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Philosophers, Capitoline, Rome

Philosopher-kings are the hypothetical rulers of Plato's utopian Kallipolis. If his ideal city-state is to ever come into being, "philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize" (The Republic, 473c).

In Book VII of The Republic

Plato defined a philosopher firstly as its eponymous occupation – wisdom-lover. He then distinguishes between one who loves true knowledge as opposed to simple sights or education by saying that a philosopher is the only man who has access to forms – the archetypal concept which lies behind all representations of the form (such as a table as opposed to any one particular table). It is next and in support of the idea that philosophers are the best rulers that Plato fashions the Ship of State metaphor, one of his most often cited ideas (along with his allegory of the cave). "[A] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship" (The Republic, 487e). Plato claims that the sailors (i.e., the people of the city-state over whom the philosopher is the potential ruler) ignore the philosopher's "idle stargazing" because they have never encountered a true philosopher before.


Then Palamedes, whenever he appears in tragedy, proves Agamemnon ridiculously unfit to be a general. Did you never remark how he declares that he had invented number, and had numbered the ships and set in array the ranks of the army at Troy; which implies that they had never been numbered before, and Agamemnon must be supposed literally to have been incapable of counting his own feet--how could he if he was ignorant of number? And if that is true, what sort of general must he have been? PlatoRepublic

Plato describes the philosopher-kings' education as beginning with the general primary education until the age of eighteen and two years of intense physical training. Those performing exceedingly well receive ten years of rigorous mathematical education – because Plato believes the forms cannot be fully understood less they be tied in with the sacredness of mathematics. If successful at this stage, the student moves on to five years of training in dialectic. There is a final fifteen-year period of apprenticeship in managing the polis.

And when they are fifty years old, those who have lasted the whole course and are in every way best at everything, both in practice and in theory, must at last be led to the final goal, and must be compelled to lift up the eyes of their psyches towards that which provides light for everything, the good itself. And taking it as their model, they must put in good order both the polis and themselves for the remainder of their lives, taking turns with the others (540a4-b1).

After extensive education, the kings finally understand the form of the Good.

Relationship to the rest of The Republic

The entirety of The Republic can be understood, in the words of Dartmouth College Professor James Murphy, as a treatise on education, as well as political thought or philosophy. The entirety of the work is concerned with how to raise the guardians, or ruling class of the Kallipolis, effectively. Philosopher-kings are simply the most successful and excellent specimens of guardians.


Plato's ideas as put forth in book II of The Republic with reference to women mean that he does not preclude philosopher-queens.

Note the similarity between Plato's inherent distrust of democracy and emphasis on philosopher-kings with the concepts of enlightened absolutism and benevolent dictatorship. Even so, Plato called Democracy the "fairest of governments" and wanted to have democracy in his ideal city. The philosopher-kings would be at the top of the social order, but they would only stay as kings if they were approved of by the people. If the people did not approve of them, they would lose their power and be removed from office.

Historical Philosopher-Kings

Several figures in history have been cited as prime examples of this Platonic ideal, including:


C.D.C. Reeve, Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato's Republic, Princeton University Press, 1988.

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