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In the days of ancient Greece and Rome, philosophers were central figures in society. They had close relations with leaders and high influence in all areas of life and science, and their works were very well known.

Sort of like today's Justin Bieber.

What would it take to create a modern society that still has this "great philosopher" institution?

To be precise, what I mean is that this society considers the best and brightest of each generation as intellectual leaders. Those people would have high influence over government decision, but they would also be so respected that people would follow their advice in their everyday lives. This can be on a country or a global scale.

Notes:

  • There will usually be just one of these philosophers, on extreme cases two or three.
  • They may reach this status with a bit of nepotism (or some other unrelated advantage), but the formal justification for it will always be their superior intellect. If they're not smart enough, they must fail.
  • Clearly in the state of today's science it's impossible for a single person to be on the cutting edge of all topics, so they may not be leaders in every field but they are leaders in all the fields that relate to the society like ethics, ideology, political philosophy etc.
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    $\begingroup$ suggesting Bieber qualifies as a well known philosopher is like arguing the entire stack exchange network is fueled by a wood chipper and a steve buscemi cloning machine. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Dec 21 '16 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ hmm, yea, would've gone with someone like Elon Musk, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs as modern day "Aristotle". $\endgroup$ – coblr Dec 22 '16 at 0:04
  • $\begingroup$ Err.. Who's Justin Bieber? (Rhetorical question: I know I could Google the name if I really wanted to know, but the point is that I don't.) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 22 '16 at 3:47
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf lucky. $\endgroup$ – Dotan Dec 22 '16 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf - he's up there with the other modern day philosophers like Vanilla Ice, MCHammer, Justin Timberlake, and the entire membership of the Back Street boys. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Dec 22 '16 at 20:03
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So the system you are talking about suffers from modern day democratization of information.

  • The volume of thinkers and scientists has grown exponentially from Aristotle's time.
  • The number of fields of study has grown exponentially
  • The range of focus required to be an expert has narrowed exponentially
  • Science and philosophy are no longer a commonly congruent set of skills

The concept of the Philosopher Kings was built upon (though not spelled out because of the realities of the time)

  • A small group of people housing a great range and depth of information (for the time)
  • A uneducated, uninterested population to be tended. When I say uninterested I mean not that they didn't care but that the demands of life/basic needs meant there wasn't time to manage.
  • An inherently benevolent and incorruptible leadership caste
  • A lack of questioning and abundance of obedience from the general population

To be precise, what I mean is that this society considers the best and brightest of each generation a kind of intellectual leaders. Those people would have high influence over government decision, but they would also be so respected that people would follow their advice in their everyday lives. This can be on a country or a global scale.

This society you are describing is very VERY different from what we have today. With modern technology in information and communication the realities of human fallibility are often laid bare for all to see. Government and business scandals, stuff like that.

To get what you want your society simply can't have that. When information and knowledge is easily available to all faith in infallible leaders falls to the wayside.

The idea of the philosopher king hearkens back to simpler times when people still wanted to believe and follow their leaders, leaders who were in fact fallible and flawed but when news travels by word of mouth...things get distorted.

•There will usually be just one of these philosophers, on extreme cases two or three.

I am not sure the value they would give you. The popularity and name recognition of philosophers and thinkers isn't what it used to be...intelligence doesn't appear to be interesting to the masses anymore.

•They may reach this status with a bit of nepotism (or some other unrelated advantage), but the formal justification for it will always be their superior intellect. If they're not smart enough, they must fail.

That works fine.

•Clearly in the state of today's science it's impossible for a single person to be on the cutting edge of all topics, so they may not be leaders in every field but they are leaders in all the fields that relate to the society like ethics, ideology, political philosophy etc.

Its good you noted that but I think you may be underestimating the depth of the problem. Even within a field like ethics there are dozens of specialties. Expertise is often defined in modern times around research done. You can't be an expert via thought experiments anymore.

So to the point...

This system doesn't work in any version of our modern society. You could argue that it does in some non-western countries...but even then it is still not what you are looking for.

IF you want something like this there are a few options.

  • Restrict the flow of information to only those in power. If you're not more intelligent about the world than the masses how can you make decisions on how they should live their lives. You also have to limit the realities of humans in charge, meaning your leaders' mistakes and such don't become known to the populous.

This is essentially a high tech police state with thought police en force and on top of things.

  • Create a religious based culture in a world where deities actually exist

In short...modern technology and the spread of information and knowledge limits the value of experts in day to day life. Even in the sciences, even in biology, even in micro-biology, even in bacterial enzyme identification and manipulation there are dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of experts

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  • $\begingroup$ "...intelligence doesn't appear to be interesting to the masses anymore." You, my friend, are confusing intelligence with philosophy, which are not necessarily related. All kinds of intelligent people are highly regarded, Einstein, Newton, Alexander Graham Bell, Tesla, Edison, and many others are famous for their scientific breakthroughs. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Dec 22 '16 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon you simply illustrated my point. All those people have been dead for decades. $\endgroup$ – James Dec 23 '16 at 14:39
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I think you may be exaggerating Aristotle's importance in his lifetime.

He's famous now, because he is one of the few ancient intellectuals we know about, but back in his day he was simply a more famous philosopher, just like Einstein among modern day scientists (he is only one of many, and arguably not even the greatest).

I'm sure there were plenty of nobles who looked down their noses at Aristotle, and probably quite a few priests who would have reacted quite poorly to anyone implying that he's more important than them. He was probably "friends" with the leaders of his time in the same way that Michelle Obama is "friends" with Oprah: it's good publicity for both of them.

However, this is not to say that you couldn't have a "philosopher" (or scientist) gain great recognition, and a political position in today's society.

This person would have to:

  • Be very intelligent
  • be very charming (being rich wouldn't hurt either)
  • Be perceived to have contributed greatly to the world, perhaps even be regarded as a hero of sorts
  • Be quite outspoken, and comfortable with being in the spotlight, as well as promoting their ideas and work.

Einstein fits many of these criteria. Justin Beiber does not, because while he entertains the masses, he is not seen as having contributed much to society. So back to Einstein, he was quite famous, quoted in newspapers, sen as having had a great contribution to America winning the war, and was thus respected by the general public. At the same time, although clearly a big of a loner, he was also present at certain famous parties, and rubbed shoulders with Hollywood stars and politicians (probably not willingly).

There are a couple of scientists and famous people who fit that bill today: Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are both popular, intelligent, outspoken, men, who have no problem expressing political opinions, and trying to guide people down the path of scientific enlightenment.

Bill Gates is a very smart guy who revolutionized personal computing, founded one of the biggest companies in the world, and is generously investing his money and time in trying to solve some of the world's problems through his many charities and donations.

Stephen Hawking is also a widely recognized scientist, who will likely go down in history, just as Einstein has. He too uses his celebrity status to support certain ideas and ventures, such as the Mars missions.

Take someone like that, add a bit more political savvy, a little more charm to woo the masses, and I think you'd get a sort of intellectual Kim Kardashian (I can't believe I just said that).

Such a person might be able to leverage their knowledge and fame (possibly also fortune) into getting some sort of prestigious government position.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's giving an example, my question was more about how to make society as a whole accept this sort of authority more easily so it happens on a regular basis $\endgroup$ – Dotan Dec 21 '16 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ @dotanreis - i did describe what they would need to do: be charismatic, sociable, very intelligent, and recognized as such by performing some great deed, or publishing some very famous book/theory, and actively want to build on those traits to gain some sort of political power/position out of it. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Dec 21 '16 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ Then how come it doesn't happen today? Einstein really existed, so does Bill Gates, Bill Nye and the rest. They don't have half the influence and status of Plato, Aristotle and the like $\endgroup$ – Dotan Dec 21 '16 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @dotanreis - to be fair, i think you may be exaggerating Aristotle's importance. He's famous now, because he is one of the few ancient intellectuals we know about, but back in his day he was simply a slightly more famous philosopher. There were plenty of nobles who looked down their noses at him, and probably quite a few priests who would have reacted quite poorly to anyone implying that he's more important than them. He was probably "friends" with the leaders of his time in the same way that Michelle Obama is "friends" with Oprah: it's good publicity for both of them. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Dec 21 '16 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ @DotanReis Aristotle, in his day was thought of as little more than an advisor, teacher and very very poor general. Mozart in his day was not nearly as popular as he is now, and did very poorly. Socrates was a failed builder and eventually executed. Plato had some notoriety, but again, not nearly as much as he has now. $\endgroup$ – user20762 Dec 21 '16 at 20:58
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I think that would apply to the United States for most of its history up until the 1980s. It is only in the era of mass media that we really see the erosion of intellectual giants. We have historical examples of William Jennings Bryant, the Lincoln/Douglas debates, the writings of various Supreme Court justices -- the intellectual elites were widely respected as running things to the best of their ability.

In the 1980s, we start to be able to see our leaders day-to-day. We got to know our heroes up close. And while we have always known that they were just regular human beings like ourselves, now we could see all of their mistakes more clearly, so they cease to be quite so awe-inspiring.

Even today, we have a wealth of intellectual leaders who are well respected. Antonin Scalia is an easy example: whether you oppose his politics or not, he was an intelligent man whose writings were (and are) widely read by both political allies and foes. Going abroad from the USA, Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis both command that sort of "philosophical giant" respect.

I think the society you're looking for is all around in the USA -- society is hungry for such leadership. But because we get so close to our leaders, we get disappointed easily and decide we cannot find it.

So, if you want it to be more ubiquitous, I think you need to make sure your mass media is restrained. If you have mass media access, you'll need philosophers who are also saints. That's my observation.

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Our society reveres those who embody the values we cherish. In the U.S.A, we value talent, youth, sexual attraction, celebrity, and money. That's why Justin Bieber is idolized.

In ancient Greece, the society idolized wisdom, learning, physical vigor, courage, and talent. Which is why Greeks idolized philosophers and soldiers.

There would never be just one man, though. There are always more than one, and they would be in competition. Like rival rock bands (my sisters used to fight over who was better, the Monkeys or Elvis), each would have his own supporters and detractors.

Edit

What would make a society cherish wisdom? It's all about emphasis and status. If you are asking how to change our society from a shallow self-centered, materialism to one which wallows in deep philosophical, scientific, intellectual pursuits, I have no idea. To us, deep thoughts fit into 140 characters. There isn't room for Plato's cave or Friedrich Nietzsche, The Parable of the Madman.

If you are asking how a society would develop thusly, an enlightened king could elevate learning throughout the kingdom and change long-standing cultural elements (like how Queen Victoria got the whole wearing a white dress for your wedding tradition.) In order for you to be accepted as cultured, you must have read and studied certain works.

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  • $\begingroup$ So, building on that, the question becomes "what would it take to make a society that cherishes wisdom over the other things you mentioned?" On that you didn't really answer $\endgroup$ – Dotan Dec 22 '16 at 17:29

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