The Tyrannical Soul: An Observation

A summary of the private life of the potential tyrant, or “tyrannical soul,” from Plato’s Republic, Book IX:

“When these men are in private life, before they rule, aren’t they like this: in the first place, as to their company, either they have intercourse with their flatterers, who are ready to serve them in everything, or, if they have need of anything from anyone, they themselves cringe and dare to assume any posture, acting as though they belonged to him, but when they have succeeded they become quite alien.”

“Very much so,” he said.

“Therefore, they live their whole life without ever being friends of anyone, always one man’s master or another’s slave. The tyrannic nature never has a taste of freedom or true friendship.”

“Most certainly.”

— Plato, Republic (Bloom translation), 575e-576a

Yes, this account describes our dyed-in-the-wool progressives well: the activists, the academics, and the grand designers. Yes, it also captures the quasi-republican faction of modern politics, the entire range of phony conservatives-of-convenience, from Mitch McConnell to Ted Cruz, utterly false beings devoured by power lust and its accompanying instinct to self-abasement for profit. And yes, it certainly also describes Donald Trump to a T, that great erstwhile supporter and sycophant of both sides; indeed, Socrates’ account would serve as a succinct precis of Trump’s entire public life, and most obviously of his presidential campaign and first term. 

Now, however, comes the hard part, my friends. Look around you. Look deep and wide, after five generations of compulsory public education. Look honestly and naïvely, as though seeing your surroundings for the first time, after a century of welfare state disintegration of the concept of property, and post-Frankfurt School disintegration of history, morality, and philosophy. Look, while resisting the natural flinch of embarrassment, at your world after generations of unceasing exposure to popular entertainment forms that have gradually narrowed to the emotional horizon of a thirteen-year-old’s most hormonally-overloaded fantasies, and the intellectual horizon of a four-year-old obsessed with his belly button lint. 

Look, I say, at everyone around you, with this question in mind: Where is the man or woman to whom Socrates’ account of the tyrannical soul does not apply?

The only difference between our tyrannical souls and the one Socrates was delineating, is that most spiritual tyrants today, including among our actual “leaders,” lack the outsized proportions of desire and corruption that Socrates found in his tyrannical man, the man he found most dangerous precisely because his corruption is the undoing of the most impressive and promising spiritual potential. You will not find much that is impressive or promising around you today, to be sure. But you will certainly find the rest of the description in most of those around you — tyranny miniaturized, deflated, drained of its old grandeur or tempting promise. Tyranny made boring, egalitarian, and democratic. Pure thuggery and inhumanity, in the name of nothing more grandiose than one’s comfort, one’s cowardice, one’s trivial craving for safety at another man’s expense.

The summary words however, ring as true as ever, except that instead of defining the spiritual condition of the most profoundly unjust of men, as Plato intended them, they now describe the normal daily life of “the masses.”

“Therefore, they live their whole life without ever being friends of anyone, always one man’s master or another’s slave. The tyrannic nature never has a taste of freedom or true friendship.” 

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