Tyrants

Few tyrants die in their beds.

Juvenal

Sophocles was born in 496BC near Athens, and died in 406BC. He is best known now for having written Oedipus Rex. Juvenal was a Roman who lived from c.55AD to sometime in the 130s AD, and is known only for his sixteen satires. I have been teaching both authors over the last two months to my Classics classes, and both have seemed to have something to say about current events.

I first taught Oedipus Rex in 2008 and was amazed by how good it was. This year I have been impressed by the other play by Sophocles that we study at Year 12: Antigone. Sophocles was an incredibly good writer, and I am pleased that some of my students notice this. I often read out something that he wrote and marvel at how perceptive and poetic he was, and I sometimes worry that none of this is getting picked up by the majority of my students. Happily, last week, I saw that a boy in my class had copied out these lines into the back of his book, and was showing them to his friends with great reverence for their power,

Like the restless surge of the sea

When the dark storm drives

The black sand hurled from the deeps

And the Thracian gales boom down

On the echoing shore.

I was also happy when the whole class laughed at this retort from the king’s son:

Creon: I am king, and responsible only to myself.

Haemon: A one-man state? What sort of state is that?

Creon: Why, does not every state belong to its ruler?

Haemon: You’d be an excellent king – on a desert island.

2,400 odd years later we still get this joke, and are on the side of Haemon, and against the tyrant. In fact, it is hard to read Sophocles and watch the news in the Middle East and not draw comparisons.

When we first meet Creon in Antigone he outlines the qualities of a good ruler,

A king whose lips are sealed

By fear, unwilling to seek advice, is damned.

And no less damned is he who puts a friend

Above his country.

Curiously though when his own son comes to tell him to change his mind because the people of Thebes are against him he is not interested in listening to advice, although it is very good advice:

Surely to think your own the only wisdom,

And yours the only word, the only will,

Betrays a shallow spirit, an empty heart.

It is no weakness for the wisest man

To learn when he is wrong, know when to yield.

So, on the margin of a flooded river

Trees bending to the torrent live unbroken,

While those that strain against it are snapped off.

Creon is unimpressed at this point. Moments earlier he made a speech on obedience that indicates why he is unimpressed.

He whom the state appoints must be obeyed

To the smallest matter, be it right – or wrong.

Disobedience in a citizen devours the state according to Creon. He is right of course, but sometimes disobedience is legitimate; somthing that he fails to acknowledge as possible for a long time.  It is not ok for rulers to make people do things that are wrong if transgressing them is to transgress deeper codes.  The Chorus points this out to Creon in its usual tardy and cryptic way.

O wondrous subtlety of man, that draws to good and evil ways! Great honour and power is given to those who uphold his country’s laws and the justice of heaven. But he that, too rashly daring, walks in sin in solitary pride to his life’s end. At door of mine shall never enter in, or call me friend.

And so Creon is cursed, his family, power and happiness destroyed for walking too rashly in solitary pride.

Juvenal also has quite a lot to say about the leader who has walked too rashly in solitary pride. I previously wrote about this man unfavourably, but as with most authors who have been around for 2000 years there’s usually something in them that’s worth listening to. His Satire X is worth listening to.

Countries have come to ruin

Through the vainglory of a few who longed for renown, a title

That would cling to the stones set above their ashes

Although, as Juvenal notes sardonically, craving an illustrious tomb is in itself pointless,

A barren fig tree’s strength would suffice to crack these open,

Seeing that sepulchre’s, too, have their allotted fate.

He gives us the ignominious end of an imperial favourite, Sejanus, as an example

The statues come down… and now the fire roars up in the furnace

Great Sejanus crackles and melts.

Those features, once second in all the world,

Are turned into jugs and basins, frying-pans and chamber pots.

I suppose it is unsurprising that Sophocles and Juvenal have so much to say about bad leadership and the tendency to tyranny in man. Both of them lived through times which threw up countless splendid examples. Juvenal appears to be unconvinced by the whole Imperial system which gave Rome many despicable despots, and pine for an over-idealised Republic. Sophocles lived through Athens’ greatest century and watched that city and its people pitch from great highs to great lows, with both democrats and demagogues at the helm.

Both writers share the view that good leadership might hinge on the absence of arrogance. Juvenal’s satirical victims are often up themselves for no good reason, and inevitably come crashing down, although Juvenal has equal scorn to pour on the people who allow themselves to be classed as inferior and therefore support these high-placed, vicious, venal fools. In Sophocles the leader is always at the moment of failure when he lashes out against advice or news he doesn’t want to hear, instead of listening and accepting it.

Unfortunately, these failures and this hubris in leaders tends to only be resolved in a blood bath, and in this, as in most things, Sophocles is right too.

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2 thoughts on “Tyrants

  1. I suspect the world would do better if it weren’t run by humans. We seem to be good at screwing things up.
    Also, I must read Oedipus Rex and Antigone again, it’s been too long.

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