"Philosopher King", "The Cave", alien, Alien Covenant, Blade Runner, David, Deckard, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, Edward Gibbon, Film, film review, Gladiator, history, King Baldwin IV, Kingdom of Heaven, Literature, Livy, Marcus Aurelius, Maximus, Metamorphosis, Ovid, Peter Weyland, Philosophy, Plato, Plutarch's Lives, Power, Prometheus, Ridley Scott, Rise and Fall of the Roman EMpire, science fiction, Tacitus, The Crown, virtue, War with Hannibal
Russel Crowe avenges Dumbledore after Johnny Cash asphyxiates him and assumes control of the Roman Empire, though that still doesn’t explain whether Tyrell or Weyland corporation was responsible for the synthetic tigers he fought in the coliseum. The reader may not understand this point, but trust me, Ridley Scott’s films are really just one big universe of interconnected characters and events. This has tons of continuity implications for the Alien franchise and that Robin Hood movie nobodyexcept for Max von Sydow and my mother actually went to see, but I’ll get to that later.
I’m not sure what honestly compels me anymore. My brain seems awash with ideas and thoughts and desires and cravings, and every now and then one of these chaotic messes of thoughts formulates into an action. This is just my way of saying I don’t know why I bought a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius on Amazon the other day. I believe part of it is because I have a friend who’s part of the bi-weekly graphic novel group Ground Zero Comics hosts, and because the pair of us talk pretty regularly. He also works for the City of Tyler, and so I seem him fairly often, and when I doI usually talk to him about history and science fiction, and recently he’s begun commissioning statues of roman deities from our 3D Printer at the library. I’m ecstatic that someone besides me wants a bust of Zeus, much to the chagrin of my fellow library employees. I asked him the other day, out of curiosity and also out of a sense ofawkwardness because I generally feel that I bore people when I talk to them, why he liked Rome so much. It took him a second but his honest answer was, “The world was new. It was being built.”
This just seemed to click with me and I’ve been processing it ever since. Sitting on my desk in front of me every day when I write is the three volume set of Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. It rests between Plutarch’s Lives, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome, Livy’s War with Hannibal, and of course Simon and Schuster’s Guide to Insects, because, well, it’s me. But these classical works sit in front of me everyday and I don’t often read them, a fact which is bothersome and also rather illuminating. I appear to have become one of those people: the kind who use books to say something about their personality without actually bothering to open them and make something of a personality for themselves.
Meditating on my own aesthetic, and my own penchant for ancient Rome was an excuse however to finally write about Ridley Scott again, because after finishing my rather brief analysis of Kingdom of Heaven (2000 words is brief by my standards anyway) I realized there was more to be said about the film, and my favorite character King Baldwin IV.
Kingdom of Heaven is not just a misunderstood film about the Crusades and religion in general, it’s also a fascinating study on the conflict of power which has often dogged the “Holy Lands” and how in the face of these struggles one is able to maintain integrity. The film follows a young blacksmith named Balian of Ibelin who inherits a plot of land in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and before he actually goes to rule he is invited by the King of Jerusalem, a man by the name of Baldwin IV who has, arguably, one of the most powerful entrances of any of Scott’s characters:
King Baldwin IV: Come forward. I am glad to meet Godfrey’s son. He was one of my greatest teachers. He was there when, playing with the other boys, my arm was cut. It was he, not my father’s physicians, who noticed that I felt no pain. He wept when he gave my father the news… that I am a leper. The Saracens say that this disease is God’s vengeance against the vanity of our kingdom. As wretched as I am, theseArabs believe that the chastisement that awaits me in hell is far more severe and lasting. If that’s true, I call it unfair. Come. Sit.
[they sit down on opposite sides of a chessboard]
King Baldwin IV: Do you play?
Balian of Ibelin: No.
King Baldwin IV: The whole world is in chess. Any move can be the death of you. Do anything except remain where you started, and you can’t be sure of your end. Were you sure of your end once?
Balian of Ibelin: I was.
King Baldwin IV: What was it?
Balian of Ibelin: To be buried a hundred yards from where I was born.
King Baldwin IV: And now?
Balian of Ibelin: Now I sit in Jerusalem, and look upon a king.
King Baldwin IV: [Baldwin chuckles] When I was sixteen, I won a great victory. I felt in that moment I would live to be a hundred. Now I know I shall not see thirty. None of us know our end, really, or what hand will guide us there. A king may move a man, a father may claim a son, but that man can also move himself, and only then does that man truly begin his own game. Remember that howsoever you are played or by whom, your soul is in your keeping alone, even though those who presume toplay you be kings or men of power. When you stand before God, you cannot say, “But I was told by others to do thus,” or that virtue was not convenient at the time. This will not suffice. Remember that.
Balian of Ibelin: I will.
I watched the scene again on YouTube, discovering in the comment section that not only had Baldwin been played by Edward Norton, but also that someone had labeled Baldwin here a Philosopher King. I admit I know nothing of the real King Baldwin IV of which the character is based, but I do know something of this title and it’s history.
It has been some time since I last read it, but Plato’s Republic is a book that I’m sure most readers have either read snippets of, or at least heard of the book. It is one of the many Socratic Dialogues the man wrote during his lifetime, and in it the man allowed his teacher Socrates to muse on the nature of power and society. “The Cave” metaphor is the component of the text that many writers, readers, academics, and philosophers have latched on to, and in fact some have made the case that The Matrix was just a reimagining of this old concept, but contained also in the text is the idea of the “Philosopher King.” This figure was exactly as the title suggests, a monarch of a fictional kingdom that, because of his position as a philosopher, would bring great benefit and strength to his kingdom because he is a man in love with wisdom and knowledge. A Philosopher, in the classical sense I suppose, is someone who is calm, patient, in love with a simple life, and desires only to learn as much as he can, and because of this knowledge and virtuous lifestyle, he is an ideal candidate to rule a nation or people because he will not be swayed by valor, ambition, greed, lust, or vanity.
I remember being 15 years old when the film came out. Well in fact I remember being a young teenager, I cannot in fact actually remember being 15. Such a reality now seems impossible. But I do remember the sense of awe in watching Kingdom of Heaven, and the eloquence with which Baldwin ruled himself and his subjects. He was the sort of leader I would want for my country, if not my species period.
It was looking at Baldwin then, that I began to observe that Ridley Scott often has such characters in his films, men who seem to be philosophers and who hold great positions of power. But upon closer inspection the question I began to ask is, are they really?
Looking at the film Gladiator, one of my mother’s favorite films by the way, Russel Crowe is a quote “hunksickle”, Scott actually goes to the trouble to actually make the first real recognized philosopher King a central character. Many historians have observed that Marcus Aurelius seemed to be the first real-life example of a “philosopher king” for the way he carried himself and Rome forward. In Gladiator Marcus Aurelius, played by Richard Harris the man who would come to be Albus Dumbledore only a few years later for a new generation, is a wise and human man who understands the nature of his mortality as well as the nature of human beings. Discussing the future of Rome with Maximus one can see his wisdom:
Maximus: Five thousand of my men are out there in the freezing mud. Three thousand of them are bloodied and cleaved. Two thousand will never leave this place. I will not believe that they fought and died for nothing.
Marcus Aurelius: And what would you believe?
Maximus: They fought for you and for Rome.
Marcus Aurelius: And what is Rome, Maximus?
Maximus: I’ve seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark, Rome is the light.
Marcus Aurelius: Yet you have never been there. You have not seen what it has become. I am dying, Maximus. When a man sees his end… he wants to know there was some purpose to his life. How will the world speak my name in years to come? Will I be known as the philosopher? The warrior? The tyrant…? Or will I be the emperor who gave Rome back her true self? There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.
It’s not bold to say that Gladiator is a film which actually portrays the figure of the Philosopher King as a man who wants only goodness and security for his kingdom. Marcus Aurelius is a man who desires knowledge, but also stability for that is the sign of prosperity. He is a man who is concerned about the future of his people, and his country.
In this way Marcus Aurelius and Baldwin IV both seem then to be fine examples of Philosopher Kings, though this inevitably leads me to Dr. Edwin Tyrell and Peter Weyland.
Recently one of the two movie groups I’m a part of decided to watch the entirety of the Alien franchise. This involved starting at Prometheus, then going to Covenant, and then resuming the franchise with Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, and Alien Resurrection respectively. This was greeted with delight and frustration because while everyone in attendance is a fan of the film Prometheus, Alien:Covenant tends to inspire a revulsion that borders on apish feces throwing. Despite the sever flaws in the second film, I recognized that Scott had really done something with these films, and the character of Peter Weyland, the terraforming trillionaire and synthetic humanoid producer is arguably one of the most important elements of the films.
The man is, without doubt, a figure with vision and sizable knowledge, but as the film progresses, Weyland is demonstrated to be anything but a benevolent philosopher. Though it was not contained in the theatrical cut, Scott did at one point include a “TED Talk” hosted by the character Peter Weyland, and it the man’s character is revealed:
Peter Weyland: [from TED Talks viral video] To those of you who know me: you will be aware by now that my ambition is unlimited. You know that I will settle for nothing short of greatness, or I will die trying. To those of you who do not yet know me: allow me to introduce myself. My name is Peter Weyland, and if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to change the world.
This would at first appear to be a man with an ambition to benefit society tremendously, but as the talk continues Weyland’s greed appears dramatically:
Peter Weyland: [from TED Talks viral video] T.E. Lawrence, eponymously of Arabia but very much an Englishman, favoured pinching a burning match between his fingers to put it out. When asked by his colleague William Potter to reveal his trick, how is it he effectively extinguished the flame without hurting himself whatsoever, Lawrence just smiled and said, “The trick, Potter, is not minding it hurts.” The fire that danced at the end of that match was a gift from the Titan Prometheus, a gift that he stole from the gods. When Prometheus was caught and brought to justice for his theft, the gods, well, you might say they overreacted a little. The poor man was tied to a rock, as an eagle ripped through his belly and ate his liver over and over, day after day, ad infinitum. All because he gave us fire. Our first true piece of technology, fire… 100,000 BC: stone tools. 4,000 BC: the wheel. 900 AD: gunpowder – bit of a game changer, that one. 19th century: eureka, thelightbulb! 20th century: the automobile, television, nuclear weapons, spacecrafts, Internet. 21st century: biotech, nanotech, fusion and fission and M theory – and THAT, was just the first decade! We are now three months into the year of our Lord, 2023. At this moment of our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals, who in just a few short years will be completely indistinguishable from us. Which leads to an obvious conclusion: WE are the gods now.
One can almost hear Plato screech and Marcus Aurelius cast a resigned sigh of painful recognition. It seems at first a little difficult to say that Peter Weyland is not a true Philosopher King. He is obviously a man of real knowledge and education, all of which would suggest he is a man in love with wisdom. But upon examination it’s painfully clear that this acquiring of knowledge has not been simply for the sake of acquiring knowledge. And for all his outward concern for the “benefit” of humanity, the final lines of his speech reveal the man for what he is: yet another in a long line of insects desperate for immortality.
I might perhaps be being a little negative, and it might be better to look at Dr. Tyrell of Blade Runner as well before coming to any final conclusions. If my reader does not remember, Blade Runner was a film which explored the nature of humanity in a world where “Sythetics” or biochemically engineered human beings have been created and largely used as Slave Labor on “other-world” colonies. A “Blade Runner” named Deckard is brought back onto the LAPD to terminate four rogue synths which escaped one suchcolony and made their way back to earth, and during his investigations he meets with the head of the Tyrell corporation, Dr. Eldon Tyrell.
Tyrell is a cold man who often appears guided by his own personal sense of charm as is emphasized in one memorable line:
Tyrell: Commerce is our goal, here. More human than human.
Apart from making me think of a great White Zombie song, this small line is real enough to damn Tyrell. Commerce is not simpatico with being someone purely in love with knowledge, it’s the sign of an individual concerned with profit. This is not to say a philosopher could not be a capitalist, but greed will blind a man to the truth and so weaken his personal strength. And Tyrell only makes it worse after he allows his assistant to be interview by Deckard who recognizes that she is a synthetic.
Deckard: She’s a replicant, isn’t she?
Tyrell: I’m impressed. How many questions does it usually take to spot them?
Deckard: I don’t get it, Tyrell.
Tyrell: How many questions?
Deckard: Twenty, thirty, cross-referenced.
Tyrell: It took more than a hundred for Rachael, didn’t it?
Deckard: [realizing Rachael believes she’s human] She doesn’t know.
Tyrell: She’s beginning to suspect, I think.
Deckard: Suspect? How can it not know what it is?
To which it is revealed that Tyrell hasn’t told her. Tyrell is presented as a man who is not concerned with empathy for the people he has created, nor would he even recognize them as people. They are merely products designed to increase revenue and thus continue his existence as a leader of the world and thus insure his continued comfort and ego.
These four men together seem to embody the collected works of Ridley Scott, for while the man has created characters of real strength and virtue, he has also observed in humanity a real failing of character. My question at the end of each of the analyses is not to make some blanket statement about Scott’s carear at large, but again to answer a simple question: can they all be considered Philosopher Kings the way Plato foresaw such a being in the republic.
In my own mind the answer has to be no, because Tyrell and Weyland are clearly not Philosopher Kings, they are merely men who have perused philosophy and settled more on the title of Kings. Their ultimately failing is their desire to acquire some kind ofpower, and rather than benefit society in a true form or fashion, they create at the expense of others thus reducing their empathy and their real love of knowledge. As Plato saw it the role of the Philosopher King would be not only to be intelligent, wise, and true to their humanity, but also to lead society into an ideal state akin to a Utopia. Though looking at this it becomes clear none of the men cited in this essay really match that title. And that’s largely because Utopia will always be impossible as long as human beings are hindered by their failings.
Greed, ambition, vanity, and desire will always bring about destruction in there world, and to Scott’s credit each of these films demonstrate how society and individual people can be impacted when any and all of these traits become the foundation of power in theworld. In Kingdom of Heaven Baldwin died and a vain ambitious man began a war with the Saracen Muslims. In Gladiator Commodus murdered his father out of a desire to hold power and appear strong. In Prometheus and Alien Covenant Weyland wanted to live forever and be a god and this ultimate brought about the creation of David, a being who brought tremendous pain to humanity. And finally in Blade Runner Tyrell was a man corrupted by his greed and apathy, all of which caused the synthetics to be butchered by a man who himself was caught in the morbid conundrum of his own morality.
My reader may object at this point, so what? What good is it wondering about four characters in fictional films and whether or not they satisfy some Classical archetype? People suck, that isn’t new information, why should we bother worrying about the apparent goodness of fictional people?
These are all fair points, but as always my contester has missed something significant. Yes these characters are fictional people (though Baldwin was based on an actual dude), but fiction has always been about truth, that abstract notion that there is an explanation of reality that we can tap into and understand. The truth of the matter is, it’s through fiction that human beings are able to perform thought experiments where they can find their ideals, desires, expectations, and beliefs made manifest. In this way Scott’s collected oeuvre of characters allows the reader to try and determine what they ultimately believe about power. What kind of ruler or influential people would we want ruling the world? And it doesn’t even have to be as complex as that, what kind of people do we want to be in charge of us.
Whether it’s the President of the United States, the CEO of Apple or Facebook, the mayor of your hometown, or whether it’s even your supervisor at Barnes & Noble or a public library, the people who govern and inspire influence matter in our lives because their morality and integrity can have great weight over our lives. Good people will try to be good to those “beneath” them, and thus try to make the world, and their environment, better, whereas selfish and greedy people will only cause chaos and pain. Rulers like Baldwin IV and Marcus Aurelius are the sort of individuals most people would want in charge because they seem to understand the nature of integrity, whereas Weyland and Tyrell couldn’t possibly be bothered.
I recognize that this may be a tough sell because the idea of a “Philosopher King” is obviously something antiquated. Kings and monarchs are the stuff of bad CW programs and amazing Netflix series (check out The Crown, it’s legend-“wait for it”-dary) but power is the one constant of human existence and few directors have explored so incredibly as Ridley Scott.
I still am left awed at the wisdom of King Baldwin IV, and of the man’s supreme concern for the safety of the people he reigned. Though I am also deeply ashamed that it took me 14 years to see that the man had a thin mustache etched into the silver of his mask. Wisdom is important, though observation as ever eludes me.