We desire the philosopher king

If you knew someone who was much wiser than you, and who also knew you well and had your best interests at heart, then would you, even as an independent adult, accept their guidance?

Well, before we go further, let’s clarify some things. How do we know, in the first place, that this person is so wise? Let’s say they’ve written books and articles, and delivered speeches and lectures, they’ve given interviews and engaged in debates, and you’ve read or heard enough of these compositions to be absolutely convinced that this is a person who isn’t faking it. This person is leagues smarter than you and I are, and this person doesn’t focus on trivial stuff; political matters, moral, social, psychological, economic, historical, religious, financial, developmental, health, and other contemporary debates — this is a well-rounded, wise person.

Let’s say furthermore that everyone you know, especially the smartest people you know, will agree that this is a brilliant person, even if some do so only grudgingly, whether because of ideological differences or differences of approach or sheer envy. Likewise, no one can deny the moral reliability and the astonishing compassion of the person. This is someone recognized for wisdom, and long recognized, not a passing fad.

I think that probably most of us would follow that person’s guidance.

In the modern world, we tend to think that there are really only two conceivable reasons why we might want to obey someone: either representation, or compensation. The person who legitimately commands us is either a representative leader who was elected as part of the processes of the state (or a person who acts on behalf of such elected representatives, eg a police officer enforcing laws), or else is a business owner or manager whose satisfaction with us will determine our present and future economic prospects. In those two cases, we will readily do as we’re told. Otherwise, we resist.

What this seems to mean is that we put the needs of the body over all else. We obey the state even when we don’t like it, ultimately, because we don’t want to be thrown behind bars. We obey our bosses at work because we don’t want to end up penniless on the street. But what about the soul? What about the mind? What about human dignity, or the desire for glory?

We forget that wisdom is the most important qualification for leadership. It is absolutely a necessity for responsible leadership, and it is also sufficient in itself. Better to follow the person of great wisdom than the one adorned with fancy titles.

Seek out wise people, and follow their lead. Even more urgently: seek to become that wise person, no matter how long it takes.

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