Sense and Nonsense: The Tracts on Tyranny

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During last spring’s academic semester, I taught a course in Classical Political Thought. One of the texts we used in this course was Leo Strauss’s On Tyranny, which is based on Xeneophon’s Hiero. The classical treatments of tyranny, of course, are in Plato and Aristotle, but Xenephon is also of great value, especially in the analysis of Strauss.

I have always been much impressed with the classical texts on tyranny, particularly with the Platonic notion that the tyrant is substantially the same man as the philosopher-king, but with a will directed to himself. Likewise, we learn in the very first book of the Republic that the greatest form of tyranny would be the case in which someone did everything entirely for his own sake, not that of others, but who was praised as if he were a good man for what he did. To be evil but to seem to be good appeared to Plato the greatest corruption possible to man.

One of my graduate students, Andrea Ciliotta, remarked to me that the tracts on tyranny were of abiding significance, especially because potential young philosophers, the ones to whom the highest books are directed, often have no direct experience of tyranny. If they do not ponder the classical texts, they end up naive and ethereal, not recognizing tyranny when they see it, and often promoting it in some fit of religious or secular zeal.

My friend Sharon Rives at the University of Texas in El Paso, after I had mentioned to her another young student of mine from Lebanon, remarked: “I know exactly how a sixteen-year-old soldier in Lebanon thinks. When you learn to fight for your life at an early age, you do not have the healthy soul of a teenager in a healthy home.” On the other hand, a young person with this fighting experience will be more immune from the corruption of intellect as such, the corruption that comes from a failure to recognize and choose the good when it calls to our souls.

Sharon had sent me the Nobel Prize lecture of Czeslaw Milosz, in which Milosz observes, to this very point:

It is not easy to distinguish reality from illusion, especially when one lives in a period of the great upheaval that began a couple of centuries ago on a small western peninsula of the Euro-Asiatic continent, only to encompass the whole planet during one man’s lifetime with uniform worship of science and technology. And it was particularly difficult to oppose multiple intellectual temptations in those areas of Europe where degenerate ideas of dominion over men, akin to the ideas of dominion over Nature, led to paroxysms of revolution and war at the expense of millions of human beings destroyed physically and spiritually.

Milosz went on to remark that there were still certain things that protect people “from internal disintegration and from yielding to tyranny.”

And what were these things? Milosz puts it in a very powerful way, because he recognized that the presence of that peculiar variety of tyranny which we experience in this century is only possible with the corruption of the intellect in the potential philosophers. Thus, “some ways of life, some institutions became a target for the fury of evil forces above all, the bonds between people that exist organically, as if by themselves, sustained by family, religion, neighborhood, common heritage.”

For some time, what has seemed clearer and clearer to me is that too many elements in religion and academia promote, at one level or another, the ideas and attitudes that lead to tyranny insofar as they deviate from the common intellectual tradition of the West. One must ask oneself again and again, how is this so? One can no longer wonder, I think, whether it is so, for it just is. We should not doubt that the struggle for a sane life in this world is first a spiritual struggle, and this struggle appears first among the few potential philosophers.

I was struck by a remark of Bryce Christensen, in his most useful Family in America (May 1987), when he was talking about an article in the American Journal of Sociology. This article tried to argue that increasing delinquency among teen-age girls, as a result of their own family structure, indicated a growing equality among the sexes, which the authors conceived to be a good thing. To this Christensen wrote:

What is most astonishing is the ideological corruption that allows three sociologists to suggest in a major American journal that an increase in delinquency among teen-age girls constitutes a positive development because it reduces “disparities in risk preferences and delinquency by gender,” and because it undermines “the class structure of modern patriarchal families.” Who does more harm? Teen-age girls who discover the joys of slashing tires while Mom’s at work or sociologists who hail this discovery as a political step forward?

Exactly. What is evil is praised for being good because of some theory whose “truth” is simply ideological, man-made.

In the practical sciences, Aristotle had argued that we ought not to do evil things in order to know about them. But he understood evil things existed because they flowed from ideas, from the possibility of either calling evil good or neglecting one good by choosing another. He simply assumed that a careful attention to what it is that tyrants do would in a way substitute for having to be a tyrant or for having to live under one to find out.

Michael Novak recently noted the ironic case of Christians praising Fidel Castro as a model Christian leader [“Castro the ‘Christian,’ Castro the Cruel,” June]. We regularly hear of clerics and religious telling us about the Christian wonders of Nicaraguan tyranny. When we sit back and reflect on this surely extraordinary phenomenon in the history of any civil society that claims to be free and intelligent, we are led back to the texts on tyranny, to the ease with which the tyrant can be called good and the good man evil. Allan Bloom’s new book The Closing of America’s Mind, a devastating analysis of the teaching content of the best American universities, along with Hadley Arkes’s First Things, an equally incisive analysis of the relativism that allows the worst to be called the best and the naturally pious enthusiasm of the potential young philosopher to be harnessed in the name of leftist tyrannies of our time, makes it clear that the real problem should be located in the heart of the spiritual and intellectual dons. Milosz’s remark about the healthy traditional institutions like the family itself being under intellectual attack is exactly on target.

Ignatius Press has just published the fourth volume of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, containing his observations on the family, divorce, eugenics, birth control, and other such issues, for which I did the introduction. I know of no more prophetic book than this one to prove the point that the initial wars are those of ideas, ideas which appeared during the lifetime of Chesterton but which have now become the orthodoxy of the academy and the religious idealists who take their norm from it.

But to go back to my initial point, the study of the classical texts on tyranny is not an abstraction, but rather a vital part of our intellectual education, upon the success of which will determine whether we must actually live under the twentieth-century forms of tyranny (including democratic versions). The souls of the young can be distorted when they must live under these tyrannies before they are able to know anything else. But we live in a society in which the soul can be corrupted by a failure to understand and choose the good which in some ways we may already have but which cannot be supported for everyone without institutions and laws rooted in the sane good of family, property, virtue, and religion as it is handed down in the tradition.

The stakes, in these matters, are of course quite high. The Gulag Archipelago, for example, is a modern tract on tyranny, based on experience, not reflection. We must wonder whether we can or will understand its truth without living under it, creating it for ourselves. The tracts on tyranny are designed to teach the soul of the potential young philosophers what it is they choose, what it is they call good, what evil. We cannot afford to neglect them.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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