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?
- Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2011
- Robert Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, in December 2016
- Yale’s Levin Professor of History Timothy Snyder in May 2017
- Obama’s tyrannical use of IRS in enforcing healthcare reform, Washington Times 2013
- A run-down of conservative accusations of Obama’s tyranny in 2014 in the midst of trying to reform immigration policy
- Obama’s use of executive orders is akin to tyranny, Fox News 2014
- Conor Friedersdorf warning Pres. Obama to tyrant-proof the executive branch in preparation for a Trump or Clinton presidency
- Cf. his earlier discussion on how the Bush and Obama administrations created an infrastructure ripe to be abused by a tyrant.
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.
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)
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.
- In Plato’s Republic Socrates and friends try to answer the question “What is justice?” In the process, they describe the origins, character, and evolution of different political constitutions as a way to understand the different constitutions of souls that can exist among mankind -- including the tyrannikos. Plato on the tyrannical soul: Republic 562a-580
- Xenophon’s Hiero is a much shorter and narrower dialogue between Hiero I of Syracuse (a tyrant from the early 5th century BC) and the praise-poet Simonides concerning whether the private man or the tyrant has a greater experience of pleasure. In it, Hiero laments how utterly miserable it is to be a tyrant (cf. President Trump on realizing how challenging it is to be president). Ultimately, their conversation turns to how the tyrant can make the best of his situation, i.e. experience the most pleasure, without jeopardizing his rule. Xenophon's Hiero
- The selections from Xenophon’s Memorabilia (a collection of remembered conversations had by Socrates and his students) and Hellenika (a continuation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War through 362 BC) both treat the same topic: the tumultuous and violent era of the Thirty Tyrants, a short-lived pro-Spartan oligarchy that lasted a mere 13 months from 404-403 BC. Several of the most prominent Tyrants were students of Socrates (and thus peers of Xenophon), including Critias and Theramenes. Socrates’ association with the Thirty and the alleged influence of his teachings on them seems to have been a contributing factor in his trial and sentencing to death in 399 BC. In what ways, then, do Xenophon’s recollections of the Thirty Tyrants resemble his more theoretical approach in the Hiero? In what ways do Xenophon’s Thirty Tyrants resemble Plato’s tyrannical man?
- Extra Credit: Leo Strauss, On Tyranny (Chapter V, “The Two Ways of Life”)
- Xenophon's Hellenika 2.3.11-56: Memories of the Thirty Tyrants
- Extra Credit: Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.2
Listening for Leadership TwoWhile you are reading each text, write up your answers to the following questions:
- What personality traits mark the tyrant? (You might want to reflect on the personality traits of the narcissist and the psychopath discussed in other modules.)
- What kinds of actions and behaviors does the tyrant engage in?
- To what extent are violence and the search for pleasure inherent features of tyranny?
- What roles do loyalty and friendship play in the tyrant’s life?How does a tyrant come to power?
- How does he maintain power?What is the relationship between tyranny and other forms of rule?
- Put differently, can you find affinities between tyranny and oligarchy or between tyranny and democracy? (a possible exercise would be to spot the terms related to demos, tyrannos, oligoi, oligarchia, politeia etc. in these sections).
- What is the relationship between tyranny and the law?
- Is a tyrant by definition lawless? Or can we also envisage the image of a lawful tyrant?
- Can there be a good tyrant, or is the only good tyrant a dead tyrant?
- Is it possible to teach a tyrannical individual to do/be better?
- Who is qualified to do that? What tactics must they employ? (You may wish to reflect on this contemporary dialogue, the Uniprez, between a leader and a philosopher, modeled on Socrates.)
- Finally, how does Xenophon’s depiction of tyrants compare with Plato’s depiction?
Listening for Leadership Three
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 FiveFind 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 SixLet’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
- Rethink Xenophon’s Hiero for the 21st century. Who are the interlocutors? Who are the ideal readers? What are the pleasures and the pains for a modern "tyrant"? What is the most compelling way to give advice? You may wish to reflect on this excellent portrait of a modern leader, Saddam Hussein, by Mark Bowden.
- Research the concept of tyranny in early America, starting by looking at the Declaration of Independence. What are the traits and behaviors that the new country was rejecting as tyrannical? How do those compare to ancient ideas of tyranny? How do those link with 21st century notions?
- Sic Semper Tyrannis: What is this phrase, what does it mean, and where is it used?
- Discuss the question of what a tyrant looks like in some portions of the contemporary American consciousness. Consider in the context on the module on portraiture, "Into My Heart, Into My Life". Note: A google image search of "Bush tyrant", "Obama tyrant", and "Trump tyrant" yields lots to discuss.
- N. Luraghi (ed.), The Splendors and Miseries of Ruling Alone, Stuttgart 2013.
- W. R. Newell, Tyranny. A New Interpretation, Cambridge 2013.
- Morgan, K. (ed.), Popular Tyranny. Sovereignty and its Discontents, Austin 2003.
- Lewis, S. Greek tyranny, Liverpool 2009.