Posted on January 18, 2012 by Colin

The New Philosopher Kings

There are a lot of interesting topics covered in Plato’s Republic, but one concept that has stuck with me in the years since I last read it is the idea of ‘Philosopher Kings.’

These titans of leadership would be the ideal rulers, according to Plato, because they would have mastery over themselves in a way that petty tyrants could never manage, due to their education in, and practice of, philosophy.

In my mind, the real beauty of a Philosopher King is that they are someone who is not just powerful, but wise. They not only have the ability to shape things, but also the knowledge of how best to shape them, and when.

As a student of philosophy myself (and someone who constantly preaches about how important it is to put one’s philosophy into practice, rather than just talking about it), I feel there’s something of this concept that we can bring into contemporary society, though perhaps with a few tweaks to the model.

 

I decided in December to start working with a language called Python.

I won’t go into a lot of details about Python or why I chose it, but the reason I decided to start learning more about programming — to become a ‘developer’ or a ‘hacker,’ rather than just a ‘guy who knows how to build stuff with HTML/CSS/PHP’ — is that I’ve stretched and stretched my arms as far as they can go, and I’m starting to feel the edges of my capabilities.

My ability to get done what I want to get done (the way I want to get it done) has been stunted by my limited knowledge of what has become a fairly fundamental craft.

There’s been a lot of debate around the net about how teaching young people to code is the United States’ best next move if we want to stay competitive at home and abroad. That may be true, but my reasoning for learning to code is a lot more personal.

I have ideas. Lots and lots of them. I’m also someone who loves to create. I build businesses, I write books and blogs, I create paintings and illustration and t-shirts and anything else I can think of. Learning to code is one more way for me to express myself; to make manifest the thoughts that tumble around my brain all day, every day.

But at this point in history, I would argue learning to code has the potential to be even more impactful than a beautiful painting or well-constructed business plan, as clever programming has the potential to make both even better than they are independently.

The painting is suddenly available to be viewed by billions of people all around the world, rather than the dozens within walking distance. The business model is streamlined and easily distributed, due to the power of pixels over atoms.

In the last year especially, we’ve seen the power of the right code in the right hands, as tyrants of all flavors have been held accountable for their actions and public sentiments have been held up high for all to see, despite the best efforts (and millions of dollars) of the best lobbyists in the business to keep them spun and away from the mainstream’s eyes.

Coding, then, grants one the ability to shape things. The ability to turn the tides of politics, to raise bastions around a cause, to make your dreams reality, or to build something really, really cool, that improves the lives of millions.

 

Non-hacking entrepreneurs and thinkers: you’re already philosophers whose ideas and knowledge have helped the world become what it is today; how will you participate in the online world, now that it’s taken on a life of its own? Now that the language has changed and the building blocks are suddenly so accessible?

Developers, coders, hackers of all stripes: don’t be afraid to expand your horizons and venture beyond the practical. You’re already the kings of the internet; what will you do with that power? How will you shape things in the future, and what role will your own ideas — and knowledge of the world outside of the net — play in what you build?

A Philosopher King, you’ll remember, is someone who has the power to change things, along with the wisdom to know what to change, and how.

I feel like I have part of what I need, but I’m sorely lacking in the balance that will help me become as powerful and wise as I can be.

I’ve managed to do quite a lot already with the meager powers I have at my disposal, and now I intend to take things up a notch.

Join me?

 

Note: I’m on the lookout for folks who are interested in learning to code along with me, and folks who already know how to code (especially Python, at the moment, though other languages later) and who would be willing to help me out along the way. If you fit into either of these categories, let me know!

Another note: I hope it goes without saying that the above applies to guys and gals, but just in case it seemed like I’m only encouraging men-folk to strive for Philosopher King status, rest assured I’m not. I expect you ladies in the audience to earn you Philosopher Queen title, too. Rule that kingdom benevolently, one and all!