The Socratic critique of tyranny : tyrannical psychology in the thought of Plato and Xenophon




Williams, Avery Allen

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This dissertation articulates the critique of tyranny made by Socrates’ two greatest students—Plato and Xenophon—through a thematic interpretation of the Republic, the Hiero, and the Cyropaedia. Their critique focuses on the psychological defects of tyrannical rulers and demonstrates the fundamental failures of even the most seemingly successful tyrants. Through a synthesized interpretation of these three texts, this dissertation elucidates a single, unified insight into the nature of tyranny and tyrants in the thought of the early Socratics. The core of that insight is an understanding of the essential elements of tyrannical psychology: pleasure in violence toward enemies, hostility to the rule of law, a desire for love and admiration, and a rejection of any limit to the fulfillment of one’s desires. This dissertation uncovers the presence of this psychological analysis in the Republic, hidden behind the moralistic condemnation of the tyrant that most scholars have taken to be the Socratic view, and follows Xenophon as he fleshes out its details through direct investigations of political tyrants. In doing so, the dissertation shows the unique way that the Socratics understand the tyrant—not as evil or a monster but as a person who shares our own human nature. The core aspects of the tyrant’s psychology are misguided and unhealthy versions of attributes that otherwise play an important role in healthy souls, led astray by a lack of self-knowledge and an unwillingness to accept necessity. But perhaps most importantly, this dissertation demonstrates the importance of the Socratic understanding of tyranny to contemporary politics. For our own political moment, the Socratics offer a prescient warning about the dangers of the democratic love of freedom which when taken to excess provides fertile ground for tyranny, particularly when it turns against the rule of law. To prevent tyranny, it is thus essential that we understand the proper place, and the proper limits, of this characteristically democratic desire in ourselves and in our politics. This dissertation shows the invaluable guidance that the Socratics provide for doing so.



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