Social Tyrants

Can anyone love either the man whom he fears, or the man by whom he believes himself to be feared? (Cicero, Laelius 53, trans. Falconer)

Tyrants rule by fear. Intimidation is their weapon. They impose their will by parading the consequences of disobedience. They ensure rule by maintaining the subjugation of their enemies. Therefore, according to the Roman philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE), tyrants themselves live in a state of constant fear. It is impossible to incite fear in others without fearing what others might do to you in retaliation. Like a vicious cycle, everything you do to become stronger only feeds the hatred against you.

It is a lesson borne out by history time and time again: those who fear, terrorize, and those who terrorize, fear. Cicero goes on to recount many historical examples to make his point, he begins with the most obvious, contemporary illustration at hand: the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE.

And we recently discovered, if it was not known before, that no amount of power can withstand the hatred of the many. The death of this tyrant, whose yoke the state endured under the constraint of armed force and whom it still obeys more humbly than ever, though he is dead, illustrates the deadly effects of popular hatred; and the same lesson is taught by the similar fate of all other despots, of whom practically no one has ever escaped such a death. For fear is but a poor safeguard of lasting power; while affection, on the other hand, may be trusted to keep it safe for ever. (Cicero, De Officiis 2.23, trans. Miller 1913)

Legends of Dionysius (432-367 BCE), the ancient dictator of the city of Syracuse, provide another insight into the self-destructive plight of the tyrant:

Through an unjust desire of governing, he in a manner shut himself up in a prison. Besides, he would not trust his throat to a barber, but had his daughters taught to shave; so that these royal virgins were forced to descend to the base and slavish employment of shaving the head and beard of their father. Nor would he trust even them, when they were grown up, with a razor; but contrived how they might burn off the hair of his head and beard with red-hot nutshells. (Cicero, Tusculum V.20, trans. Yonge 1888)

The more you leverage fear as an asset, the more securely you must fortify the walls of your own cell.

What is the lesson here? Governors, argues Cicero, are far better off winning the respect and admiration of the population instead of their scorn and resentment. It is love between the ruler and ruled that insures sustainable government, and there is nothing more diametrically opposed to love than hate. Tyrants, ultimately, are the authors of their own destruction: people hate whom they fear, and hatred can only simmer so long before it turns into revolution.

Let us, then, embrace this policy, which appeals to every heart and is the strongest support not only of security but also of influence and power – namely, to banish fear and cleave to love. And thus we shall most easily secure success both in private and in public life. (De Officiis 2.24)

Cicero’s rumination on the inadequacy of tyranny goes beyond the realm of the political. He sees an echo of this tyranny in regular, ordinary relationships all around him. He sees that people who devote their whole existence to the next ‘hit’ of self-indulgence lead ‘socially tyrannical’ lives. ‘Friends’ are to these people are what citizens are to an autocrat — the means to selfish end, human resources to be mined and exploited. Little irks Cicero more than when the greedy and self-absorbed wax eloquent on the topic of friendships:

It will be our duty, then, not to listen to those besotted men of pleasure when they argue about friendship, of which they understand neither the practice nor the theory. For what person is there, in the name of gods and men! who would wish to be surrounded by unlimited wealth and to abound in every material blessing, on condition that he love no one and that no one love him? Such indeed is the life of tyrants – a life, I mean, in which there can be no faith, no affection, no trust in the continuance of goodwill; where every act arouses suspicion and anxiety and where friendship has no place. (Cicero, Laelius 52)

Social tyrants end up isolating and fortifying themselves emotionally, analogous to the manner which geopolitical tyrants grow evermore alienated from their citizens. When your principle, underlying motive for your relationships is your own personal gain, how can you not become suspicious of the motives of your ‘friends’ in turn? When other people are little more than assets for insuring that you have a good time, how can you not begin to feel like a disposable resource yourself?

Consider the best case scenario here: if you ‘win’ at this game of social tyranny, people will begin to approach you in much the same way they approach a tyrant; you will be “courted under a pretense of affection” (Laelius 53). Flattery, platitudes, and niceties flow from the lips of subjects in your little regime. Like Dionysius, all you are left to do is grow increasingly suspicious about people’s agendas. The more people who might have self-validating reasons to be your friend, the more reasons you have to question the honesty of everyone around you. In the end, you find yourself imprisoned behind a barricaded wall of loneliness, locked away in a tower wondering who is left in the world that you can trust.

Remember, behind their seemingly impenetrable walls of popularity and social mobility, social tyrants can be the most isolated people on the planet.

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