Ancient Leadership in the Era of Donald Trump

I Know Your Anger, I Know Your Dreams

A tyrannos at least ought to have been free from envy, seeing that he has all manner of good things. He is however naturally in just the opposite temper towards his subjects; for he grudges to the aristoi (=best men) that they should survive and live, but delights in the basest of citizens, and he is more ready than any other man to receive calumnies. Then of all things he is the most inconsistent; for if you express admiration of him moderately, he is offended that no very great court is paid to him, whereas if you pay court to him extravagantly, he is offended with you for being a flatterer. And the most important matter of all is that which I am about to say:--he disturbs the customs handed down from our fathers, he is a ravisher of women, and he puts men to death without trial.--Herodotus Histories 3.80.4-6 (translation by Macaulay).

The Tyrant: A Type of Leader or Type of Personality?

The United States has probably never truly known a leader for whom the word "tyrant" is accurate in the ancient Greek sense, that of a leader who holds power with no legal or constitutional authority. And yet perhaps no term is more commonly used to describe the leader (usually the president) of the party opposite that of the person who uses the term. Opposing tyrants is seen as core to the American ethos. The Latin phrase, sic semper tyrannis (loosely, "that's what we always do to tyrants") was supposedly proclaimed by the Roman senators after they assassinated the dictator in perpetuum ("dictator for life), Julius Caesar. It is the state motto of Virginia and was uttered by John Wilkes Booth when he shot Abraham Lincoln. If we all agree that we don't like tyrants, why do they keep finding their way into power (apparently)? If the term is so inaccurate and rhetorically charged, are we better off without it?

There has been a lot of media hand-wringing about whether Donald Trump is a tyrannical leader (i.e., someone who seeks to lead without constitutional restraint) or a "tyrannical man" (someone whose own passions and impulses know no restraint). The pundits who use this term invoke -- wittingly or not -- a tradition of political discourse that goes back to the ancient Greeks. But what did the ancient Greek word tyrannos (“tyrant”) originally mean exactly? Who was called a tyrannikos (“tyrannical man”)? What was the emotional and psychological experience of a tyrannikos? What did ancient Greeks know and think about living in a tyrannis (“tyranny”)? And does that have any relationship to the ways this word is bandied about in the political discourse of the Trump Era?

Meet the creators of this module, Mallory Monaco Caterine, Rosemary Moore, Melina Tamiolaki, Maria Xanthou!

Listening for Leadership One

Pick four articles below that refer to President Trump or President Obama as a tyrant or his administration as a tyranny, and for each article, summarize how the author is defining tyrant/tyranny/tyrannical in no more than three sentences. What aspects of Trump or Obama’s personality, behavior, style of leadership, etc. does the author focus on? What event(s)/acts is the author reacting to? What about the government’s functioning, authority, or policies are being described as tyrannical?

President Barack Obama was also accused, by people on the opposite end of the political spectrum of wielding tyrannical power:

And thereupon those who have reached this stage devise that famous petition of
the tyrant—to ask from the people a bodyguard to make their city safe for the friend of
democracy.--Plato, Republic 566b (translation by Paul Shorey)

We will now examine the ancient Greek concept of tyranny through the writings of two of Socrates’ pupils, Plato and Xenophon. Both men conveyed their philosophical views through written dialogues that imitated the teaching methods of their teacher, though Xenophon explored similar themes in his historical writings, too.

Plato (c. 428/427-348/347 BC) and Xenophon (c. 430-354 BC) lived through the political upheaval that struck Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War, tossed as it was from democracy, to ruthless oligarchy, to a reformed democracy. Plato’s only foray into political affairs seems to have been an attempted intervention with the Syracusan tyrant, Dionysius II, when Plato tried to apply his political philosophical teachings to improve the character and rule of the tyrant. This attempt failed spectacularly. Xenophon, on the other hand, fought as a mercenary in coup attempts in Persia (unsuccessful) and Thrace (successful), and even allied with the Spartans against his fellow Athenians at the Battle of Coronea in 394 BC. He was exiled from Athens and was patronized by the Spartan king Agesilaus II, who gave him land outside of Olympia and allowed his sons to attend the rigorous Spartan education system.

We will consider selections from three philosophical texts and one historical text as we try to reconstruct Xenophon and Plato’s views on tyrants: Plato’s Republic; Xenophon’s Hiero, Memorabilia, and Hellenika.

Ancient Texts

Explore similar themes of populism in "People are People."

Listening for Leadership Two

While you are reading each text, write up your answers to the following questions:Compare the list of traits and behaviors you came up with in Listening for Leadership One with your answers to the first question of Listening for Leadership Two. Where do the modern usages of tyrant/tyranny/tyrannical match up with the ancient usages? Where do they differ? Create a Venn diagram of the two concepts of tyrant/tyranny/tyrannical.

Concepts of gender and sexuality are often woven into discussion of tyrants and tyranny. Read the following article examining the overlaps between approaches to tyranny and to women in ancient philosophical texts.

Leah Bradshaw, “Tyranny and the Womanish Soul”, in Confronting Tyranny: Ancient Lessons for Global Politics, eds. T. Koivukosi and D. Tabachnick (Rowman & Littlefield: 2005).

Listening for Leadership Four

Recall the Plato and Xenophon texts and take note of places where topics of sexuality and gender come up in these texts. How does the concept of “tyrant” intersect with ideas of masculinity, femininity, and sexual relationships? Reflect on Plutarch's description of Alcibiades, an Athenian statesman thought to have tyrannical aspirations, in the opening quotation to She's Always a Woman.

Listening for Leadership Five

Find two recent news articles that discuss President Trump’s gender and/or sexuality and their role in his campaign or presidency. Examine whether there are overlaps or parallels with what you found in Plato, Xenophon, or the Bradshaw article. Do the authors make any explicit connections between gender, sexuality, and tyranny?

Listening for Leadership Six

Let’s end this module by reading the modern through the ancient lens!

Revisit the articles you chose in Listening for Leadership One, and examine whether the arguments made about the Trump and/or Obama administrations are enhanced or undermined applying the ancient conception of tyrant/tyranny/tyrannical. When considered through an ancient lens, does Trump and/or Obama look more or less tyrannical? How so?

Possible In-Class Exercises

Further Reading

This page references: