Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hiero the Tyrant

As if I didn't have enough Blog-posting-series going (what the heck is the name for one of those anyway? a "bleries"? a "selog"?), I've decided to use the blog to help me keep track of some extracurricular reading I've got going on.
Basically, I've decided to try to read ~10 pages/day of some work that is 1) in the neighborhood of political theory and 2) definitely not related to my dissertation topic. The goal is both keep me thinking occasionally about the broader scope of the discipline (especially since I don't have plans to teach any political theory this fall) and to keep me from suffering insanity-by-dissertation. I will put some of the more interesting ones down here in summary form for those who might find the subject matter appealing.

So, without further gilding the lily (or, as my high school freshman English teacher said, "without further gelding the lily", yeah, he was weird), here is:

Hiero the Tyrant by Xenophon





Background:
Hiero was a real-life tyrant in the Greek city-state of Syracuse. He was known for making Syracuse a world-(or at least a Mediterranean-) power and for his patronage of the arts, including his support of the playwright Aeschylus, the philosopher Xenophanes, and the poets Pindar and Simonides. As with most ancient Greek tyrants, the historical figure was put into power by the democracy and ruled in the name of the people. And as with tyrants of any nationality, the power occasionally went to his head (for example, Hiero was the inventor of the idea of a "secret" police force).

Xenophon's dialogue consists of a conversation between Hiero and Simonides, and has little to do with the historical figures, and instead reflects an idealized discussion between a wicked tyrant (as opposed to a good tyrant, which was a more common Greek idea, or even the noble head-of-the-household described in another of Xenophon's works: Oeconomicus (="Household Management", which becomes the root of our word "economics") and a free citizen. The point is not to discuss a historical event, but rather to reveal the nature of the place of virtue and wisdom in society and leadership.
Below is my summary of the dialogue:

Chapter 1
Simonides: How is being a tyrant different from being an ordinary citizen?
Hiero: It's been so long since I've been a citizen, I've forgotten what it's like. Could you remind me?
S: It's a life of pleasure and pain, which come both from the body (physical pleasure and pain) and the mind (psychological pleasure and pain).
H: So far, the two are the same, for both experience pleasure and pain.
S: But the tyrant must experience more pleasure!
H: Not at all, the ordinary citizen does.
S: Then why do men become tyrants at all?
H: Because they don't know any better. Citizens, for example, are free to travel and see the wonders of the world (the pleasure of the eyes), while the tyrant must stay home, either to execute justice or to keep his power base secure.
S: But, what about the pleasures of hearing? Doesn't a tyrant hear only good things?
H: Yes, but he knows people are thinking evil of him, despite what they're saying.
S: What about food and drink, aren't those better for the tyrant?
H: The tyrant gets so much delicious food that delicious food itself becomes common, so he no longer has the pleasure of an occasionally great meal that the average citizen enjoys. That's why a tyrant's food must be so sharply seasoned, to make it less bland for him.
S: What about sex? Isnt' that better for tyrants since it can be with anyone?
H: No, because:
1) the tyrant always has to "marry down", since he can never truly marry his equal; he can't even marry to advance his lot in life, which is the great hope of the majority of people;
2) sex outside of marriage for a tyrant is sex with slaves, which isn't satisfying anyway;
3) sex must be (for the tyrant) without desire, since it's always available, and consequently is without delight;
4) even when the tyrant experiences true affection for his partner, he can't be sure that it is genuinely returned, and he remains always in danger of being betrayed by those who claim to be closest to him.

Chapter 2
S: None of those differences matter, since the true differences are wealth, power, and the immediate obedience to your will that no ordinary citizen could ever hope to receive.
H: Alas, those are merely a gloss of externals that deceive the rabble into thinking that the tyrant's life is good.
In truth: first, the tyrant is never truly at peace, since he's never truly safe. Second, most of the tyrant's enemies are in his hometown. Third, his very house is full of danger. Fourth, not even a truce with his enemies truly makes him safe.
So, although the relationship between tyrants and citizens looks like the relationship between two warring states, it's really not, because at some point the wars between states come to an end, while even after achieving utter victory over his enemies, the tyrant remains at war with his subjects.


At this point, stupid blogspot refused to save the work I'd done of typing in my notes. So, instead of going back and redoing all of the work I've lost, here's a summary of the rest of the work:

Summary of the Rest of the Dialogue:
Essentially, Simonides convinces Hiero that he can indeed be a good tyrant, if only he would think of the state before himself. He would be loved and safe if, instead of building up his own mansion, he built up the state; if, instead of glorifying himself and competing with his own citizens, he glorified the state and led his citizens in competition with other states; and, most importantly, if, instead of taking on the tasks which people hate him for (enforcing public justice, for example), he outsourced those things to the private sector, encouraging private competition to take the place of government functions.
Which is an interesting argument, given how old it is. Of course, it must be remembered that this was competition amongst the nobles and high middle class, not the open and free competition we have today. The Greek idea was that competition amongst excellent people creates greater excellence. Throwing a "lesser" person into that mix would only lower everyone involved and create false ideas of equality.

All around an interesting (and entertaining) dialogue.

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