Confronting Tyranny Today

Unaccountable and irresponsible power over other human beings proved not only grasping and cruel but also impermanent. No human being lives forever, and the tyrannos (tyrant), or perhaps his son, was always vulnerable to violent overthrow. As a result, tyranny began to seem unwise even for the tyrant.

by Emily Katz Anhalt

Imagine a cool, overcast spring afternoon with a sharp breeze cutting through the branches of the olive trees. Sitting in the theater at Athens, you watch, apprehensively, as a father greets his son before the dark gates of an immense palace. The father is Creon, the new king of Thebes. He has condemned to death a young woman named Antigone, because she violated his ban on burying the body of a traitor. The son is Haemon, Antigone’s fiancé. He has come to beg his father to spare the young woman’s life. King Creon’s elderly advisors anxiously watch and wait.

The son begins respectfully. With utmost tact, he insists that he values his father’s success above all. He urges his father to be open to good advice: “Anyone who thinks that he alone has the capacity for thought or eloquence or reason, well, these men, once unfolded, are seen to be empty.” There’s nothing shameful in learning new things, Haemon explains. Trees that can bend survive storms, he points out. Whoever guides a ship but fails to loosen the sheet when necessary overturns his ship. Haemon implores his father to yield, and to stop being angry. He admits that he himself is young, but even an old person can’t be right all the time and can learn from someone who speaks well.

The chorus of elderly advisors agrees. They think that both men can learn from one another.

But Creon reacts with astonishing and terrifying fury. “So at our age we will be taught to understand nature by a man of his age?” he asks. Does Haemon advise him to honor people who produce disorder? Hasn’t Antigone been seized with just such a sickness?

Haemon manages to keep his voice calm. He points out that all the citizens are on his side.

Creon retorts that he is in charge, not the people. He confidently asserts that he rules exclusively in his own interest, since the city belongs to its ruler and to no one else.

Haemon now begins to lose control, too. Criticizing his father for sounding childish, he exclaims, “A city that belongs to one man is not a city!”

King Creon finds Haemon’s statement incomprehensible. “Isn’t the city thought to belong to the one who rules it?” he demands.

“Alone, you would rule nobly over a deserted land,” Haemon sneers. But he continues to insist that he only wants to prevent his father from committing an injustice.

Disparaging his son as a woman’s slave, Creon remains enraged that his son dares to criticize his father’s knowledge of justice and his confidence in his own authority.

Haemon argues that Creon is dishonoring the gods and is thereby endangering himself along with his son and his son’s fiancée.

Creon proceeds to denounce his son as a polluted character. Deaf to Haemon’s arguments, he screams, “You will never marry this woman while she is living!”

“She will die, then,” Haemon acknowledges. “And by dying, she will kill someone else.”

“How dare you threaten me!” Creon cries.

“I’m not threatening you, just telling you my intention.” Haemon intends to kill himself. He condemns his father’s inability to listen, and he suggests that he is not thinking well.

The king responds with monstrous ferocity. “You know what?” he says. “You can watch her die.” He orders Antigone to be brought forward so that Haemon can be present at her death.

his own authority.

Haemon argues that Creon is dishonoring the gods and is thereby endangering himself along with his son and his son’s fiancée.

Creon proceeds to denounce his son as a polluted character. Deaf to Haemon’s arguments, he screams, “You will never marry this woman while she is living!”

“She will die, then,” Haemon acknowledges. “And by dying, she will kill someone else.”

“How dare you threaten me!” Creon cries.

“I’m not threatening you, just telling you my intention.” Haemon intends to kill himself. He condemns his father’s inability to listen, and he suggests that he is not thinking well.

The king responds with monstrous ferocity. “You know what?” he says. “You can watch her die.” He orders Antigone to be brought forward so that Haemon can be present at her death.

“Don’t expect me to watch her die,” Haemon announces. “And you will never see me again. Go ahead and rave on among whoever of your friends are willing.” He stresses the word philoi (friends) ironically. Philoi also means blood relatives, but Creon has reduced it to mean only “political supporters.” This misguided assessment has perverted the king’s relationship with his own son. You, the audience, and the king’s elderly advisors all watch in horror as Haemon rushes away. They know that Creon’s treatment of a traitor and a rebel aligns with standard practice. You know that this story is not going to end well.

Tyranny begins and ends in violence, intimidation, and oppression. The brutality and greed of individuals wielding unfettered power, and their replacement by equally brutal and rapacious successors, whether by violence or by other means, inevitably fractures and crushes the community. In English, “tyranny” is more or less synonymous with “despotism,” and in this book I use the two terms interchangeably to refer to abusive, unrestrained, and unaccountable power. Abuses of power—whether by one person, a few, or many—destroy individuals and corrode communities.

Today, worldwide, we are witnessing power grabs by corrupt strongmen and demagogues, including many who may even have been popularly elected. To gain and maintain power, such individuals foster and exploit tribal and partisan animosities. Their ability to flout the law has prompted some of us to lose faith in democratic political ideals and institutions. Some of us have given up on government altogether, preferring to rely on our own resources, wits, and guns for survival. Still others, convinced that the answer lies in expanding the power of majoritarian decision-making, seek to remove any and all checks on the power of the people, sometimes called “the popular will.” All of these routes, history shows, lead more or less directly to dictatorship or various forms of authoritarianism. Autocrats thrive on and promote the rejection of the rule of law, the rise of populism, and the introduction or reintroduction of violence into the political process. In the twenty-first century we are drifting—or, perhaps more accurately, hastening—toward despotism. 

But arguably, this is not inevitable. History also provides an extraordinary example of the reverse trajectory: during the eighth through the fifth centuries BCE, ancient Greece witnessed an unprecedented movement away from tribalism and autocracy and toward civil society and broader forms of political participation. Some Greek poleis (citizen-communities) instituted oligarchic or, in some instances, democratic governments. Most famously, by the mid–fifth century BCE, Athens had developed radically democratic political institutions that made political decisions the responsibility of every individual citizen.

Unaccountable and irresponsible power over other human beings proved not only grasping and cruel but also impermanent. No human being lives forever, and the tyrannos (tyrant), or perhaps his son, was always vulnerable to violent overthrow. As a result, tyranny began to seem unwise even for the tyrant. This impermanence and vulnerability of tyrannical rule caused the ancient Greeks to experience various types of political organization. It is no coincidence that they coined the terms autocracy, meaning power held by one person, aristocracy, meaning power held by the best people, and democracy, meaning power held by the people as a whole. These compound words identify who has power, but not how they use it. The Greeks’ political experiments revealed that thuggishness, intimidation, and oppression can take many forms. They discovered, as we have, that not only autocrats but also powerful groups small and large can behave tyrannically and commit atrocities. 

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