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