Essay / Philosophy

On Opposing Tyrants

John Mark Reynolds, 2004.

Athens, the world’s first experiment in democracy, was eventually overtaken by the tyranny of Philip and Alexander of Macedonia. One man, Demosthenes, argued for his entire political life for a concentrated assault on Philip. He was sometimes heard and sometimes ignored. In his otherwise excellent history The Ancient Greeks, Fine argues that Demosthenes may have brought Athens’ destruction by Philip of Macedonia on the city by his fierce opposition to Philip. Demosthenes never credited Philip with good motives, but always views him as plotting and scheming. Patriotic opposition to Philip gave Demosthenes power in the Assembly.

The problem with Fine’s analysis is to compare Philip and Demosthenes as if they were moral equivalents. Demosthenes, even at the zenith of his power, had to make persuasive speeches in the all powerful Athenian Assembly. He was always in danger of censure and even exile from the passions of the Athenians. Philip was absolute ruler of his semi-civilized state. He aped Greek manners, but he hated the rule of law. He introduced the notion of naming cities after himself and as much as possible ruled directly in his own person. Athens was an imperial city. It believed in its own form of government and often acted badly as a result. When it could, it expanded democracy by force and often acted for its own good at the expense of the people who fell under its domination. However, when it “ruled” a region it generally replaced oligarchy with democracy, increased the respect for law, and raised the general cultural level. It rarely reduced cities to ash, destroyed local custom, or instituted a cult of personal hero worship. On the whole, most cities were better off being allies of Athens than being “free” to be ruled by local tyrants. By ancient standards, Athens ability to be self-critical made her very great indeed. For the most part, Athens acted according to the will of the citizens, the broadest participation in government that would exist until very recent times. Philip’s Macedonians had rights only in relation to his person. Philip was imperial, not out of any great idea of democracy or the rule of law, but out of his own desires and ego. Such a man cannot be checked by treaty, and as became evident in his son Alexander, has no limit to his ambition.

Democracy struggles with becoming too easily sated and flaccid. Tyrants can never be satisfied, because their ambition is personal. Demosthenes was right not to trust Philip. The tyrant must be defeated for the more power he has the more power he will want. Liberty cannot co-exist with tyranny. One must destroy the other. There does exist in a democracy the habit of blaming self for all the wrongs that happen. Against self-destructive habit, Demosthenes said,

If, then, we were all agreed that Philip is at war with Athens and is violating the peace, the only task of a speaker would be to come forward and recommend the safest and easiest method of defense; but since some of you are in such a strange mood that, though Philip is seizing cities, and retaining many of your possessions, and inflicting injury on everybody, you tolerate some speakers who repeatedly assert in the Assembly that the real aggressors are certain of ourselves, we must be on our guard and set this matter right. [7] For there is grave danger that anyone who proposes and urges that we shall defend ourselves may incur the charge of having provoked the war. (Persues Translation)

This self-critical feature of democracy is a real strength, but it can also be a weakness in wartime as Athens demonstrates. It does not allow for strong action until it is too late. By the time Athens began to prepare for total war, moving social spending to military, it was too late. Philip won. Churchill, a modern Demosthenes, was heard in time. What will be the fate of our democracy, I wonder?

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