What does it mean to be wise? Lessons from a philosopher king

Gracious readers,

This week, we’ll explore:

  • How to start a Civic Renaissance: Lessons from a philosopher king

  • Giveaway: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, a biography of Marcus Aurelius by Donald Robertson

  • How to start a Civic Renaissance: An invitation

  • Manners, morals, and history: An invitation

  • I’d love to hear from you: What should we next learn together?

What does it mean to be wise? Lessons from a philosopher king

Power corrupts, which is why Plato said we should give power to the philosopher, the person who loves wisdom more than power.

But what is wisdom? And what does it meant be wise?

Thoughtful people across history offer us one important answer to this question: the beginning of wisdom is humility, the knowledge of our limitations as human beings.

Solomon, the son of King David and esteemed as the wisest man who ever lived, wrote in the Hebrew Bible that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:1) Fear, in this context, doesn’t mean petrification—but humility and awareness of our our shortcomings, especially in comparison to the greatness of God, the creator of the Universe.


Socrates told us in Plato’s Apology that the beginning of wisdom is the knowledge that we know nothing. Wisdom begins when we choose self-awareness, when we humbly appreciate all that we do not know.

Confucius took a similar position: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Today, we prioritize certainty and knowledge over humility and wisdom. How might we reverse this?

In particular, what can we learn from Marcus Aurelius, one of history’s great philosopher-kings, who ruled the Roman Empire all while struggling daily to cultivate virtue and wisdom in his own life?

Today, we have the emperor’s Meditations—his personal journal that recounts an intimate struggle to conquer vice and pursue virtue in his everyday. He wrote this for himself alone, and it gives us remarkable insight into his interior life and private thoughts. What can we—and our leaders— learn from this work today?

Tomorrow, June 15, at 5 EST, join our conversation as we answer this question, exploring lessons from the life of a philosopher-king.

Register now!

Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, a biography of Marcus Aurelius, will help us mine the emperor’s insights to help us live better and more fulfilling lives today.

Even if you can’t make it, feel free to register, as a recording will be shared with all registrants. We hope to see you there!

Giveaway: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Would you like to win your own copy of Donald Robertson’s biography of Marcus Aurelius?

I have FIVE copies to give away to Civic Renaissance subscribers.

If you’d like a chance to win this book, published by St. Martin’s Pres (also my publisher! :) ), send me a note directly at ah@alexandraohudson.com with PHILOSOPHER KING in the subject line.

Thank you again for being part of the Civic Renaissance community, and we hope you’ll consider joining the conversation tomorrow!

How to start a Civic Renaissance: An invitation

We live in an era of political and social division. We’re just emerging from a period of widespread death and suffering. And we seem to lack leaders in our cultural institutions—in education, news media, and politics—with visions for a better, more hopeful future.

Many declare what they oppose—but who is casting a vision for a better way of being, and defining what they stand for?

Have we any reason to hope for an era of renewal ?

Francisco Petrarch, father of the Italian Renaissance, lived in a similarly similarly divided and despairing era—and yet he was convinced cultural rebirth was possible.

Register now!

To learn more, join us for a conversation with Petrarch scholar Christopher Celenza of Johns Hopkins University. We’ll investigate the ingredients of civic, social, and intellectual renewal, drawing lessons from what is perhaps the most famous era of “rebirth”—the Italian Renaissance, which Petrarch helped ignite.

We will explore the insights the beginning of the Italian Renaissance provides in our own moment, and the inspiration it offers to usher in a Renaissance today.

Hope to see you there!


Manners, morals, and history: An invitation

Our present era sometimes seems radically secular and even post-moral, and defined by division and culture wars. In such a context, what might the work of Gertrude Himmelfarb—a historian of England's Victorian era—teach us?

Join me and Bill Kristol—Himmelfarb’s son, noted political commentator, and founder of The Bulwark—as we discuss Himmelfarb’s work and thought on a wide range of topics, including manners, morals, civil society, and democracy.

Bill is a longtime friend and mentor, and I’m thrilled that he’s agreed to join me for a conversation about his mother’s life and legacy. I’m confident her work offers lessons that might illuminate a more hopeful and productive path forward for American public life.

Register here!

What should we next learn together?

Thanks to all of you who have registered for, and offered feedback on, Civic Renaissance’s first course offering, Greek Mythology in Ten Minutes! If you haven’t taken it yet, you can try it here!

This fall, I’d like to offer a new course, and perhaps a longer one—perhaps four or five sessions and modules instead of one. I’d also like to do this in real time so that we can learn together.

Here are some ideas I’ve floated in the past. Let me know what interests you!

  1. Five classic books that will change your life.

In the past, 35.71% of you said this was your top pick.

  1. Seven epic poems you absolutely must to know.

    In a poll two months ago, 21.43% voted for this course idea.

  2. The timeless principles of human flourishing: lessons from five classic civility books you've never heard of.

    37.5% of you voted for this!

Vote here!

If one of these ideas excites you, vote here—and feel free to tell me why you like this idea in an email by writing to me at ah@alexandraohudson.com

And if you have other ideas, I’d love to here them! Share them with me anonymously by clicking below, or by writing me at ah@alexandraohudson.com

What should we learn together?

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community!