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.

George Eleftheriades and Michael Selvanayagam, researchers at the University of Toronto, have designed and tested a new approach to invisibility cloaking. Their method involves surrounding an object with miniature antennae emitting an electromagnetic field that cancels out waves reflecting back from the cloaked object. Although their tests showed the cloaking system to work with radio waves, they see no reason why, as the necessary antenna technology matures, it could not also work with light waves.

All this opens the way for a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak that is thin, scalable, and adaptable to different types of objects. Some of the uses being touted for this quasi magical cloak include hiding military vehicles and conducting surveillance operations. But what if the cloak falls, as it surely will, into the wrong hands? Have the scientists really thought through the consequences? The infamous banker Bob Diamond spoke of ethics as ‘what you do when nobody’s looking’. If bankers, politicians, and even churchmen can no longer be trusted to do the right thing, then who can? But beyond this, the cloak of invisibility raises important questions about human nature: do intelligent people do the right thing because it is the right thing or because they fear being caught, judged, and punished? More fundamentally, is man innately good, under the direction of his conscience and sense of guilt, or is his restraint rather the product of fear and coercion instilled by a Hobbesian social contract that serves to keep him in check?

In Greek mythology, the Cap of Invisibility or Helm of Darkness is a helmet or cap variously worn by Athena, Hermes, and Perseus to make themselves invisible to gods, heroes, monsters, and men. In Book II of the Republic, Plato discusses the Ring of Gyges, which, according to legend, makes its bearer invisible. The ring was once given to the shepherd Gyges who used it to seduce the Queen of King Candaules and thereby usurp the throne of Lydia. In the Republic, the character of Socrates asserts that justice is the excellence of the soul without which a man cannot live well and be happy, and, therefore, that justice is inherently desirable. However, Glaucon doubts whether to be just is always better than to be unjust. All goods, he says, can be divided into one of three classes: harmless pleasures that are desirable in themselves; goods such as gymnastics, the care of the sick, or the various ways of making money that are desirable for what they bring; and goods such as knowledge, sight, or health that are desirable both in themselves and for what they bring. To which of these three classes does justice belong?

Socrates replies that justice belongs to the third class, but Glaucon points out that most people would disagree and place it firmly in the second class. Indeed, most people think that to do injustice is good, but that to suffer injustice is evil; as the evil outweighs the good, they agree among themselves not to do injustice. If a just man got hold of the Ring of Gyges, he would most certainly behave unjustly, proving that he is just only because he is weak and fears retribution, and not because justice is desirable in itself. The truly just man who cares only for justice and not for the appearance of justice will be thought unjust and suffer every kind of evil until the day he finally understands that he should not be, but only seem, just. In contrast, the unjust man who is resourceful enough to seem just will be thought just and always get the better of everyone and everything. Adeimantus adds that when people praise justice, they praise it for what it brings rather than for itself. Realizing this, the superior man devotes himself not to justice itself but only to its appearance.

Adeimantus claims that he does not truly believe his argument, but is nonetheless pressing it to provoke Socrates into taking its other side and demonstrating that justice is desirable in and of itself. As part of his lengthy reply, Socrates famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him define justice (or, as he puts it, “locate justice within the State”). After having defined justice in the state and justice in the individual, Socrates asserts that the just man orders his inner life in such a way as to be his own master and his own law. The soul of such a man can be said to be healthy, for justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: virtue is the health and the beauty of the soul, vice its disease and debility. If justice is the health of the soul, and if health is desirable in and for itself, then, by analogy, justice too is desirable in and for itself.

This is as far as Plato gets in the Republic. Notice that his conclusion that justice is intrinsically desirable does not in itself answer the original question, which was whether an intelligent person would still behave justly if he no longer feared being caught and punished. From Plato’s other writings, the answer is surely yes, even if Plato defines ‘intelligent’ in such a way that only he and some of his friends at the Academy actually meet the criteria. These select men are, of course, the famous philosopher-kings.


In the Republic, having discussed the class of producers and the class of guardians, Socrates goes on to discuss the third and last class of citizen in his ideal State, the class of rulers.

Rulers should be chosen from amongst the guardians after close observation and rigorous testing of their loyalty to the State.

Guardians who are chosen as rulers should receive further education; guardians who are not chosen as rulers should no longer be known as ‘guardians’ but as ‘auxiliaries,’ whose role it is to implement the will of the rulers.

Socrates says that all the citizens should be told a useful lie so as to promote allegiance to the State and enforce its three-tiered social order.

According to this myth of the metals, every citizen is born out of the earth of the State and every other citizen is his brother or sister. Yet God has framed them differently, mixing different metals into their soul: gold for the rulers, silver for the auxiliaries, and brass or iron for the husbandmen and craftsmen.

Children are usually made of the same metal as their parents, but if this is not the case the child must either descend or ascend in the social order. If ever a child made of brass or iron was to become a guardian, the State would be destroyed.

As guardians are made of divine gold and silver, they should have nothing to do with the earthly sorts which have been ‘the source of many unholy deeds’.

Guardians should not have any private property; they should live together in housing provided by the state, and receive from the citizens no more than their daily sustenance.

Guardians may be the happiest of men in spite, or because, of their deprivations, for the arts and crafts are equally liable to degenerate under the influence of wealth as they are under the influence of poverty: ‘the one is the parent of luxury and indolence, and the other of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent’.

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