Tag Archives: Freedom from Tyranny (And from Being a Tyrant)

On the Ideal and Fragile Reality of American Democracy (Part 2)

This continues the review, copied and slightly edited from my personal journal, of Paul Woodruff’s First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea. Slight editing aside, this remains (as journal entries often are) a bit rough around the edges, so I hope the reader will continue to look past those rough edges to the ideas under discussion.

Thursday, September 14 – Chapter Two: “The Life and Death of Democracy.”

I will pass over the historical primer and “reference guide” that occupies the latter part of the chapter, as well as the specific “tools” of Athenian democracy, and focus on the central point about the “purity” that Plato’s Republic insists on, but that is divorced from reality and unrealizable in real life. Aside from foreign armies and war, Woodruff writes, “there are other enemies of democracy” and “they have a better weapon than the sword. Instead of killing Demosthenes [the scandal-ridden democrat who warned Athens about the danger Macedon presented, and whose warnings they ignored “until it was too late”], they write about his flaws, his ambition, his corruption, his flirtations with the old aristocracy. Or they write about the failings of Athenian democracy. Demosthenes’ career is as messy as the democracy he defended – gloriously independent, powerful and ineffective by turns, sometimes corrupt. Democracy is like that.

“Remember this as you read what follows: You can’t kill democracy by killing its defenders, but you can kill it by insisting on perfection, by rejecting everything that is human and flawed. No democracy we find in practice is ever perfect. Still, every step toward democracy is a step in the right direction – it makes things better for at least some of the population. Other, more utopian ideas work the other way around; they draw us toward making things worse.

“Plato’s dream of a philosopher kingship illustrates the point. His ideal city makes no concessions to human imperfections. Plato does not claim that such a city is possible; he presents it as a shining ideal. But unlike the ideal of democracy, Plato’s ideal leads us the wrong way. Every step we take towards his philosopher kingship would curtail someone’s freedom” (pp. 23-4).

That said, Woodruff does address democracy’s dark side before launching into his historical guide, “but,” he adds, “your own good sense should lead you to take [what he says about that] with a grain of salt.To dwell too heavily on the failures of Athenian democracy is to join the chorus of anti-democrats, who tainted the idea of democracy with these examples for many centuries. By doing so, they held back the cause of freedom and committed an error in logic. The ad hominem fallacy (against the man) is to reject an idea simply because of the character of someone who holds it. In this case we should call it ad urbem (against the city); rejecting Athenian ideas merely because of Athenian bad behavior. The ideas should be judged on their merit.”

But: “To ignore this part of the story is also harmful. Anyone who takes the road of democracy must be acutely aware of the moral hazards along the way” (pp. 37-8). I will pass over this brief accounting of those moral hazards, as they are not themselves the point of this study.

Chapter Three. Freedom from Tyranny (And from Being a Tyrant).

“A tyrant,” Woodruff writes, “is a monarch who rules outside the law, who came to power without the support of law, who is afraid of the people he rules, and who is therefore unable to listen to advice. A tyrant may not always be abusive of the people he rules; he may have their best interests at heart. But his fear prevents him from deliberating freely; it warps his judgments, and the bad decisions he makes out of fear may destroy him or weaken the city. That is why the democratic poets of Athens [the dramatists: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides] present tyranny almost as if it were a form of mental illness. Plato, a generation later, will do so explicitly” (p. 64).

It happened in Athens, particularly in democracy’s first century (before the people had taken this lesson to heart), that the party of the many, the people, would in turn act tyrannically: “In this way, two-party government collapses into an oscillating tyranny, as each side brings out the worst in the other, by frightening the other into acting tyrannically” (p. 65) – hence, the problem with majoritarian rule, which, by excluding all other voices and arguments, becomes the “tyranny of the majority” (or the mob), which is what minority groups (Mormons in 19th-century Missouri; LGBT; immigrants; etc.) have to guard against. Whether by the many or the few (whoever is in power at the moment) – let’s say, Christian theocrats like Senator Cruz and Vice-President Pence – the results are the same for those vulnerable to their edicts.

Anyway, “If you observe any of these symptoms in your leadership [and Trump and his wrecking crew do come to mind], be wary. A plague could be on the way, and it could fatally weaken your freedom:

  1. A tyrant is afraid of losing his position, and his decisions are affected by this fear.
  2. A tyrant tries to rise above the law, though he may give lip service to the law.
  3. A tyrant does not accept criticism.
  4. … cannot be called to account for his actions.
  5. … tries to prevent those who disagree with him from participating in politics” (p. 66). In respect to that last point, consider the President’s and many Republican members of Congress who are so intent today – in the name of protecting us from the imaginary scourge of voter fraud – on harnessing fraudulent “evidence” to suppress the votes of black and brown, young (students) and old, any Democratic-leaning community!

This paragraph is especially pertinent to our moment, and not just starting with Trump: “The story is simple and has often been repeated in history. A troubled people welcome a strong man to power, because he promises order and comfort. But the cost of tyranny is exorbitant. Order and comfort without freedom – that, after all, is the condition of sheep that are being fattened for slaughter. Ordinary Athenians understood this metaphor very well, and some came to see that it perfectly reflectied their condition under the tyrants” (p. 70).

Prometheus Bound

One final point, though there are others: “Freedom lets leaders be wise, while tyranny declares war on knowledge. This theme is dramatized in a fairly early Athenian play, Prometheus Bound, in which Zeus is frightened of the future and believes he can save himself only by forcing knowledge out of Prometheus. He orders Prometheus to be chained to a rock. Force does not work, however, and we must imagine, that later in the play now lost to us, Zeus relents from tyranny and works out an arrangement with Prometheus” (p. 72).

Oh, one last point: courage is the antidote to fear; “we risk a tyrannical solution unless both sides can set aside their fears and bring courage to the negotiating table” (p. 79). Among so-called progressives today, it is figures like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, in the Congress, and Hillary Clinton, whose new book spends a lot of energy attacking the “foolish” idealism of Bernie Sanders, who must put aside their fears and get behind, for instance, that democratic socialist from Vermont’s newly introduced Medicare for All bill, which increasing numbers of Congressional Democrats – and increasing percentages of the population – are coming to peace with. (I was somewhat encouraged today, after reading another critical take-down of Clinton’s foolish book (What Happened), when I read an extremely enlightening argument that spells out and justifies the proposed measures in that bill. Even if not by this Congress, passage of such a law, until very recently considered (as the clown in The Princess Bride kept saying) “inconceivable,” may very credibly happen sooner than we imagine.)

Now, rather than give short shrift to the very important arguments that follow, it is time that I quit for another evening.

Saturday, September 16 – Chapter Four, Harmony.

Without harmony,” Woodruff writes, in the little gloss that heads the chapter, “there is no democracy … without harmony, the people have no common interest. What could ‘government for the people’ mean, if the people are so badly divided that there is nothing they want together?” (p. 81; emphasis in original).

And here is the problem that most threatens: I would like to think that we might agree, as a people, on basic values; but I am forced to acknowledge that a good many Americans (too many of them in political office, but not them alone) do not believe that every human being has a common right to shelter, to sustenance, to a free or affordable education and medical care. Only from such agreement on values can we examine, honestly and united, the facts on the ground that must inform our decisions. And it is not a given, it is not self-evident, that this unruly populace can be brought to agree on enough things to save us from the disintegration of life and civilization as we have known it. Every good sign is matched by two (or more) bad signs. We will not be able to pull off a fair national economy, let alone an international one, if we can’t see the light on climate change and war and peace. And even if a majority of Americans are brought to their senses, the forces that must be confronted within government and society are overwhelming in their amassed power: the military-capitalist-industrial complex, for starters (does itself encompass the main force of darkness?).

Woodruff discusses three metaphors that were current among the Greeks, three images or metaphors of harmony: 1) the bundle and stick; 2) a woven fabric; and, 3) music. While each has its point, the second is better than the first and the third, than the second. In Aesop’s political fable of the unbreakable bundle of sticks – “So it is with you, my sons. If you are in harmony, you will be unconquerable by your enemies; but if you quarrel, you will be easily taken” – it is suggested that we must all “fall into line with each other, as if they have to agree about everything. And it also suggests that the reason to fall into line together is military”; “but being rigid, as the poets of democracy knew, is not a good thing:

If they bend, they’re saved, and every twig survives,

But if they stiffen up they’re washed out by the roots.

“So says a young man in Sophocles’ Antigone, trying to talk sense into his father, who is a rigid older man with leanings toward tyranny” (pp. 85-6). The old man, of course, is Oedipus’s successor, Creon, who not only ignores his son, Haemon, but accuses him of a treasonous sympathy for a wisp of a girl over his father, king, and state. And when he is finally brought to his senses, both the courageous girl, Antigone, and the son who does love her, are tragically dead – as is Creon’s authority. This is the kind of “harmony” that politicians like Dick Cheney and Donald Trump speak of. It is a harmony that must be coerced, and any dissenter is the enemy. So it is a false harmony, a cheap illusion.

The image of the woven cloth comes, naturally enough, from women’s voices, which in Athens’s limited democracy are not to be heard in public, though the poets have made them speak. In Aristophanes’s comic play, Lysistrata, in which he imagines what might happen if women took over the government, their spokeswoman speaks of, after “scrubbing the gobs of sheep shit off the city”; “spreading it out and flogging it to get rid of the bad guys – / The sticker-burrs and those that organize themselves into a tangle to get elected” –

After that, comb

Good common will into a basket, mixing everyone

Together. Residents, aliens, foreigners (if you like them),

Mix them all in.

And for the god’s sake, these cities that are colonies of ours,

Understand them as separate balls of wool, off

By themselves. Take of these and bring them together

And join them into one, then spin them onto a huge

Bobbin and weave that cloak for the people.” (pp. 86-7)

This feminine metaphor is a great improvement on the first one, but the music metaphor is still better. “Weaving brings together only two kinds of thread, the vertical and the horizontal. But musical harmony can accommodate all sorts of difference in pitch and tone quality and rhythm. This,” Woodruff concludes, “is the best image for the kind of agreement necessary for democracy. Plato uses this image, too. In the Republic Plato writes of the harmony that brings every element in the city together, so that they ‘sing one song.’ The ‘one song’ that Plato wants to hear is not the least bit democratic – it is a general agreement that only a philosopher-king should rule. So this is a far cry from democracy” (pp. 87-8).

But the Athenians learned that “a harmonious group of citizens can disagree about almost anything – so long as they agree on the rule of law.” Woodruff elaborates: “If anyone is allowed to rise above the rule of law, that breaks harmony. When you put yourself above the law, you separate yourself from the other citizens, you take advantage of their good behavior, and in doing so you plant the seeds of conflict between those who can get away with breaking the law and those who cannot. Demosthenes says that it is a thoroughly democratic principle that no law be passed unless it bears on all citizens equally, since ‘each man shares equally in the system of government.’ After the rule of law, two more rules: First, citizens must agree to pull together on civic education and festivals, so that all of its citizens are, as Cleocritus said, ‘fellow dancers.’ Second, they must not create unnecessary discord by trying to force each other to sing the same note; they must accept a harmony of differences. I shall say, then, that living in political harmony means three things: adhering to the rule of law, working together for the common goals, and accepting differences” (pp. 89-90).

This is to have barely scratched the surface of this essential topic, but I cannot go on. A couple of very important parts of the chapter involve discussions of the failure of tolerance that was the trial and execution of Socrates, a failure of democracy that, for all Socrates’s provocative antidemocratic talk, has been a stain on the idea of democracy ever since: the mob that killed the great philosopher, and a detailed account and interpretation by the historian Thucydides of the ravages of ill-considered military action, his “brilliant essay on how human beings behave under the stress of war, on what drives them to war, and on the excuses they give to each other for the monstrous violence that people at war are inclined to think necessary.” (“‘War is a violent teacher.’”) (p. 104) Key passages on those are cited here at some length; what they have to say is sadly prophetic of our miserable times.


            Chapter Five. The Rule of Law.

There is Aesop’s fable about the frogs and the snake: the frogs wanted a more secure life and asked Zeus for a king. Seeing that they weren’t a bright lot, he stuck a piece of wood in the pond, but they treated it contemptuously and asked for a better king. Zeus, in his anger, sent a snake which dined on them.

“And so it was – and still is – when people are frustrated with the law’s stupidities and delays or inconveniences,” Woodruff writes. “If they wish for a ruler who will rise above the law, they are offering themselves to be devoured” (p. 112). So here we are with Trump, and Jeff Sessions, and all the other disrupters of law and order (in its name, of course) lined up with them to ravage the rule of law.  With tanks and tear gas and guns, we will put down the petty criminals and protesters with their slingshots.

I like the discussion, here, of civil disobedience, which is not a contradiction to the rule of law:

“Ordinary citizens also sometimes come out against the rule of law,” Woodruff writes. “They do this not simply by breaking the law, but by arguing that the law they have broken is wrong, and that they ought therefore not to be punished for violating that law. The modern principle of civil disobedience is that one should accept penalties for breaking laws even when the laws are bad, and the point of this is to uphold the rule of law while giving people a way to show how bad a statute is.

“Civil disobedience was never explained in ancient Greece, but the idea behind it seems to have been well entrenched. Socrates was expressing a widely held view: either accept the rule of law – and take whatever penalties the law prescribes for your actions – or leave the city and go into exile.

“The idea of the rule of law seems simple, but it has been hard to live by. Exceptions look very attractive from time to time” (pp. 115-16).

In this context, Woodruff also mentions international law, which both our present-day U.S. empire and the Athenian empire have thought should not apply to our exceptionalist states. But to return to civil disobedience:

“The old attack on law did not distinguish between two principles: supporting the rule of law on one hand, from obeying every law all the time, on the other. It’s easy to gain sympathy for breaking silly or immoral laws, but it is another thing to understand the rule of law altogether. The distinction has been well understood in modern times since Henry David Thoreau chose to break the law on taxes, while supporting the rule of law by going to jail. This distinction is what makes civil disobedience possible.

“Supporting the law means not trying to put yourself above it. It means that when you find yourself in violation of the law, for whatever reason, you do not try to corrupt the system to your benefit” (pp. 120-21).

Antigone, it bears pointing out, even though the concept did not exist explicitly in her time, was a worthy practitioner of civil disobedience. In Thoreau’s case, of course, the refusal to pay his tax is made noble by the context: his refusal to put his money behind the immoral war of aggression against Mexico, by which we ended up, essentially, stealing the very Western land from which we presently want to exclude Mexicans and other alien races.

Woodruff mentions one more essential reason for defending the rule of law, and that is the link between law (and the civilization that it upholds) and language: “Without language, we could not communicate, but we have to communicate,” he writes. “Without law, we could not abide in orderly communities, but we cannot survive apart from communities that maintain certain levels of order. Human beings naturally develop some sort of law, just as they naturally develop some sort of language. But there is no one set of law that all must have by nature, any more than there is just one language that human beings naturally speak” (p. 121). This concept of language and its link to law and civilization is important to principles of rhetoric, as elucidated by Isocrates, among other Greeks, and the Roman, Cicero, both of whose texts I came to admire under the tutelage of Professor Rivers.

Now, once again, I must stop. This is a time-consuming venture, but it seems to me that the task deserves a long, patient treatment rather than the briefer summation or sampling. Why rush, in any case? If you’re going to do a job, do it well, as the maxim goes. Though perhaps it might still be possible to deal with what follows more succinctly?

“And so it was – and still is – when people are frustrated with the law’s stupidities and delays or inconveniences. If they wish for a ruler who will rise above the law, they are offering themselves to be devoured.”. — Paul Woodruff