The Tyrant

Plato’s Republic hasn’t always received the most positive reviews yet the basic theme of the work is a simple and important one: how to govern society in the best way possible. This question is as relevant now as it was then. Plato answers this question with a philosophical dialogue led by Socrates in discussion with two others named Glaucon and Adeimantus.

Recently, I have had cause to revisit The Republic to examine Plato’s descriptions of four imperfect types of society and the corresponding types of individual that each of these societies produce (the timarchic character, the oligarchic character, the democratic character and the tyrant). Interestingly, Plato outlines how each of these individual types comes to be (in terms of their childhood and upbringing). He then sketches their traits in adulthood, and how they conduct themselves in social, political and personal life.

I find Plato’s analysis of the tyrant particularly interesting. Plato defines a tyrant as “one who, either by birth or habit or both, combines the characteristics of drunkenness, lust, and madness”. Here is a brief account of this type’s childhood and early years:

“[H]e’s drawn toward complete licence (which his tempters call complete liberty), his father and family support moderation, and his tempters come in on the other side. And when the wicked wizards who want to make him a tyrant despair of keeping their hold on the young man by other means, they contrive to implant a master passion in him to control the idle desires that divide his time between them, like a giant winged drone – unless you can think of a better description for such a passion?”

“The other desires buzz around it, loading it with incense and perfume, flowers and wine, and all the pleasures of a dissolute life, on which they feed and fatten it until at last they produce in it the sting of mania. Then the master passion runs wild and takes madness into its service; any opinions or desires with a decent reputation and any feelings of shame still left are killed or thrown out, until all discipline is swept away, and madness usurps its place.” (572d-573b)

He next becomes a type of popular leader, ultimately transforming into a tyrant:

“The mob will do anything he tells them, and the temptation to shed a brother’s blood is too strong. He brings the usual unjust charges against him, takes him to court and murders him, thus destroying a human life, and getting an unholy taste of the blood of his fellows. Exiles, executions, hints of cancellation of debts and redistribution of land follow, till their instigator is inevitably and fatally bound either to be destroyed by his enemies, or to change from man to wolf and make himself a tyrant.” (565e)

How does the tyrant behave when he first tastes power?

“In his early days he has a smile and a kind word for everyone; he says he’s no tyrant, makes large promises, public and private, frees debtors, distributes land to the people and to his own followers, and puts on a generally mild and kindly air.

But I think we will find that when he has disposed of his foreign enemies by treaty or destruction, and has no more to fear from them, he will in the first place continue to stir up war in order that the people may continue to need a leader.

And the very high level of war taxation will also enable him to reduce them to poverty and force them to attend to earning their daily bread rather than to plotting against him.

Finally if he suspects anyone of having ideas of freedom and not submitting to his rule, he can find an excuse to get rid of them by handing them over to the enemy. For all these reasons a tyrant must always be provoking war.”

He loses all restraint and collects a gang of followers:

“[U]nder the tyranny of the master passion he becomes in his waking life what he was once only occasionally in his dreams, and there’s nothing, no taboo, no murder, however terrible, from which he will shrink. His passion tyrannizes over him, a despot without restraint or law, and drives him (as a tyrant drives a state) into any venture that will profit itself and its gang, a gang collected partly from the evil company he keeps and partly from impulses within himself which these same evil practices have freed from restraint.” (574e-575a)

In the midst of all this, he leads a life of utter misery and unhappiness:

“The tyrannical character, therefore, whom you judged to be the most wretched of men because of the harvest of evils produced by the disorder prevailing within him, is in all these ways still worse off when he ceases to be a private citizen, and is compelled by fate to become a real tyrant and to control others though he cannot control himself. It’s just as if you compelled an invalid or paralytic to spend his life on military service or in athletic competitions instead of living quietly at home.”

“Yes, that’s a very apt comparison, Socrates.”

“And so, my dear Glaucon, will you agree that the actual tyrant’s condition is utterly wretched, and his life harder than the one you thought hardest?”

“I entirely agree.”

“So, whatever people may think, the truth is that the real tyrant is really a slave of the most abject kind dependent on scoundrels. He can never satisfy his desires, and behind his multitudinous wants you can see, if you know how to survey it as a whole, the real impoverishment of his character; his life is haunted by fear and – if the condition of the state he rules is any guide, as we know it is – torn by suffering and misery. Do you agree?’

“Very much so”, he replied.

“Add to all that we said before, that his power will make him still more envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless, and godless, a refuge and a home for every iniquity, and you can see that he’s a source of misery above all to himself, but also to his neighbours.” (579d)

The ancient Greeks of course, were not fans of tyranny. And Plato had his own unique ideas about who was best placed to lead society. But his character portrait of the tyrant we can certainly relate to, so much so that in the introduction to the Penguin translation Sir Desmond Lee states that on the subject of the tyrant there is “little need to comment on [Plato’s] analysis. The dominance of a dictator’s personality, his private army, the purges among his followers are familiar. We might comment that his private life need not always be as wildly dissolute as Plato suggests; he is more formidable, though not necessarily less criminal or violent if it is not. But we still associate autocracy with repression and violence.” (p.30)

For my part, I find Plato’s analysis of the extent of a tyrant’s personal unhappiness particularly useful and insightful. As the tyrant’s power increases, so his unhappiness increases. There seems to be a degree of natural justice in this equation. In this sense, the tyrant is more an object of pity than wonder. And far from gaining ultimate control, it is ironic that the tyrant only achieves further personal enslavement.

Plato, The Republic (2nd ed.)(transl. by D. Lee), Penguin Books, London, 1974.



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