The Tyranny of Ancient Thought

Few questions have as much staying power and contemporary relevance as those concerning the best form of governance, and few political assassinations have exercised as many minds as the slaying of Caesar. In 1400, Antonio of Aquila asked Coluccio Salutati whether he thought that Brutus and Cassius were traitors for slaying Caesar. The question possessed some immediate literary importance to both of these men, given that Florence’s poetic hero Dante had seen fit to punish Brutus and Cassius in the very inner circle of Hell. In the tradition of the times, Salutati composed a lengthy epistolary response to Antonio, beginning with an elaborately florid Florentine preface, followed by a carefully delineated set of topics: the definition of a tyrant, justifications for tyrannicide, whether Caesar was a tyrant, whether Caesar’s murder was justified, and (most important for the pedant) did Dante make the right choice in placing Brutus and Cassius in Hell? There is also an awkward appendix designed to answer the question whether Aeneas and Antenor were traitors to Troy, a question which Antonio had posed along with the apparently more salient one about Caesar’s murder.

Salutati’s tackles the definitional question in the initial section titled What Is a Tyrant and from What  is the Name Derived? by engaging in some amateur etymologizing. Salutati’s own etymologizing may not reflect the standard of scholarship achieved by men like Lorenzo Valla, but he does cite St. Gregory for what is effectively the proper definition of a tyrant:

“A tyrant is, properly speaking, one who reigns in a communal republic by something other than right.”

Proprie enim tyrannus dicitur qui in communi re publica non iure principatur.

Salutati cites Gregory again, this time displaying a Tacitean cynicism about human motives. In effect, Gregory believes that everyone is a tyrant in their own sphere, and will naturally seek to exercise as much power as they can:

“But we must recognize that every haughty person exercises tyranny in their own particular way. One person is the tyrant of a province, another of a city, another in his own house, and yet another – on account of his worthlessness – simply exercises tyranny in his mind. God is not concerned with how much evil someone can perpetrate, but only with how much they wish to perpetrate. When he is lacking causal power in the world, the tyrant is by himself, and his iniquity reigns supreme inside; because, even if he cannot afflict his neighbors outwardly, he yet harbors inwardly the desire to be able to afflict them.”

“Sed sciendum quia omnis superbus iuxta modum proprium tyrannidem exercet. Nam nonnumquam alius in provincia, alius in civitate, alius in domo propria, alius per latentem nequitiam hoc exercet apud se in cogitatione sua. Nec intuetur deus quantum quisque mali valeat facere, sed quantum velit. Et cum deest potestas foris, apud se tyrannus est, cui iniquitas dominatur intus; quia, et si exterius non affligat proximos, intrinsecus tamen habere potestatem appetit ut affligat.”

This line of thought, cited approvingly by Florentines during the Renaissance, was still popular centuries later and half a world away. Benjamin Rush, writing to John Adams, claimed that “Rulers become tyrants and butchers from instinct much oftener than from imitation.” Rome, Florence, and America are linked not only by their republican governments, but also by the cynical fear which served as the intellectual and emotional foundation of those republics. The generalized fear that any one person given sufficient latitude and power would subjugate the entire population to his will is often cited as the primary motivation for maintaining a republican (but not democratic) form of government.

Moving from his definition of tyranny to the question of tyrannicide, Salutati makes the general claim that because an individual would be justified in slaying another for violating his right to personal property, so too must it be lawful to slay one who invades the state, which is the property of all. Like Plato before him, Salutati engages himself in the pleasing error of confusing and conflating the individual and the state for the purpose of ethical reasoning.

Moral reasoning on classical principles would not be complete without the citation of ancient exempla, but Salutati makes a puzzling choice in his exemplum for justifying tyrannicide: the murder of Tiberius Gracchus. Through a curious inversion, Salutati reasons that Scipio Nasica was right to goad on the murder of Gracchus, a tribune of the people, because he was supposed by some sources to be aspiring to regal power. Salutati has let his own aristocratic bias overcome the apparently republican or demotic tone of an essay against tyranny, and has adopted the viewpoint of ancient aristocrats who likely saw Gracchus as a dangerous instrument of what they (or in modern times, someone like Mitch McConnell) would dismiss as “mob rule”.

But perhaps this is the problem with any republic – it is simply aristocracy under the guise of popular government. Perhaps that thin veneer of demotic sovereignty is just the political form of bread and circuses. When someone in America complains that the government is doing a poor job of representing the popular will, they are commonly treated to a curt civics lesson intended to remind them that this is a republic, not a democracy. Caesar was not killed for infringing the liberties of ‘the people’ more generally. Rather, in monopolizing power within the Roman state, Caesar offended the pride of other aristocrats who were denied access to the political power and prestige which they regarded as their rights. It is fashionable to dismiss the Augustan “restoration of the Republic” as a cynical PR sham, but (however much it may have later devolved into outright despotism) it is not clear that the reign of one man within a broadly constitutional framework differed substantially from the reign of a handful of traditional aristocratic families. Regardless of party, even America’s political elite are drawn almost exclusively from a class defined not by family lineage, but by access to one of a few prestigious universities (usually their law schools) which serve as bastions of privilege and entry points into the world of real and efficacious power within the political and corporate system. (This problem of elite “choke points” in the course of the rat race is similarly prevalent in academia.)

The third portion of Salutati’s essay, taken up with whether or not Caesar could be considered a tyrant, relies heavily on Cicero, whom Salutati affectionately refers to throughout as “our Cicero.” This is not wholly surprising, given that Cicero supplies the best contemporary documentary evidence for the period. Moreover, Cicero possessed for men like Salutati a kind of unparalleled authority, as is clear from the affectionate use of noster, “our” Cicero. Despite the fact that Cicero famously exulted over Caesar’s death, Salutati cites a number of Cicero’s letters and writings to prove, wholly on Cicero’s testimony, that Caesar was not a tyrant, but a popularly chosen (if supremely powerful) magistrate.

“Anyone who looks through Cicero’s writings diligently will find far greater praise than detraction of Caesar.”

Qui diligenter ipsius scripta perspexerit longe maiores Caesaris laudes invenerit quam detractiones.

Salutati rather naively or disingenuously takes the confirmation of Caesar’s political acts and appointments following his death as proof that even his enemies did not regard him as a tyrant. This may appear on the face of it to be mere idle fatuity on Salutati’s part, but he draws out a salient point: the conspirators objected to the man and the wounds which he inflicted upon their pride more than they objected to his political program.

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.” Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

In his dialogue with Cicero, Salutati argues that Caesar’s dictatorship was the logical and inevitable outcome of decades of simmering civil war. He then claims that Sulla’s dictatorship, though bloody, was nevertheless a stabilizing force for the Republic. At this point, it begins to seem that Salutati’s strongman theory of government depends in no small part on minute hair splitting about what exactly constitutes tyranny. Indeed, Sulla’s military seizure of the state, whether or not it was in crisis, is a perfect example of what the Greeks meant by tyranny.

Though Salutati and other Renaissance thinkers did much to throw off the shackles of scholasticism, some of the medieval schoolroom still stuck to his mind. He upbraids Cicero for forgetting his Aristotle. Salutati is only able to argue against an ancient authority by citing an even older and more august ancient authority. It is on this Aristotelian basis that Salutati makes his most appalling and dangerous claim: that nature herself fashioned some to rule and others to serve. As almost invariably happens, Greek political philosophy is being used to advocate for a reactionary aristocracy.

Salutati’s essay combines two of the most dangerous modes of classical reception and engagement: the practice of reasoning through uncritical dependence on historical exempla, and the citation of ancient philosophers as final intellectual authorities. Aristotle here represents the tyranny of auctoritas. The Enlightenment may have bequeathed to modernity its own set of intellectual horrors and stumbling blocks, but at least it helped to free the mind from this stifling tyranny of authority. As supporters of the classics, we should fear the prospect of lapsing back into this mode of reception. Indeed, the period in which classical learning suffered the most was not the 20th century decline classics courses in high schools and universities. Rather, it was the period of medieval scholasticism during which classical learning became ossified and inert – an instrument for justifying institutionalized power, a cudgel to be wielded against those without access to it.

Classical learning exhibits the most vitality when it is actively engaged – soaked in and fully digested, yes, but also thoroughly interrogated and wrangled with. Salutati attempts this kind of interrogation in his argument written directly against Cicero, but he fails in that he is only able to cite authority against authority. (If medieval and early Renaissance thought were a card game like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon, the Plato and Aristotle cards would be so wildly overpowered as to render the game wholly unbalanced.)

Some readers of On the Tyrant have been surprised, perplexed, or disappointed with Salutati’s reasoning, perhaps especially with his ardent support for political strongmen. This is apparently at variance with his more general belief in republican government, but his thoughts on tyranny may seem less surprising when we consider more carefully the ways in which tyranny and republican government are not wholly dissimilar. If we understand a tyrant to be one who governs without securing popular consent, might this definition not clearly apply to a president who attained office without winning the popular vote? Is that not a form of constitutionally institutionalized tyranny? Any political or social thought which is not informed by but rather based upon ancient thinkers is bound to be reactionary and aristocratic, because this is what survives: endless talk of “liberty” but a generalized paranoia about both monarchic rule on one hand and democratic power on the other. The ancient partiality for “balance” and “moderation” – that peculiar fetish for the golden mean, the aurea mediocritas which certainly has a tendency to foster mediocrity – suggested strongly to ancient thinkers and their successors that aristocratic republics were the sensible middle ground between the monarch and the mob. Salutati concludes that Dante was right to place Brutus and Cassius in the deepest pit of hell – but now we’re the ones who are suffering.

Image result for brutus and cassius in hell

3 responses

  1. Erik! you are on fire! I did not know this one was even in the works!

    This puts things well:

    “Salutati’s essay combines two of the most dangerous modes of classical reception and engagement: the practice of reasoning through uncritical dependence on historical exempla, and the citation of ancient philosophers as final intellectual authorities.”

    The last paragraph is just one rising crescendo of brilliance and fury, but I like this too:

    “Any political or social thought which is not informed by but rather based upon ancient thinkers is bound to be reactionary and aristocratic, because this is what survives: endless talk of “liberty” but a generalized paranoia about both monarchic rule on one hand and democratic power on the other.”

    • Hey, thanks! In truth, this one wasn’t really in the works until I thought it out yesterday and put fingers to the keys this morning. It’s part of a broader set of thoughts that I have been revolving for the book. Indeed, lately I have been thinking much less about classics per se, and more about modes of reception. I read somewhere that the founders here in America received their ancient political education through the filter of the Florentines, and after reading the Salutati essay, I can see that there’s something to it,

      • I like this idea. I also wonder how much of the intellectual tradition really changed from Salutati to Jefferson. I mean, yes, we got a little away from theology and we found more texts, but there seems to be a tragic lack of depth or new ideas right up and into the enlightenment. The ‘renaissance’ of ideas, in this context, is more of an archaeology than a rebirth…

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