When Plato set sail for Syracuse in 368 BC or so, he was, by his own report, of very mixed mind. He had visited that city once before when it was still ruled by the fearsome tyrant Dionysius the Elder, and the voluptuousness of Sicilian life did not appeal to him. How, he wondered, could young men learn to be moderate and just in a place where “happiness was held to consist in filling oneself full twice a day and never sleeping alone at night”? Such a city could never hope to escape the endless cycle of despotism and revolution.

So why return? As it happened, Plato did have a disciple in Sicily, whose soil was not as unforgiving as he had expected. A nobleman named Dion, who as a young man became devoted to Plato and the cause of philosophy, had just written him a letter reporting that Dionysius the Elder was dead and that his son, Dionysius the Younger, had taken command. Dion was both friend and brother-in-law to the younger Dionysius, and was convinced that the new ruler was open to philosophy and wished to be just. All he needed, in Dion’s view, was to receive good instruction, which must come from Plato’s own lips. He pleaded with his old teacher to visit, and Plato, overcoming serious misgivings, eventually set sail.

It is an old myth about Plato that he was the proponent of a mad scheme to institute the rule of “philosopher-kings” in Greek cities, and that his “Sicilian adventure” was a first step toward realizing his ambition. When Martin Heidegger returned to teaching in 1934 after his shameful tenure as Nazi rector of Freiburg University, a now forgotten colleague, meaning to heap more shame on his head, quipped, “Back from Syracuse?” As a bon mot this can hardly be bettered. But Plato’s aims could not have been more different from Heidegger’s. As Plato recounts in his Seventh Letter, he once dreamed of entering political life but was disheartened by the tyrannical rule of the Thirty in Athens (404–403 BC). He then renounced politics altogether when the democratic regime that succeeded the Thirty put to death his friend and teacher Socrates. He concluded, much as the character Socrates concludes in Plato’s Republic, that once a political regime is corrupt there is little one can do to restore it to health “without friends and associates”—that is, without those who are both philosophical friends of justice and loyal friends of the city. Short of a miracle, in which philosophers would become kings or kings would turn to philosophy, the most that can be hoped for in politics is the establishment of a moderate government under the stable rule of law.

Dion, however, was a spirited man on the lookout for miracles. He convinced himself, and then tried to convince Plato, that Dionysius could be that rare thing, a philosophical ruler. Plato had his doubts; though he trusted Dion’s character he also knew that “young men are often apt to fall prey to sudden and often inconsistent impulses.” Yet he also reasoned—or perhaps rationalized to himself—that were he not to seize this rare opportunity and make the effort of turning a living tyrant toward justice he could be accused of cowardice and disloyalty to philosophy. And so he agreed to go.

But the outcome of this second visit was not happy. It was only too clear that Dionysius longed to acquire a patina of learning but lacked the discipline and commitment needed to submit to dialectical argument and bring his life into line with its conclusions. (Plato compares him to a man who wants to be in the sun but only manages to get himself sunburned.) Just as a doctor cannot cure a patient against his will, so it proved impossible to bring the stubborn Dionysius to philosophy and justice. In their conversations Plato and Dion even appealed to the young tyrant’s political ambitions, telling him that as a philosopher he would learn how to give good laws to the cities he conquered, thus acquiring their friendship, which he could then exploit to extend his kingdom further. To no avail. Turning his ear to slanderous rumor, Dionysius instead grew to suspect Dion of harboring political ambitions of his own and summarily banished him from Syracuse. When Plato failed to bring about a reconciliation between the former friends, he decided to leave.

Yet six or seven years later he returned, again at Dion’s behest. Although Dion was still in exile he had heard that Dionysius had returned to the study of philosophy, and reported this to Plato. At first Plato was unmoved, knowing that “philosophy often has this sort of effect on young men” and suspecting that Dionysius only wished to quell the gossip that Plato had rejected him as unworthy. But, following the same line of reasoning that led him to make the second trip, Plato decided to make a third, his last. What he discovered on arrival was an even haughtier man who already considered himself a philosopher and reportedly had written a book, something Plato the dialectician steadfastly refused to do. The cause was lost, yet Plato blamed no one but himself: “I had no more reason to be angry with Dionysius than with myself and with those who constrained me to come.” Dion was not so sanguine. Three years after Plato’s final departure he attacked Syracuse with mercenaries and liberated the city, expelling Dionysius, but was himself betrayed and murdered three years later. After a series of violent coups Dionysius eventually regained the throne, only to be deposed by the army of Corinth, Syracuse’s mother city. Dionysius survived and returned to Corinth, where it is said he finished his days running a school, teaching his doctrines.


Dionysius is our contemporary. Over the last century he has assumed many names: Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Mao and Ho, Castro and Trujillo, Amin and Bokassa, Saddam and Khomeini, Ceauåüsescu and Milosevic—one’s pen runs dry. In the nineteenth century optimistic souls could believe that tyranny was a thing of the past. After all, Europe had entered the modern age and everyone knew that complex modern societies, attached to secular, democratic values, simply could not be ruled by old-style despotic means. Modern societies might still be authoritarian, their bureaucracies cold and their workplaces cruel, but they could not be tyrannies in the sense that Syracuse was. Modernization would render the classical concept of tyranny obsolete, and as nations outside Europe modernized they, too, would enter the post-tyrannical future. We now know how wrong this was. The harems and food-tasters of ancient times are indeed gone but their places have been taken by propaganda ministers and revolutionary guards, drug barons and Swiss bankers. The tyrant has survived.

The problem of Dionysius is as old as creation. That of his intellectual partisans is new. As continental Europe gave birth to two great tyrannical systems in the twentieth century, communism and fascism, it also gave birth to a new social type, for which we need a new name: the philotyrannical intellectual. A few major thinkers of that period whose work is still meaningful for us today dared to serve the modern Dionysius openly in word and deed, and their cases are infamous: Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt in Nazi Germany, Georg Lukács in Hungary, perhaps a few others. A great many joined Fascist and Communist parties on both sides of the Iron Curtain, whether out of elective affinities or professional ambition, without taking great risks; a few played soldier for a time in the jungles and deserts of the third world. A surprising number were pilgrims to the new Syracuses being built in Moscow, Berlin, Hanoi, and Havana. These were the political voyeurs who made carefully choreographed tours of the tyrant’s domains with return tickets in hand, admiring the collective farms, the tractor factories, the sugarcane groves, the schools, but somehow never visiting the prisons.

Mainly, though, European intellectuals stayed at their desks, visiting Syracuse only in their imaginations, developing interesting, sometimes brilliant ideas to explain away the sufferings of peoples whose eyes they would never meet. Distinguished professors, gifted poets, and influential journalists summoned their talents to convince all who would listen that modern tyrants were liberators and that their unconscionable crimes were noble, when seen in the proper perspective. Whoever takes it upon himself to write an honest intellectual history of twentieth-century Europe will need a strong stomach.

But he will need something more. He will need to overcome his disgust long enough to ponder the roots of this strange and puzzling phenomenon. What is it about the human mind that made the intellectual defense of tyranny possible in the twentieth century? How did the Western tradition of political thought, which begins with Plato’s critique of tyranny in the Republic and his unsuccessful trips to Syracuse, reach the point where it became respectable to argue that tyranny was good, even beautiful? Our historian will need to pose these larger questions, for he will find himself dealing with a general phenomenon, not isolated cases of extravagant behavior. The Heidegger case is only the most dramatic twentieth-century example of how philosophy, the love of wisdom, declined into philotyranny within living memory.


But where to begin? Our historian’s first instinct may be to look to the history of ideas, on the assumption that intellectual philotyranny and modern tyrannical practices share common intellectual roots. He will find many learned investigations into the sources of modern political thought that share this assumption, and also share an approach, which is to divide the European intellectual tradition into rival tendencies and then brand one of them philotyrannical. A favorite target of such studies is the Enlightenment, which since the nineteenth century has been commonly portrayed as ripping the tangled roots of European society out of the loam of Christian religion and tradition, and encouraging cavalier experiments in reshaping society according to simple ideas of rational order.


According to this picture, the Enlightenment not only bred tyrannies, it was tyrannical in its very intellectual methods—absolutist, deterministic, inflexible, intolerant, unfeeling, arrogant, blind. This stream of adjectives is taken from the writings of Isaiah Berlin, who in a series of remarkably suggestive essays in intellectual history written in the postwar decades made the most sophisticated case thus far for blaming the theory and practice of modern tyranny on the philosophes. Berlin’s main concern was the hostility to diversity and pluralism he discerned in a major current of the Western tradition that began with Plato and culminated intellectually in the Enlightenment, before bearing political fruit in twentieth-century totalitarianism. The cardinal assumptions of this stream of thought were that all moral and political questions have only one true answer, that those answers are accessible through reason, and that all such truths are necessarily compatible with one another. On these assumptions the gulags and death camps were built and defended. It was the Enlightenment that provided the ideal, in Berlin’s words, “for which more human beings have, in our time, sacrificed themselves and others than, perhaps, for any other cause in human history.”

This seems a convincing story. The problem with it, as our historian will undoubtedly see, is that it conflicts with another seemingly convincing story told by intellectual historians that reaches a rather different verdict about the intellectual responsibility for modern tyranny. This second story focuses on religious impulses rather than philosophical concepts, on the force of the irrational in human life, not on the pretensions of reason; it offers, one might say, intellectual history as Dostoevsky might have written it, not Rousseau. In the decades immediately following World War II much attention was given to religious irrationalism by Western historians who perceived a link between the theory and practice of modern tyranny and religious phenomena such as mysticism, messianism, chiliasm, kabbalism, and apocalyptic thought more generally. What they saw at work in the minds of revolutionaries and commissars was an old, irrational urge to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God in a profane world. In The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) Norman Cohn laid solid historical foundations for this approach. He demonstrated how significant were the outbursts of revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism in Europe between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries and then drew parallels between the eschatological fantasies of that period and those of the twentieth century.

In his studies The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952) and Political Messianism (1960), the Israeli historian Jacob Talmon brought this approach closer to the present by arguing, against Isaiah Berlin, that the most significant feature of European political thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not its rationalism, which might have led it in a liberal direction, but rather the new religious fervor and messianic expectations with which modern democratic ideas became infused. In the frenzy of the French Revolution reason had ceased to be reasonable and democracy had become an ersatz religion for modern men bereft of traditional faith in the beyond. Only in these religious terms, Talmon thought, can we understand how the modern democratic ideal became a bloody tyrannical dream in the twentieth century.

Another apparently convincing story. But which of these two stories will our historian choose to tell? If he is like most historians, that may well depend on which intellectual and political aspects of modern tyranny he feels deserve our attention. If he is trying to understand exclusively the brutality of Soviet “planning,” the Nazis’ chillingly efficient program to exterminate the Jews, the methodical self-destruction of Cambodia, the programs of ideological indoctrination, the paranoid webs of informers and secret police—if he wants to explain how these tyrannical practices were conceived and defended, he might be tempted to blame a heartless intellectual rationalism that crushed all in its path. If, on the other hand, he is struck by the role in modern tyranny played by the idolization of blood and soil, the hysterical obsession with racial categories, the glorification of revolutionary violence as a purifying force, the cults of personality, and the orgiastic mass rallies, he will be tempted to say that reason collapsed before irrational passions that had migrated from religion to politics. And if our historian is more ambitious still, and wants to explain both classes of phenomena? At that point he will have to abandon the history of ideas.

There is another way of investigating intellectual philotyranny, however. And that is to examine the social history of intellectuals in European political life, rather than the history of the ideas they held. Here, too, there are standard accounts that offer plausible explanations of philotyranny in the twentieth century. The most popular story is taken from the French experience. It begins with the Dreyfus Affair, which is portrayed by one and all as having expelled French intellectuals from the glades of l’art pour l’art and alerted them to their higher calling as moral watchmen over the modern state. The chapters that follow can be recited by every French schoolchild: the skirmishes between republican Dreyfusards and their Catholic-nationalist opponents; the splits over the Russian Revolution and the Popular Front after World War I; the intellectual and political compromises of Vichy; the dominance of Sartre’s existential Marxism after the war; the sharp divisions among intellectuals over Algeria; the revival of left-radicalism after May ’68; the crise de conscience after the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s, and the development of a liberal-republican consensus in the Mitterrand years.

The morals drawn from this story differ, however, depending on the political leanings of the narrator. As told by Jean-Paul Sartre this story became a heroic myth about the rise of the solitary “committed” intellectual who asserted his “singular universality” against the dominant ideology of bourgeois society and the tyrannical systems it had bred in Europe (fascism) and abroad (colonialism). In his influential Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels, texts of lectures given in 1965, Sartre portrayed the intellectual as a left-wing Jeanne d’Arc who stands for what is essentially human against the inhuman forces of economic and political “power,” and also against those reactionary cultural forces, including traitorous fellow writers, whose work “objectively” supports the modern tyrant.

For his nemesis Raymond Aron it was precisely this simple-minded opposition of “humanity” to “power” that demonstrated the incapacity of French intellectuals since the Dreyfus Affair to understand the real challenges of twentieth-century European politics. In Aron’s view, it was no accident, indeed it was utterly predictable, that Sartre’s romantic ideal of commitment would turn him into a heartless apologist for Stalinism in the decade after World War II. In L’Opium des intellectuels (1955) Aron retold the story of the rise of the modern intellectual but with a decidedly antimythical intent, demonstrating how incompetent and naive the intellectuals as a class had been when it came to serious political matters. In his view, the real responsibility of European intellectuals after the war was to bring whatever expertise they had to bear on liberal-democratic politics and to maintain a sense of moral proportion in judging the relative injustices of different political systems—in short, to be independent spectators with a modest sense of their roles as citizens and opinion-makers. Sartre and his followers accepted no such responsibilities.

Aron was right: in France it was the romantic, “committed” intellectuals who served the cause of tyranny in the twentieth century. But in Germany, which Aron knew uncommonly well, the picture was quite different. There the problem was, precisely, political disengagement. For a variety of reasons that historians of Germany discuss—the tradition of political decentralization, the lack of a cultural capital, the ideal of spiritual inwardness (Innerlichkeit), the autonomy of the university system, innate conservatism, and respect for military authority—Germany never developed an intellectual class along French lines, and consequently the issue of political commitment did not arise in the same way. East of the Rhine the assumption in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been that professors were engaged in timeless Wissenschaft in the secluded university, that writers pursued private Bildung as they wrote their works, and that only journalists dared to write about politics, and they were untrustworthy.

This was a myth, of course, but a very attractive one in modern German culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in Thomas Mann’s Reflections of an Unpolitical Man (1918), an intensely personal work that was also Mann’s most ferociously political. Targeting his left-wing brother Heinrich, Mann tried to puncture the pretensions of the French Zivilisationsliterat with his childish attachment to democracy and popular enlightenment. Mann defended the tradition of German Innerlichkeit on aesthetic and political grounds. “German tradition,” he wrote,

is culture, soul, freedom, art and not civilization, society, voting rights, and literature…. Opposed to French raison and esprit is German Innerlichkeit, which guarantees that Germans never elevate social problems above moral ones, above inner experience.

Yet as he himself knew, and later came to regret, his principled “unpolitical” position carried great political meaning and served as a post hoc justification of German aims in World War I, encouraging the popular view that the Versailles peace was an act of cultural war. “This political spirit that is anti-German intellectually,” he wrote, “is with logical necessity anti-German politically.”

This was not the first time that an “unpolitical” German intellectual had made a disastrous political debut. At the creation of the Reich in 1871, at the outbreak of war in August 1914, and again in the Walpurgisnacht of 1933, scores of Germany’s leading professors and writers engaged themselves foolishly and ignorantly in politics, whether on the paradoxical grounds of defending the “unpolitical” German tradition, or out of a sudden naive embrace of politics, whose ways they did not begin to understand (Heidegger foremost among them). Most concluded that their forays into politics had been errors and returned quickly to their studies and laboratories.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in a number of important postwar writings on the German political and cultural situation, has argued that this was exactly the wrong lesson to draw from these mistakes. By withdrawing from modern politics on principle, German writers and thinkers since the early nineteenth century had become accustomed to living in a mythical intellectual world governed by fantasies about Hellas or the Teutonic forests, fantasies that made Nazi tyranny appear to some of them as the beginning of spiritual and cultural regeneration. In Habermas’s view, only by descending from the magic mountains of Wissenschaft and Bildung into the flatlands of democratic political discourse could German intellectuals have been inoculated against this tyrannical temptation, and had they done so they then might have helped to construct the open public sphere Germany needed—culturally and politically.

Habermas’s argument seems convincing. But if he is right to blame German philotyranny on political disengagement, and Aron is right to blame blind political commitment in France, where does that leave our poor historian? Obviously neither explanation makes sense for twentieth-century Europe as a whole. It appears that just as neither “rationalism” nor “irrationalism” in the history of ideas can explain the theory and practice of modern tyranny, both “commitment” and “disengagement” in the social history of intellectuals fail to take us to the heart of the matter. All these attitudes and tendencies obviously had their part in European history, whether as proximate causes or effects, but none tells us why intellectual philotyranny develops at all. At this point our historian, if he is still with us, may begin to despair. Perhaps he will begin to wonder if the answer to his historical question is to be found in history or must be sought elsewhere. That would be a productive wonder, for it might encourage him to reexamine the old story of Plato, Dion, and Dionysius from another angle, looking for clues about the deeper forces that draw the mind to tyranny.


The most interesting fact about young Dionysius was that he was an intellectual. He may have been the first tyrant with such pretensions but he certainly was not the last. Today, in corners of left-leaning European bookshops, one can still find unwanted sets of Lenin’s, Mao’s, even Stalin’s collected works, which were translated by propaganda bureaus in the Communist world and published by front organizations in the West. It may strike us as preposterous today that anyone would have felt the need to consult such works, or even to write them. But I doubt that Plato or Dion would have thought so. To judge by their actions in Syracuse, they understood that Dionysius’ intellectual drive bore some important relation to his tyrannical political ambitions—hence their hope that by working a transformation on the former they could indirectly moderate the latter. In the event, that turned out to be impossible. Dionysius remained an immoderate glutton for second- and third-hand ideas, which he regurgitated in written works that made a hash of Plato’s thought. But if Plato and Dion were mistaken in their hopes, they were not necessarily wrong in their assumptions about the psychological force that draws certain men to tyranny. It is the same force, Plato believed, that draws other men to philosophy.

That force is love, eros. For Plato, to be human is to be a striving creature, one who does not live simply to meet his most basic needs but is somehow driven to expand and sometimes elevate those needs, which then become new objects of striving. Why do humans “stretch” themselves in this way? For Plato this is a deep psychological question, one to which the characters in his dialogues offer many different answers. Perhaps the loveliest is that given by Diotima and reported by Socrates in the Symposium, that “all men are pregnant in respect to both body and soul.” We are, or at least feel ourselves to be, incomplete creatures and cannot rest until some potential we sense within is made actual, until we can “beget in the beautiful,” as she puts it. This yearning, this eros, is to be found within all our good and healthy desires, those of the flesh and those of the soul; some people experience mainly the former and satisfy themselves with their bodies, while those who have desiring souls become philosophers or poets, or concern themselves with “the right ordering of cities and households”—that is, with politics in the highest sense. Wherever we see human activity for the good, Diotima tells Socrates, there we will find traces of eros.

But what of activity directed toward what is bad for us or others—drunkenness, say, or cruelty? Are these also driven by eros? In the Phaedrus Plato leads us to think so when he has Socrates introduce a famous image of the soul that pictures it as a team of two winged horses driven by a charioteer. One of these horses is said to be noble and is drawn toward what is eternal and true, while the other horse is something of a brute, lacking in control and unable to distinguish higher things from lower ones; he wants them all. If the base horse is stronger than the noble one, Socrates suggests, the soul will stay close to earth, but if the noble horse is stronger, or the charioteer can aid him, the soul rises closer to eternal truth. All souls—and therefore all human types—can be found somewhere on this celestial path, some closer to earth, others to the heavens, depending on how their erotic horses have traveled. Socrates describes nine such souls, the highest one being that of philosophers and poets, the lowest one belonging to the tyrant.

Love wants the good but it can also unwittingly serve the bad, Socrates explains. That is because love induces madness, a blissful kind of madness we find hard to control, whether we are in love with another human being or with an idea. But the highest happiness can only be had if such madness is indeed mastered and we remain in charge of our souls, even as eros draws us upward. Such self-mastery in the face of love is what the philosophical life aims to provide. As Plato paints it, the philosophical life is not one of Buddhist self-renunciation, it is a controlled erotic life that hopes to attain what love unconsciously seeks: eternal truth, justice, beauty, wisdom. Few are capable of such a life, and most of those who aren’t will gratify their yearnings in predictable ways and lead middling lives. Others, though, become utter slaves to their drives and nothing will control them. These people Plato calls tyrants. In the Republic the character Socrates describes the tyrannical soul as one in which the madness of love—“love has from old been called a tyrant”—drives all moderation out and sets itself up as ruler, turning the soul itself into “a tyranny established by love.” The philosopher also knows the madness of love, the love of wisdom, but he does not relinquish his soul to it; he remains in control, governing himself. The tyrannical man is the mirror image of the philosopher: he is not the ruler of his aspirations and desires, he is a man possessed by love madness, the slave of its aspirations and desires, rather than their ruler.

As the conversation in the Republic unfolds we learn that there is a connection between tyranny in the mind and tyranny in political life. Some tyrannical souls become rulers of cities and nations, and when they do entire peoples are subjugated by the rulers’ erotic madness. But such tyrants are rare and their grip on power is weak. There is another, more common class of tyrannical souls that Socrates considers, those who enter public life not as rulers, but as teachers, orators, poets—what today we would call intellectuals. These men can be dangerous, for they are “sunburned” by ideas. Like Dionysius, this kind of intellectual is passionate about the life of the mind, but unlike the philosopher he cannot master that passion; he dives headlong into political discussion, writing books, giving speeches, offering advice in a frenzy of activity that barely masks his incompetence and irresponsibility. Such men consider themselves to be independent minds, when the truth is that they are a herd driven by their inner demons and thirsty for the approval of a fickle public. Those who listen to such men, usually the young, may feel the stir of passion within; this feeling does them credit, for properly channeled it might bring honor to them and justice to their cities. But they are in need of an education in intellectual self-control if they are to turn that passion exclusively to good use.

Socrates understands this. These intellectuals, though, lack his humility and pedagogic care; their reputations depend on exciting passions, not channeling them. Socrates suggests that such intellectuals play an important role in driving democracies toward tyranny by whipping the minds of the young into a frenzy, until some of them, perhaps the most brilliant and courageous, take the step from thought to action and try to realize their tyrannical ambitions in politics. Then, gratified to see their own ideas take effect, these intellectuals become the tyrant’s servile flatterers, composing “hymns to tyranny” once he is in power.

Socrates introduces the outrageous idea of philosopher-kings in the Republic to shake his interlocutors out of their complacency in thinking about this relationship between intellectuals and tyrants. The philosopher-king, were he to be born or bred, would abolish both. The philosopher-king is an “ideal,” not in the modern sense of a legitimate object of thought demanding realization, but what Socrates calls a “dream” that serves to remind us how unlikely it is that the philosophical life and the demands of politics can ever be made to coincide. Reforming a tyranny may not be within our power, but the exercise of intellectual self-control always is. That is why the first responsibility of a philosopher who finds himself surrounded by political and intellectual corruption may be to withdraw. In the Republic Socrates likens the fate of a genuine philosopher in an imperfect city to “a human being who has fallen in with wild beasts and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficient as one man to resist all the savage animals.” Taking all this into the calculation, he keeps

quiet and minds his own business—as a man in a storm, when dust and rain are blown about by the wind, stands aside under a little wall. Seeing others filled with lawlessness, he is content if somehow he himself can live his life here pure of injustice and unholy deeds, and take his leave from it graciously and cheerfully with fair hope.

Does this mean that Plato imagined the philosophical life as one of complete disengagement? Hardly. After delivering his speech about the philosopher in the windstorm, the character Socrates goes on to say that such a man does not lead the best life, for only in a good city “will he himself grow more and save the common things along with the private.” And, as we know, the real-life Socrates was put to death for fighting tyranny, not in its explicitly political manifestations but at its psychological source in the human mind. The philosophical life represented by Socrates’ own was, above all, an antityrannical life, the noblest one because it is supremely self-aware of its own tyrannical inclinations.

That self-awareness is what distinguishes the behavior of Plato and Dion in Syracuse from that of the philotyrannical intellectuals in twentieth-century Europe. Because Plato and Dion had followed Socrates’ example and uprooted all tyranny from their own souls, they were able to understand the nature of Dionysius’ rule and were justified in trying to free Syracuse from his tyranny. Both hoped that, as an intellectual, Dionysius might be turned to philosophy and be made to see the injustice of his actions and the foolishness of his writings. Both hoped to combat tyranny with the word, not the sword. They failed, and though afterward their paths separated, Plato returning to Athens and Dion descending to the battlefield, Plato defended both their actions. He recognized that, as a citizen of Syracuse who loved his homeland, Dion may have let his hopes mislead him about the chances of converting Dionysius and that he felt obliged to take up arms once their efforts failed. But Plato was confident that Dion did all this without letting the tyranny he combated enter his soul. There is no shame in failure or death in politics, so long as one remains free of that tyranny. Dionysius could never understand this simple principle. He survived but lived in dishonor, while Dion died a glorious death, loyal to truth and his city. “For to meet whatever fate sends in the attempt to reach the highest for oneself and one’s country is altogether right and glorious,” Plato concludes, in final judgment on his friend’s life.

The lure of Syracuse is strong for any thinking man or woman, and that is as it should be. One need not accept Sartre’s narcissistic myth of the intellectual as hero to see what Plato saw long ago: that there is some connection in the human mind between the yearning for truth and the desire to contribute to “the right ordering of cities and households.” Yet precisely because Plato recognized this urge as an urge—as a drive that could become a reckless passion—he was alert to its destructive potential and concerned with harnessing it for a healthy intellectual and political life. One is tempted to say that it is this supreme self-awareness about how the mind handles ideas that distinguishes most fundamentally the philosopher in Plato’s sense from so many modern intellectuals. And it is this same self-awareness that we would be wise to acquire in thinking about philotyranny in the twentieth century and learning from it.

It is difficult to think of a century in European history better designed than the last to excite the passions of the thinking mind and lead it to political disaster. The doctrines of communism and fascism, Marxism in all its baroque permutations, nationalism, tiers-mondisme—many inspired by a hatred of tyranny, all capable of inspiring hateful tyrants and blinding intellectuals to their crimes. It is possible to conceive of these tendencies as part of a grand historical narrative to which some external force, driving both events and their interpretations, can be ascribed. But no matter how much we reflect on such forces, we are still far from capturing the intimate struggles that European intellectuals had with them and the many ruses they employed to maintain their illusions.

As we read their works today and struggle to comprehend their actions, we need to get beyond our inner revulsion and confront the deeper internal forces at work in the philotyrannical mind—and, potentially, in our own. The ideologies of the twentieth century appealed to the vanity and raw ambition of certain intellectuals, but they also appealed, slyly and dishonestly, to the sense of justice and hatred of despotism that thinking itself seems to instill in us, and which, unmastered, can literally possess us. To those possessed, appeals to moderation and skepticism will appear cowardly and weak, which is why those rare European intellectuals who did invoke them—Aron was one—were subject to hateful attacks as traitors to their calling. Such men may not have been philosophers in the classical sense but they did display the same intellectual and political sang-froid that Plato thought distinguished the genuine philosopher from the irresponsible intellectual.

Hard cases make bad law, so the judges have decreed. Perhaps, then, we should turn a blind eye to the political mistakes of European intellectuals and try to understand them in light of the extreme circumstances of the twentieth century and hope for calmer days ahead. Our historian may feel this temptation acutely. But he would be mistaken to give in to it. Tyranny is not dead, not in politics and certainly not in our souls. The age of the master ideologies may be over, but so long as men and women think about politics—so long as there are thinking men and women at all—the temptation will be there to succumb to the allure of an idea, to allow passion to blind us to its tyrannical potential, and to abdicate our first responsibility, which is to master the tyrant within.

The events of the last century merely provided the occasion for extraordinary displays of intellectual philotyranny whose sources will not disappear in less extreme political circumstances, for they are part of the makeup of our souls. If our historian really wants to understand the trahison des clercs, that is where he, too, must look: within.

This Issue

September 20, 2001