Why the tyrant is the unhappiest of people, and three things to guard against tyranny.

Nero and Seneca, by Eduardo Barrón (1904).

Tyranny is back on the table, but the ancients thought hard about how to avoid it. One of their most interesting arguments is that the one who suffers most in a tyranny is… the tyrant himself.

When Lydia was conquered by Persia in around 540 BCE, the Greek cities of Ionia were ruled by tyrants nominated by the Persian satrap in Sardis, the former Lydian capital. These tyrants, backed by the Persian power, had no need to moderate their rule, and began to give tyranny, and Persia, a bad name to the Greeks.

The definition of “tyrant” is malleable, and has shifted many times over the centuries. All in all, a tyrant is an absolute ruler who is illegitimate and/or unrestrained by law. To maintain himself in such a precarious position, he (for it is invariably a “he”) usually resorts to oppression and cruelty. Even then, “the strangest thing to see is an aged tyrant”—as the philosopher Thales of Miletus noted more than 2,500 years ago.

In On Clemency, written for the emperor Nero, the Roman philosopher Seneca (d. 65 CE) says that clemency is the quality that most distinguishes a king from a tyrant: “A tyrant differs from a king in his behaviour, not his title … It’s because of clemency that there’s a big difference between a king and a tyrant.” For Seneca, a ruler’s glory depends not on his power, but on its proper exercise. Moreover, if people can see that their ruler is “for them as much as he is above them,” they will be loyal to him and act as his eyes and ears. Clemency, then, not only ennobles rulers but keeps them safe: “It is at one and the same time an adornment of supreme power and its surest security.”

The calm and deliberate exercise of power, says Seneca, is like a clear and brilliant sky, but when the ruler is unrestrained all becomes murk and shadows: “People on every side tremble and start at sudden sounds, and not even the one who causes all the alarm is left unshaken.” The tyrant is then caught in a vicious circle: he is hated because he is feared, and must make himself feared because he is hated. For everyone he kills, there are fathers and sons, brothers and friends, who will rise up in their stead. 

In 68 CE, Nero preferred to commit suicide than let himself be killed.

Socrates on tyranny

One of Socrates’ most famous arguments is that no one ever knowingly does evil. People do wrong not because their ethics are overwhelmed by a desire for pleasure, as is often thought, but because they are unable to weigh up pleasures and pains. They act with recklessness or cowardice or foolishness or vice (which are really all one and the same thing) because, from their limited perspective, it seems like the right or best thing to do. But in the longer term, their actions undermine both their and our happiness—and never more so than if they happen to be a tyrant.

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates makes the case that the tyrant is the most miserable of men because he is in a stronger position to harm himself and others—which is why those whom Homer has in Hades suffering eternal torment are not ordinary people but potentates such as Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Tityus.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates ranks people according to how much of the ideal Forms their souls are supposed to have seen, with philosophers, artists, and true lovers in the first class, followed by kings and generals in the second class … and tyrants in the ninth and final class.

Elsewhere, Socrates calculates that the king is precisely 729 times happier than the tyrant.

Plato and Aristotle on tyranny

The best rulers are those who are most reluctant to govern, and the most eager the worst—said Plato.

Plato did not care for Athenian democracy, but the tyranny of his own aristocratic relatives had proven much worse. In the Republic, he claims that the degeneration of the ideal state ends in democracy, followed by tyranny.

In Book 9 of the Republic, Plato gives a detailed account of the origins, mindset, and modus operandi of the tyrant, thereby demonstrating that this most unjust of men is also the most slavish and unhappy. The soul of the tyrant is so disordered that he is unable to do, or even know, what it truly desires—which is, of course, to be happy, and therefore good.

The life of the political tyrant is even more wretched than that of the private tyrant, first, because the political tyrant is in a better position to feed his disordered desires, and, second, because he is everywhere surrounded and watched by his enemies, of whom he is, in effect, the prisoner.

The Republic ends with the Myth of Er, according to which the souls of tyrants and murderers are barred from reincarnation and condemned to an eternity in the underworld.

Aristotle too suggested that there is no worse criminal than the tyrant: “Men do not become tyrants in order that they may not suffer cold; and hence honour is bestowed, not on him who kills a thief, but on him who kills a tyrant…”

In Book 2 of the Politics, Aristotle says that the Carthaginian constitution is so superior to any Greek one that the Carthaginians have never suffered a rebellion or been ruled by a tyrant.

How to protect against tyrants

So, what might the ancient philosophers have to say about today’s democracies?

First, we need to ensure that a life spent in politics remains an attractive prospect, or at the very least a tolerable one, or else sensible people will be put off from going into politics, hollowing out the center and leaving us to be governed, or misgoverned, by disturbed and power-hungry fanatics.

Second, we need to think more carefully about education, and what it means to be educated. Unless we transform ourselves by carrying out the work of the mind, we could be rich, powerful, and famous, like Nero, or Putin, and still be utterly miserable. Playing the tyrant, and taking everyone down with us, is not, as Seneca reminds us, what human beings are for.

Third, a country’s constitution or political settlement must contain sufficient safeguards to prevent or arrest the rise of a potential tyrant, or simply of a less than decent or competent leader. This is not the case in the U.S. and no longer the case in the U.K. where recent changes to how the main political parties select their leaders have enabled the rise of such improbable figures as Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, who, as prime minister, purged his party of competent moderates and attempted to prorogue Parliament.

Since the time of Plato, humanity has made great strides in science and technology, but far less progress in politics. The world, now armed with nuclear weapons, is still crying out for fail-safe systems of government.

That, surely, is not beyond us.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.

Not content with discussing courage, Socrates also demonstrated it on the battlefield.

While discussing philosophy in the public square, Socrates would also have been training as a hoplite, a heavily armed foot soldier that fought in the close phalanx formation. Practicing maneuvers in heavy armor would have developed his strength and agility. The pyrrhike war dance, so ancient as to have been performed by Achilles around the burning pyre of Patroclus, is described by Plato in the Laws, and involved imitating movements of attack and defense “in a direct and manly style.”

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates proudly tells the jury that, just as he did not desert his post at the battles of Potidaea, Delium, and Amphipolis for fear of dying, so he will not now abandon the life of the philosopher. The earlier of the three battles, the Battle of Potidaea, took place in 432 B.C.E., when Socrates would have been around 38 years old, suggesting that he may also have taken part in other, earlier campaigns.

Unlike predecessors such as Pythagoras and Empedocles, who had a pacifist outlook, Socrates did not particularly question warfare, which he looked upon as his patriotic duty. However, he did refuse to carry out unjust orders, and, like Jesus four centuries later, rejected the ancestral law of retaliation, stating, in the Crito, that “we ought not retaliate or render evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.” In the Laws, Plato goes further still, arguing that war ought only to be waged for the sake of peace.

The Battle of Potidaea

The siege of Potidaea, a city-state that had rebelled against Athens, lasted until 429. In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea, and took the hardships of the campaign “much better than anyone in the whole army.” At the same time, no one enjoyed a festival more than he did; if compelled, he could drink everyone under the table, yet no one had ever seen him drunk.

During a severe frost, he marched barefoot and, even then, outdid his shod comrades, who “looked daggers at him because he seemed to despise them.” Although Socrates had saved his life, it is Alcibiades, on account of his birth and rank, who received the prize for valour. When Alcibiades remonstrated with the generals that the prize ought to go to Socrates, he was more eager than anyone that Alcibiades should have it.

The Battle of Delium

The Battle of Delium, in Boetia, took place in 424, about five years after Potidaea, and ended in a costly defeat for Athens. In Plato’s Laches, the general Laches says that Socrates was his companion in the retreat from Delium, and that if only others could have been like him, “the honour of our country would have been upheld, and the great defeat would never have occurred.” In tribute to his valour at Delium, Laches invites Socrates to teach and contradict him as much as he likes, without regard for his superior age and rank.

During the retreat from Delium, Alcibiades, who was on horseback, chanced upon Socrates and Laches. In Plato’s Symposium, he says that, even in retreating, Socrates appeared so calm and confident and imposing that no one dared attack him or his companions, preferring instead to pursue those who had turned in headlong fight.

The Battle of Amphipolis

The Battle of Amphipolis took place in 422, two years after the Battle of Delium when Socrates would have been around 48 years old—very old for a shield-carrying hoplite. The year before, Aristophanes had staged a comedy, The Clouds, which lampooned Socrates as a subversive atheist, and it is possible that Socrates’ notoriety, especially among ordinary people, rested as much on his bravery in battle as on his more intellectual pursuits.

At Amphipolis, Athens was once again routed, but the deaths of Kleon on the Athenian side and Brasidas on the Spartan side prepared the ground for the Peace of Nicias and, for Socrates, a return to the philosophy of the street.

Socrates and Plato on Courage

In the Laches, also known as On Courage, the general Nicias concludes that courage amounts to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war and every other sphere and situation. Socrates says that if Nicias means that courage is knowledge of the grounds of fear and hope, then courage is very rare among men, while animals could never be called “courageous” but at most “fearless”—as ordinary language use seems to confirm. Nicias concurs, adding that the same is also true of children: “Or do you really suppose I call all children courageous, who fear nothing because they have no sense?”

Socrates next proposes to investigate the grounds of fear and hope. Fear, he says, arises from anticipated evil things, but not from evil things that have happened or that are happening; hope, in contrast, arises from anticipated good things, or, at least, anticipated non-evil things or less evil things.

But, in any field of study, there is not one science of the future, one science of the past, and one science of the present: knowledge of the past, present, and future are all the same type of knowledge. Therefore, courage is not merely knowledge of the fearful and the hopeful, but knowledge of all things, including those that are in the past and in the present. A person who had such knowledge could not be said to be lacking in courage, but neither could she be said to be lacking in any of the other virtues— justice, temperance, and piety.

Socrates points out that, in trying to define courage, he, Laches, and Nicias, have succeeded in defining virtue herself. Virtue is knowledge, which is why people with some measure of one virtue usually have a similar measure of the other virtues and of virtue in general—a thesis known as the Unity of the Virtues.

Laches and Nicias are suitably impressed, but Socrates insists that he does not as yet fully understand the nature of either courage or virtue.

In the Laches, then, Socrates defines courage as knowledge or knowledge of the good. But knowledge of the good is not enough. What we also need is the Socratic strength to persevere with our conviction through pleasures, desires, and, above all, fears. Thus, in the Republic, the mature Plato redefines courage as “the conservation of the conviction …. about fearful things.”

It’s quite a thought that, had Socrates fallen in battle, we today would be living in different minds.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle.

Aristippus and his companions after being shipwrecked, by A Zucchi (1768).

Aristippus was far more radical than the more famous Epicurus.

Ancient philosophy, for all its theoretical underpinnings, was above all an art of living, which aimed, through self-transformation, at controlling the passions, relieving suffering, and attaining wisdom. Philosophy was to the soul, or mind, as medicine is to the body, and the professional philosopher was, first and foremost, a healer of the soul. In the words of the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, “Unless the soul is cured, which cannot be done without philosophy, there will be no end to our miseries.” According to the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, “We must live like doctors and be continually treating ourselves with reason.”

This notion of philosophy as therapy, or an art of living, can be traced back to Socrates. After his heroic death by hemlock in 399 BCE, his nearest students ran off each with a different aspect of his teaching. While Plato and the Platonic Academy which he founded inherited his theoretical side, Antisthenes embraced his ethical or practical side, advocating an ascetic life of virtue and laying the foundations for the Cynic school. A third follower, Aristippus, had a very different take on their master’s ethics and established the Cyrenaic school, which taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, especially momentary pleasures and above all physical ones—a position far more radical than that eventually espoused by Epicurus.

The Life of Aristippus

Aristippus of Cyrene (435-356 BCE), who died before Epicurus was even born, emphasized present and physical pleasures over long-term pleasure or tranquillity. For Aristippus and his followers the Cyrenaics, pleasure meant not merely the absence of pain but positively making the most out of every moment.

Aristippus had been a follower of Socrates, and once had the temerity to tell him that he lived in Athens so as not to be embroiled in the politics of his native city—the kind of remark that turned other students of Socrates, notably Plato and Xenophon, against him. Aristippus was the first of the Socratics to take money for teaching. When he demanded five hundred drachmas out of a man for tutoring his son, the man protested, “For that much money, I could buy a slave!” “Go ahead” he replied, “then you’ll have two.”

Many saucy stories are told of Aristippus. One day, Diogenes the Cynic was washing the dirt from his vegetables, and, seeing him pass by, called out, “Had you learnt to make these your diet, you would have no need to pay court to kings.” “And you, Diogenes” he shot back, “had you learnt to associate with men, you would have no need to wash these vegetables.”

When someone chided him for his extravagance in catering, he retorted, “Wouldn’t you have bought this if you could have got it for three obols? Very well then, it is no longer I who am a lover of pleasure, but you who are a lover of money.”

When someone remarked that philosophers always seem to be at rich men’s doors, he replied, “Physicians are always calling on those who are sick, but no one on that account would prefer being sick to being a physician.”

When Dionysus I, the tyrant of Syracuse, asked him why he had come to his court, he said, “When I needed wisdom, I went to Socrates; but now that I am in need of money, I come to you.”

One time, Dionysus spat in his face. When someone reproached him for putting up with this, he said, “If fishermen are prepared to be drenched in seawater in order to catch a gudgeon, should I not be prepared to be sprayed with spittle in order to take a blenny?”

When Dionysus gave him his choice of three courtesans, he carried off all three, explaining, “Paris paid dearly for preferring one out of three.”

He was for a long time intimate with the courtesan Lais of Corinth, who was said to be the most beautiful woman in all of Greece.

The Cyrenaic School of Philosophy

But appearances, especially when it comes to the hedonists, can be deceptive. Aristippus was far from amoral. He simply believed that we ought to make the most out of every situation. Upon being criticised for his love of pleasure, he replied, “It is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without ever being worsted.” One time, as he entered the house of a courtesan, one of the lads with him blushed. Seeing this, he said, “It is not going in that is shameful, but being unable to come out.”

Vitruvius, in his treatise on architecture, relates the story of Aristippus’ shipwreck. Upon being cast ashore on Rhodes, he repaired to the city and made straight for the gymnasium, where he spoke so eloquently that the Rhodians provided for all his needs and all his companions’ needs. When his companions wished to return to their country and asked what message they might bear from him, he bade them say this: that children ought to be provided with property and resources of a kind that can swim with them even out of a shipwreck.

Despite having two sons, Aristippus designated his daughter Arete as his successor at the head of the Cyrenaic school, and it was Arete’s son, Aristippus the Younger, who formalized the principles of Cyrenaicism.

A number of later Cyrenaics departed from this canon; for instance, Theodorus the Atheist (c. 340-c. 250 BCE) emphasized mental over physical pleasures and defined the good as prudence and justice. Hegesias of Cyrene (fl. 290 BCE), who might have been influenced by Buddhist missionaries sent forth by Ashoka the Great, argued that, since happiness is impossible to achieve, the goal of living ought instead to be the avoidance of pain and trouble. According to Cicero, he wrote a book called Death by Starvation that persuaded so many people that death is preferable to life that Ptolemy II Philadelphus banned him from teaching in Alexandria.

Cyrenaicism died out within a century to be replaced by Epicureanism.

Read my related article on Epicurus, The Arithmetics of Pleasure.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories: Stoicism by Its Best Stories.