The Young Tyrant

A recurring theme in Plato’s dialogues, including his Seventh Letter, describes the education of a young man who wants to achieve the highest things, which he considers to be achieved primarily through his ruling the polity. He wants to be a tyrant. This desire, he explains to others, means that he wants to “do good” and thereby receive high honors. The young man’s father or brother brings him to Athens to ask if Socrates might take the young man under his wing to prepare him for this worthy task.
Often, the young man is rich and quite handsome, though, in the case of Theages, he is sickly. This illness is what prevents him from achieving his goal — to his good fortune, as it turns out. Socrates, unlike most college professors, does not take a fee. He is sometimes offered emoluments, but this is what the Sophists receive. Socrates thus must first be “persuaded” or “convinced” that the young man is worth the effort. Socrates teaches that before a man can rule others, he has to rule himself. No mean feat.
The Sophists, perhaps unkindly, are considered the first college professors. They taught how to rule through eloquence alone. Socrates did not like Sophists. They were often quite famous celebrities. When they came to town, the potential philosophers, the aspiring youth of Athens, the sons of the existing rulers turned out to hear them.
The city’s best entertainment occurs when Socrates is provoked to debate these visiting dignitaries. The plot of many dialogues concerns the education of a young man who wants to rule but who has no idea what this ruling involves. Socrates does not see too much hope for most of them, though sometimes he gives it a try. They already have the want to rule.
The souls of the young men are already formed by their desires for fame, pleasure, or wealth. All you can do is save others from them. The first line of a city’s liberty begins here, in the souls of its best. Plato says, ominously, in his Seventh Letter: “We know that the requests of tyrants are mingled with compulsion.” The great tyrants arise in democracies, the Republic tells us. Those who want to rule are charming, handsome, and eloquent.
Of all these young men, Alcibiades is the most attractive and the most dangerous. In Alcibiades I, we read:
Socrates: “So it’s not walls or war-ships or shipyards that cities need, Alcibiades, if they are to prosper, nor is it numbers or size, without virtue.”
Alcibiades: “Definitely.”
Socrates: “So if you are to manage the city’s business properly and well, you impart virtue to the citizens.”
Alcibiades: “Of course.”
Socrates: “Is it possible to impart something you haven’t got?”
Alcibiades: “How could it be?” . . .
Socrates: “So what you need to get for yourself and for the city isn’t political power, nor the authority to do what you like, what you need is justice and self-control . . . . When an individual or a city with no intelligence is at liberty to do what he or it wants, what do you think the likely result will be?”
We need some experience of politics to know what this result might be.
Demodocus brings his son Theages to Socrates because the young man apparently wants to be wise. Socrates chats with the youth. Yes, he discovers, Theages wants to be wise. On examination, this being wise means that he wants to be like Hippias and Periander — the great and most corrupt tyrants of Greek experience, as everyone knows. Socrates is astounded at the young man’s choice.
“You rascal! So you want to be a tyrant over us, and that’s why you criticized your father all along for refusing to send you to some tyrant-teacher.” On pressing the young man about the awful way these famous tyrants ruled, Theages backtracks. No, he does not want to imitate the “violence” of their rule. Rather, “I want to rule over those who voluntarily submit.” The kid sounds like he read Rousseau!
It turns out, though, that to rule over willing citizens, one must first become wise. He needs a teacher to teach him not about politics but about wisdom. Of course, the only way to learn such wisdom is to associate with Socrates.
Indeed, we might say that the first step in politics is to test one’s soul against the important things that are not political. Tyrants — intelligent, charming men as they usually are — rush into politics without first examining their souls. Politics without wisdom is not politics.
“We know that the requests of tyrants are mingled with compulsion.”
The Greek meaning of democracy is the rule of those for whom freedom is whatever it is they want it to mean. The Greek meaning of tyranny comes forth when the Greek meaning of democracy rules. The tyrant orders everything, including the polity, to himself and his wants.
The modern experience of tyranny follows the idealism with repression that Plato describes. The modern notion of democracy becomes in practice the ancient notion of tyranny.
At the end of the Gorgias, Socrates says: “I believe that I am one of the few Athenians . . . to take up the true political craft and practice the true politics.” He could say that because he knew that his soul was made for something other than politics.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent book is Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017).

  • Guillermo Bustamante

    Socrates: “So if you are to manage the city’s business properly and well, you impart virtue to the citizens.”

    Alcibiades: “Of course.”

    Socrates: “Is it possible to impart something you haven’t got?”

    Georgetown, official honoring of pro-abortion Fr. Drinan, aside the anecdotic, represents a formative leprosy in your Jesuit community: to keep dilettantes in the Ivory Tower garden party, while yawning al USA genocide machine.

    Suggestion for your next articles: review Byzantine subjects.


  • Mother of two boys

    I look forward to reading your posts very much. I always learn something and you remind me to think deeper and look up and around at the things that point to Eternal Goodness, God. I would never hold you personally responsible for an individual in your Jesuit order; I rather imagine what I and the many you have taught and served in your life would have lost out on without you!! Not everyone wants to save the world like Guillermo Bustamante, some are content being a part of the multitude striving to be mirrors of God’s goodness in our little part of the world!
    Thank you Fr. Schall… I hope to be able to share this post with my two sons…. they would never receive such a lesson in their schools… a most poignant lesson indeed!

  • Guillermo Bustamante

    To Mother of two:
    Putting aside the “save the world” sarcasm, which by the way is the DUTY of all Christians IF you read the Gospel, please pay attention:

    1) Fr. Schall degree of responsibility in the Official SCANDAL of the Jesuit order in Georgetown, and other many Jesuit universities where they egg on Marxism, does not mean that he is not a brilliant person like other Jesuits friends of mine, but, their efforts to straighten that scandal (forcing Rome in) are not fruitful, and accountability must be established.

    2) The point, which our protestantizers enemies relish, is: you can be a “content” Cafeteria Catholic disobeying the Vicar of Christ, or support the Genocide machine, and nothing happens.


  • LCB

    There are two things splendid about today’s post:

    Firstly, the article written by the good Jesuit Father.

    Secondly, the retort provided by Guillermo, “Suggestion for your next articles: review Byzantine subjects.” Possibly the most biting, cynical, and hilarious comment I’ve read this week. Bravo. It’s unfortunate it was aimed at such a fine writer as Father 😉

  • Amused Reader

    I await the article by Guillermo where he establishes the appropriate accountability for the SCANDAL of Judas.[smiley=wink]