How Plato and Aristotle Help Us Understand the Tyranny of Bashar al-Assad
Today’s upheaval in the Arab world has antecedents in past revolutions. So, why are the lessons lost on U.S. policymakers?
Still a bedrock assumption of the social sciences and its “rational actor” orientation, the assumption that human beings are naturally inclined to embrace the benefits of liberal democracy has been proven wrong time and again—and certainly since the emergence of militant Islam as a potent political force, starting in Afghanistan, where America’s help in fighting the Soviet invasion led to the emergence of the Taliban, a mortal foe whose gratitude for U.S. aid was shown in the attacks of Sept. 11. It is also contradicted by the fact that many terrorists do not come from impoverished backgrounds. Indeed, the ones among us in the United States are already living in a secular pluralist society and capable of enjoying its benefits, as the Boston Marathon bombing recently showed. There are many young men in the non-Western world for whom righteous anger, zeal, and aggression are simply more emotionally satisfying than Western comforts, personal choice, and tolerance.
American foreign-policy opinionators on the right and the left would do well to remember Aristotle’s maxim that “men do not become tyrants in order to get in out of the cold.” When revolution is romanticized, its leaders are often portrayed as young idealists fighting the grip of old men on power and privilege. In truth, as the history of revolutions from the Jacobins down to the present demonstrates, young rebels often aim precisely to establish a state where they will have absolute power to force others into a collective straitjacket. Both Qaddafi and Nasser, the secular Arab revolutionaries of a generation and two generations ago, began as putative young idealists bent on building a brighter future: They ended as variations on the Assads. In the case of totalitarian utopian visions such as Jacobinism, Bolshevism, and National Socialism, the revolutionaries’ contempt for what they perceive as the softness, corruption, and moral laxity of modern society is translated into the demand that the masses be purified of their addiction to material pleasures, a kind of secular religious monasticism imposed on an entire society.
That indignation over the corruption of the masses, the desire for a totalitarian collective that will purge their selfish cravings, is what drives the strongest-willed of the young men who believe they are fighting for jihad, including the rebels battling Assad. The ideology of jihadism, a variant of religious messianism hitched to the service of a totalitarian utopia, only increases the dangerous appeal of this distorted kind of idealism. Do I mean that none of the rebels in Syria want economic prosperity or individual liberty for themselves or their country? Of course not. But civil wars and revolutions are won by the fanatical inner core, not the rank and file or young employees of Google. The early followers of the French, Russian, National Socialist, and Iranian revolutions included those naive enough to think they were bringing about true democracy. The supreme leaders of those movements knew better.
Accordingly, in assessing the Syrian civil war and the Arab Spring as a whole, we have to entertain the discussion of the lesser of evils among tyrannies—a discussion that makes us morally queasy, but was entirely familiar to classical political thinkers. Socrates denounces tyranny in Book 9 of The Republic as the worst form of government conceivable: The tyrant is a monster of erotic excess, suspicion, and cruelty whose base passions mirror those of the most vulgar type of human being—hence the tyrant, as “demagogue” (leader of the masses), flows directly from the most debased version of democratic culture.
But that is not the whole story. Plato was well aware that certain kinds of men aspire to tyrannical power not merely so as to immerse themselves in witless pleasures, but to achieve supreme honor for themselves, including helping their own country to become great. In Book 4 of The Laws, the Athenian Stranger entertains the notion that a young man with an erotic passion for politics might be enlisted to found a just society. But having raised this possibility, Plato quickly retreats from it. The danger that such a young tyrant might prove, despite professing to be his country’s benefactor, to be an overbearing despot once his power is secured far outweighs the possible benefits that might come from enlisting such talents. For Plato, it is always better to rely on civic education to turn such men away from tyrannical longings and enlist them in the vigorous service of the common good.
What would never have occurred to Plato is the possibility that the tyrannical personality could ever vanish from political life. As the young Abraham Lincoln, a late if instinctive follower of the classical orientation, observed in his famous Lyceum Speech, the “tribe of the eagle”—Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon—will always be with us. For the classical political theorists Lincoln echoed, not only are such men always with us, but sometimes—in cases of dire national emergency, war or unrest—the very qualities of aggressive ambition that might ordinarily endanger a republic of equal citizens under law might sometimes be required when great issues are at stake. Aristotle argues in The Politics that, while republican self-government is ordinarily to be preferred to any form of despotism, on occasion a “god-like” man of supreme political genius may announce his claim in momentous times. While it is playing with fire, he concedes, sometimes this claim must be recognized. Modern political realists like Hobbes were also aware of these sorts of men. Indeed, Hobbes’ chief concern was to crush their arrogance for the sake of the social peace. But modern political science has increasingly changed from an awareness that such men are always roaming the dark perimeters of the social contract’s safety zone to the illusion that the entire world had become, or was soon to become, a place where the wolves would be tamed by comfortable living and personal freedom.
Will the call to list the Lebanese group’s military wing as a terrorist organization in the European Union have any effect?