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Marcus Aurelius, well-known for his Meditations, in the second century AD, was a Stoic philosopher and also emperor of the Roman empire.

Plato, in his Republic, advised that the ideal rulers of his ideal city-state (polis) which he named Kalliopolis, would be philosopher-kings.

Was he the first pilosopher-king of Rome?

Did his career, and his rule bear out Platos recommendation?

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  • Wasn't the "kings" of the Republic specifically a plurality? I.e. a single ruler couldn't be a philosopher-king, at least not as Plato envisioned.
    – christo183
    Oct 23 '18 at 11:05
  • I'd say Plato's idea was the philosopher-kings would derive their legitimacy from wisdom, as part of a culture that put the highest value on them for having it - which, is not Rome.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 10 at 10:43
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Of course, this depends on who counts as a "philosopher."

In the title of the question, OP asks generally if he was the first philosopher king. I can think of two good possible non-Roman alternatives. Based on Plutarch's writing about him, Alexander the Great was a philosopher, since he loved learning and reading. Solomon also would fit many definitions of a philosopher. His desire and attainment of wisdom were both considerable. Many of the proverbs in the Biblical Book of Proverbs are attributed to him.

As to Roman philosopher-kings, I found these possible (debatable) earlier examples:

  • Claudius was certainly a scholar. It is plausible that he wrote on philosophy, given that he seems to have had a broad set of interests.
  • Domition, according to Brian Jones's "The Emperor Domitian" wrote about law and administration (the law, and parts of administration, falling under political philosophy).
  • Antoninus Pius didn't produce any written works that I could find, but was known for his legal reforms that came about due to his concerns for equality. Marcus Aurelius also calls Antoninus Pius out in Meditations I.16 for his Stoic philosophy.

All other emperors prior to Marcus Aurelius (and most after!) were either much more practical administrators than "philosophers" or military men handed power after a coup.

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In the Indian tradition, King Janaka is considered one of the earliest philosopher kings. He is mentioned in the Astavakra Samhita. It is considered by most to be a product of the same age as the Bhagavad Gita. It is considered by many to be one of the best treatises of the Advaita Vedanta. Some controversy as to date, but well before Marcus Aurelius.

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    Emperor Ashoka is probably one to consider too. May 21 '14 at 19:52
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Marcus Aurelius was both an Imperial King, as well as a Philosopher.....though he was not, a Philosopher King-(from the Platonic perspective).

One would think that because Marcus Aurelius had the skill of a Politician and the wisdom of a Philosopher, that he would have been History's First Philosopher King. However, one should not be so linear or logical in analyzing the life and writings of Marcus Aurelius. The historical personage of Marcus Aurelius, like many other significant figures of the past, was more complex and nuanced.

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome during the 100's AD/CE, which incidentally, was the height of the Pax Romana-(or "Roman Peace"). The Roman Empire, in terms of territory, had reached its zenith under the imperial reigns of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius.

However, unlike Hadrian and nearly every other Roman Emperor before or since his time, Marcus Aurelius was an actual Philosopher, who wrote rather prolifically on Stoicism. While he was not the originator of Stoical Philosophy, he certainly refined, advanced and spread its teachings to a much wider audience.....the Roman Empire.

But, one should remember that Marcus Aurelius ruled Rome and its Empire with an "iron fist". He was no fan of the growing Christian community who were persecuted under his rule-(The Coliseum was alive and well during his time as Emperor). And, Roman Law had not really changed much since the days of Augustus. So when looking at Marcus Aurelius' political bio, he was not exactly the idealized Platonic Philosopher King.

Essentially, Marcus Aurelius, was a Roman King and Emperor, who also had a second identity as a Philosopher....though his two identities, were irreconcilable.

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  • Plato didn't envision hus philosopher rulers as pacifist quietists. Mainly, he thought they'd have better things to do than meddle too much when things were working ok. He was considered the last of the 'Five Good Emperors', for his statecraft.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 9 at 21:22
  • Thanks for the comment. Well, I agree with you regarding Plato and the non-stoical nature of his idealized Philosopher Kings; so much so, that if you read my earlier posting on Philosophers and Revolutions, you will see that Plato, was hardly, "the quiet type."
    – Alex
    Jun 9 at 22:07

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