Are Tyrants Necessary?

At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression, and the State

by Eli Sagan
Random House/Vintage, 420 pp., $13.95 (paper)

The story is told about Herbert Spencer that when T.H. Huxley discovered that in his youth Spencer had written a tragedy, he remarked that he knew what the plot must have been: “a beautiful theory killed by a nasty, ugly, little fact.” It is a story which comes immediately to mind on reading the back jacket of this book by Eli Sagan, who teaches at Berkeley and has previously published books on cannibalism and on violence in ancient Greece. There we find the following astonishing comment by Professor Robert N. Bellah on Sagan’s thesis about the origins of the state:

As social theory, Sagan’s analysis of the necessity for the concentration of power in the hands of the tyrant in order to make the transition from kinship structures to nonkinship structures is one of the most profound insights that I know of in the whole range of social science.

Profound it may or may not be; but it is false. States—that is, permanent forms of central political organization independent of kinship—do often originate through, as Sagan has it, a “tyrannical monarch” with “the power to overthrow the kinship system.” But this is by no means always so. There are exceptions, and they disprove the rule.

The most obvious are those where the transition to statehood comes about not through a surrender of sovereign power into the hands of a single person but through its being placed in the hands of magistrates whose scope for abusing power is deliberately circumscribed in advance. Magistrates can, to be sure, turn into tyrants. Aristotle, who knew at least something about what had gone on during the period when the city-states of Greece came into being out of the anarchy that followed the collapse of Mycenaean civilization, is quite explicit about the risk that an elected “overseer” might use his term of tenure to usurp monarchical power, as happened, for example, in Miletus. And awareness of that risk by contemporaries themselves is strikingly confirmed by the survival of an inscription of the seventh century BC from Dreros, in Crete, in which a chief magistrate who has held annual office is specifically forbidden to hold it again for another ten years. But even if the restrictions imposed did not prevent the emergence of tyrants later on, when one or another war leader, administrator, lawgiver, or noble was able to secure a sufficient following to put down any opponents or rivals, it cannot be argued, as Sagan does, that the change from rule by the heads of lineages, clan chiefs, or village patriarchs to statehood in its proper sense comes about always and only through the successful assumption of quasi-divine omnipotence by charismatic heroes (or villains).

Even in early Mesopotamia, where kingship was intimately and explicitly associated with divinity and conquerors like Sargon of Akkad behaved as tyrannically as any of the rulers whom Sagan has in mind, the initial transition to statehood appears to have come about by way of local councils—reminiscent of…

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