Aristotle and the Devices of Tyranny

In Book VII, we leave Aristotle on a terrible note, where he, like many a Greek, advises society to do things that sound dreadful to modern ears, such as exposing infants who have deformities. Eyugh. Mercy was not necessarily a virtue for Aristotle or others.

Students often ask me why I stay fascinated by the Greeks of 2000 years ago. There’s a lot to talk to about; for one, you understand our language much better if you know Greek and Latin.

And second…King Priam and Achilles…you got to be kidding me if you can’t read that and learn something abut the human condition.

Third, reading classical literature in its original language is now somewhat subversive, a smack in the eye towards where the university is going, which is becoming one giant business school where “The Knowledge That Matters” is the “Knowledge that Might Pay if You Please Your Corporate Masters Well Enough.” Learning a living language, which is a fine thing, for sure, and to be encouraged, can always be rationalized and instrumentalized: “Oh, you can work for This Industry if you know That Language.” Maybe I’d just like to make it easier to talk to my friends from Africa, or I’d like my brain to work better. For me.

Finally, ancient Greece and Roman are nice comparisons, and really attempting to learn those similarities and differences between the way they thought and they way we think has rewarded me again and again. You go into reading the ancients thinking that it’s all different; there’s no way that a people who, as a matter of routine, advocated for the death of deformed babies. And then you go through and read the material and find, again and again, writing which is utterly contemporary. Those moments are when I feel like I might actually catch a rare glimpse of the ideas that might actually be universal to humanity. It happens when I read a novel by an Indonesian writer, and it happens when I read those long dead.

As I finish off my special study if Aristotle, one little bit from Book V in the Politics that has to make one think about America of the past 30 years:

And it is a device of tyranny to make the subjects poor, so that a guard may not be kept, and also that the people being busy with their daily affairs may not have leisure to plot against their ruler. Instances of this are the pyramids in Egypt and the votive offerings of the Cypselids, and the building of the temple of Olympian Zeus by the Pisistratidae and of the temples at Samos, works of Polycrates (for all these undertakings produce the same effect, constant occupation and poverty among the subject people); and the levying of taxes, as at Syracuse (for in the reign of Dionysius the result of taxation used to be that in five years men had contributed the whole of their substance). Also the tyrant is a stirrer-up of war, with the deliberate purpose of keeping the people busy and also of making them constantly in need of a leader. Also whereas friends are a means of security to royalty, it is a mark of a tyrant to be extremely distrustful of his friends, on the ground that, while all have the wish, these chiefly have the power. Also the things that occur in connection with the final form of democracy are all favorable to tyranny—dominance of women in the homes, in order that they may carry abroad reports against the men, and lack of discipline among the slaves, for the same reason; for slaves and women do not plot against tyrants, and also, if they prosper under tyrannies, must feel well-disposed to them, and to democracies as well (for the common people also wishes to be sole ruler). Hence also the flatterer is in honor with both—with democracies the demagogue (for the demagogue is a flatterer of the people), and with the tyrants those who associate with them humbly, which is the task of flattery.

ZOMGosh! All that democracy, letting the wimmens control the house! Where will it end? And yet there’s a bunch of wisdom here, too, about the role of poverty in keeping people controlled, and the use of war as a means to isolate and control one’s own people.

One advantage of reading the Greek, as slow-going as it is for me, is that you get all Aristotle’s good misogyny words. Here he uses the phrase γυναικοκρατια τε περι τ`ας `οικιας for the “The rule of woman in the households”…γυναικοκρατια is even an ugly world in Greek, made even more so by that double K in the middle. Women in charge! Horrors.

Fortunately we seem highly unlikely from having to fret too much about that, 2,300 years later.