“For I believe a good king is from the outset and by necessity a philosopher, and the philosopher is from the outset a kingly person.”
—MUSONIUS RUFUS, LECTURES, 8.33.32–34
Should a leader be a philosopher? According to Plato, a philosopher king is a leader who possesses both a love of knowledge, as well as intelligence, reliability, and a willingness to live a simple life. Such are the leaders/rulers of his utopian city Kallipolis. For such a community to ever come into being, “philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize” (The Republic, 5.473d).
Plato also believed only philosophers have a life that they prefer so strongly to the political life that they “look down on” the political lifestyle (Rep. VII.521b1-2, 520e- 521b). Thus only philosophers will seek the good of the whole city (country, state, squadron) when they lead.
Second, the question of who should rule notoriously leads to bitter, intractable, and destabilizing conflicts between social and economic elites and the masses. Leadership by philosophers, Plato suggests, can forestall such controversy. All citizens can be brought to accept that the leadership of philosophers is in the citizens own interest (Rep. VI.499d-501e).
Neither of these claims is unproblematic (see postscript), but Plato’s best known justification for the rule of philosophers is philosophers alone have knowledge (epistêmê) of what really is, e.g., just, good, and fine and this simply makes them better at leading.
A few examples…
Gaius Musonius Rufus
But what of the quote above and who is this Gai—Gaius Musonius Rufus was a Roman Stoic philosopher of the 1st century AD. He was a philosophical counselor to the emperor and taught philosophy in Rome during the reign of Nero, as consequence of which he was sent into exile in 65 AD, only returning to Rome under Galba. He was allowed to stay in Rome when Vespasian banished all the other philosophers from the city in 71 AD, although he was eventually banished anyway, only returning after Vespasian’s death. Clearly being a philosopher did not equate to a position of leadership but perhaps one of banishment.
Consider Musonius Rufus as the emperor’s executive coach. The goal of most executive coaching and leadership development is behavior change—to help the leader identify and change the behaviors that are getting in the way of, and reinforce the behaviors associated with, effective leadership. But what about the beliefs and values that drive behavior? These beliefs and values that drive behavior are one’s personal philosophy. Many leaders and emperors clearly don’t care and find the concept of development and personal philosophy very difficult.
The benefits of introspection and reflection on one’s own character and beliefs is well founded. The recognition of the benefits of “mindfulness” activities (such as yoga and meditation) and an introverted style, self-reflection on philosophical issues—such as values, character virtues, and wisdom—is relatively neglected. Executive coaching and leadership development programs rarely include much, if anything, about the power of clarifying one’s philosophical world-view. But there is mounting evidence that they should. Leaders can benefit from an understanding of philosophy.
Musonius Rufus was striving to support the leader’s development of personal philosophies and empowering leaders to reach their highest human aspirations and ideals—yet resulted in banishment.
Today’s Philosopher Leader
A more current example—Ponder the Israeli General Herzl Halevi who believes that philosophy is essential in his role as a leader and warrior. “People used to tell me that business administration is for the practical life and philosophy is for the spirit….through the years I found it is exactly the opposite—I used philosophy much more practically.” War and leadership offer an unending priorities, balance, and clarity. That’s where a strong grasp of philosophy guides the leader.
“Either philosophers should become kings, or those now called kings should truly and sufficiently undertake philosophy.” -Plato
Marcus Aurelius: The Philosopher King
Marcus Aurelius was quite literally that philosopher king. Marcus Aurelius was the first prominent example of a philosopher king. His Stoic tome Meditations, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict. Aurelius believed by following a philosophy applied to everyday living, focused on ethics (the study of how to live one’s life), which was in turn informed by what the Stoics called “physics” (nowadays, a combination of natural science and metaphysics) and what they called “logic” (a combination of modern logic, epistemology, philosophy of language, and cognitive science) would result in tranquility. The most powerful man in the world understood the power of a leadership philosophy and the need for tranquility when leading.
Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations is literally a series of notations (12 books) written to himself, as a source for guidance and self-improvement—never to be published—except possibly following the discovery of the emperor’s notebook after his death.
Author Ryan Holiday asks—what does this have to do with us? There are fewer kings these days, but we’re all leaders in one way or another—of families, of companies, of a team, a Squadron, of a group of friends, of ourselves. It’s the study of philosophy that cultivates our reason and ethics so that we can do our job and lead well. We can’t just wing it—too many people are counting on us to do it right.
Warning—why do you lead?
Postscript: As with any leader…there is good and evil. Karl Popper blamed Plato for the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century, seeing Plato’s philosopher kings, with their dreams of ‘social engineering‘ and ‘idealism‘, as leading directly to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin (via Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx respectively).