(Editor’s Note: This column is based in part on excerpts from “Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 3: The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon.”)
Again, where the people are absolute rulers of the land, they rejoice in having the openness and exuberance of youth, while a tyrant counts this a danger, and seeks to slay or silence those possessed of spirit, while the discreet fear his power and violence.
– Euripides, “The Suppliants”
The world is in an existential state of chaos and war where tyranny seems to be on the ascendancy – whether you refer to Assad’s brutal terror in the Syrian War, or that Iran virtually has its own nuclear bomb it promised “to wipe Israel off the map,” the re-emergence of al-Qaida in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the failed policy of “Arab Spring,” which gave us the military dictatorship in Egypt that ousted the Western-friendly dictator Hosni Mubarak, or the neo-Stalinism of Russia’s Putin, who is in the process of the annexation of the Crimea with his eyes on eastern Ukraine and doubtlessly reacquiring most if not all of the so-called “Baltic States” of the old Soviet Union – Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, etc., that America and NATO are under treaty to defend if invaded by any aggressor nation.
Are these examples of geopolitical tyranny?
It appears beyond a reasonable doubt that tyranny is the vilest corruption of government – a malicious abuse of power and a malevolent exploitation of the human spirit and human beings who are enslaved to it. Aristotle’s statement that “no freeman, if he can escape from it, will endure such government.” Totalitarianism is self-evident to all who, cherishing liberty and despising slavery, regard tyranny as always destroying the one and establishing the other.
Continuing our survey of the “Great Books of the Western World” brings us now to Vol. 5 containing the works of the immortal ancient Greek playwrights – Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. In works by Aeschylus (525/24-456/55) such as “The Oresteia,” “Oedipus Tyrannus” and his most noted opus, “Prometheus Bound,” writer David Cohen seems to echo the view of other writers historical view of the old school playwright Aeschylus as “the prophet of Zeus.” Moreover, in his work, “The Theodicy of Aeschylus,” Cohen reveals the true nature of Zeus at the beginning, “I will first discuss the main traditional views concerning Aeschylus’ presentation of what is commonly called the Justice of Zeus, and then try to demonstrate that, in reality, Aeschylus portrays a cosmic and political order which is neither moral nor just, but rather tyrannical, in the sense that its ultimate foundations are force and fear.”
Later in Sophocles’ (497/96-406/05) “Antigone,” we see the twin weapons of the tyrant – force and fear – as demonstrated by King Creon, yet it is Creon’s son, Haemon, who first points out to the king of Thebes that he is acting tyrannically. Haemon argues that the whole city of Thebes believes it is unjust for Antigone to die in such a horrible way for such a noble deed of giving a hero a hero’s burial against the king’s capricious decree forbidding the same.
The subjects of tyranny, tyrants and their demonic abuse of the law is eloquently unveiled in this passage from Euripides’s “The Suppliants,” lines 429-40:
Nothing does more harm to the state than a tyrant; when he rules, equal application of law comes to an end, the one man is tyrant, and he keeps unto himself and in secrecy the law, and so perishes justice. But when the laws are written down, rich and poor alike have equal justice, and it is open to the weaker to use the same language to the prosperous when he is reviled by him, and the weaker prevails over the stronger if he have justice on his side. Freedom’s mark is also seen in this: “Let any man possessed of wisdom give counsel to the state.” And he who comes forward and counsels well, gains renown, while he, who has no wish, holds his silence. What greater equality can there be in a state? Again, where the people are absolute rulers of the land, they rejoice in having the openness and exuberance of youth, while a tyrant counts this a danger, and seeks to slay or silence those possessed of spirit, while the discreet fear his power and violence.
Moses Hadas, in the introduction to his 2006 book, “Ten Plays by Euripedes,” wrote an elegant synopsis of Sophocles the genius’ work: He was “the creator of … that cage which is the theatre of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello,’ Racine’s ‘Phèdre,’ of Ibsen and Strindberg,” in which “… imprisoned men and women destroy each other by the intensity of their loves and hates,” and yet he was also the literary ancestor of comic dramatists as diverse as Menander and George Bernard Shaw.
Finally, it is in Aristophanes’ “Birds” we find the theme of tyranny once again but in an unexpectant form. The protagonist of “Birds” arises from nothing to become a tyrannos of two men, Peisetairos and Euelpides (a forecast of the would-be progenitors of ancient Rome – Romulus and Remus), weary of the checks and balances of democracy instead long for tyranny of which they rule unhindered by the whims of the people, or the strictures of the rule of law. It is Peisetairos’ impressive political gifts that make him the obvious man of action for absolute rule, yet does his treatment of his subjects mark him as guilty of arrogance and treachery? Aristophanes does not condemn him. Nor, however, does he acclaim Peisetairos’ rule. Therefore, the question of ultimate concern seems to be this: If a birdlike population is to have a kingdom, must they of necessity also accept a tyrant like Peisetairos, a man who as the supreme master, rules over his subjects as slaves in the way he imagines to be most advantageous for himself?
Outraged and disgusted by the manipulative tactics of despotic power, Sophocles’ Antigone refuses to surrender: “I will not be moderate. I will not be satisfied with the bit of cake you offer me if I promise to be a good little girl.” Antigone says no to King Creon and his tyrannical worldview. She demands to live life on her own terms or she will embrace death as a heroic martyr to be remembered as today, celebrated through the ages.
If tyranny is anything, it is the institution of force and fear to enslave humanity, yet “the rebellion to tyranny,” Jefferson says, “is obedience to God.”
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