Sunday, 28 January 2018

Genealogy of the Divisive Tyrant


It’s been week of the unaccountable autocrats. I gave my second lecture as Gresham Visiting Professor in Classics, on Sappho, viewable online, by contextualising her poems in the Greek ‘Age of the Tyrants’-the 7th-6th centuries BCE. 

Hereditary monarchs were deposed by tyrannoi-popular leaders who initially represented non-aristocratic interests but usually ended up behaving even worse than the posh people they'd displaced.


1851 'Apotheosis' of Louis Napoleon
I began with Sapho, a once-famous 1851 opera by Charles Gounod. It has a radical subplot in which Sappho's lover Phaon leads resistance against the local tyrant oppressing Lesbos. The libretto was brutally censored by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s bureaucrats, since he was about to stage his coup, overturn the elected National Assembly of the Second Republic, and soon announce himself Emperor. 

Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham from 1099
Next stop was Durham, where I was reunited with much-loved former colleagues in the Classics Department. In the Great Hall of the Castle, built to proclaim to the northern English that they were the grovelling subjects of the Norman absolute monarch and his deputy, the Bishop of Durham, I illustrated Aristotelian ethics from famous movies like Amadeus. I was housed in the astonishing Bishop’s Suite. The autocrat's rooms are gorgeous, but agoraphobia in such a massive space ensured total insomnia.

Creon, prototype of tyrant in political theory
In Nafplio at Harvard’s Centre for Hellenic Studies’ Greek outpost, I hit tyrants head-on, by talking about the definitive picture in Aristotle’s Politics of the tyrant whose power depends on fomenting distrust within the populace. This picture is fundamental to political theory since the Renaissance, and, through a 1598 English translation, to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Lear, plays Stephen Greenblatt discusses in his eloquent forthcoming Tyrant (May 2018). But Aristotle owed much of it to Sophocles’ Theban tyrant Creon, available to Shakespeare in a 1581 Latin version of Antigone by Thomas Watson. 


Aristotle's Tyrant in English (1598)
Tyrants, of course, come in many disguises, from self-seeking parents and narcissistic teachers to ‘democratically’ elected heads of 21st-century states. They all rely, sooner or later, on fostering animosity between their subjects—not just between the large groups Caesar meant when he advised rulers ‘divisa et impera’, but at every single level of society, in every relationship. One way to resist creeping tyranny is to be civil and kind to every other human, in every transaction. So, a month late, that is my New Year’s Resolution for 2018.

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