As one of Plato’s most influential philosophical formulations, the idea of the philosopher-king has animated thousands of years of discourse and elaboration. The term philosopher-king has been applied to figures as diverse as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. Although typically cast as the ideal ruler who blends the merits of good governance with intellectual mastery, for Plato’s Islamic readers, the philosopher-king is far more than a temporal ruler. Across their accounts, medieval Islamic philosophers challenged, problematized, and reformulated Plato’s conception of the philosopher-king by introducing the revealed truth of the Quran. In this vein, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd all present their unique reconsiderations of the philosopher-king, harmonizing Greek philosophy with Islamic monotheism in unique ways.
In al-Farabi’s framework, the philosopher-king is substituted for the imam. The term imam, for al-Farabi, denotes a prophetic character uniquely suited for political rule. Unlike Plato’s philosopher-king, a member of a larger elite class, the imam rules as the sole authority, authority he derives from God. Al-Farabi argues that in his ideal city, every aspect of public life would revolve around the imam due to his unique capability. This sharply contrasts with Plato, who underscores the philosopher’s reluctance to rule the city and casts the philosopher-king as the mere helmsman of an otherwise deliberately ordered society. As the imam is a direct recipient of revelation from God, he is not a helmsman but a central point around which the city orbits. This unique arrangement is a direct result of introducing the centrality of the prophet into Plato’s model and will be formulated further by Plato’s later Islamic readers.
Ibn Sina places the ideal ruler, whom he terms the prophet, primarily as the founder of the ideal city. For Ibn Sina, the prophet is not needed to manage the city’s day-to-day function; his primary objective is to listen to God’s commands at the society’s founding, commands with which he will fashion just laws and civic norms. Once these norms are established, Ibn Sina argues, the prophet’s successors and heirs must fit the prophet’s laws to emerging situations in public life. This focus on the divine origin of the prophet’s legislation and the importance of flexible succession is unique to Ibn Sina and, by extension, to Islamic readers of the Republic. Drawing the historical precedent for lawgiver-prophets like Muhammad in conversation with Plato’s work, Ibn Sina fashioned a deeply innovative model for political rule.
Ibn Rushd borrowed significantly from al-Farabi but spent much more time than his predecessor defending the value of philosophical inquiry. Ibn Rushd does find revelation from God a necessity but does not outright replace rational inquiry with divine dictation. Ibn Rushd finds the philosopher and the prophet to be perfectly compatible. Holding fast to the doctrine that truth cannot contradict truth, Ibn Rushd allows for the philosopher and the prophet to remain separate, as both are bound to reach the revealed truth of God through their respective means. In his discourse on philosophy and religion, Ibn Rushd seamlessly presents his synthesis of Platonic and Islamic thought. Even though he differs notably from al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd demonstrates the diversity and complexity of Islamic Platonism, using the philosopher-king as a case study.
Author: Wyatt Flicker