A Case for a Philosopher-King by Michael Patrick Mulroy

In a 2019 Gallup poll, forty-seven percent of Americans rated U.S. moral values as “poor” and 36 percent of Americans rated them as “only fair.” In the last three years, 77 percent of those polled believe our moral and ethical values are getting worse.

These beliefs extend across political and religious beliefs, and across economic and educational levels. As a country, we believe we are becoming less moral and less ethical. Even as we lost faith in ourselves, the world’s view and trust in the United States has also gone down by as much as fifty percent in some reports.

Morals and ethics are the core of any society. They constitute a nation’s culture. They affect how we behave as neighbors or as allies, in grammar school or law school, on Wall Street or Main Street, in peace or in war. Instant connectivity and complexity arguably make moral beliefs and ethical practices more relevant than they were in the pre-Internet era. They are our bulwarks against chaos, and perhaps even social dissolution. Honesty, integrity, empathy, selflessness, moral courage, and ethical practice hold us together as a nation. They are worth sustaining and defending.

American political leaders must help influence altruistic morality. They must both drive and demonstrate the highest ethical standards. They must do so not because they are better than that rest of us, but because for better or worse they are the official face of our country. They are empowered by the American people to make decisions on our behalf, not for their own benefit. Our leaders must set a positive example, but far too many do not. We need to teach our children, some of who will be the next generation of political leadership,  based on examples of those individuals who held the highest standards of morals and ethics.

From Socrates to BuddhaGandhi to Mandela, from Malala to Mother Teresa, Christina Noble to Nadia Murad, people on every continent and in every culture have set examples of altruistic moral belief and ethical behavior that we all should seek to emulate and who we should teach our children about.

My father was someone that I always looked to for guidance. I sought to emulate his beliefs and his actions. He was a former Jesuit Catholic priest turned professor and scientist. My father led by word and by deed. He taught me ethics and morality through the study of philosophy, especially that of Socrates. 

In early human cultures, supernational beliefs dominated. Two and half thousand years ago—and then within the matter of a few decades—three individuals changed that and made us responsible for our own destiny. They were Siddhatta Gotama (or the Buddha) in India, Kǒng Qiū (or Confucius) in China, and Socrates of Athens. Their ideas still shape our moral beliefs and our collective understanding of ethics. They encourage us to consider the best ways to build a just society, to live a good life, to pursue empathy and altruism. 

Socrates is best known as being one of the founders of Western philosophy. He was also a soldier that fought in the Peloponnesian War. Socrates’ bravery in battle was matched only by the courage of his ideas. He encouraged people to rationally question every part of their lives. His philosophy was considered subversive to those who had the power. To these fearful critics, Socrates was a one-man philosophical insurgency. They put him on trial and sentenced him to death in 399 BCE. He famously continued to teach his students as he sipped the poison that killed him.

Plato was one of his students. He was from the wealthy aristocracy, perhaps even descended from a King. Yet he followed the often disheveled and lowly Socrates, a man who placed almost no value in the material wealth that Plato’s family held dear. Plato refused familial pressure to take a position of power, eschewing personal benefit. He went on to create some of the most impactful philosophical works of mankind. One of those works was  The Republic, the book my father used most when teaching me. 

In The Republic, Plato uses allegories to describe ethical constructs. The Allegory of the Cave and (as I took from it) the requirement that those who are educated should teach others. The allegory of the Ring of Gyges and (as I took from it) the idea that even when no one can see you, you still have an obligation to do the right thing. He also describes the ideal society, Kallipolis, and the concept of the just and ethical leader or what he calls the “Philosopher-King“. 

Plato’s ideal ruler would be a person who would be not just intelligent but an intellectual; a person who serves others and who lives a life of modesty, no matter how wealthy they might be. Historians have debated who if anyone has ever met the standard set by Plato. One person often referenced as a true philosopher-king is Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius was the last of the Pax Romana or good emperors of Rome. These were emperors chosen by merit for their intellect and integrity. Aurelius was born into an aristocratic family in the Roman Empire in 121 CE. He could have had all the luxuries of the aristocracy. Instead, he chose the life of an ascetic, even sleeping on a straw mat instead of the ostentatious trappings of royalty. He could have followed any philosophy but he chose Stoicism, a philosophy that focused on being just to one another, and chose to focus on the teachings of Epictetus, a former slave.

Stoicism emerged in approximately 300 BCE when a ship sank off the port city of Piraeus in Greece. A man named Zeno was on that ship, along with all of his possessions. He swam ashore and walked into a bookstore where the bookseller was reading out loud from the dialogues of Socrates.

Zeno was fascinated and asked the bookseller where he could find a man like Socrates to learn from. The bookseller said nothing and simply pointed to a man walking by named Crates, a philosopher from the nearby city of Athens. Zeno followed him and eventually became his student. He studied under Crates and started the Stoic School in Athens.

Aurelius became the leader of the Roman Empire in 161 CE and served until 180 CE. He ruled perhaps as much as 20 percent of the world’s population, from England to Egypt and from the straits of Gibraltar to the Bosporus. This was an enormous area with a vast diversity of people and interests. During this time, Rome faced many challenges to include a pandemic, massive inequality in wealth, unending wars, and major internal civil unrest leading to sometimes violent uprisings.  

Adjusting for the era, Aurelius had more wealth than perhaps anyone ever has had or will have. He had access to all the prurient pleasures that anyone could ever want. He had nearly absolute power over his empire and the people that lived in it. He owned Rome. He could have had anything he wanted without question. Instead, he chose to live a life of modesty. Instead of pursuing personal benefit, Aurelius chose to become the best person he could be. He did so without the expectation that he would ever achieve his objective.

He wrote of his struggles in his personal journal, his Meditations. These were private thoughts about the Stoic philosophy, focusing on self-criticism for the purpose of self-improvement. Many of these books were written while Aurelius was on military campaigns preparing for battle.

Many people, me included, learned about Aurelius while serving in the military. The former Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine General James Mattis, known for having a personal collection of over 7,000 books,  famously carried a copy of Meditations throughout his deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. [1] Meditations has likely been on every military reading list since being published, making the U.S. Department of Defense’s “Book of the Year” in 2017.

Aurelius epitomized the virtues of a soldier. He expected and demonstrated mental and physical toughness, integrity, and the courage needed to be a warrior and to lead warriors. When Rome was threatened by the tribes of the north, he led from the front to defend the empire. He became one of the best military leaders of any generation. He endured all the same hardships of his soldiers. Aurelius refused to take leave and return to the comfortable trappings of Rome. In doing so, he saved Rome.

But Aurelius was more than just a philosopher for the warrior class. He was a leader for everyone to emulate. He also firmly believed that educated people had a duty to educate others:

Humans have come into being for the sake of each other, so either teach them or learn to bear them.

Meditations 8:59

Americans should not ‘bear’ to have our next generation not educated on those who we believe are examples for others to emulate, be it Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John McCain, or John Lewis, be it Harriet Tubman, Mary Walker, Rosa Parks or Jane Addams, or many more. 

When our schools eventually return to normal we need to fully integrate moral debate and courses on ethical practice into our curricula. And we need to do more than just teach subjects needed for a vocation. We need to teach from the ready and numerous examples of people who served altruistic purposes.

America needs to directly address its crisis of morality and ethics. After all, we are not Rome being ruled by an all-powerful Emperor, even if benevolent; we are a democracy led by leaders that we elected. Perhaps we will never have a true philosopher-king (or queen), but that doesn’t mean we should not try to make them. 

We also need to address the issues of those that are in government that do not have the ethics necessary to serve. We need to pass sweeping and strong laws and regulations on government ethics to enforce the checks and balances of our democracy, to ensure there is no undue enrichment of leadership, and to ensure that those in power are held accountable for their actions or lack thereof. This will be the first step to turning our perception of ourselves around and for our children to have faith in the government they will inherit and trust in their fellow citizens.

If we fail to shore up the moral and ethical bulwarks of our society we will have to live with the consequences. We will almost certainly watch our international reputation continue to wane. We will continue to lose our way and fracture at our many seams. A philosopher-king like Aurelius—American democratic leaders like Aurelius—can help us change course and save us from ourselves.

Dedicated to my father Michael Joseph Mulroy

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is the co-founder of Lobo Institute, a private firm consulting, advising, and teaching on current and future conflicts. Mulroy is a former United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. He is a retired Central Intelligence Agency Paramilitary Operations Officer and United States Marine. In addition, he is a Senior Fellow for National Security and Defense Policy at the Middle East Institute, a member of the Board of Directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, and an ABC News National Security Analyst.


[1] Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks, discussed in the Armed Forces Journal, August 1, 2006.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today, president of ReasonIO, adjunct professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design | Sadler's Lectures podcast - https://soundcloud.com/gregorybsadler | YouTube channel with 1700+ philosophy videos - https://www.youtube.com/c/GregoryBSadler

17 thoughts on “A Case for a Philosopher-King by Michael Patrick Mulroy”

  1. This is a very timely and powerful article Michael.

    As to the questions on the Republic and the position’s Plato takes that are controversial – almost all ancient documents, including all the major religious ones, have controversial issues and positions in them, but that doesn’t mean one cannot learn from them. Billions do. Also, the point of this piece seems to be to identify those individuals that exemplify the characteristics we value to teach our children, not to create a benevolent dictator. Those individuals may or may not agree with one another, but that doesn’t mean they both can’t be a model.

    At least that is my view after reading this entire piece.

    Perhaps this should go further to prescribe actual changes we (the United States) should do to ensure our leaders are held accountable. We are in a unique position to do that, in many countries that is simply not the case.

  2. Only the last three years? The U.S. lost its moral and ethical compass when Bush and Cheney took the reins. Obama exacerbated this by going all in with the banks and big corporations _ ‘too big to fail/jail’ _ and with his ill advised interventions in Libya and Syria.

    Grounded by ignoble lies and a Thrasymachean conception of justice. Veiled with a focus on political correctness and by paying lip service to socio-economic inclusivity _ ‘giving each man his due’?.

    MacIntyre describes our situation very well in ‘After Virtue’ but it seems impossible to get beyond such a critique without lapsing into some form of authoritarianism. I suppose the ideal philosopher-king would have some kind of natural and objective authority but would surely require some impressive qualities as a warrior too?

  3. Exceptionally well said jarhead. Looks like we have another ‘warrior monk’. Very true, Gen Mattis did carry Meditations.

    From my understanding of your article, the Philosopher King as you describe is someone that holds the morals and ethics of people we collectively admire, hence the list of people. Not an actual monarch or even in the model as described by Plato. Not sure how that was lost on some.

    Either way, that is exactly what we need in our leaders. Today the opposite is true.

    Semper Fi

  4. I strongly applaud this article. As you said that 77 percent of those polled believe our moral and ethical values are getting worse , so they admit that there are problem which a good indecator …as the great author MARK TWAIN said :If you feel impolite, you are polite because the impolite don’t feel.

  5. Hoping it will not be long before computers remove the necessity for stem education and allow humans to return to the liberal arts.

  6. This is very well done and it could not be more relevant to the current situation in the United States. There needs to be a real discussion on what we expect of our political leaders and new laws to enforce basic ethics. Unfortunately, we have fallen off a cliff.

    Thank you for writing this.

  7. Hope.

    Humanity has often progressed solely by thinking positively.
    But ……….
    The voters in western democracies, whether through their own ignorance and lack of critical thinking skills, or in addition via the brainwashing of other vested-interest groups, elected these types of people as politicians.
    How can this closed circle causing the downward ethical spiral generate from within the laws needed to reverse the trend?

    My reading of addictive behaviour suggests until we wake up in the gutter and wonder how we got there, we collectively won’t have the motivation to change.

    However…..
    We can still live our own ‘good life’, hope that sets an example to others, and hope this eventually rebuilds the ‘system’ from the bottom up, before the black swan gets us.

  8. I, too, thank you for this timely plea.

    I have one substantial objection concerning your advocacy of altruism as the epitome of virtue. Marcus was arguably motivated more by his own psychic (soul-based, psuche) ambition to be a mensch than by a desire to sacrifice his own values for the values of others. His integrity was hugely admirable but it was loyalty to his chosen values, not the sacrifice for others, that was the keystone of that integrity.

  9. Thank you, Michael Mulroy. Never in American history have your admonishments been more relevant:

    “We… need to address the issues of those that are in government that do not have the ethics necessary to serve. We need to pass sweeping and strong laws and regulations on government ethics to enforce the checks and balances of our democracy, to ensure there is no undue enrichment of leadership, and to ensure that those in power are held accountable for their actions or lack thereof.”

    As Marcus might say, “Ita vero!”

    Best regards
    Ron Pies

  10. I wrote a critical comment earlier, but I guess it was not approved. Perhaps I was too assertive. Let’s try again.

    I find Mr. Mulroy’s article unconvincing. I do not think the biggest problem in America today is that people do not trust their leaders or their institutions. The biggest problem, for leaders and institutions, is that the people are discovering how untrustworthy they really are. The solution to that is not to find ways of strengthening the illusion of trustworthiness (“legitimacy”), but to force the institutions themselves to become more trustworthy, or toss them out and make new institutions.

    I also think it is somewhat misleading to put Dr. Martin Luther King–who was, among other things, opposed to the Vietnam War–next to John McCain, who volunteered to go to Vietnam as an American soldier. Would King have supported the Iraq War, as McCain did? Mr. Mulroy obscures the political nature of this history in order to conjure this illusion of some grand moral vision represented equally by these people. But, to my mind, it comes across as pretentious, especially if one knows a bit about the history of American imperialism.

  11. I strongly applaud this article as I agree that the strength of our morals are declining in the United States. However, I believe since this is a cultural issue, rather than a regulatory one, and our cultural leaders must step forward to show excellent ethics, rather than pursuing lucre and fame.

    I would like to respectfully suggest an edit: judging from the context, I believe the author meant to use the word “ascetic” instead of “aesthetic” in describing Marcus Aurelius.

  12. Interesting, but I cannot say I’m convinced.
    Also, I can’t help but think it’s a tad irresponsible to preach the benefits of autocrats like Aurelius given the current political climate, where there is legitimate worry that Trump may not leave office if he loses. America doesn’t need some high-fangled “moral leader,” and I think it’s interesting that a former CIA official would presume to lecture anyone about morality.
    A better lesson to take away from Socrates is *always be willing to question authority,* a lesson that goes against Mr. Mulvoy’s fetishizing of a great leader. How does Mr. Mulvoy read Socrates and come to the conclusion that a “Philosopher-King” is what we need? Isn’t the biggest lesson to take from Socrates that one should *use one’s own powers of reason?*

    1. Generally speaking, Plato believes that what makes for a healthy person is the same as what makes for a healthy state. So, for Plato, just as reason should govern the individual, so too should reason govern the state. Which means that, in the end, someone has to have the power to decide what is reasonable and make everyone else fall in line.

      This does have authoritarian implications, which Plato embraces in the Republic to an degree that most of us would find disturbing today (such as state-run eugenics programs).

    2. Okay. I am not an American, but I have looked at the link to the Gallup site and have no idea which morals are being shown as in decline.

      I mostly agree with you, but perhaps you do not go far enough. The Philosopher King is a full blown dictator, supposedly the most wise person, but how does he (and it will be a he) achieve this. Well by serving a system that basically lies to the the rest of the ruling class. Only the PK (and a small number of others) are to know how ther system works.

      Plato is not concerned with the bulk of the populace and as long as they don’t revolt they are mostly ignored. They are irrelevant.

      It is the ruling class that is of importance. It is divided into an outer group of men and woman warriors known as the Guardians, who mate using a lottery, except that it is fixed so the most virile are mating with one another and not at random. Children are removed from their mothers and raised communally.

      I know this is not what is proposed here, but you really cannot have one without the other.

      Please see Karl Popper’s ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ for the influence of Plato on Fascism.

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