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What we can learn from ancient Greeks about tyranny

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In their brand-new democracy, the people of ancient Athens knew there was one form of government they never wanted to suffer through again: tyranny. They loved to see plays depicting tyrants on stage. These rulers typically do not listen to advice or expert opinion. But authority figures who don’t listen don’t learn; they make terrible mistakes and drag others down with them. One reason they don’t listen is that they think they know everything better than anyone else. That’s hubris, overweening pride—a trait no leader should exhibit. Another reason they don’t listen is that they hear advice from subordinates as a challenge to their authority. They are afraid of being overthrown, and so they construe unwelcome news as part of a conspiracy to destroy them. These tyrant traits are a kind of cognitive disability.This is as true today as it was 2500 years ago. When I ask my students—who range from 18-year-olds to middle aged mid-career executives—to write about bad times they have had with authority figures, at least two-thirds of them write about people who would not listen. They might write about a boss or a coach or a band director or even a parent, but the pain is the same: If these people would only listen to us, we might improve the product, or start winning games, or whatever. But they don’t listen, so we quit, or tune out, or go into passive resistance. And they make terrible mistakes, of which the most painful is punishing people unjustly.Ancient Greek plays illustrate these themes brilliantly. Originally the word tyrannos simply meant “ruler,” but by the time Sophocles was writing it referred to the kind of one-man rule Athens had known before its turn to democracy—two generations of a dynasty that did not feel bound to observe the law. These rulers had begun as populists, but their rule ended after a scandal involving sexual abuse—the younger of two tyrant brothers tried to use his power to force a boy to have sex with him. The boy and his. . .

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News source: OUPblog » Philosophy

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