Notes on why despots don’t belong in politics and Greeks vs. Romans


Caliph – spiritual leader of Islam

Despot – a ruler with absolute power

despotism – a form of government by which a single entity rules with absolute power.

Why despots don’t belong in politics

A system of order created by conquest (the invasion and assumption of control), resting on fear, and issuing in caprice (impulse, sudden change in mood/behaviour).

In a despotic system of government, the ultimate principle of order issues from the inclinations of the despot him/herself.

inclinations – i.e. deposition, a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character.

Dynasty/ plural: Dynasties – a line of hereditary rulers of a country. i.e. a bloodline

Dynasties rise and fall according to what the Chinese used to call ‘the mandate of heaven’

The Zhou created the Mandate of Heaven: the idea that there could be only one legitimate ruler of China at a time, and that this ruler had the blessing of the gods.

Mandate- give (someone) authority to act in a certain way

Everything depends on the wisdom of the ruler.

repelled- driven away/repulsed or distasteful to.

The Western imagination, however, has generally been repelled by despots — cruel pharaohs, deranged Roman emperors such as Caligula and Nero, exotic and remote emperors in India or China.

beguiled – charmed (often in a deceptive way), hypnotised etc.

Europeans have sometimes been beguiled by a despotism that comes in the seductive form of an ideal — as it did in the cases of Stalin and Hitler.

Many countries are still ruled in this manner, and it can threaten pain or death at any moment.; it is like living in a madhouse.

Today we define despotism (along with dictatorship and totalitarianism) as a form of government.

See difference between dictatorship and totalitarianism

This would have horrified the classical greeks (Athenian democracy. Athenian democracy developed around the fifth century BC (classical greek era) in the Greek city-state (known as a polis) of Athen and is the first known democracy in the world).

whose very identity (and sense of superiority to other peoples) was based on distinguishing themselves from the despotism endured by their eastern neighbours.

“What this contrast reveals is that politics is so central to our civilisation that its meaning changes with every change of culture and circumstance. For this reason, our first move in trying to understand politics must be to free ourselves from the unreflective beliefs of the present.”

Politics was once a limited activity conducted by the elites of some Western countries, however now is thought to be the inescapable preoccupation (engrossed, obsession etc.) of mankind.

Oriental – of, from, or characteristic of Asia, especially East Asia.

What the Greeks knew above all is that they were not orientals. They often admired the magnificent cultures of eastern empires such as Egypt or Persia, but usually disdained the way in which they were ruled.

They called this foreign system ‘despotism’ because it seemed no different from the relation between a master and his slaves. 

As warriors, the Greeks despised the practice by which subjects coming into the presence of an oriental ruler prostrated (reduce to extreme weakness, submit and lay flat on the ground face down.) themselves: they found this an intolerable form of inequality between citizens and their rulers. Over two thousand years later, we inherit precisely the same reflex rejection of prostration, partly because the language of prostration has become the image by which Christianity recognises the distance between human and the divine (i.e. the Gods).

When we discuss these matters, we often use the Latin term ‘domination’. The Greek despotes (master) and the Roman dominus (master – latin version) both signify the specific form of power exercised by the master of slaves. The modern use of ‘dictatorship’ and the twentieth-century coinage (invention of a new word or phrase) of ‘totalitarianism’ are among the many recent signs of the undiminished centrality of this idea in our self-understanding.

The essence of despotism is that there is no appeal (an application to a higher court for a decision to be reversed), either in practice or in law, against the unchecked power of the master. The sole object of the subjects must be to please. There is no parliament, no opposition, no free press, no independent judiciary (judges in a country collectively), no private property protected by law from the rapacity (aggressive greed) of power, in a word, no public voice except that of the despot.

Effects of despotism on its subjects 

Such powerless is, oddly enough, the reason why despotisms are notable generations of spiritual enlightenment. A reaction sets in against a world governed by the caprice (unpredictability/unstable) of power and thoughtful subjects take up mysticism, Stoicism, and other forms of withdrawal.

Mysticism– ecstasy or altered state of consciousness which is given a religious or spiritual meaning. Usually one becomes closer to their Deity or God.

Stoicism– (a modern definition) the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.

Stoicism and Hellenistic philosophy continued.

Stoicism is predominantly a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting that which we have been given in life, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.

Stoicism has just a few central teachings. It sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. How brief our moment of life is. How to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of yourself. And finally, that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.

In other words, is submitting to your external circumstances and turning off natural emotions in response to them. The philosophy behind stoicism is that we can’t control every aspect of life and thus cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses. Emotion can in so many ways be a great distraction.

Hellenistic philosophy is the period of Western philosophy that was developed in the Hellenistic civilization following Aristotle and ending with the beginning of Neoplatonism

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Sage – a wise person

The hierarchy of wisdom

  1. Gods and sages, because they are wise;
  2. Senseless people, because they think they are wise.

The position of the philosopher is between these two groups. The philosopher is not wise, but possesses the self-awarenes of lacking wisdom, and thus pursues it.

Ambivalent– to have contradictory thoughts upon, or mixed feelings towards something.

Despotism in Europe

The project of despotism in Europe, even of a philosophical or enlightened kind, would fail unless its real character was concealed.

If everything controversial is called ‘political’ and if (as a popular slogan has it) the personal is the political, then nothing is left outside the scope of control by the government. This argument has not been universally accepted, but has been the basic premiss of twentieth-century totalitarianism.

Premiss/premise – a hypothesis or argument

The effects of twentieth-century totalitarianism 

Locking the individual within a single system of control, destroying the inheritance of distinct and independent roles (economic, religious, cultural, social and legal) which modern states have until recently enjoyed.

The beginning of wisdom i politics is attention to signs of change. As a theatre of illusion, politics does not reveal its meaning to the careless eye. Reality and illusion are central categories of political study.

promulgated– promote widely an idea or put a law in place

A famous example of a despot:

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) was the dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1929 to 1953. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was transformed from a peasant society into an industrial and military superpower. However, he ruled by terror, and millions of his own citizens died during his brutal reign. Born into poverty, Stalin became involved in revolutionary politics, as well as criminal activities, as a young man. After Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) died, Stalin outmaneuvered his rivals for control of the party. Once in power, he collectivized farming and had potential enemies executed or sent to forced labor camps. Stalin aligned with the United States and Britain in World War II (1939-1945) but afterward engaged in an increasingly tense relationship with the West known as the Cold War (1946-1991). After his death, the Soviets initiated a de-Stalinization process.

Monarch – king, queen, emperor, head of state etc.

Immemorial – existing in the distant pass, very old.

Absolve – declare free from guilt. To absolve ones crimes/sins.

‘Whoever seeks a kind of immortality in history goes into politics’.

Fidel Castro first attempted, and failed, to take over Cuba in 1953, he defended himself at his trial in a speech declaring: ‘History will absolve me.’

‘Potential Cromwells are no longer content to be ‘guiltless of their country’s blood’ and to end in the silence of a country churchyard. They go into politics.’

‘Revolutionaries are the graffiti artists of history.’

A revolution is considered an event which has a major impact on changing the political, economic or social structure of society – usually in a short space of time. A revolution may be violent or peaceful to achieve its aims.

Postmodernism describes a broad movement that developed in the mid to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture and criticism which marked a departure from modernism.

Prejudice – preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. “English prejudice against foreigners.”

Doctrine – a belief or set of beliefs or a principle of government policy i.e. the Truman Doctrine


Empirically – by means of observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.

Autonomy – freedom from external control or influence or a self-governing country or region. For example, between the first and second world wars Canada gained greater autonomy from Britain.

Secularist – a person who advocates separation of the state from religious institutions.

Theocracy/theocracies – a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god.

Coerce – persuade/influence


Parochialism– a limited or narrow outlook/ narrow-minded

Aristocracy – highest class in a society

Vocation – someone’s “calling’

Coherent– logical or rational

Consolidate– reinforce or can mean combine

The Classical Greeks: How to be a Citizen

‘Citizens varied in wealth, beauty and intelligence, but as citizens they were equal.’

Ostracism– exclusion from a society or group

Greek politics might take many forms, even the debased forms of tyranny a cruel and oppressive (brutal) government and usurpation, but on one thing the later classical Greeks were adamant: oriental despotism was not politics.

Oligarchy– a small group of people  having control over a country or region

Realism is the philosophical theory that believes that reality exits independent of our perception of it. Idealism is the philosophical belief that reality is merely a mental construct and there exists no object without an observer.

Realism (with regards to international relations)

Realism holds the belief that world politics ultimately is always and necessarily a field of conflict among actors pursuing power.

The source of conflict splits realists into three subcategories: classical realists, neorealists and neoclassical realists.

Classical realists – believe that the conflict follows from human nature

Neorealists – focus upon the structure of the anarchic (with no controlling rules) state system

Neoclassical realist – believe that it is a result of a combination of the two and certain domestic variables

Antiquity – the ancient past, especially the period of classical and other human civilizations before the Middle Ages ( around 470 AD)

Realists also disagree about what kind of action states ought to take to navigate world politics, dividing (not entirely) between defensive and offensive realism.

The balance of power theory in international relations suggests that national security is enhanced when military capability is distributed so that no one state is strong enough to dominate all others.

Subservience- willingness to obey others.

Artifice – trickery/strategy

Expedient– a means to an end. Usually a strategy that is convenient yet improper or potentially immoral.

A means to an end – a thing that is not valued or important in itself but is useful in achieving an aim.

The idea that wisdom consisted in following the dictates of nature led to divergent philosophies, according to the way in which the concept of ‘nature’ developed. Greek political philosophy began in meditation upon the tension between recognising that the polis (the city or a body of citizens) was in one sense natural and in another sense a thing of artifice.

Polis (greek term, as democracy originated from Greece) – political entities ruled by their bodies of citizens

agora (in ancient greece) – a public open space used for assemblies and markets.

Politics and history were thus born together, for they share the same conception of what a human being is, and what is worth remembering.

strict-sense – when describing something in the most limited or exact form

heterogeneous- diverse in character or content

nexus– a connection or series of connections linking two or more things or a central or focal point.

abstract – existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence. (metaphysical is a synonym)

metaphysics in philosophy – concerned with abstract thought or subjects regarding existence, causality or truth.

Constitution – the set of offices by which a polis was governed and the laws specifying their relation.

(modern version) – the system of beliefs and laws by which a country, state, or organization is governed.

A government without constitution would lack the specific kind of moral limitation which distinguishes politics.

Circumscribe– restrict (something) within limits.

Constitutions function in two essential ways: they circumscribe the power of the office-holders and as a result they create a predictable (though not rigid and fixed) world in which the citizens may conduct their lives.

It is constitutions that give form to politics, and the study of them led to the emergence of political science.

A science of politics (as opposed to despotism) is possible because politics itself follows regular patterns, even though it is ultimately at the mercy of the human nature from which it arises. All that one can confidently say about despotism is that able rulers will sooner or later be followed by mad or feeble (lacking of strength or character) heirs.

A despotism is thus subject to a fixed rhythm of rise and fall, like the seasons, and this confirmed the Greeks in their belief that despotisms, as associations of slaves, were unfree and belonged to the non-rational sphere of nature. But constitutions, because they belong to the sphere of rationality, can be studied in a more scientific way than despotisms, despite their ultimately fallibility (tendency to make mistakes or go wong).

“To address someone in a speech requires the marshalling of ideas, the construction of arguments, the capacity to understand an audience, a recognition of the dominant passions of human nature and much else.”

Oligarchy – a small group of people having control of a country or organisation . I.e. a country governed by an oligarchy “it was believed that Britain was an oligarchy”

During the classical period of Greek politics, the main division was between oligarchic states, which were thought to favour the rich and powerful, and democracies, which responded to the interests of the poor and which were commonly thought violent and unstable.

A version of a political cycle by a later Greek called Polybius –

Monarchies tend to degenerate into tyranny (cruel and oppressive government rule, for example a dictatorship or totalitarianism style government), tyrannies are overthrown by aristocracies, which degenerate into oligarchies exploiting the population, which are overthrown by democracies, which in turn degenerate into the intolerable instability of mob rule, whereupon some powerful leader establishes himself as a monarch and the cycle begins all over again.

Aristocracy – the group of people belonging to the highest social class govern a country

(other versions of a political cycle are to be found in Plato and Aristotle)

Knowledge, as Bacon remarked, is power, and the knowledge of this cyclical rhythm in politics provoked the thought that institutions might be arranged in such a way as to break the cycle, allowing states to achieve, if not immortality, at least some long-term stability.

The secret of breaking the cycle of decline lay in two propositions.

The first was that government consists of a number of functions which may be parcelled out among different offices and assemblies. Executive decision requires a leader, deliberation about policy requires a small group of experienced citizens, while the acceptability of laws and the responsiveness of government depended upon effective ways of consulting the people. This is an argument for constructing a constitution in which power is distributed between the one, the few and the many.

The second proposition is that the very same distribution may also balance the interests of the rich and poor, to prevent either from using political power for the purpose of economic exploitation. Such balance in politics was the equivalent of health in the body, and might keep corruption at bay for a very long time. Such is the theory of the balanced constitution which has played a central part in the politics of the West.

It represents as a theory that practical politicians often evolve for themselves.

The English constitution, for example, evolved into a balance between monarchs, Commons and Lords and is often cited as an example of this theory. Lawyers and statesmen, were indeed, aware of the theory, and sometimes it helped to guide them, but the actual institutions of British politics responded basically to the specific conditions of life in Britain.

Polity– a form or process of civil government or constitution // an organized society; a state as a political entity

It was Aristotle’s view that some element of democracy was essential to the best kind of balanced constitution, which he called a ‘polity’. He studied many constitutions, and was particularly interested in the mechanics of political change: revolutions, he thought, always arose out of some demand for equality.

Concerning himself with both politics and ethics, he posed one question which has been found especially fascinating: can a good citizen be a good man?

Rulers in some states may demand of their subjects actions which ate wrong. Greek politics (like everything else in the Greek world) was powerfully theorised, to such an extent that it has often been thought that we rattle around within the limited set of possibilities revealed to us by Greek experience.

citizen- an inhabitant of a particular town or city

Political judgement, to put the matter another way, is a choice between finite possibilities. This view assumes that human nature is fixed, and has been challenged, especially in modern times, by the view that human beings are always the creatures of their society.

[The Greeks speciality was creating visions of the ideal and left behind, in philosophy, Plato’s Republic, and in politics, the account of Athens put into the mouth of Pericles by Thucidides in his history of the Peloponnesian War. ]

The Romans: The Real Meaning of Patriotism 

The politics of Greece was based on reason, that of the Romans on love- love of country, love of Rome itself. The Romans thought of their city as a family, and of its founder Romulus as the ancestor of them all. This was quite different from the Greeks, for whom the family signified at the philosophical level merely those necessities in our animal nature which the freedom of politics transcended.

It was the great Christian Saint Augustine who made much of patriotism as the guiding passion of the Romans, partly because he saw in it a prefiguring of the love which animated Christians. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – ‘Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country’ – wrote the Roman poet Horace, in a line which long represented the noblest of political sentiments.

But times change, and after the vast casualties of WW1, this very line was often used ironically to signify the helplessness of individuals caught up in the aggressive schemes of politicians. How this change came about is an important part of our story.

The Greek cities were a dazzling episode in Western history, but Rome had the solidity of a single city which grew until it became an empire, and which out of its own decline created a church that sought to encompass nothing less than the globe itself.

Whereas the Greeks were brilliant and innovative theorists, the Romans were sober and cautious farmer-warriors, less likely than their predecessors to be carried away by an idea.

We inherit our ideas from the Greeks, but our practices from the Romans, and each has left a different imprint on the various nations of modern Europe.

German infatuation with the Greeks, for example, has been notably greater than that of the British and the French, for whom Rome was the great exemplar. All Europeans, however, have benefited from the inheritance of two quite distinct vocabularies with which to explore political life: the political vocabulary of the Greeks- policy, police, politics itself- and the civic vocabulary of the Romans- civility, citizen, civilisation. Both the architecture and the terminology of American politics, for example, are notably Roman.

Dynasty– a line of hereditary rulers of a country (a bloodline)

The French Revolution – lasted from 1789 until 1799, it was the overthrow of the french monarchy. It lead to a dictatorship with Napoleon as the emperor.

charade – mockery/ pantomime

There is much to be said for Marx’s view that the French Revolution was a charade played out in Roman dress.

Servitude– the state of being a slave or completely subject to someone more powerful. i.e. domination

vestigial– forming a very small remnant of something that was once greater or more noticeable

consul was the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic, and the consulship was considered the highest level of the cursus honorum (the sequential order of public offices through which aspiring politicians sought to ascend). Each year, two consuls were elected together, to serve for a one-year term

imperium– absolue power

Plebeian– (in ancient rome) a commoner

Patrician– an aristocrat

inhere– exist

Rome is the supreme example of politics as an activity conducted by men holding offices which clearly limit the exercise of power. When the Romans thought about power, they used two words in order to acknowledge an important distinction: potentia – meant physical power, while potestas signified the legal right and power inhering in an office.

Both these forms of power however were separate from another idea which constituted the most distinctive contribution of the Romans to politics: auctoritas. Significantly, this term represented the junction of politics with the Roman religion, which involved the worship of families and hence of ancestors.

Auctoritas – when translated into english means authority. (lay in the senate as the body closest to the ancestors

Total quantum– absolute

Anarchy – a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems

Hegemony – leadership or dominance, especially by one state or social group over others.

Discourse – written or spoken communication or debate

Rogue – dishonest

Authoritarian -favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom. (e.g. a despot, dictatorship, tyranny, aristocracy etc.)

Discernible – perceptible/distinguishable/observable

Regime – a government, especially an authoritarian one

Impel – force

Sovereign– a supreme ruler, especially a monarch

Ambiguity– the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness

Ratify– To approve and give formal sanction to

bilaterally– involving or affecting two sides

trilateral– shared by or involving three parties

multilateral– agreed upon or participated in by three or more parties, especially the governments of different countries.

Sanction– (holds two distinct meanings) a threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule OR official permission or approval for an action

Cyclical– recurrent

Hegemon– supreme leader

Rome became fascinating to other peoples as its power expanded, and in the second century BC, when Rome conquered the Hellenic (Greeks) world, the Greek historian Polybius explained to his fellow Greeks what this new hegemon, or master of the world, was like. Skilled in the Greek science of the cyclical degeneration (recurring decline) of governments, Polybius explained the success of Rome by the fact that one could not really describe her constitution as monarchical, or aristocratic, or democratic, for it contained elements of all three.

The result of this combination of powers, he wrote, ‘is a union which is strong enough to withstand all emergencies, so that it is impossible to find a better form of constitution than this’. He admired above all the steadiness with which the Senate responded to the greatest disaster in its history: the defeat at Cannae by Hannibal the Carthaginian, in 218 BC. They remained committed to upholding the honour of Rome.

Virtuous– having or showing high moral standards

Repugnant– extremely distasteful/unacceptable

Rome’s fame largely rested on moral strength evident to all who had dealings with her. Romans could be relied on to stand by their oaths. The Romans had, Polybius agreed, adopted superstitious beliefs about punishment in the afterlife, but only because this was the best way of making the people virtuous.

The Jews, who encountered the Romans at about the same period, felt a similar admiration for so steady an ally: none of their generals, it was noted, ‘made any personal claim to greatness by wearing the crown or donning the purple‘.

In those earlier days, love of country predominated (patriotism), but in time success and wealth began to corrupt the Romans, who then fell under the sway of despotic forms of order which they had previously found repugnant.

Virtue and freedom declined together. It was the literature of Rome, especially the work of Cicero (a Roman politician, lawyer and philosopher), that persuaded later Europeans that virtue was the condition of freedom.

Antipathy – dislike/distaste / a deep-seated feeling of aversion.

Aversion – a strong dislike or disinclination

Patrician – an aristocrat or nobleman

Nobleman – a man who belongs by rank, title, or birth to the aristocracy; a peer

Plebeian– in ancient Rome, a commoner

Acute – experienced to a severe or intense degree

Acute as he was, Polybius failed to recognise that the most un-Greek feature on which so much of the distinctive character of Roman politics rested: auctoritas. This was the moral fluid in which was suspended the Roman conviction that the good of the patria (latin – country) must take precedence over merely private concerns (such as saving one’s life). This moral was conveyed in many famous stories of Roman heroes.

Later writers thought the antipathy between patrician and plebeian which runs through the early history of Rome was a weakness, but Machiavewlli (Italian Renaissance historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer), in disagreeing with this judgement, put his finger on one of the central features of the whole Western political tradition 

Subordinated– treat or regard as of lesser importance than something else or serving as a means to an end

He argued that conflict within the state, so long as it was subordinated to the public interest, merely reflected THE PUBLIC’S CONCERN FOR LIBERTY AND FOR THE PROTECTION OF CIVIL RIGHTS

Western politics is distinguished from other forms of social order by its exploration of this theme: that beyond the harmony that results from everyone knowing their place is another harmony, in which conflict is resolved by the free discussion and free acceptance of whatever outcome emerges from constitutional procedure.


Notes on why despots don’t belong in politics and Greeks vs. Romans

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