Philosopher Kings

By David Feddes

What would society be like if it was run by intellectuals? What if the best and brightest minds controlled the government?  What if we had leaders who were taught from a young age by leading thinkers? What if these leaders implemented the ideals of the geniuses who taught them? For centuries people have dreamed of philosopher-kings, rulers of brilliant intellect who would set high goals, rule rationally, and use education to build a bright future for society. That would be a great thing, wouldn’t it?

Not necessarily. Let’s take a walk back through history to see what happened in various societies under philosopher-kings.

One major philosopher was Karl Marx. Many people saw Marx as the most rational of thinkers and believed that a society built on Marx’s philosophy would be almost heaven on earth. What was the result? Hell on earth. Lenin, Stalin, and other Russian philosopher-kings tried to build a society on Marx’s philosophy and murdered millions in the process. In China another philosopher-king, Chairman Mao, aimed at an ideal society and murdered millions. In Cambodia Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge government—educated in the best universities of Europe and inspired by Marx—murdered millions.

Marx was not the only philosopher whose ideas became the basis for government. Another was Friedrich Nietzsche. He had a brilliant mind and lived in Germany, the world’s most educated country at the time. A few decades later a man came to power who liked Nietzsche’s philosophy and tried to implement it. The name of this philosopher-king (or should I say philosopher-Fuhrer) was Adolph Hitler. He massacred millions in his own country, caused the worst war in history, and then killed himself.

Going a few centuries further back, we find Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another philosopher who inspired a ruler. Rousseau fathered five illegitimate children and abandoned them all to a public orphanage, but he had a powerful intellect and was admired by many. His ideas on human nature, education, family, and politics moved a political leader in the late 1700s to declare, “Rousseau is the one man who, through the loftiness of his soul and the grandeur of his character, showed himself worthy of the role of teacher of mankind.” The man who said this, Maximilien Robespierre, was so committed to his philosophy that he was called “the Incorruptible.” The result? Robespierre’s “incorruptible” principles of governing were so inhuman he kept the guillotines busy chopping off people’s heads in the Terror of the French Revolution. Finally Robespierre himself was beheaded.

Let’s take a long leap further back to a much earlier era and another philosopher-king. At the time the New Testament was being written, the foremost philosopher in the Roman Empire was Seneca. He personally tutored a young man who went on to become emperor. Seneca’s pupil was the philosopher-king Nero, one of the most vile, vicious rulers who ever lived. Seneca was a leading figure in Nero’s administration. In some respects Seneca was better than Nero, but Seneca’s philosophy saw some humans as dispensable. Seneca declared, “We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal.” Seneca praised suicide whenever quality of life was lacking, and his influence continues today in people who call suicide “death with dignity.” Seneca’s failure to respect all human life was magnified in his pupil, Nero, and led to countless atrocities, including Nero’s murder of his own mother, which Seneca defended. Eventually the philosopher Seneca committed suicide under pressure from Nero, and a few years later, Nero the philosopher-king killed himself as his reign collapsed.

Going back still earlier, more than 300 years before Christ, we come to Aristotle, later known simply as “the philosopher” because of his mighty intellect and logic. Aristotle had the opportunity to train a philosopher-king, teaching Alexander the Great as a youth. Alexander was a great military genius, but you wouldn’t think Alexander the Great was so great if you lived in one of the many countries he invaded or if you were in one of the towns he destroyed or if you were the close friend he murdered in a drunken rage or if you were one of the countless other people massacred or sold into slavery by his armies or if you were forced to bow to Alexander as a god. Alexander was driven by personal ambition, but he also saw himself as a philosopher-king who would educate the world. Alexander’s mentor, Aristotle, was brilliant, but he considered women inferior and promoted eugenics and population control. According to Aristotle, for a society to be healthy, it must kill some kids. He wrote, “There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed [on a trash heap to die]. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state.” This view was common among the Greeks and Romans, and Aristotle saw slavery and baby-killing as matters of rational government. No wonder Aristotle’s pupil, Alexander, was so willing to destroy human lives in his conquests. By the way, Alexander himself died in his early thirties after years of war and wild living.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too eager for a society run by intellectuals, given this track record. Marx’s monsters, Nietzsche’s Nazis, Rousseau and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, Seneca’s Nero, and Aristotle’s Alexander all placed abstract ideas ahead of real people, with deadly results. These philosophies differed from each other in various ways, but they had in common the hope of producing an ideal society through the perfect combination of education and government.

This dream of social engineering and philosopher-kings was described most famously by Aristotle’s predecessor, the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato wrote, “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one … cities will never have rest from their evils,–no, nor the human race, as I believe, –and then only will our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.” Ever since Plato, intellectuals and politicians have dreamed of an ideal society controlled by human wisdom and human power.

Wisdom and Power

In contrast to all this, what does the Bible say? To those tempted to trust in human wisdom, Scripture says, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20). To those tempted to trust human power, Scripture says, “The rulers of this age … are coming to nothing” (1 Corinthians 2:6). The Bible says it, and history confirms it: humanistic geniuses turn out to be fools, and humanistic governments come to nothing, one after another. The most basic human problem is so serious that it can’t be solved by human wisdom or human power.

Plato and the philosophers who came after him thought that our biggest problem is ignorance and that if, through education, we developed the powers of human reason and conditioned people properly, our main personal problems would be solved. They assumed that the biggest problem with society is lack of good government and that if only society was governed well, our main social problems would be solved. Many people still think this way. Despite the message of the Bible and the hard lessons of history, people still hope for philosopher-kings to save the day.

The Bible teaches that our problem is much more serious that humanistic philosophers and politicians realize, and so the solution must be something unlike anything human wisdom and power can offer. Our basic problem is sin, alienation from God. No amount of reasoning and education can bring us back to God. No political system can make a wicked society into a wonderful place to live. Sin infects our individual character and our society so badly that nothing short of divine intervention can save individuals and change the world. We need not just human education but divine revelation. We need not just human politics but the reign of God.

God’s wisdom comes to us in a revelation that human wisdom would consider foolish. God’s power comes to us in an action that human politics would see as weakness. God’s wisdom and power come to us in Jesus Christ: born in poverty, raised without any great school or educator, executed as a criminal. The cross of Jesus Christ—his suffering, death, and resurrection—is not the sort of thing humanistic educators and politicians count on to change people or improve society. And yet Christ crucified and risen has done more to save individuals and change societies for the better than all philosophers and politicians combined.

In the Bible book of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote to Christians surrounded by a culture that adored education and power. Paul said that Christ sent him “to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:17-18,25). Did any philosopher ever reason that humanity’s worst problem could be solved by the life and death of a lowly Jewish carpenter? Did any ruler figure out the secret gospel power of God’s Spirit to liberate and glorify people? No, says Paul, “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

To any philosopher-king, Jesus and his gospel would have seemed like foolishness and weakness, but Christ crucified and risen turned out to be smarter than any philosopher and stronger than any king. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1:25). It’s in this context that Paul says “God made foolish the wisdom of this world” and speaks of “the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.”

Does this mean that Christianity is totally anti-education and anti-government? Not at all. But it does mean that education and government don’t matter as much as Jesus Christ, and that education and government often do more harm than good apart from Christ. Education can impart real, transforming wisdom only if it’s Christ-centered education. Government can rule well only if it honors the higher government of the King of kings and Lord of Lords, There’s a sharp contrast between “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:24) and the humanistic hope for philosopher-kings to make things better. For a more detailed understanding of this contrast, let’s look at Plato’s ideal society and see how Christ’s kingship is very different.

Plato’s Republic

Plato’s Republic, his most influential book, introduced the idea of philosopher-kings. Plato wrote the Republic about 24 centuries ago, but it raises ideas that have affected history and that still haunt us today. Plato taught the salvation of society through education and government action. Plato wanted the higher classes of people to do away with marriage, family, and private property. In an ideal State, he said, the best children would be raised and educated not by their own father and mother but by the State as a whole. Upper class women would focus more on politics and military action than on raising their own children. Plato praised homosexual relationships between youths and older men. He said men and women could have sex with whomever they please, so long as they got rid of unwanted babies. Plato said that it’s necessary for government to tell some major lies in order to rule the lower classes properly. And he taught these things, mind you, to show what an ideal society, based on justice and reason, would look like. That’s a quick sample of Plato’s plans. Now let’s take a closer look at some details.

Plato’s ideal society would have three different classes: workers, soldiers, and rulers, who would be philosopher-kings. The rulers would be enlightened people with an amazing grasp of reality. They would provide people with an education of sorts, but much of this education would be lies to keep people in their proper place, enabling the enlightened rulers to manage and manipulate them—all for the good of the people, of course! As Plato put it, “Our rulers will find a considerable dose of falsehood and deceit necessary for the good of their subjects.” Government knows best; lesser folks can’t handle the truth.

Plato wanted to blur differences between masculine and feminine. Sex should not be limited to just a union of husband and wife. Plato praised the common Greek practice of homosexual relations between a military officer and a teenage boy in training or between a teacher and a youth he was teaching.

Plato also wanted to educate women in the upper classes to be as much like men as possible. He wanted both sexes to exercise naked in the same gymnasiums. He wanted women in the military. “Let them share in the toils of war,” he said, “wearing armor and riding on horseback.” Because women are weaker, he said, they should receive lighter duties, but they should be trained to be like men as much as possible and treated like men as much as possible. Plato compared the guardians—the ruling and military elites—to watchdogs. He pointed out that watchdogs must do their job. You don’t divide watchdogs into male and females, and you don’t leave the females home to care for puppies.

Among the elite, Plato said, there should be no marriage of one husband to one wife, and parents should not raise their own biological children. All the men and women would live together, sharing their property and their bodies. Plato wanted a law that “the wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent.” Kids would be raised not by individual parents but by the State as a whole.

Children would be produced through planned matings. The strongest, smartest, bravest men would be matched with the best women. After all, said Plato, we breed only the best hunting dogs and horses and birds, so why not do the same with people? [In Plato’s words, “God proclaims as a first principle to the rulers… that there is nothing … of which they should be such good guardians, as of the purity of the race.”]

In Plato’s ideal society, anytime a woman had a baby, officers would immediately take the baby. If it was a baby from inferior parents, or if it had good parents but was deformed for some reason, it would be disposed of in “a mysterious, unknown place.” When superior babies were born from a mating of superior parents, the officers would bring them to nurses who lived in separate quarters. This would enable elite women to have babies, improve the genetic pool of the State, and still return almost immediately to their work. It takes a village to raise a child and liberate a woman to live like a man.

Only babies born from approved matings between men and women in their prime would be allowed to survive. Men and women not of the proper age could have intercourse with anyone they wished, as long as they understood that any offspring must be destroyed. “We allow them to range at will,” said Plato, “accompanying the permission with strict orders to prevent any embryo which may come into being from seeing the light; and if any force a way to the birth, the parents must understand that the offspring of such a union cannot be maintained, and arrange accordingly.”

Plato pushed promiscuity, population control, abortion, and infanticide, with a eugenic goal of breeding a master race and having a perfect State. The right education and social engineering among the elite classes, in Plato’s words, “will be their salvation, and they will be the saviors of the State.” Plato declared, “Our state, if rightly ordered, is perfect.” All would be peaceful and happy, with no quarrelling or division.

Christ’s Kingdom

The kingdom of God revealed by Jesus in the Bible is very different from the society imagined in Plato’s Republic. Jesus upheld marriage between one man and one woman, not homosexuality or promiscuity. In Scripture, fathers and mothers are responsible to love and instruct their own children, not count on government institutions to care for them from cradle to grave. Jesus taught that all babies are to be cared for; none may be despised or destroyed. The Bible honors men as men and women as women, without twisting women into junior men. Jesus taught people to give their ultimate allegiance to God, not to the State. Jesus taught people to seek ultimate truth in God’s Word, not in their own thinking. Jesus identified the basic human problem as sin, not ignorance. He provided salvation not through an education program but through dying to pay for our guilt. Whereas Plato believed bodies are temporary hindrances and thought eternity would include only the intellectual, not the physical, Jesus rose from the dead to give us new life and to provide us with resurrection bodies someday.

Many an intellectual throughout history has come up with his own version of Plato’s dream, and many a philosopher-king has tried using education and legislation to create a superior civilization. Many are still trying today in various ways. But such efforts have led to one horror after another, while the crucified and risen Christ has brought life and love, and has also improved education and government and every other sphere of culture more than all the non-Christian philosophers combined.

If there’s one lesson to learn from history, it’s that human wisdom and human power, apart from God, produce human misery and degradation, while God’s wisdom and power in Christ produce human dignity and joy. Greek and Roman civilization is often admired by humanist scholars as a golden age. But in that “golden age,” it’s estimated that about three-fourths of the people of Athens were slaves, and about half of all people throughout the Roman Empire were slaves. Countless children were killed or abandoned without a qualm of conscience. Around the time Jesus was born, a man named Hilarion wrote to his pregnant wife, “If you are delivered of a child, if it is a boy keep it, if it is a girl, discard it. Males outnumbered females by 30% because so many girl babies were destroyed as babies. Pornography was everywhere. Dishes were decorated with scenes of orgies between men and women, between people of the same sex, and between people and animals. The famous and cultured Demosthenes said matter-of-factly, “The prostitutes are for our amusement; our slave women are for our personal service, and our wives are to bear us children.”

In contrast to this, Christianity taught that slaves are as important to God as kings, and that to be a wife and mother is a glorious thing. One pagan exclaimed in amazement and admiration, “What women these Christians have!” Followers of Jesus sought to be sexually pure and faithful in marriage. They cared for their own children and often rescued and adopted the children who had been abandoned by others. When Christ changed their hearts, he also changed their thinking and behavior.

Christians have never produced a perfect society and never expected to produce one. A perfect society will not exist until Christ’s return. But give thanks for wonderful ways that the wisdom and power of Christ have already changed the world for the better, and by faith, we can rejoice in the assurance of future salvation. As we look forward to a new heaven and earth, we spend our time on this earth honoring Christ and serving others as best we can, humbly recognizing our limits.

As we depend on Christ, we must beware of every effort to build a better society based on humanistic education and humanistic legislation. That’s been tried before. Philosopher-kings always fail. “Where is the philosopher of this age? The rulers of this age are coming to nothing.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.