Text Messages | Up next, tyranny

Current world leaders are bringing to life Plato’s millennia-old warnings about democracy and the danger a few tyrannical men in positions of power pose for the future.

While the Greek language gives us xenophobia, the fear or hatred of foreigners and foreign things, Greek culture provides a counter-practice, the institution of xenia, which governs the sanctity of relations between host and guest.

The best concise explanation of xenia is probably that offered by Richard Martin, professor of Classics at Stanford University, who writes: “The reciprocal expectations underlying xenia can explain the semantics of the term. Just as any ‘stranger’ was a potential ‘guest’ – and had to be so treated – any ‘guest’ was by implication a potential ‘host’ as he was expected to pay back whatever treatment was received.” (From Martin’s introduction to the 2011 edition of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad of Homer.)

Counterweights to xenophobia are much needed in this time of racist bullies, from Donald Trump through Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban and Jair Bolsonaro to Boris Johnson and Herman Mashaba. These men are tyrants in the modern, somewhat devalued sense of the word: oppressors who wield power arbitrarily. Tyrant in the original Greek sense betokened an absolute ruler, or one whose power had not been constitutionally attained.

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Either way, under old-style tyrant or new, in Trump’s United States, Salvini’s Italy, Orban’s Hungary, Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Johnson’s United Kingdom, so-called democracy is under threat from tyranny. Already about 2 400 years ago, the Athenian philosopher Plato warned of democracy’s vulnerability to a clever demagogue seeking tyranny. Leaving aside the questionable intelligence of those above – Johnson being a grudgingly admitted exception – it is clear that they have usurped democracy in their respective nations.

In doing so, they are examples of what Plato so eloquently outlines in The Republic: the decline and degradation of the ideal state, subsiding into timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and finally tyranny. But why a sinking into democracy, you might ask. Plato distrusted democracy because it was through its voting processes that his teacher Socrates was condemned to death.

So it is for Plato that democracy is but one short step away from a small-minded tyrant with great ambitions.

Human nature

In contrast, his ideal state is run by a guardian class made up of men and women, a revolutionary idea given the disempowered lives that Athenian women were forced to endure. These rulers are isolated from the people, their material needs – food, shelter, clothing – provided by the productive class. The guardians are not allowed even to touch gold and silver; they have no contact with money so that they cannot use it as patronage or for bribery and they cannot enrich themselves. If such strictures were applied to today’s political class, one can easily foresee a mass exodus from politics.

In the way of human nature, however, things change. Timocracy follows, a mode of government in which the love of honour is the main animating principle. Ancient Sparta would be a good example of this. 

Plato describes the sort of man who would arise in a timocracy as “… remarkably obedient to authority; he is a lover of power and a lover of honour; claiming to be a ruler, not because he is eloquent … but because he is a soldier and has performed feats of arms”. (From Benjamin Jowett’s classic translation of The Republic, as are the excerpts that follow.)

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Next up is oligarchy, of the origin of which Plato writes:

“The accumulation of gold in the private treasury of individuals is the ruin of timocracy … And in proportion as rich men and riches are honoured in the State, virtue and the virtues are dishonoured … And so at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man.”

He defines oligarchy as “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it”.

A few pages later, we read, “And then democracy comes into being, after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power.”

Desire for wealth

Plato contends that just as the insatiable desire for wealth was the ruination of oligarchy, so the insatiable desire for freedom undoes democracy, because “the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction”. First, a people’s champion appears, a protector.

“… in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets; – he to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private! liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one!”

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Plato then charts out the archetypal career of the tyrant:

“But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.”

Once the inevitable happens and his popularity wanes, and his inner circle begin to raise unpalatable realities and speak truths to the tyrant, then “… he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise, who is wealthy; happy man, he is the enemy of them all, and must seek occasion against them whether he will or no, until he has made a purgation of the State”.

Plato’s wisdom is such that almost two and a half millennia after he wrote we can recognise the characteristics and behaviour of tyranny in the gaggle of right-wing populists threatening to plunge the world into a maelstrom of racism and xenophobia.

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