If only the world today could have leaders like this ...
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates famously said that the ideal form of government would be that of the “philosopher-king,” the man who loves wisdom and willingly leads a simple life. Plato wrote that humanity would face no end of troubles “until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one.” Many a commentator throughout history has hearkened back to this notion as an ideal, if perhaps unattainable, goal.
While ancient Rome could boast one “philosopher-emperor” in Marcus Aurelius, Christendom produced a number of “saint-kings,” rulers who exercised their political power with piety and charity.
The Church brings to our attention St. Henry of Bavaria, Holy Roman Emperor and Benedictine oblate, as just such an example.
Henry was born in 973 into the German nobility, the son of the Duke of Bavaria. His father had rebelled against the Holy Roman Emperor, and as a consequence was stripped of his title and sent into exile. Henry was left largely in the care of the Church and was intended for the priesthood. He was given religious instruction by St. Wolfgang of Regensburg and studied at the cathedral school in Hildesheim, developing a sincere piety. Henry’s father was released and his dukedom restored, but Henry, though just 13 years old, was named “regent” (or de facto ruler).
When his father died in 995, Henry was named the new Duke of Bavaria. In 1002, Henry’s cousin Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor, died. During the struggle to determine who would succeed to the imperial throne, Henry had himself crowned as King of Germany. For the next decade, Henry took up the work for which the popes had turned to the German kings two centuries before: defending the papacy from foreign threats. Henry fought a series of wars against the Kingdom of Poland, which made repeated attempts to invade Italy.
Henry also fought to restore the rightfully elected pope, Benedict VIII, who had been exiled by an antipope and his powerful Roman allies. For this, Henry was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1014.
Though his early life seemed dominated by the pursuit of power, as emperor, Henry ruled with the wisdom and charity instilled in him by his ecclesiastical education.
He ended a revolt in his territory without bloodshed, and pardoned those who rebelled against him. He encouraged the bishops in Germany to reform the Church in accord with canon law. He turned trips to Rome from political junkets into true pilgrimages, stopping at shrines and churches along his route. He founded several monasteries, including one to which his wife, St. Cunigunde, retired after his death. He gave huge amounts of money for the aid of the poor. He may have made a vow of continence before his marriage (he had no children), and desired to give up the throne and enter a monastery.
(According to one account, he actually did! But the abbot then put him under obedience and ordered him to continue administering the empire.)
Socrates and Plato believed that a ruler who was animated by the “spirit and power of philosophy” would rule his people with prudence, according to truth. Little did they know how right they were. For St. Henry, who was animated, not by the spirit of the love of wisdom, but the Spirit of Love and Wisdom, showed himself to be a ruler who was not only capable and just, but truly humble, willing even to renounce his power to pursue Truth itself.
This holy noble, who defended both popes and the poor, demonstrated what profound good can be achieved, not when kings become philosophers, but when emperors become saints.