Book Review: Philosopher-Kings of Antiquity


by William Desmond

New York/London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Pp. x, 256. Notes, biblio., index. $34.95 paper. ISBN: 1472514785

Philosopher Desmond examines the ancient notion of the king who is also a philosopher, combining power with wisdom. 

Prof. Desmond (Vilanova) opens with a discussion of the “fundamental themes,” that is, what is a king, what do they do, particularly as understood within the Classical Greek and Roman societies?  He then examines Plato’s idea of the philosopher-king, the first author to address the subject and even attempt to implement it during his quixotic episodes with Dionysius of Syracuse.  There follows a chapter on the evolution of the idea from Plato’s time through the early Roman Empire, with the views of other ancient thinkers, such as Xenophon, Aristotle, and Plutarch.  This section touches upon many notable leaders from a broad range of cultures across the ancient world, Cyrus, Alexander, the Dionysii, Caesar, Augustus, and others. 

Desmond then examines the lives and works of two Roman emperors noted as being both thinkers and rulers, Marcus Aurelius (r. AD 161-180) and Julian the Apostate (r. AD 361-363), their education, acts, and ideas.  The book ends with an overview of a number of other exemplars and thinkers about the concept of the educated ruler, from Moses through Machiavelli to modern times, such as Jefferson or, reminding us that ideals mixed with power can go wrong, Lenin. 

Philosopher-Kings of Antiquity will be of particular value to those interested in national leadership or in the lives of the many rulers and statesmen mentioned.


Philosopher-Kings of Antiquity is also available in hardback, $120.00, ISBN 0826434753.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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