On Tyranny is Leo Strauss’s classic reading of Xenophon’s dialogue Hiero, or Tyrannicus, in which the tyrant Hiero and the poet Simonides discuss the advantages and disadvantages of exercising tyranny. Included are a translation of the dialogue from its original Greek, a critique of Strauss’s commentary by the French philosopher Alexandre Kojève, and the complete correspondence between the two.
This revised and expanded edition introduces important corrections throughout and expands Strauss’s restatement of his position in light of Kojève’s commentary to bring it into conformity with the text as it was originally published in France.
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About the Author
Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was one of the preeminent political philosophers of the twentieth century. He is the author of many books, among them The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Natural Right and History,and Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, all published by the University of Chicago Press. Victor Gourevitch is the William Griffin Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Wesleyan University. Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of several books, including Memory, Trauma, and History.
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By Leo Strauss, Victor Gourevitch, Michael S. Roth
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2013 Estate of Leo Strauss
All rights reserved.
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Hiero or Tyrannicus
(1) Simonides the poet came once upon a time to Hiero the tyrant. After both had found leisure, Simonides said,
"Would you be willing, Hiero, to explain what you probably know better than I?"
"And just what sort are they," said Hiero, "which I myself would know better than so wise a man as you?"
(2) "I know for my part," he said, "that you have been a private man and are now a tyrant. It is likely, then, that since you have experienced both, you also know better than I how the tyrannical and the private life differ in human joys and pains."
(3) "Then why don't you remind me of the things in private life," said Hiero, "since, at present at least, you are still a private man? For in this way I think I would best be able to show you the difference in each."
(4) So Simonides spoke in this way: "Well then, Hiero, I seem to have observed that private men feel pleasure and distress at sights through the eyes, at sounds through the ears, at smells through the nose, at foods and drinks through the mouth, and as to sex through what, of course, we all know. (5) As to what is cold and hot, hard and soft, light and heavy, when we distinguish between them, weseem to me to be pleased and pained by them with our entire body. And we seem to me to enjoy and be pained by what is good and bad sometimes through the soul alone, and at other times through the soul and through the body. (6) That we are pleased by sleep I imagine I'm aware, but how, but what, and when—of this I believe I am somehow more ignorant," he said. "And perhaps it is not to be wondered that things in waking give us clearer perceptions than do things in sleep."
(7) Now to this Hiero replied: "Then I for one, Simonides," he said, "would certainly be unable to say how the tyrant can perceive anything other than these things you yourself have mentioned. So that up to this point at least I do not know whether the tyrannical life differs in any respect from the private life."
(8) Simonides spoke. "But in this way it does differ," he said, "[the tyrant's] pleasure is multiplied many times over through each of these means, and he has the painful things far less."
"That is not so, Simonides," Hiero said. "Know well tyrants have much fewer pleasures than private men who live on modest means, and they have far more and greater pains."
(9) "What you say is incredible," said Simonides. "For if this were the case, why would many desire to be tyrant and, what's more, many who are reputed to be most able men? And why would all be jealous of the tyrants?"
(10) "By Zeus," said Hiero, "because they speculate about it, although they are inexperienced in the deeds of both lives. I will try to teach you that I speak the truth, beginning with sight; for I seem to recall you also began speaking there.
(11) "In the first place, when I reason on it, I find that tyrants are at a disadvantage in the spectacles which impress us through vision. For one thing, there are different things in different countries worth seeing. Private men go to each of these places, and to whatever cities they please, for the sake of spectacles. And they go to the common festivals, where the things which human beings hold most worth seeing are brought together. (12) But tyrants have little share in viewing these, for it is not safe for them to go where they are not going to be stronger than those who will be present. Nor is what they possess at home secure enough for them to entrust it to others and go abroad. For there is the fear that they will at the same time be deprived of their rule and become powerless to take vengeance on those who have committed the injustice.
(13) "Perhaps, then, you may say, 'But after all [sights] of this kind come to them, even when they remain at home.' By Zeus, yes, Simonides, but only few of many; and these, being of such a kind, are sold to tyrants at such a price that those who display anything at all expect to leave, receiving from the tyrant in a moment an amount multiplied many times over what they acquire from all human beings besides in their entire lifetime."
(14) And Simonides said, "But if you are worse off with respect to spectacles, you at least gain the advantage through hearing; since you never lack praise, the sweetest sound. For all who are in your presence praise everything you say and everything you do. You in turn are out of the range of abuse, the harshest of things to hear; for no one is willing to accuse a tyrant to his face."
(15) Hiero spoke. "What pleasure," he said, "do you think a tyrant gets from those who say nothing bad, when he knows clearly every thought these silent men have is bad for him? Or what pleasure do you think he gets from those who praise him, when he suspects them of bestowing their praise for the sake of flattery?"
(16) And Simonides said, "By Zeus, this I certainly grant you, Hiero: the sweetest praise comes from those who are free in the highest degree. But, you see, you still would not persuade any human being that you do not get much more pleasure from that which nourishes us humans."
(17) "I know, at least, Simonides," he said, "that the majority judge we drink and eat with more pleasure than private men, believing they themselves would dine more pleasantly on the dish served to us than the one served to them; for what surpasses the ordinary causes the pleasures. (18) For this reason all human beings save tyrants anticipate feasts with delight. For [tyrants'] tables are always prepared for them in such abundance that they admit no possibility of increase at feasts. So, first in this pleasure of hope [tyrants] are worse off than private men." (19) "Next," he said, "I know well that you too have experience of this, that the more someone is served with an amount beyond what is sufficient, the more quickly he is struck with satiety of eating. So in the duration of pleasure too, one who is served many dishes fares worse than those who live in a moderate way."
(20) "But, by Zeus," Simonides said, "for as long as the soul is attracted, is the time that those who are nourished by richer dishes have much more pleasure than those served cheaper fare."
(21) "Then do you think, Simonides," said Hiero, "that the man who gets the most pleasure from each act also has the most love for it?"
"Certainly," he said.
"Well, then, do you see tyrants going to their fare with any more pleasure than private men to theirs?"
"No, by Zeus," he said, "I certainly do not, but, as it would seem to many, even more sourly."
(22) "For why else," said Hiero, "do you see so many contrived dishes served to tyrants: sharp, bitter, sour, and the like?"
"Certainly," Simonides said, "and they seem to me very unnatural for human beings."
(23) "Do you think these foods," said Hiero, "anything else but objects of desire to a soft and sick soul? Since I myself know well, and presumably you know too, that those who eat with pleasure need none of these sophistries."
(24) "Well, and what is more," said Simonides, "as for these expensive scents you anoint yourself with, I suppose those near you enjoy them more than you yourselves do; just as a man who has eaten does not himself perceive graceless odors as much as those near him."
(25) "Moreover," said Hiero, "so with respect to food, the one who always has all kinds takes none of it with longing. But the one who lacks something takes his fill with delight whenever it comes to sight before him."
(26) "It is probable that the enjoyment of sex," said Simonides, "comes dangerously close to producing desires for tyranny. For there it is possible for you to have intercourse with the fairest you see."
(27) "But now," said Hiero, "you have mentioned the very thing—know well—in which, if at all, we are at a greater disadvantage than private men. For as regards marriage, first there is marriage with those superior in wealth and power, which I presume is held to be the noblest, and to confer a certain pleasurable distinction on the bridegroom. Secondly, there is marriage with equals. But marriage with those who are lower is considered very dishonorable and useless. (28) Well then, unless the tyrant marries a foreign woman, necessity compels him to marry an inferior, so that what would content him is not readily accessible to him. Furthermore, it is attentions from the proudest women which give the most pleasure, whereas attentions from slaves, even when they are available, do not content at all, and rather occasion fits of terrible anger and pain if anything is neglected.
(29) "But in the pleasures of sex with boys the tyrant comes off still much worse than in those with women for begetting offspring. For I presume we all know these pleasures of sex give much greater enjoyment when accompanied with love. (30) But love in turn is least of all willing to arise in the tyrant, for love takes pleasure in longing not for what is at hand, but for what is hoped for. Then, just as a man without experience of thirst would not enjoy drinking, so too the man without experience of love is without experience of the sweetest pleasures of sex." So Hiero spoke.
(31) Simonides laughed at this and said, "What do you mean, Hiero? So you deny that love of boys arises naturally in a tyrant? How could you, in that case, love Dailochus, the one they call the fairest?"
(32) "By Zeus, Simonides," he said, "it is not because I particularly desire to get what seems available in him, but to win what is very ill-suited for a tyrant. (33) Because I love Dailochus for that very thing which nature perhaps compels a human being to want from the fair, and it is this I love to win; but I desire very deeply to win it with love* and from one who is willing; and I think I desire less to take it from him by force than to do myself an injury. (34) I believe myself that to take from an unwilling enemy is the most pleasant of all things, but I think the favors are most pleasant from willing boys. (35) For instance, the glances of one who loves back are pleasant; the questions are pleasant and pleasant the answers; but fights and quarrels are the most sexually provocative. (36) It certainly seems to me," he said, "that pleasure taken from unwilling boys is more an act of robbery than of sex. Although the profit and vexation to his private enemy give certain pleasures to the robber, yet to take pleasure in the pain of whomever one loves, to kiss and be hated, to touch and be loathed—must this not by now be a distressing and pitiful affliction? (37) To the private man it is immediately a sign that the beloved grants favors from love when he renders some service, because the private man knows his beloved serves under no compulsion. But it is never possible for the tyrant to trust that he is loved. (38) For we know as a matter of course that those who serve through fear try by every means in their power to make themselves appear to be like friends by the services of friends. And what is more, plots against tyrants spring from none more than from those who pretend to love them most."
(1) To this Simonides said, "Well, these disadvantages you mention seem to me at least to be very trivial. For I see many," he said, "of those who are reputed to be real men, willingly suffer disadvantages in food, drink, and delicacies, and even refrain from sex. (2) But you tyrants far surpass private men surely in the following. You devise great enterprises; you execute them swiftly; you have the greatest amount of superfluous things; you own horses surpassing in virtue, arms surpassing in beauty, superior adornment for your women, the most magnificent houses, and these furnished with what is of the most value; moreoever, the servants you possess are the best in their numbers and their knowledge; and you are the ones most capable of harming your private enemies and benefiting your friends."
(3) To this Hiero said, "I do not wonder at all that the multitude of human beings are utterly deceived by tyranny, Simonides. For the crowd seems to me to form the opinion that some men are happy and wretched by seeing. (4) Now tyranny displays openly, evident for all to see, the possessions which are held to be of much value. But it keeps what is harsh hidden in the tyrants' souls, where human happiness and unhappiness are stored up. (5) That this escapes the notice of the multitude is, as I said, not a wonder to me. But that you too are unaware of this, you who are reputed to get a finer view of most matters through your understanding than through your eyes, this I do hold to be a wonder. (6) But I myself know clearly from experience, Simonides, and I tell you that the tyrant has the least share of the greatest goods, and possesses the largest share of the greatest evils. (7) Take this for example: if peace is held to be a great good for human beings, for tyrants there is the least share in it; and if war is a great evil, in this tyrants get the largest share. (8) For, to begin with, it is possible for private men, unless their city is engaged in fighting a common war, to take a journey wherever they wish, without being afraid that someone will kill them. But the tyrants, all of them, proceed everywhere as through hostile territory. They themselves at least think it necessary to go armed and always to be surrounded by an armed bodyguard. (9) Moreover, if private men go on an expedition somewhere into enemy country, they believe they are safe at least after they have returned home. But the tyrants know that when they reach their own city they are then in the midst of the largest number of their enemies. (10) Again, if others who are stronger attack the city, and those outside the wall, being weaker, think they are in danger, all believe they have been rendered safe, at least after they have come within the fortifications. The tyrant, however, not even when he passes inside his house is free from danger; he thinks it is there that he must be particularly on his guard. (11) Furthermore, for private men, relief from war is brought about both by treaties and by peace. Whereas for tyrants peace is never made with those subject to their tyranny; nor could the tyrant be confident trusting for a moment to a treaty.
(12) "There are wars which cities wage and wars which tyrants wage against those they have subjected to force. Now in these wars, everything hard which the man in the cities undergoes, the tyrant too undergoes. (13) For both must be armed, must be on their guard, and run risks; and if, being beaten, they suffer some harm, each suffers pain from these wars. (14) Up to this point, then, the wars of both are equal. But when it comes to the pleasures which the men in the cities get from fighting the cities, these the tyrants cease to have. (15) For surely when the cities overpower their opponents in a battle, it is not easy to express how much pleasure [the men] get from routing the enemy; how much from the pursuit; how much from killing their enemies; how they exult in the deed; how they receive a brilliant reputation for themselves; and how they take delight in believing they have augmented their city. (16) Each one pretends that he shared in the planning and killed the most; and it is hard to find where they do not make some false additions, claiming they killed more than all who really died. So noble a thing does a great victory seem to them.
(17) "But when the tyrant suspects certain men of plotting against him, and, perceiving that they are in fact plotting, puts them to death, he knows that he does not augment the whole city; he knows without a doubt that he will rule fewer men, and he cannot be glad; he does not pride himself on the deed, but rather minimizes what has happened as much as he can, and while he does it he makes the apology that he has done it without committing injustice. Thus what he has done does not seem noble even to him. (18) And when they whom he feared are dead he is not any bolder, but is still more on his guard than before. So, then, the tyrant spends his life fighting the kind of war which I myself am showing you."
(1) "Now consider friendship in its turn, and how the tyrants partake of it. First let us reflect whether friendship is a great good for human beings. (2) For surely it is the case with a man who is loved by someone that the one who loves him gladly sees him present; gladly benefits him; longs for him if he is absent; welcomes him returning again; takes pleasure with him in the goods which are his; and comes to his aid if he sees him fallen into any trouble.
(3) "Moreover, it has not even escaped the notice of the cities that friendship is a very great good and very pleasant to human beings. At any rate, many cities have established a law that only adulterers may be killed with impunity, evidently for this reason, because they believe adulterers are destroyers of the wives' friendship for their husbands. (4) Since whenever a woman submits to intercourse by way of some misfortune, her husband honors her no less, as far as this goes, provided he is of the opinion that her friendship continues uncorrupted.
Excerpted from On Tyranny by Leo Strauss, Victor Gourevitch, Michael S. Roth. Copyright © 2013 Estate of Leo Strauss. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgments vi
I On Tyranny 1
Xenophon: Hiero or Tyrannicus 3
Leo Strauss: On Tyranny 22
Notes to On Tyranny 106
II The Strauss-Kojève Debate 133
Alexandre Kojève: Tyranny and Wisdom 135
Leo Strauss: Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero 177
III The Strauss-Kojève Correspondence 215
Editorial Notes 315
Name Index 327
Subject Index 333