No one likes a bully. (Bullies don’t even like themselves.) No tyrant likes to be called a tyrant. The label itself is a condemnation. Originally, “tyrant” simply meant “an autocrat who took power by force” (i.e. not the son of the previous ruler.) Such a “tyrant” might be benevolent, but autocrats tend to behave rather badly, so over time the word acquired wholly negative connotations. Today we use it to refer to any abuse of power. Any brutal despot, including a son of a previous autocrat, earns the label “tyrant.”
Yes, no one likes a tyrant. But in 2011, I found myself increasingly mystified by the mainstream’s enthusiastic reaction to contemporary political rebellions against tyrannical autocrats. I could not comprehend the general confidence that liberal democratic governments would spontaneously replace vicious dictatorships and corrupt oligarchies. I marveled at respected pundits’ cheerful certainty that all would be well. As a classicist, I know that the opposite of autocracy isn’t necessarily democracy but very likely chaos, rapacity, and misery. I had blithely assumed that we’d all begun to understand this more than 2,500 years ago.
But we’ve forgotten. Modern states are attempting to develop and maintain democratic societies and institutions with scarcely anyone recalling that the ancient Greeks got there centuries ago. The Greeks accomplished a completely unprecedented transformation from tribalism to civil society. This process took hundreds of years, and the ancient Greeks’ version of democracy fell far short of full human equality. We cannot admire the fact that the Greeks kept slaves or that they excluded women and foreigners from political participation. But if we recall this about ancient Greece, we tend to forget that every other human society throughout the world and throughout history did the same. (Even our own Republic preserved slavery and systematic exclusions for decades and, in some instances, still.) While deeply troubling and unacceptable, slavery and misogyny do not make the Greeks unusual or interesting. Their novel approach to government does. We’ve forgotten that we owe the very ideas of human equality and democratic government to the ancient Greeks.
The Greeks had no precedent for their radical rejection of tyranny. And yet, remarkably, at the height of their democracy in the fifth century BCE the Athenians considered some 40,000 male citizens all political equals. The world had never seen such complete direct democracy before, and except in the form of isolated referenda it has never seen it since. The concept of democracy did not exist until the Greeks coined the word and tried the experiment. But today we are asking modern states and communities to shed political and social hierarchies and become egalitarian and democratic overnight. No state in the history of the world has ever done so. The Greeks’ success was only partial and imperfect, but their example and their eloquent testimony can help us do better.
Ancient Greek literature survives and still speaks to us today, if only we’ll listen. Exposing the tyrannical potential of any form of political authority, whether that authority is one person, a few, or many, Greek literature reveals essential prerequisites for a successful individual life and a flourishing community. The Greeks recognized, as we must, too, that a political evolution from autocracy to broader forms of political participation requires not merely the implementation of specific institutions but a complete transformation of attitudes and values.
Reading Greek literature with one foot in ancient Greece and the other in modernity and discussing literature, history, and politics with undergraduates, I came to identify the very first and most fundamental of the many valuable lessons of ancient Greece for today. Step one: develop the farsightedness to control your own rage and stop admiring the violent rage of others. Discover instead the constructive potential of rational verbal argument.
But that is only the beginning. What comes next in the fight against serving tyrants or becoming tyrants ourselves? Read my blog and find out.
--- Emily Katz Anhalt is the author of Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths, Yale University Press, August 2017.