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The Philosopher-King: 7 of History's Wisest Rulers

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King Solomon, a prime example of Plato's ideal of the "philosopher-king."

King Solomon, a prime example of Plato's ideal of the "philosopher-king."

The Philosopher-King

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wasn't a fan of democracy. In Republic, he made a case for a benevolent dictatorship being the ideal form of government. Humanity, he claimed, was in need of a "philosopher-king".

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

- Plato

Dictators are easy to come by, but benevolent dictators? Not so much. We read about mythical leaders such as King Arthur and King Solomon, but where are such people found in the real world?

Here are seven historical rulers who may have met Plato's criteria.

Victorian antique engraving of Caesar Augustus.

Victorian antique engraving of Caesar Augustus.

1. Augustus Caesar, Emperor of Rome (Reigned 27 BC-14 AD)

On 15 March 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated. In an unexpected twist, it was revealed that he had named his great-nephew, Octavian, as heir in his will.

Thus, at the tender age of 19, Octavian was thrust into the cutthroat world of Roman politics. Caesar had obviously seen something in the boy, and his instincts would prove correct, as young Octavian would rise to become the greatest ruler Rome ever knew, earning the title "Augustus" ("majestic").

But for now, he had to contend with powerful rivals, including Caesar's right-hand man, Marc Antony. The two of them joined forces to defeat Caesar's assassins before dividing the empire between them, but tensions simmered as Marc Antony, who believed himself to be a more worthy successor to Caesar, aligned himself with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, and plotted a power grab.

Octavian was constantly underestimated because of his youth, but he emerged victorious from the power struggle. Antony's fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Actium, after which he committed suicide together with his lover, Cleopatra. Octavian effectively became Rome's first emperor, although he was careful to do so under the guise of Princeps Civitatis ("First Citizen").

Considering the conflict that plagued the early part of his reign, one might have expected him to develop into a paranoid and ruthless leader, but he instead emerged as a great conciliator, surrendering power to the Senate (or at least appearing to), and restoring order through careful diplomacy.

He lived a modest lifestyle, avoiding the trappings of royalty and thereby earning the trust and respect of the Senate. He expanded trade routes throughout the empire, reformed tax laws, and undertook ambitious building projects.

He was particularly committed to repairing temples and promoting religion as a means of reinforcing the fabric of society following the chaos of the civil wars.

He established a permanent firefighting and police force in the Vigiles Urbani ("Watchmen of the City"). He also founded the Praetorian Guard, an elite fighting force that acted as the emperor's personal bodyguard.

His great legacy was the Pax Romana ("Roman peace"), the term for the 200 years of peace and prosperity that followed his reign.

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I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.

— Augustus Caesar

King Ashoka meeting with Buddhist monks.

King Ashoka meeting with Buddhist monks.

2. Ashoka the Great, King of India (Reigned 268-232 BC)

His reign began in blood; a brutal conquest of Kalinga (a coastal kingdom in east-central India) that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

But at some point during the conflict, Ashoka underwent a spiritual awakening. The violence and suffering were just too much for him to bear, and from there on, he gradually transformed into one of the most enlightened rulers the world has ever seen.

He promoted religious tolerance but found his own inspiration in the teachings of Buddhism, which he made his mission to spread far and wide. The practice of non-violence became the foundation of his governance.

This applied to animals as well as humans, and Ashoka is regarded by many historians as the first ruler to enact nature conservation on such a large scale. He even forbade the slaughter of young animals or animals that were nursing young.

He initiated a project to plant trees and build wells all over the land. He founded hospitals (for humans and animals).

His edicts are inscribed on pillars throughout India, with the most famous being the pillar at Sarnath, the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon.

The pillar contains the Lion Capital of Ashoka, a sculpture of four lions standing back-to-back. This was adopted as the national emblem of India in 1950.

Whoever honors his own sect and disparages another man’s, whether from blind loyalty or with the intention of showing his own sect in a favorable light, does his own sect the greatest possible harm. Concord is best, with each hearing and respecting the other’s teachings.

— Ashoka the Great

Queen Elizabeth I addressing her troops at Tilbury.

Queen Elizabeth I addressing her troops at Tilbury.

3. Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Reigned 1558-1603)

Simply put, Elizabeth inherited a mess. The reign of her father (Henry VIII) and half-sister (Mary I) had sewn chaos and division, leaving the realm broken and bankrupt.

Henry VIII had split England from the Catholic Church because the pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He founded the Church of England with himself as its head. This triggered a bloody conflict between England's protestant and catholic factions.

His daughter, Mary, sought to restore Catholicism as the state religion. She persecuted protestants, burning many at the stake and earning herself the title "Bloody Mary." She was ever-suspicious of her half-sister Elizabeth, who managed to avert her ire through carefully submissive behaviour, demonstrating a talent for diplomacy from an early age.

So when Mary died childless, Elizabeth succeeded her. Under her guidance, England emerged from religious and economic upheaval as a major power on the world stage.

The most famous achievement of her reign is the defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588, which established England as the new dominant naval power. Her inspirational speech before the battle echoed through the centuries and led to her being perceived as a warrior-queen, but it was her qualities as a diplomat and administrator that made her so successful.

She cemented the Church of England as the dominant religious institution while making concessions to the Catholics that helped heal the religious divide (such as the 1559 Act of Uniformity, which allowed for two interpretations of the communion, one Protestant and the other Catholic).

She inherited a realm in debt but by the end of her reign, had converted that into a surplus. Part of this was achieved by selling off crown lands and allowing merchants to buy exclusive rights to products. The Royal Exchange was founded during this period.

In 1601 she passed the Poor Law, which among other measures, established almshouses to help the poor. This was the first time the crown had become involved in alleviating poverty, which until then had been the remit of the Catholic Church.

She is well known for being a patron of the arts. Theatre and literature flourished during her reign, which saw the rise of cultural icons such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser (the latter wrote The Faerie Queene in honour of Queen Elizabeth).

Queen Elizabeth died childless, but was succeeded peacefully by her cousin James I. Her reign is viewed as a golden age in the history of England.

I observe and remain silent.

— Queen Elizabeth I

The statue of Marcus Aurelius in Capitol Square, Rome.

The statue of Marcus Aurelius in Capitol Square, Rome.

4. Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome (161-180 AD)

Marcus Aurelius (portrayed by Richard Harris in Gladiator) is the epitome of the philosopher-king. He even wrote a book containing his daily observations and insights (called Meditations), which people of today still look to as a source of valuable life lessons.

He was committed to the practice of stoicism, a school of philosophy founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It extolls self-discipline and the pursuit of a virtuous life.

It's clear how his belief system informed his rule. It enabled him to be a beacon of strength to the Roman people during a particularly tumultuous period beset by warfare and plague. As such, he was beloved by the public and admired by the Senate.

He was a successful military leader, securing victories against the Parthians and Germanic tribes; but he was also an exceptional legal mind, concerning himself primarily with laws governing slaves, orphans and city councils.

He was the last of the "Five Good Emperors," a succession of able rulers who oversaw peace and prosperity throughout the empire.

You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

— Marcus Aurelius

5. Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (Reigned 1682-1725)

Peter the Great initiated Russia's transition from an archaic medieval backwater to a European powerhouse.

He paid special attention to education. Vast amounts of western textbooks were translated into Russian. Schools were secularised, the Russian alphabet was modernised, the Julian calendar was introduced, and the first Russian newspaper, Vedomosti (Records), was established.

The Russian Academy of Sciences was founded during this period. Peter wanted to promote industry and scientific progress, and he succeeded. New industries emerged and some, such as Russia's metallurgical industry, overtook those of other European nations.

His determination to modernise Russia put him at odds with the Boyar (Russian aristocracy), whose privileges depended on preserving the old ways. Peter won this battle, reducing hereditary power and making it possible for commoners to advance through the bureaucracy with his Table of Ranks system.

Through his actions, Russia emerged from the Middle Ages as an industrial powerhouse ready to compete with Europe.

Destiny may ride with us today, but there is no reason for it to interfere with lunch.

— Peter the Great

Illustration of Byzantine embassy to Tang Taizong in 643 AD.

Illustration of Byzantine embassy to Tang Taizong in 643 AD.

6. Táng Tàizōng, Emperor of China (Reigned 626-649)

Táng Tàizōng orchestrated the rise of the Tang dynasty by encouraging and supporting his father's rebellion against the Sui dynasty in 617. He succeeded his father in 626, although he was regarded as the true power behind the throne even before then.

As the ruler of the largest nation on earth, he faced significant challenges, including attacks by the Eastern Turks and rebellions by jealous generals. But he was able to unify the empire while establishing a robust bureaucracy.

One of his most admirable qualities was that he chose advisors based on merit, and welcomed constructive criticism. One of his chancellors, Wei Zheng, was specifically instructed to stay by the emperor's side and inform him of his faults.

At one point, he sent 13 of his most capable officials to determine where there was suffering and poverty in the land. They were charged with evaluating local officials and reinforcing the civil service where it was most needed.

His reign is referred to as the "Reign of Zhen'guan," and is regarded as a golden age in Chinese history. Future crown princes were required to study Táng Tàizōng as an example of how best to govern.

A country cannot be a country without people and a ruler cannot be a ruler without a country. When the ruler looks as lofty and firm as a mountain peak and as pure, bright, and illuminating as the sun and the moon, the people will admire and respect him.

— Excerpts from Emperor Taizong on Effective Government

Flute concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci (his summer palace).

Flute concert with Frederick the Great in Sanssouci (his summer palace).

7. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia (Reigned 1740-1786)

A despot, but an enlightened one; Frederick II believed the king should have absolute power, but also saw kingship as a duty rather than a privilege. He took the well-being and security of his people seriously.

He was successful as both commander and administrator. Conflicts that took place during his reign include the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), a major clash between European powers from which Prussia emerged in a strong position, gaining more territory and securing its place as a world power.

Domestically, he promoted religious tolerance and freedom of the press and established the first German code of law. He sought to bring about equality before the law by eliminating the special courts for the upper classes. He abolished most forms of torture and removed the death penalty for many crimes.

He was a patron of the arts, and even composed his own musical pieces. One such piece inspired Johann Sebastian Bach to write The Musical Offering.

Despite a troubled childhood where he was ill-treated by his father, he grew to be a competent and compassionate king, and one of the most enlightened rulers in the history of Europe.

The greatest and noblest pleasure which men can have in this world is to discover new truths; and the next is to shake off old prejudices.

— Frederick the Great

References

World History Edu. 2021, 18 July. 10 Greatest Achievements of Augustus, the First Roman Emperor (worldhistoryedu.com).

Amulya Chandra Sen. Ashoka (britannica.com).

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Elizabeth I’s Achievements (britannica.com).

World History Edu. 2019, 24 August. Marcus Aurelius: Biography, Meditations, & Achievements (worldhistoryedu.com).

Biography.com Editors. 2021, 14 April. Peter the Great (biography.com).

New World Encyclopedia. Emperor Taizong of Tang (newworldencyclopedia.org).

Matthew Smith Anderson. Frederick II King of Prussia (britannica.com).

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