Leo Strauss on Classical and Modern Tyranny

   Let us begin to get at the distinction between ancient and contemporary tyranny.

Leo Strauss, who saw the days of Hitler, writes (On Tyranny, Introduction, pp. 21-23):

Tyranny is a danger coeval with political life. The analysis of tyranny is therefore as old as political life itself…

..when we were bought face to face with tyranny- with a kind of tyranny that surpassed the boldest imagination of the most powerful thinkers of the past- our political science failed to recognize it.

…many of our contemporaries were relieved when they discovered in the pages in which Plato and other classical thinkers seemed to have interpreted for us the horrors of the twentieth century…

Not much observation and reflection is needed to realize that there is an essential difference between the tyranny analyzed by the classics and that of our age. In contradistinction to classical tyranny, present day tyranny has at its disposal “technology” as well as “ideologies; more generally expressed, it presupposes the existence of a particular interpretation, or kind of science….science was not meant to be applied to the conquest of nature or to be popularized and diffused…science,”

…one cannot understand modern tyranny…before one has understood the elementary and in as sense natural form of tyranny which is pre-modern tyranny…

   It is no accident that present-day political science has failed to gasp tyranny as it really is. Our political science is haunted by the belief that “value judgments” are inadmissible in scientific considerations, and to call a regime tyrannical amounts to pronouncing a “value judgment.” The political scientist who accepts this view of science will speak of the “mass state,” of dictatorship, of totalitarianism, of “authoritarianism, and so on… One cannot overcome this limitation without reflecting on the origin of present day political science. Present day political science traces its origin to Machiavelli…Machiavelli’s Prince (as distinguished from his Discourses on Livy) is characterized by the deliberate indifference to the distinction between King and tyrant; The Prince presupposes the tacit rejection of that traditional distinction.

   If the good is most essential, one cannot have scientific knowledge, especially of political things, without the good.

   Prior to Socrates, among the pre-Socratics, three forms of government were distinguished, democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, as in Herodotus. (Demo-cracy is literally the strength or kratos of the people, the demos; aristo-cracy when the best are stronger, and mon-archy the primacy of one.) Then, after natural philosophy became a known explanation of causes, people noticed that the tyrants of days present were different from the ancient kings, the best men different from the oligarchs, and democracy has barely been tried. In order to get the many to aim at the common good, Aristotle provides the “middle class” regime, giving the many and the few a constitution by which they might arrive at the common good by self interest in the assembly, despairing of the ability of the many to aim at the common good, rather than fleece the rich. Aristotle arrives at six forms, three legitimate and three illegitimate, depending upon whether the regime aims at the common good or rather the advantage of the ruling element. It is Socrates and Socratic philosophy that makes explicit the distinction between Kings and tyrants. Even for Sophocles, Oedipus “Rex” is also called “tyrannous.” Aristotle spells out the distinction: The rule of one man or monarchy that aims at the common good is royal, while the one aiming in rule at his own interests is a tyrant.

   In Xenophon’s Hiero, Simonides shows a tyrant, Hiero, how he might exercise his rule so as to become happy, avoiding the defects and occupational hazards of the tyrant’s life- where security and peace cannot be achieved. Gangsters too think they are not free to leave their life of crime, unlike a free man. Simonides gives Hiero a glimpse of the happiness of kingship.

   I am amazed that no movie writer has tried to film the adventures of Dion and Plato in Syracuse. And no drama college has tried to enact the Trial and Death of Socrates. [Maybe I’ll do it, after I write my comedy of the Toledo war- a historical comedy that writes itself.* See Note 1 below.]

   Science and ideology are what makes modern tyranny different from classical tyranny. As we are seeing, the internet has made Orwellian tyranny possible, and the people hardly notice, or pretend from fear not to notice. But the crucial distinction of “twentieth century totalitarianism” is ideology. The two are fascism on the “right,” and communism on the left, responsible for the deaths of some one hundred million of their own citizens when no war was occurring, not to mention the countless deaths caused in wars seeking to impose and prevent the modern horror. What is today being called “nationalism,” in contrast with “globalism,” is fascism, based on the hatred according to race, rather than economic class. The first regime based explicitly on race was the American South, and the KKK emerged to salute its defeated flag.

   Tyrannical characters of the classic sort- in the classic meaning of the word tyranny as an order of soul- are enlisted in support of these ideological tyrannies, but these may have barely a thought, let alone an idea, in their heads. That the forms of regime are based on orders of soul is a principle explained in Plato’s Republic, especially in Books III and VIII. The modern ideologies behind the tyrannies based upon race and class, and now religion, are intellectual perversions. These deny that murder is wrong, striking at the rational essence of man, but their politics is a projection of a diabolical delusion: a perversion of the imagination- a faculty intended for the perception of the best soul and the best regime. The garden variety tyrant, those seeking their own wealth and power at the expense of the city, cannot even imagine that the intellectual perversions exist, and indeed these do not know what they are in for (though it is, we might say, in their “unconscious” mind). The tyrant murders due to fear for his own security. Plato describes this crossing of a boundary or limit between the human and the bestial in the image of the transformation of the werewolf. But, we hold, in order to understand the modern ideological tyrannies, one needs to consider certain things found in Jung and Christianity. These tyrannies would not be possible, arising out of German philosophy, were it not for the Medieval world and the void in the modern imagination, left at the destruction of the medieval world. Modern tyranny, and possibly Machiavellian tyranny, may be essentially anti-Biblical, and prove to be essentially anti-Christian- not that it cannot use the appearance in opinion of Christianity. That is, what these are can only be understood in light of what they reject.

   Another difference between ancient and modern tyranny is that ancient tyranny was held over a city or polis, until those following Alexander and then the Roman emperors. The nation had barely developed out of the ancient polis when Plato and Aristotle were writing.  Justice pertains to human communities, and these are first families, then tribes, then villages, then cities, townships, states and nations. There are also groups of nations, and of course a form of justice that pertains to our fellow humans as such. But modern politics is different from ancient politics in that the modern sovereignties are nations. The Greek word is ethnoi. The U. S. is different as a young nation representing all other ethnoi, but we function like France or Germany or any other grouping according to nationality. Every nationality on earth has American citizens with representation in the U.S. Congress. But modern tyranny is over nations rather than cities, and often involves the imagination of empire, and even world empire. Fascism is ideological tyranny based upon tribe or race, while communism is ideological tyranny based upon class. 

   That we have failed, on occasion to distinguish between modern tyranny and kingship of the sort described in Plato’s Republic- where the regime is over a single rare city, and communism even there is confined to the guardian class- is symptom of the same deficiency that leaves us prey to modern tyranny. For some time now it has been said that the alternatives are democracy and totalitarianism, and Plato is not a democrat. Bloom notes that democracy is the only regime outside the best that tolerates philosophy.

   In contrast with Bloom, we say that it is not utopianism as such, but a particular inversion of the Christian utopia, that is modern totalitarianism. The only thing prior to our century like it, the killing of an identifiable group in the interests of achieving a perverse utopia- is the Western Christian Inquisition. Modernity arises as a rejection of this medieval Christianity, which we say is based upon the error of mistaking the messiah for a legislator, and Christianity for a nomos or law, and it is the same even if this particular one were not the messiah. Jesus is not a legislator, but the savior, prepared for by the man-made legislations as those of Moses and Mohammed. But salvation is not similarly secured by a belief, and is not a thing man-made, but the birth in the soul of the child that is the image of God, and also the highest faculty. Hence, as Justin Martyr teaches, Socrates is quite obviously “saved,” and by the very same logos. Hence, those judged in the last judgement (Revelation 20) are judged according to what they have done. If the soul is immortal, we are stuck with ourselves and what we have become. What we can do is sacrifice in penance and turn toward God, in prayer. But the modern perverse utopias are a projection onto the political of an inversion of this penance, and so it appears that some worthwhile end can be achieved by violating the commandment forbidding murder. Hence, it is not a lack of prudence in achieving justice, but a perverted imagination of the just condition, which characterizes the Twentieth Century utopias. This cannot be understood without understanding Christianity and what has occurred, but its basis is accessible in the Socratic understanding of the intellect and imagination. One thing most needed, then, is a restoration to its proper function of the faculty of the imagination, and one sees the root of the project of Shakespeare. Plato’s Republic too replaces the Homeric poetry of ancient Greece with the study in which the regime of the city is the image through which it is possible to see the soul.


  1. See, Michigan has this whippersnapper gov’nor, kid like 21, thinks ‘es friggin’ Napoleon, see, but he turns out to be the noblest guy. And it has an Ohio guy named Two Stickney, and actual shooting battle, Ohio prisoners seducing the Michigan Judge’s daughter, everything you need….I’d have Augustus Woodward and Stevens T. Mason discussing education under the “Educational Oak,” and show the founding of our state, and the University of Michigan. And Andrew Jackson, for all hoots, gets to be the hero, firing Mason just before he sent our territory of Michigania against the fine if prudentially challenged State of Ohio in the first ground game between these two rivals. Ken Buns should help the theater guys at Chelsea, in the Purple Rose Theater, again since the comedy writes itself.


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