Friday, October 03, 2014

Xenophon's Hiero

Hieron, or Hiero, as it is usually called in English, is a short non-Socratic dialogue that Xenophon uses to discuss the relationship between happiness and power. It also briefly touches on the same topic as that of the Cyropaedia, namely, how to have a society in which the ruled want to be ruled. It was a very popular work among Renaissance humanists.

You can read Hiero online in English at the Perseus Project.

The Characters

  Simonides of Ceos
Simonides was one of the great lyric poets of ancient Greece. He lived in the late sixth or early fifth century BC. His poetry often had a didactic cast, and he was reputed to be a wise man; quite a few of his sayings have survived, although it is, of course, possible, that some of them just collected around him because of his reputation. He is the poet whose poem Socrates and Protagoras argue over in Plato's Protagoras; there and elsewhere in the Platonic dialogues there seem to be suggestions that he is excessively inclined to pander to power -- one of his innovations as a poet was to write hymn-like poetry to eminent men, as if they were already heroes.

Hiero was what the Greeks called a tyrant -- he came to power through means that were not exactly legal or customary -- in the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily. He was a ruthless ruler, but also an active patron of the arts, inviting poets and philosophers from all over the Greek world to his court, including Simonides.

The Plot and The Thought

Simonides asks Hiero how the lives of a private citizen and a tyrant differ. Hiero asks Simonides to remind him of the joys and sorrows of a private citizen, and Simonides talks about the things we all know -- we get pleasure and pain through the senses, and pleasure from sleep, and the like, to which Hiero responds that he doesn't understand why anyone would think things would be different for a despot. Simonides suggests that the despot has more pleasures and fewer pains by the same channels. Hiero responds that the reverse is true. They cannot devote themselves to entertainments like a private citizen can, for instance.

Simonides points out that the despot receives more praise, but Hiero counters that it is mostly flattering and self-serving, and thus not as pleasant as it might seem. Similar problems arise for the pleasures of smell and taste. Simonides suggests despots have greater sexual pleasures; Hiero counters that a despot cannot marry a woman of superior or equal family, and he has many things that interfere with the passion that makes sex sweet.As for young men, the despot can never be sure that they comply from genuine affection or from mere obedience -- and they are often the very people involved in plots against the despot. Simonides continues with the luxurious dwellings of despots, but Hiero's counter is that a despot must always live and move in his own country as if he were in enemy territory, and they cannot have friendships in the way private citizens can. Further, while a private citizen might crave a nicer house or some such, the despot is not satisfied with such things; he craves entire cities and the like.

Moreover, a tyrant cannot relate to admirable people the way a private citizen can:

They recognize a stout-hearted, a wise or an upright man as easily as private citizens do. But instead of admiring such men, they fear them,—the brave lest they strike a bold stroke for freedom, the wise lest they hatch a plot, the upright lest the people desire them for leaders. When they get rid of such men through fear, who are left for their use, save only the unrighteous, the vicious and the servile,—the unrighteous being trusted because, like the despots, they fear that the cities may some day shake off the yoke and prove their masters, the vicious on account of the licence they enjoy as things are, the servile because even they themselves have no desire for freedom. (5.1-2)

Hiero continues in this vein for some time, leading Simonides naturally to ask why people work so hard to be despots, if all of this is true. He suggests that it might be desire for honor. Hiero dismisses this, however, saying that tyrants have honor in much the same way tyrants have romantic relationships, so Simonides asks why he doesn't just stop being a tyrant. To this Hiero replies that the greatest misery of being a tyrant is that you cannot stop being a tyrant.

Simonides suggests that tyrants have the advantage that, even if their own honors are not desirable, they can most easily confer honors and benefits on others; but Hiero insists that a tyrant is often forced to do things that will cause other people to hate him. Simonides points out that this can be handled by delegation and can be compensated for by contests and prizes. To this Hiero at last replies that it makes sense, and asks Simonides what he would do with mercenaries, who make a tyrant unpopular. Simonides' suggestion is that the mercenaries should be used not as a private bodyguard, but as a guard for the whole community. Simonides also offers advice on how the tyrant should use his wealth, namely, that he should devote it to the common good of the city. The most important victory of one city over another is the victory of greater prosperity: a tyrant who devotes all of his means to this will draw the affection of citizens and the sincere praise of the world.

He ends his counsel with a summation of his point:

Take heart then, Hiero; enrich your friends, for so you will enrich yourself. Exalt the state, for so you will deck yourself with power. Get her allies [for so you will win supporters for yourself]. Account the fatherland your estate, the citizens your comrades, friends your own children, your sons possessions dear as life. And try to surpass all these in deeds of kindness. For if you out-do your friends in kindness, it is certain that your enemies will not be able to resist you.

And if you do all these things, rest assured that you will be possessed of the fairest and most blessed possession in the world; for none will be jealous of your happiness. (11.13-15)

Thus the secret to overcoming all the travails involved in being a tyrant is to cease to be despotic and work for the common good of all.


Quotations are from the Marchant (or perhaps Bowerstock) translation at the Perseus Project.

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