NEW YORK-Last week we committed a terrible crime. We talked about politics! We spoke how Plato may or may not, but definitely would have, classified Donald Trump as a tyrant, or at least an aspiring one.
So many reader responses, so little time. I try to respond to all of them, but can only wade through about half.
Some of you sent in great praise, others hate my guts. Some of you unsubscribed altogether.
I’ve saved some of my favorite responses…
| ||What does Plato say about evil liberals who try to sway voters with slick words and unsupported accusations?
| ||You hit the nail squarely on the head with this one! Trump is the epitome of a tyrant, caring nothing for anyone but himself, lusting after power and willing to do anything ANYTHING to get that power.
| ||Well, Van, this breaks my heart, because I absolutely love Classical Wisdom, but you have made the classical liberal political error, assuming all right minded thinking people agree with you and that there is something wrong with those who do not.
| ||“History is a wonderful teacher! It is a shame that we (Americans) do not value and teach classical History any longer. Maybe someday.......?”
Strong sentiments! Today, we rise to defend our reputation…or whatever’s left of it.
Finding the cornerstones
One of my favorite activities here in Gotham is to examine the cornerstones on all the buildings I pass by.
“Erected in 1920”
“Cornerstone laid by Mr. So And So in Aug 1898”
A quick walk around my neighborhood and you're likely to stumble upon a few dozen or so.
You can learn a lot about a building by examining its foundations. What exists now as trendy office space began as a textile factory. A secondary school from the 19th century is gutted and converted into luxury duplexes. Gothic churches are transformed into consumer shopping malls.
Evolve and adapt; it’s the law of the jungle.
However, no matter what a building might transmogrify into, the cornerstone usually holds its original history. It keeps the whole shebang upright even as the building reinvents itself over the decades.
The classics are like that. They are something of a shared thread throughout all of history, a cornerstone that holds us up even as we try to decide if we want to be a vertical university or a luxury high rise.
Where have we gone in the two thousand or so years since the ancient teachers put ink to parchment?
Are we better? Presumably.
Are we worse? Potentially.
Have we learned anything? Debatable.
Maybe the world needs a little tyranny.
But I digress; we were talking about tyranny. Last week we came down hard on the Donald, but that isn’t to say that Plato would have proclaimed any of those other bums as our heralded philosopher-kings.
Or as one reader put it…
| ||Your article perfectly describes every politician in America so why stop at Trump? They are all a bunch of tyrants...
Thanks for writing in, Tim. To be honest, I can’t say I disagree. A society with an excess of drones seems to have no shortage of political crooks. A terrible tragedy for society in general, it sure does make things interesting for all of us armchair philosophers.
Were we too hard on big Don? Is he just the newest incarnation of tyrants that have been spewing out from the belly of democracy for the past two millennia? Perhaps he’s actually a step up from the typical political cronies? As one reader put it…
| ||Better to have intemperance out in plain sight than to have it hidden
behind the smilng political correctness of wolves in wool and designer dresses. || |
Hmmmmm, never thought about it that way.
And besides, who said tyranny was such a bad thing? Well… Plato, but let’s forget that for a minute.
In the classical age, tyranny was actually an accepted, and some times popular, method of governance. The ancient world is chock full of tyrants and dictators who were upstanding, honorable leaders. Sure, every once in a while you were dealt a Caligula or a Nero, but for every bad apple in history there seems to be a Marcus Aurelius or Emperor Augustus to even it all out.
Could our modern world use a dose of tyranny? Would Emperor Trump (Clinton, Obama, Sanders…take your pick) really be such a bad thing? Could a dictator in perpetuo revitalize our aging empire? Or would they play the fiddle as Rome burned?
Aristotle tells us tells us that it is the mark of an educated mind to consider an idea without necessarily accepting it. So what the heck, let’s ponder the upsides of tyranny.
All the best,
Classical Wisdom Weekly
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The Times of Tyranny
By Ben Potter
The lead-up to the Second World War was often referred to (in its own time) as the Age of the Great Dictators.
The idea being that, even though the fledgling American experiment was going rather well, not all democracies were pulling their weight in the war of ideologies.
Emerging dictatorial talents in Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia were getting their respective nations back on track as Europe strived to recover from its self-destructive, turn of the century warmongering.
The fact that these were dictators, men of the people, for the people, instead of privileged, hereditary monarchs in charge of the ship of state seemed like a natural and sensible step in the right direction.
Though I hear the cry going up from all corners of cyberspace: “Quit stalling. What’s this got to do with the Classics?”
Prey beat still, impatient hearts.
The point is that, as hard as it is for us to imagine now, dictatorships haven’t always been seen as ‘bad’. It was only after
the fact that it was considered to be an undesirable form of government, regardless of the personnel involved, and universally reviled throughout civilised parts of the world.
And indeed this was true also in the Ancient World.
Though it should be stressed that between then and now someone left a red sock in with the ‘dictatorship’ wash and what came out in the end wasn’t exactly what went in.
"The fact that these were dictators, men of the people, for the people, instead of privileged, hereditary monarchs in charge of the ship of state seemed like a natural and sensible step in the right direction."
For Romans, a dictator (‘one who leads’) was a politician/general, a magistratus extraordinarius
, who was given temporary, and not quite absolute, power to perform a specific task, e.g. putting down a rebellion.
But such a power was considered too dangerous to grant for any conflict outside Italy, as a dictator would then be able to do as they pleased away from the beady eye of the Senate.
Thus, as Rome expanded her empire and the Italian peninsula became a land under no imminent threat, dictatorship fell by the wayside.
Though in 83 BC, after a 120-year hiatus, the victorious general Sulla revived the power for a single year before retiring from public life. The purpose of this was to re-codify the constitution following a series of civil wars.
This move was roundly mocked by the next man who took up the dictatorial gauntlet... Gaius Julius Caesar.
As it became increasingly obvious that Caesar was not only the dominant figure following the civil war of the 40s BC, but a cunning and ruthless politician as well as a fine military strategist, the Senate deemed it expedient to appoint him dictator… and dictator again… and then dictator for ten years… and finally, dictator for life.
However, life didn’t last very long, only until 15th March 44 BC, or the Ides of March.
The Assassination of Julius Caesar
Despite going on to take many further powers and titles, Octavian Augustus, the first truly absolute ruler of this new Rome, did not dare to call himself ‘dictator’; the word had by then become poisonous.
And while the Romans had a long history of viewing tyranny as an unpleasant form of government (hence the Republic), it wasn’t that way in pre-Classical Greek
thought... and the memory of past Tyrants is illustrative of this.
a popular and enlightened tyrant
For example, Cypselus, a tyrant of Corinth who came to power in 657 BC after ousting an aristocratic family, was a popular and dynamic leader who consolidated Corinthian interests abroad and made Corinthian pottery dominant in the Greek marketplace.
Cleisthenes ruled Sicyon from c.600-560 BC and is remembered best for his enduring tribal reforms rather than anything insidious.
Polycrates of Samos (ruled c.538-522 BC) was a popular and enlightened tyrant about whom Herodotus speaks well. His public building works included aqueducts and temples which reflected both his benevolence and piety.
Herodotus also suggests he may have been pretty humble (well, for a tyrant anyway). Supposedly he threw his prized possession, a bejewelled ring, into the sea in the hope of avoiding the hubris of the overly successful. However, ill-omen struck when a fish turned up in his kitchens with the ring inside it.
Maybe not surprisingly, it was in Athens, the bastion of enduring Greek thought, that tyranny finally developed the stigma it has today.
Though, again, this was not initially the case.
Peisistratus, a relative of the much-lauded lawgiver Solon, initially managed to install himself as tyrant in 561 BC, but was only able to make the title stick in 546 BC.
From that point on a string of populist and cultural policies helped to underpin his power.
He initiated a public building programme, extended or created festivals (including the dramatic festival, the Dionysia
and an Athenian ‘Olympics’, the Panathenaic Games), codified the works of Homer and championed the causes of peasants and landowners.
Indeed, Peisistratus was considered a model tyrant with almost no connotations of the violent oppression the word conjures up.
Aristotle said of him:
| ||his administration was temperate… and more like constitutional government than a tyranny. || |
This is high and significant praise indeed, as Aristotle and Plato helped to popularise the idea that tyranny was a base and unsatisfactory form of government in and of itself.
Moreover, Peisistratus had that luxury so few tyrants enjoy, to die a peaceful death. Though the same cannot be said of his son and joint-heir, Hipparchus.
Aristogeiton and Harmodion
He, along with his brother Hippias, continued their father’s work, but were met with strong opposition in the form of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the original Tyrannicides.
These men succeeded in killing Hipparchus in 514 BC, but Hippias escaped the assassin’s blade.
Hippias’ sole reign was, perhaps unsurprisingly given the circumstances, violent and oppressive and many believe he became the source of all our negative connotations associated to the word ‘tyrant’.
For the Athenians this was certainly true.
Fortunately Hippias was removed from power in 510 BC, allowing the noble Cleisthenes to initiate the reforms that gave birth to Athenian democracy.
Tyranny never recovered. From this point on merely accusing someone of being tyrannical was enough to slur them, it was no longer necessary to state why that was the wrong way to be.
Thus a few final words on the pitfalls of such a form of government shall be given to the two men who, perhaps, did more than any other to show that tyranny’s dark underbelly was more than merely suspicious, but destructive and pernicious.
And here I’ve saved the best, or at least most alarming, quote for last:
“The tyrant must be always getting up a war… in order that the people may require a leader.” – Plato
“Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only.” – Aristotle
“A tyrant, as has often been repeated, has no regard to any public interest, except as conducive to his private ends; his aim is pleasure.” - Aristotle
“Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty” – Plato
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