The Philosopher King of Serbia

“Since the philosophers are those who are capable of apprehending that which is eternal and unchanging . . . when men of this sort are perfected by education and maturity of age, would you not entrust the state solely to them?” Thus was born the philosopher king in Plato’s Republic.

The viability of Plato’s city in speech as a model for an actual city is debatable, but more than a few people have taken the idea seriously. If a totally enlightened philosopher could somehow become an absolute monarch, they reason, he could create the best possible society.

But, as Frédéric Bastiat wrote, “This idea — the fruit of classical education — has taken possession of all the intellectuals and famous writers of our country. To these intellectuals and writers, the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter.” People, however, are not clay, and no king can (or should attempt to) reshape his subjects. As Karl Popper observed, Karl Marx’s and Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s interpretations of Plato’s philosopher king paved the way for totalitarian dictators such as Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps the problem with the philosopher king is not the idea itself, but the speific philosophy of the king. What if there were a philosopher king whose philosophy was one of freedom, individualism, and liberality? An interesting case study might be King Peter I of Serbia, also known as Peter the Liberator. It’s not clear that he was a philosopher per se, but in his youth he translated John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty into Serbian. His ascension to the throne ushered in the “golden age” of Serbian democracy. He enacted reforms to ensure political freedoms, including freedom of the press. Peter also shifted the political power away from his own office, and toward a more liberal, democratic parliamentary system.

Perhaps the philosopher king is desirable, not Plato’s (or Marx’s or Hegel’s) philosopher king, but Mill’s philosopher king.

Beer of the week: Zaječarsko Svetlo Pivo – Peter I is pretty impressive, but this Serbian lager is not. It is clear gold with a fluffy but quickly dissipating head. There is hardly any aroma to speak of. The flavor is thin and watery. There is some bland adjunct grain flavor a hint of hops bitterness, but this beer is basically forgettable.

Reading of the week: A Few Words on Non-Intervention by John Stuart Mill – I know that Peter I translated On Liberty, but I do not know whether he ever read A Few Words on Non-Intervention. Peter was a military man, through and through, having fought in the French Foreign Legion and as a guerilla against the Ottomans in the Balkans. This short essay by Mill would have been helpful for Peter as king, in determining how and when to employ his military against other nations. Mill writes, “To go to war for an idea, if the war is aggressive, not defensive, is as criminal as to go to war for territory or revenue; for it is as little justifiable to force our ideas on other people, as to compel them to submit to our will in any other respect.”

Question of the week: What would the best philosopher king look like? And how could such a person ever come to power?


Tesla’s Spirit

My grandmother felt a very real connection to her Pennsylvania-Dutch roots. Her great-great-etc.-grandfather came to these shores from the old world, and his son fought in the American Revolution. My grandmother was born, educated, married, and died in Pennsylvania. That’s not to say that she wasn’t worldly. She left her part of the state to attend Gettysburg College, one of the two Lutheran colleges in the state that admitted women. She travelled to India, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and more. But she stayed firmly connected to her ethnic roots in a way that I haven’t.

Nikola Tesla is another example of somebody strongly attached to his own cultural identity, even when physically separated from it. Tesla was a Serbian, but he was born and raised in what is now Croatia. His education took him to Vienna and to Prague, and his work took him to France and the United States. In fact, it doesn’t appear that he spent much (or any) time at all in Serbia proper. Still, his entire life, Tesla regarded himself as a Serbian. He founded the Serbian Culture Club at his university in Austria, he memorized and translated Serbian poetry, and is now regarded as a national hero in Serbia (and namesake of the largest airport in the country.) So why is his Serbian connection so strong despite never living in Serbia?

For one thing, Tesla strongly believed in a unified Balkan Peninsula. “The fact is,” he wrote, “that all Yugoslavs-Serbians, Slavonians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Dalmations, Montenagrins, Croatians and Slovenes – are of the same race, speak the same language and have common national ideals and traditions.” (It seems that the Serbo-Croatian language has fractured along political boundaries, but Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin remain mutually intelligible.) This belief in a shared identity helps elucidate how somebody born in Croatia would see no incongruity in asserting his own Serbian-ness.

Another determining factor in Tesla’s connection to his Serbian identity was his education. His mother memorized and recited Serbian epic poetry. And in that poetry, he found the same sort of grand feats and noble traits that draw people to the ancient and proud identities of Sparta or Rome. “For in Milosh [Obilich, hero of the Battle of Kosovo,] we see both Leonidas and Mucius, and, more than this, a martyr, for he does not die an easy death on the battle-field like the Greek, but pays for his daring deed with a death of fearful torture. It is not astonishing that the poetry of a nation capable of producing such heroes should be pervaded with a spirit of nobility and chivalry.” It is the poetry, with all of the history and ideality it contains, that kept Tesla a Serbian, first and foremost. In many ways, that is far more important than geography or blood.


Beer of the week: Spirit Tesla – This week’s beer, named for the man himself, is intertwined with these questions of identity and national pride. The idea to name this beer after Tesla apparently came from an American importer keen to capitalize on the popularity of the inventor. (In some circles, Tesla is something of an obsession.) In Serbia, the same beer is sold under the brewery’s trade name, Valjevsko. Whatever it is called, this is a decent Euro lager. There is not much head to speak of, and it is perhaps a bit on the sweet side, but I like that it is a solid malty offering. Unlike so many cheep lagers, this one has some flavor.

Reading of the week: Zmai Iovan Iovanovich – The Chief Servian Poet of To-Day by Nikola Tesla – The love of Serbian poetry that Tesla inherited from his mother stayed with him his whole life. In fact, he assisted in translating a fair bit into English.

Question of the week – Do you associate more with where you are from or where your ancestors are from? And even if those are the same, do you consider yourself primarily of your town, region, nation, or continent?