The Lion (Philosopher) King

Lion King.jpg


The following is an article written by Jason McCreery, SJ and has been published on the Jesuit Post!

A few weeks ago, Disney released a new version of Hamlet The Lion King. The new film is part of Disney’s live-action re-creation of beloved classics, though “live-action” is a bit of a misnomer in this case. The Lion King is still completely animated; it just has photorealistic CGI rather than hand-drawn animation cels. But as I am currently a student of philosophy, I will have to put aside the many great articles about the technical execution of the CGI film. I will instead turn to the question of politics, relying on the great philosophical adage, “That’s all well and good in practice, but what about in theory?”

The Lion King presents us with a classic hereditary monarchy: once Mufasa dies, Simba will be sovereign over “all the light touches.” The mistreated Scar (according to one fan, with the help of Zazu) has Mufasa killed and drives away Simba to usurp the throne. But everything is terrible under his rule. Only once Simba returns, and gains his rightful place as ruler over the Pride Lands, is justice restored. The moral: certain people are made to rule, and the world will only be okay if these people are put in charge. Though not made explicit in the children’s story, the theme echoes Socrates in Plato’s Republic: the kallipolis (the good city) will only be perfect when it is ruled by the philosopher-king. In both stories, we are presented with the question, “Who should rule?”, to which Socrates and Rafiki respond: the good king. In times of turmoil, when there is starvation and drought, the duty of every good citizen is to help restore the rightful (lion) king to power.

But there is danger in this vision of sovereignty. Karl Popper, in his two-volume book The Open Society and Its Enemies, summarizes the problem of the philosopher-king:

“For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’… If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government; whether we should not prepare for the worst leaders, and hope for the best. But this leads to a new approach to the problem of politics, for it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? by the new question: How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?

Popper, writing during the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party, fundamentally rejects the response of Socrates and Rafiki. Instead of searching for the good ruler, maybe we should organize our government in such a way to prevent a ruler like Scar from destroying the Pride Lands. The problem, in Popper’s mind, is not that Scar is a bad leader; it is rather that Scar has absolute sovereign power over the Pride Lands. Even Sarabi, the widowed queen, can do nothing but verbally disagree with Scar’s policies.

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