Essays & Reviews

The Soul of the Tyrant: Xenophon’s Hiero Revisited

In June 2001, after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President George W. Bush remarked: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.” In light of later developments, Bush was frequently mocked for this assessment of Putin – largely because the American’s president seemed to personalize the nature of foreign policy. Many Western experts did, and many still do, believe that one can reach the same conclusion about Putin’s foreign policy, based solely on a cold calculation of national interests or culture.

But perhaps there is value into looking into the soul of the leaders of nations, especially when the leader in question seems to be of a certain type: what the ancients called a “tyrant.”  As Jakub Grybiel writes in this essay from The American Interest, the classical concept of “tyranny” – a corrupted form of political regime based on personal rule, that of the tyrant – has fallen out of favor in the modern West, for a variety of reasons, some understandable, some less so (for instance, one does not want to make inflammatory “value judgments”). The modern “dictatorships” of Hitler and Stalin, quite reasonably, seem a category unto themselves, as Grygiel points out. They were “marked by the lethal and unique combination of ideology and science. The modern dictators. . . are essentially deadly managers of ideological dogmas and scientific tools. . . . The resulting totalitarian systems were thus more than anything an individual tyrant could erect. They were all-pervasive political systems, and could not sustain themselves by the sheer will of one tyrant.”

But, Grygiel argues, there is still an analytical place for tyrants in political science and discourse. Many of today’s strongmen resemble more ancient tyrants than modern ones, including how they behave in their foreign relations. For insight into the soul of the tyrant, he turns to Xenophon’s Hiero or Tyrannicus, a brief dialogue between the eponymous tyrant of Syracuse and the poet Simonides. (Grygiel notes that this text was little noted in modern times until the publication of Leo Strauss’ On Tyranny [1948], a commentary that spurred a vibrant debate on Xenophon and the nature of modern politics, especially in Strauss’ subsequent published correspondence with Alexandre Kojève.) While the dialogue revolves around the question of whether tyrants can be happy (the short answer is no), it also offers a window into the minds of these solitary rulers whose will is the law of the land. Grygiel offers a short and useful summary of the soul of the tyrant and how it affects their political behavior.

We would also call your attention to another product of Xenophon that raises similar issues, especially in the context of creating and governing an empire by an overarching genius; and whether such a regime is just and enduring – The Education of Cyrus.  In the February 2015 issue of the American Political Science Review, the distinguished Boston College classicist Robert C. Bartlett provides a commentary on this work, along with a good short bibliography. We would recommend in particular Wayne Ambler’s introduction to his 2001 translation of The Education of Cyrus, which is available on the internet in various locations.