In Plato’s Republic, Socrates envisions the ideal city-state. After describing life within his supposed utopia, his detractors press him on whether or not his dream could ever come to fruition. Socrates replies:
“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy … cities will never have rest from their evils,—no, nor the human race, as I believe,—and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”Plato’s Republic
Plato envisioned that the model leader would possess the bold, adventurous spirit of a great king combined with the self-restrained, thoughtful temperament of a philosopher. This dual-natured ruler would be able to balance truthfulness, temperance, and justice perfectly while still being able to respond to the everyday troubles that befell his kingdom.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of rulers fail to conform to Plato’s ideal. Nevertheless, a few rulers throughout history may be candidates for the title philosopher-king. These leaders have either enlightened those around them with their own wisdom or have promoted education and learning broadly throughout their realms. The list is ordered chronologically so we can explore important developments in education as they unfolded. Let’s take a look at some of the greatest philosopher-kings to have graced the history books.
Hammurabi was ruler of the Babylonian Empire from circa 1792-1750 BC. The most ancient ruler on our list, he is also the most mysterious. However, a major accomplishment that Hammurabi is still known for today is his list of laws, named the Code of Hammurabi. The Code of Hammurabi is the best preserved legal text from the ancient middle-east. Written in the ancient language Akkadian, the common dialect of Babylonians, the code could be read by any literate citizen. Hammurabi claimed that he was given the Laws by Shamash, the Babylonian god of justice.
The laws focus on punishing perpetrators of crime rather than compensation for the victims. It is one of the first law codes that established the presumption of innocence, an important tenet of law today. Additionally, it placed restrictions on what a wronged individual was allowed to do in retribution against the perpetrator of the crime.
Hammurabi was believed to be a god while he ruled, yet after his death his renown as a lawgiver took precedence. In Mesopotamia his legend grew, and his reign became a reference point for historical events that occurred in the remote past. Hammurabi’s lasting contributions to law earn him a position among the great philosopher-kings in history.
King David was the epitome of the warrior-poet. The famed slayer of the giant Goliath was a skillful harp player and named the “sweet psalmist of Israel.” No other Old-Testament figure played as significant a role in the shaping of the Kingdom of Israel as David. His triumphs – and failures – make up some of the most remarkable stories in the Hebrew Bible, and his reign is considered the pinnacle of Israel’s golden age.
Not only a fascinating character in the Bible, David also helped to write it. Though none can be definitively attributed to the king, about half of the verses in Psalm have been traditionally ascribed to his hand.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of David’s rule; his psalms are foundational to Western poetry and literature while his reign has been viewed as the ideal kingship. His contributions to the Bible, and humanities as a whole, earn him a well-deserved spot on this list.
Few are more famous for their wisdom than the Biblical king Solomon, who reigned in Israel during the mid-tenth century BC. Like his predecessor David, Solomon is credited with writing several books of the Bible in addition to being featured in it. He also constructed the First Temple in Jerusalem.
Many fascinating stories from the Old Testament attest to the king’s wisdom, such as “The Judgment of Solomon.” In this tale, two women claim the same child as their own. The dispute is resolved when Solomon orders the child to be severed in half and shared between the women. One woman quickly renounces her claim, showing that she would rather be separated from her child than have the child killed. Solomon wisely declares that this woman must be the mother.
According to a biblical account, Solomon was given his wisdom directly by God. In a dream, Solomon is given the opportunity to ask God for whatever he wishes. He asks that he be given discernment to govern his kingdom justly. Pleased that Solomon didn’t ask for worldly possessions like wealth and riches, God grants his request.
The tales surrounding Solomon’s legendary wisdom attest to the king’s great judgment and show why he deserves a place on our list.
Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome during the 2nd Century AD and the last emperor to rule during the pax romana, a period of relative peace in the Roman empire. From the beginning of his reign, the emperor showed an interest in matters of law and administration, and jurists referred to him as “an emperor most skilled in the law.” Aurelius also showed great respect toward the Roman Senate and often requested their guidance on matters despite being the absolute authority in the empire.
Although the emperor had many military and administrative accomplishments, he is perhaps most famous for the writings he left in his private diary. Never intended for the public, Aurelius wrote down personal insights and observations while on campaign against barbarian tribes in eastern Europe – fighting by day and philosophizing by night. These personal insights are referred to as his Meditations and have been passed down for nearly two millennia, provoking contemplation in audiences of all backgrounds. Meditations is often considered the epitome of stoic philosophy although Aurelius draws on multiple schools of philosophical thought in addition to stoicism. Nevertheless, the work is a unique opportunity to peer into the mind of a man remarkably positioned as the leader of the greatest empire in history.
Marcus Aurelius’ just rule and lasting contributions to literature and philosophy through his work Meditations secure him a position as the archetypal wise ruler.
Charlemagne is regarded as one of the most influential kings to ever rule. He was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope in 800 AD, uniting most of western Europe under one banner for the first time since the Roman Empire. Under Charlemagne’s leadership, Europe was pulled from the “dark ages” into what is known as the “Carolingian Renaissance” – a series of educational, political, and cultural reforms that rekindled a spirit of scholarship and artistry across the west.
Not only a champion of public reform, Charlemagne also worked to better himself on a personal level. Contemporary sources close to the king, notably his advisor Einhard, record that one of Charlemagne’s more apparent enthusiasms was education. He had a special desire for apprenticeship in numerous scholastic fields, and he submitted himself to the tutelage of multiple hand-selected teachers throughout his reign.
Charlemagne was naturally an excellent orator and Einhard lauded his command of language: “He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence.” Building on this, the king expanded his repertoire by learning Latin and Greek fluently. In addition to foreign languages, he studied grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, and astronomy. The king attempted writing very late in his life; according to Einhard, he “used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters.” Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, he never fully cultivated this skill. At mealtimes, he often listened to readings of “histories and the great deeds of men of old”. Einhard claims that the king had a special affinity for St. Augustine’s writings and in particular The City of God.
Charlemagne’s pursuit of personal improvement as well as his management of cultural reforms make him one of the great philosopher-kings of the middle ages.
Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great ruled the Anglo-Saxons during the late 9th century and enjoyed an excellent reputation as a learned, level-headed, and merciful king. Although often distracted by Danish incursions, the king oversaw considerable administrative and educational developments throughout his kingdom.
Possibly inspired by Charlemagne’s “Carolingian Renaissance” a century earlier, one of Alfred’s major initiatives was education and literacy. Alfred promoted instruction in Old English rather than the traditional Latin, allowing his subjects to access learning material with greater ease. One way that Alfred did this was by inviting foreign scholars to instruct him in Latin so that, with their aid, he could translate prominent Latin works into English. Additionally, court schools focused on literacy were established to educate nobles and lesser-born children alike. The opportunity for non-nobility to obtain an education was a significant step toward meritocracy in a fledgling feudal system dominated primarily by nepotism.
Alfred the Great’s efforts to increase the accessibility of education, especially during a time it was typically reserved for the elite, earns him a place on our list.
Suleiman the Magnificent
Suleiman I, often known as Suleiman the Magnificent, ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520-1566 AD. His 46 year rule was the longest reign of any sultan and he ruled during the peak of the empire’s political power. During Suleiman’s reign, he spearheaded major changes in education, taxation, and criminal law. For these reforms he was nicknamed “The Lawgiver” by his subjects.
In addition to administrative accomplishments, Suleiman was a great patron of the arts and culture. He was a prolific poet who wrote many well-known Turkish proverbs that are still repeated today. He also showed an aptitude for goldsmithing. During his reign, hundreds of imperial artistic guilds were established that allowed artisans to hone their crafts and lend their talents to the empire in return for fair compensation. Suleiman’s emphasis on culture thrusted the Ottoman Empire into its golden age of arts, literature, and architecture.
Suleiman the Magnificent’s administrative successes in law and culture along with his poetical prowess earn him a place among the great scholarly rulers in history.
A Win for Posterity
The great-philosopher kings listed above came from various backgrounds, yet were united in their desire to better themselves and their kingdoms by instilling legal, educational, and cultural reforms. Though their subjects in their own time certainly benefited from their leadership, history proves that posterity was the greater beneficiary of these wise rulers.