • Existential Comics 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 
  • Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time 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 he didn't know about any of it until the start of the series).
  • 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.

    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. Two of the other five emperors, Trajan and Hadrian, count also as minor examples due to their own interests in philosophy and stable reigns.
  • 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 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 of Hinduism and comparative religion in the world. He 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. 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 Philip II of Spain and Portugal was a a noted intellectual, who endlessly sponsored scholars, scientists, theologists and even alchemists. He gathered enough books for himself to form the biggest private library in all of Europe (including books forbidden by the Spanish Inquisition, which he got because he was the king), and himself partaked in religious debate with Catholic mystics to explore the relationship between man and God, which was a very personal topic for him. He also sent the first modern scientifical expedition in order to expand their knowledge of herbology and medicine with the new findings in America, patronized the recording of native culture, and did humanistic work, including the stopping of conquest and the establishing of our modern eight-hour day.
  • King James VI and I of Scotland and England was a brilliant scholar, writing extensively on political philosophy, theology, and occultism. (He also dabbled in the sciences, and famously wrote a treatise criticising tobacco smoking on health, aesthetic, and moral grounds.) It's unknown if he contributed, but he did sponsor the biblical translation that bears his name. He did a lot of philosophizing about being a king, systematically defending the Divine Right of Kings and absolute monarchy—or at least a broad view of royal power—while still being enough of a shrewd pragmatist not to insist on his prerogatives when doing so would unnecessarily or counterproductively antagonize Parliament. (A lesson his son failed to learn, to his detriment.) 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 serve 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 philosopher, warrior, architect, and very prominent poet. He was skeptical of 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 build 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 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 (Napoléon 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.
  • Pedro II of Brazil single-handedly took a Brazil that was on the brink of collapse and turned it into a regional power. He was a man who breathed progress and enlightenment: he was fluent in almost a dozen languages, including an indigenous one, was educated in all manner of subjects, like philosophy and engineered, was the country's first photographer, promoted abolition, became a member of the French Academy of Sciences, promoted and funded arts and sciences, led his country in wartime against Paraguay, corresponded with the likes of Charles Darwin, and was both tolerant of other faiths and held none of the racism many of his contemporaries had. Victor Hugo himself compared Pedro to Marcus Aurelius.
  • Like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (see above), Pierre Trudeau is an unusual example in that he subverted the "King" part rather than the "Philosopher". Some historians even referred to him as the "Philosopher King" or the "philosopher prince". As a law professor in Montreal, Trudeau wrote multiple essays arguing against his home province of Quebec separating from the rest of Canada or having a distinct status in the Canadian Constitution, and in support of federalism and Quebec remaining part of Canada. Quebec nationalism and separatism were both on the rise in The '60s, and Trudeau's writings and status as a public intellectual made him attractive to a federal Canadian government that needed to respond. First elected to Parliament as Prime Minister Lester Pearson's Justice Minister, Trudeau led the way in decriminalizing homosexuality, declaring that "the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation". When Trudeau became Prime Minister himself after Pearson's retirement in 1968, he spent his sixteen years in office passionately advocating for bilingualism, federalism and the enshrinement of individual rights across Canada, building on his early intellectual ideas. His efforts culminated in the Constitutional patriation of 1982, which included a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, something that Trudeau himself had advocated for during his academic days in the 1960s.

  • 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.


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Tsar Berendey

Tsar Berendey believes a philosophical worldview is necessary for anyone who wields power.

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