The Catholic Thing
The Tyrant Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 07 February 2012

Repeatedly reading Greek and Roman thought makes certain figures more clear. Who is the philosopher? Who is the statesman? The tyrant is always among the most important to understand. In one way or another, he appears in most Platonic dialogues. Aristotle describes him, as do Thucydides and Xenophon.

What initially surprises people reading of the tyrant is that he is not an ugly, deformed brute. Callicles is not repulsive, but sophisticated, a college man. Alcibiades is among the most charming of young Greeks. The tyrant is in fact quite clever, witty, usually handsome and affable, always eloquent.

What else strikes us as odd is that the tyrant almost invariably arises out of a democracy. Democracy breeds tyrants. We are loath to hear it. But we are also reluctant to examine the guiding spirit of the actual regimes we designate as “democratic.”

A democracy is a regime in which “freedom” rules. Here “freedom” is defined, not as allowing us to follow what is virtuous, but the relativist permission to do whatever we will. The democratic regime makes no judgment about right or wrong. As a result, right and wrong are defined by the polity, from which no appeal is permitted. Nothing is higher than civic will.

A regime in which anyone can do whatever he wills has no standards. It soon swerves about aimlessly like the ship in Plato’s Republic VI. The young tyrant sees that no one stands for anything. He conceives himself as the savior to order this social chaos. His own empty soul is motivated by fame as much as by power. He wants everyone to think and say that he “does good,” whatever he does.  

At the end of Republic I, Socrates broaches the question: Is the tyrant the happiest of men? He can command whatever he wants. He surrounds himself with those who will do his will, tell him what they think he wants. He begins to have “body guards.” Not only is he “happy” because he can command what he wants, but, even more subtly, he can order everyone else to his private happiness. His good is the common good. All are ordained to him and praise him. 

When we come to the end of Republic IX, we see that the tyrant, who uses everyone else for his own purposes, turns out to be, not the happiest of men, but the unhappiest. He can trust no one. Every relationship with him is tainted with fear or false adulation. Like Nero in the description of Tacitus, no one dares to contest with him in any field.

             Head of Alcibiades

Yet, as Aristotle remarks, the tyrant wants to be loved. He craves public admiration. He arranges many public appearances. He wants people to tell him that he is nobly serving them. Of course, love is not the proper relation of ruler to ruled. Justice is. The confusion of love and rule was pictured by Allan Bloom in the case of King Lear. He wanted something beyond politics, love for him, to be a political test.

The dialogues of Plato are filled with promising young men who come to Socrates to learn how to rule. Socrates is coy with them. Their souls are disordered. They want power without discipline or insight. They want to learn to speak persuasively. They want to sound good, not be good.

The tyrant only hears what he wants to hear. A tyrant must prevent friendships among the people, Aristotle noted. Friendships imply something beyond the tyrant’s control. But the tyrant has no real friends of his own. He cannot tell why people surround him. He is not sure of the advice he is given. He only hears what people think he wants to hear. The tyrant becomes more and more isolated. He cannot go out in public without his body guards. He is essentially alone.

The tyrant acknowledges nothing higher than himself. Still, the tyrant himself wisely leads an ascetic life, no drinking and carousing, as brutal tyrants do. Everything must be public. People must be kept busy, stimulated. They must build pyramids; they must be kept employed preferably beholden to the tyrant’s regime.

The modern tyrant has the advantage not only of being in control of the military but of the means of communication. Though the tyrant rules for his own sake, he insists that his rule is beneficial to everyone. Only traitors have any criticism of him. Nothing transcendent is allowed. No judge exists but himself of his own actions.

Tyrants can last. People adjust. Their souls become lethargic. The tyrant often dies in bed, much admired. The souls of citizens reflect the configuration of the polity. The tyrant has taken the measure of freedom. Tyrants are safe so long as, in their souls, people define freedom as the doing of whatever they want.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Aeneas, February 06, 2012
Another excellent essay Father!
And very timely too!
"What else strikes us as odd is that the tyrant almost invariably arises out of a democracy. Democracy breeds tyrants."
I will not forget these words, and I think all Americans should take this to heart. We too often imagine democracy itself unassailable and perfect, it's not. What makes things worse is that we take "freedom" to mean "license", and they are two very different things indeed.
Once again, hats off to you Father, your essays always hit the mark.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Ray Hunkins, February 07, 2012
Father Schall,once again you have seized a teachable moment and taught with great erudition. The tyrants bred by democracy, if left to pursue their inclinations, use the democratic process to pursue totalitarianism. To resist, the polity must be well grounded in morality, civic virtue and common sense. That is why your mission and the mission of the Catholic Thing are so important.
written by James, February 07, 2012
@Scotty Ellis

I will begin by assuming that your response to Father Schall's excellent article derives largely from a thinly disguised distaste for organized religion and a belief that any sort of objective teaching on Truth or God is inherently totalitarian. A fallacy, of course, but nonetheless a fashionable one.

However, you choose to disagree with the simple historical truths which Father Schall has pointed out here. The great Greek tyrants (a name meaning not "brutal, evil leader," but rather "an individual who has come to power through unusual means, typically by seizure of power rather than popular election or direct inheritance") all did come to power through democracy--specifically, the great tyrants were Athenians, and could only come from Athens, the great ancient democracy. Your claim that "every form of regime has bred tyrants" is obviously untrue by the Greek definition. While it is true that there have been individuals who, in every form of regime, have taken too much power to themselves, such as the dictators who pretend to lead a republic or the absolute monarchs who claim authority from God, no true tyrant can come to power save in a system where the choice of leader comes from nothing short of a popularity contest.

I would imagine you feel that the modern West is characterized by the "liberal democracies" which you so frequently mention in your comment. This idea, that the United States, the United Kingdom, France, etc., are all "democracies," is a direct misapprehension of the systems of government which the ancient Greeks discussed. While there are democratic elements in these nations, such as the popular election of a leader, the system is not one of democracy, but rather of a republic, since each nation of the West has an established Parliament or Congress where the people have chosen others to represent them on the national level--hence the etymological connections between "republic," "represent," and "representative." It is this system, and not that of a "liberal democracy," which believes in establishing regulations on the power of the government. In short, the reason for the success of freedom in the West is because they are NOT democracies, but rather are republics.

Finally, you assert that the problem of tyranny is actually a person "who tells you what you must believe about the world, what you must believe about the highest good, what worship is permitted and what worship is forbidden: he establishes what virtue is, who the virtuous man is, and imprisons, censures, or executes those who oppose him. He does not remain focused on the mission of government to procure earthly peace and prosperity, and instead sees government as a tool to secure his vision of the highest good, ideal state, or perfect man." While I find your thinly veiled opposition to religion to be tiresome, I can certainly understand why you assert this idea: this is, quite apparently, the desire to do exactly as you will. Yes, yes, you want to do as you will as long as you don't affect any one else, but neither idea is correct. Man's greatest happiness comes not from doing his will, but rather from fulfilling the Divine Will--this is plain historical fact. The joy of the saints, which supremely triumphs over the happiness of the heterodox or the secularist, is obvious. While you were probably attempting to remind readers of this website of the horrible (imagined) atrocities which organized religion has caused, you have also denied the wisdom of even those outside of religion: most grievously, you have denied the wisdom of Socrates, the father of philosophy, when you claim that true liberty has nothing to do with virtue. One of the central points of Socrates' teaching was always that freedom is not licentiousness, but rather the decision to do what is objectively right--it is this idea which Father Schall is drawing from.

I also find it particularly striking, as an historian of both the ancient and medieval West, that you claim that both periods used religion as a means of fortifying the secular authority of the tyrants. How, then, do you explain the frequent conflicts between certain secular rulers who desired complete authority over their people and the Church, who asserted the boundaries of the king's power? In the ancient world, especially the early Roman Empire, the ruler is deified, made into the supreme scion of power; in a fascinating paradox, it is only after the Church is allowed the opportunity to exist in Rome that she suddenly begins to deny some of the authority of the secular rulers, a fact which continued throughout the Middle Ages. It was constantly the Church which acknowledged the political position of the people and restrained the authority of the monarchs. It is no surprise whatsoever that Henry VIII, the first true absolute monarch, had to divest England of its Catholic heritage: to retain Catholicism would be to place opposition to his own power.
written by Other Joe, February 07, 2012
@ Mr. Ellis. Some of us have to work and haven't the time to parse out and rebut your voluminous outpourings. Might one point out that you fail to mention the existence (or non-existence) of evil? You seem to posit a world that is not fallen in which some philosophers (and top liberals) see through the glass not darkly. In such a world rights and outcomes are clearly visible and deception is easily corrected. Yes, mistakes happen as you note, but not important ones. Wisdom becomes technical in nature and only attainable by experts. And clearly the liberal democracy is not about license. One may not buy light bulbs of a certain variety. Morality gets shifted from an interest in the welfare of the unborn, (or the welfare of one’s soul) to an interest in the proper ordering and balance of material resources which experts are able to define nearly unerringly and in great detail. Quality of life is then defined by material pointers rather than the transcendental. When the quality is degraded there should be a dignified exit strategy. It sounds like heaven to some.
written by Achilles, February 07, 2012
Dear Scotty, I left you this post at the other article, but it is buried beneath an avalanche of words. Your verbosity is exceeded only by your apparent confusion. I would have to change only a few key words to make this applicable to your stunning comments here in reference to Fr. Schall’s excellent essay. I imagine that many will see what I am driving at. I wish you good luck.

Dear Scotty Ellis-

I was unable to read all your posts, they were too reminiscent of that spectacular Madonna halftime extravaganza. I did however get the gist of your statements about the prolife movement. If you will permit me the observation, sophistry would seem to be your stock and trade and you are obviously very convincing, at least to yourself. Your position reminds me of something I heard Gilson say “many a man, subjectively with utter sincerity, has rejected a conclusion which he nevertheless affirms in principle””

Our duty as Catholics is to teach all nations. This says nothing of compelling the free will of others to learn the Truths we propagate. Your take on things seems to suggest that us “pro-lifers” must ‘calculate’ in order to get “pro-abortion” people on board. You have it just backwards sir. We are to speak the Truth on principle. Calculation is a tool of Satan and only serves to erode our position in the eyes of God. The Truth doesn’t necessarily meet us where we are if we are steeped in error. We must go to the Truth. Our best foot forward as witnesses is in living in the Truth and on principle by calling abortion what it is, murder. Anything else is calculation. You have used a lot of words to subvert the plain and simple truth.
written by Scotty Ellis, February 08, 2012

I am a Catholic. I have no beef or problem with religion. I simply oppose religion having secular power. I also oppose misconstruing the notion of freedom espoused by modern liberal states, which does have a notion of right and wrong: a notion that is founded on intrinsic human rights.

I did not mean that the way in which religion and the state were intermingled in both the ancient and medieval world were identical (indeed, there was much variety even within those periods). I mean simply that Catholic monarchies, even if they engaged in power struggles with the Church (itself a secular power) governed with a particular view of the highest purpose in life (even if they did not hold to such a view personally) and that the laws reflected these beliefs. A particular religion was patronized. This remained true even in many Protestant dominions after the Reformation, and generally until the rise of more or less liberal-secular governments.

@Other Joe

The existence of evil (which I affirm, given a correct understanding of evil as simply the absence of good) is rather immaterial to my arguments. Oddly enough, it is not I who posit the necessity of some clear-sighted philosopher who knows the good: quite on the contrary, I am wary of such claims. It is precisely for this reason I do not support a political regime founded on some higher notion of the good, and prefer a regime that sticks to more easily verifiable claims.

As for the rest of your comment, I can only note once again that liberal democratic principles do not support pure license. I would say more, but you seem to be a man without much time for reading these comments.


I believe I have seen this post before. Reposting it in this context does not make much sense.
written by Achilles, February 09, 2012
Scotty, I was just lodging my protest to your anthropocentic musings. Fr. Schall and you do not speak the same language.
written by Stanley, February 09, 2012
It is almost impossible to imagine a reconciliation between the two views stated in the comments. A healthy community cannot be formed by contract (rights) but by "homonoia" - a like-mindedness. An agreement on what is important etc.
written by Stanley, February 09, 2012
The funny thing about "peace" as mentioned a few times here in the comments...When you hear of a country having a "Ministry of Peace" or "Ministry of Friendship" know to run for the hills. Historically, Ministries of Peace were established in communist countries that committed plenty on un-peaceful acts on its citizens.
written by Scotty Ellis, February 09, 2012

We do speak the same language. I am very familiar with the mindset expressed by Fr. Schall. I just happen to believe that his definition of freedom as "doing whatever one wants" is flawed from the standpoint of liberal democracy.


Your idea works fine when there already happens to be like-mindedness. It fails when there is a pluralistic society, because 1) there is no agreement on matters of highest importance in such a society and 2) only coercion could create such an agreement (though superficial in nature).

How, then, to create a healthy community when there is disagreement? Liberal democracy's answer is by governing strictly on the basis of primary goods - that is, those goods and services which anyone would need in order to pursue their own vision of the good. If you can think of a better way, please share.


I think the peace here is what St. Augustine was referring to in the City of God:

"But a household of human beings whose life is not based on faith is in pursuit of an earthly peace based on the things belonging to this temporal life, and on its advantages...So also the earthly city, whose life is not based on faith, aims at an earthly peace, and it limits the harmonious agreement of citizens concerning the giving and obeying of orders the the establishment of a kind of compromise between human wills about the things relevant to mortal life.”

I believe that there are interpretations of liberal democracy (such as that offered by Rawls) that could serve this purpose quite well, even if instantiated in a republican or other form.
written by Stanley, February 10, 2012
The wonderful congressman Kucinich from my home town Cleveland supports a Department of Peace. There is legislation out there. This is why I brought it up.

Regarding "homonia", we are in a situation of "paranoia" if you look at the extreme sides taken by the media. I don't see reconciliation between the current meaning of "liberal democracy" and the more conservative "Republic" approach. What is the cause is anybody's guess. It seems you say you believe in "truth" just not forcing people to live by it. While the others are saying there is truth that we can agree upon via reason and agree to live by it because it strengthens the community.
written by Scotty Ellis, February 10, 2012

Your statement, "It seems you say you believe in 'truth' just not forcing people to live by it" is right on the money. Most people believe in truth, if by truth you simply mean the harmony between our mental concepts (and subsequent mental and linguistic claims) and reality. The problem is that agreement about these things is relatively easy when it comes to empirically demonstrable propositions and far more difficult when it comes to propositions that are farther (or completely) removed from empirical demonstration. So, there are two choices: either the government gets the power to enforce some vision of the highest good, which means that greater or lesser coercive forces will be used against everyone who happens to disagree with that principle or its ethical conclusions, or the government refrains from making such judgments, in which case coercive force will only be used to enforce laws regarding primary goods - the nature and management of which are within easy grasp of reason and empiricism and in which the demonstration and empirical evidence is more complete.

In the latter situation, everyone is allowed to pursue the truth; some may get it wrong, others right. In the former situation, you must agree with the government's version of the higher good or face persecution (is it any wonder that state religion, pagan or Christian, have always been marked by the superficiality of their programs and the noncommittal faith of its followers?).

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