Sophiarchism in Science Fiction and Fantasy

by Benjamin Studebaker

It occurred to me today that sophiarchism is a common theme in science fiction and fantasy. It is a curious thing that, in the worlds people dream up as exciting, utopian, or worth living in, there is a curious association of power, both political and supernatural, with wisdom and intellectual talent. Today I would like to review instances of sophiarchist writing in human stories, where characters of great wisdom, knowledge, and ability are also the very same characters given profound powers politically, supernaturally, or otherwise, and what this connection might perhaps say about humanity as a whole.

Off the top of my head, I came up with many science fiction or fantasy worlds and works in which, for good or for ill, some kind of power is given to the most able characters or class of characters. These examples range from literature, film, and television:

  • The Lord of the Rings–Gandalf, the wisest character, is given the greatest individual supernatural power
  • Harry Potter–Dumbledore, the wisest character, is given the greatest individual supernatural power
  • Avatar The Last Airbender–the avatar, a composite of many generations of wise characters, is given the greatest individual supernatural power
  • Star Wars–to the extent that the Jedi have political authority, that authority derives from their philosophical competence, with Yoda, the wisest character, again being seemingly the most powerful
  • Star Trek–the Vulcan government’s leaders are chosen logically on basis of competence
  • A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones)–here there are characters with political power who are utterly incompetent (Joffrey, Cersei, Robert)  contrasted against characters with political power that are seemingly quite competent (Tywin, Tyrion, Daenerys)

However, the antagonists to the wise man/hero/sophiarchist character or faction tend not to be democratic in modelling but rather fascist (Sauron, Voldemort, Fire Lord, Palpatine/Vader, The Borg/Romulans/etc, all of whom feel that their power entitles them to disregard and take from the weak in quintessentially Nazi fashion) This surely reflects the dominant influence of World War II on wider culture.

What I find interesting about this is that no one votes for Yoda, or Gandalf, or Dumbledore, or the avatar. No one consents to the tremendous powers they receive. The Vulcans consent to their government, but the Vulcans are biologically programmed to elect solely on the basis of logical reasoning, and represent a sophiarchist voter pool. Yet, when we read these books or watch these shows or movies, do we ever question the position of natural power these wise characters are in? Why listen to Gandalf, Dumbledore, Yoda, or the avatar? Why is it ethical that these characters be empowered to move the elements when others either are not permitted or are seen as deeply unethical due to insufficient judgement or wisdom in terms of how to use that power? Voldemort is very nearly as powerful as Dumbledore, Sauron is more powerful than Gandalf, but because Voldemort and Sauron rule unjustly, their power is considered illegitimate. No one cares that the power held by Gandalf and Dumbledore was acquired in any more an ethical way than the power Voldemort and Sauron acquired was.

This reveals something about political legitimacy, something that many political theorists willfully ignore constantly. People do not care how much power you give to the wise and the just, provided that the power is used to do wise and just things, even when it creates a grossly unequal distribution of power in which say, there is only one character (say, Gandalf) with those specific powers, and the overwhelming majority of other characters are vastly less powerful. Upgrading Gandalf from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White meets with approval–the wise and just character now has more power with which to do wise and just things. In contrast, would it make a bit of difference to anyone if 95% of the orcs in Mordor voted in free and fair elections for Sauron, or if 3 out of 4 wizards approved of Voldemort?

Our system of justifying and legitmising governments, asserting that they must come from this one very specific process or they’re all wrong no matter what they do, does not reflect real human attitudes toward power. Our political theorists have decided that they cannot all agree universally on what a wise or just ruler should do, and therefore the question should just be ignored entirely in favour of trying to sort out what the just process is rather than what the just outcome is. This is an abdication of responsiblity on the part of political theory as an academic discipline. Theory has a responsibility to improve real people’s lives, not to attempt to justify the current political system to them regardless of what it does.

Democracy perpetuates itself by disconnecting its philosophical underpinnings from the impact on real people, and by resorting to attacks similar to the one I’m making with “that’s too hard” and “okay, but can you think of something better?”. To the former I say, sure, we will never all agree on what’s right and wrong, good and bad, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore what we believe is good or what we believe is bad. We all have an obligation politically to pursue our conception of the good in the interests not merely of ourselves, but of society more broadly. To the latter I say that I absolutely can think of something better, and it’s called sophiarchism.