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  • Introduction:The Tyrant's Fear
  • Silvia Bigliazzi, Guest Editor (bio)

Then it is the truth, though some may deny it, that the real tyrant is really enslaved to cringings and servitudes beyond compare, a flatterer of the basest men, and that, so far from finding even the least satisfaction for his desires, he is in need of most things, and is a poor man in very truth, as is apparent if one knows how to observe a soul in its entirety; and throughout his life he teems with terrors and is full of convulsions and pains, if in fact he resembles the condition of the city which he rules; and he is like it, is he not?

Plato, Republic 9.579d–e1

These are both the measures mentioned some time back to secure the safety of a tyranny as far as possible—the lopping off of outstanding men and the destruction of the proud,—and also the prohibition of common meals and club-fellowship and education and all other things of this nature, in fact the close watch upon all things that usually engender the two emotions of pride and confidence, and the prevention of the formation of study-circles and other conferences for debate, and the employment of every means that will make people as much as possible unknown to one another (for familiarity increases mutual confidence).

Aristotle, Politics 5.11 1313a40–b62 [End Page 434]

Tyranny and Fear

Fear is the coessential ingredient of tragedy, and tragedy, since Aristotle, deals with the stories of those who are above us—heroes, kings, and tyrants. Fear, together with pity, is what we, as spectators, are to experience in order to achieve the catharsis of such emotions.3 Thus, the tragic experience is first and foremost an experience of fear at different levels: onstage, where the action displays the people's fear of the tyrant and the tyrant's own fear of them, and in the interplay between stage and audience, where we all identify with those who fear the tyrant but also with the tyrant who in turn fears them. Famously, Plato and Aristotle underlined in varying degrees the fear felt by the tyrant, pointing to the psychological drives of his behavior. For Plato, he is a slave to both desire and fear since these coalesce into one and the same knot of passions. Incapable of self-control, the tyrant desires and fears all. Aristotle does not linger so much on the tyrant's inward dynamics as on his actions consequent to his fear of losing power, assuming contrasting passions as the springboard for political action. The tyrant prunes the state of those who oppose him or only represent a potential threat or an alternative to his power, preventing debate, the circulation of ideas, and possibilities of consorting. The tyrant is a solitary man. Notably, Xenophon underlined Hiero's solitude in the homonymous dialogue, where he, the tyrant of Syracuse, explains to the poet Simonides his painful condition of loneliness and fear of unsafety. No one is free anymore in a state where the tyrant may trust neither his own guards nor the citizens, and must enlist the barbarians to defend him.4 Seneca would remark that "errat enim si quis existimat tutum esse ibi regem ubi nihil a rege tutum sit; securitas securitate mutua paciscenda est." (If anyone thinks that the king is safe in a situation where nothing is safe from the king, they are wrong. Security is purchased by reciprocal security.)5 Where the political handling of power within the state is based upon the tyrant's fear and that of the people, it means that the state is founded on a regime of Terror.6

These ancient positions make clear that the origin of the perpetuation of fear in the state, spreading terror among the people, resides in the tyrant's own fear, suggesting a curious reciprocity between subject and object: the more the tyrant fears, the more he makes himself feared by his [End Page 435] subjects. Seneca added to the picture the psychological torments of bad conscience, turning the fearful tyrant into the opposite of the stoically serene sage.7 In De...


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