wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Kenneth Minogue


What the Greeks knew above all was 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 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 recognizes the distance between the human and the divine. When we discuss these matters, we often use the Latin term 'domination'. The Greek despotes and the Roman dominus both signify the specific form of power exercised by the master of slaves. The modern use of 'dictatorship' and the twentieth-century coinage 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, 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, no private property protected by law from the rapacity of power, in a word, no public voice except that of the despot. Such powerlessness is, oddly enough, the reason why despotisms are notable generators of spiritual enlightenment. A reaction sets in against a world governed by the caprice of power, and thoughtful subjects take up mysticism, Stoicism, and other forms of withdrawal. The essence of life is then found in a spiritual realm beyond that of the senses, and social and political life is devalued as illusion. The result is usually scientific and technological stagnation except in the short term.

Despotism flows so naturally from the military conquest in which most societies originate that creating a civil or political order must be recognized as a remarkable achievement. Europeans have managed it on three notable occasions, and on two of them the achievement collapsed. The first was in the city-states of classical Greece, which sank into despotism after the death of Alexander the Great. The second was among the Romans, whose very success created an empire so heterogeneous that only a despotic power could prevent it from falling apart. The first of these experiences generated Stoicism and other philosophies of withdrawal from the world, and the second was the seed-bed of Christianity. From Christianity and the barbarian kingdoms of the west emerged the medieval version of politics from which in turn evolved the politics of our modern world. Since we live within this experience, we can only catch it on the wing, as it were, and we do not yet know what its final destiny will be.

We do know, however, that the rejection of despotism on which the Western tradition has largely rested is now ambivalent. Many in recent centuries have dreamed of using the irresistible power only found in despotism for removing the evident imperfections of our world. The project of despotism in Europe, even of a philosophical or enlightened kind, would fail unless its real character were concealed. Since politics is in part a theatre of illusion, new names and concepts are easy to invent, and in the twentieth century totalitarian versions of the dream of despotism constructed a vast political laboratory in which different versions of the project of creating a perfect society were put to the test. That they failed is currently recognized by all; it is less widely recognized that such immense convulsions must correspond to profound tendencies in our civilization. To understand politics must therefore include studying the signs which might tell us what is going on beneath the surface of this and other fault-lines in our civilization.

One widely recognized clue is the current state of the distinction between private life and the public world. The private world is that of the family, and of individual conscience as each individual makes his or her own choice of beliefs and interests. Such a private life would not be possible without the overarching public world of the state, which sustains a structure of law appropriate to a self-determining association. Politics only survives so long as this overarching structure of public law recognizes its own limits. As Pericles put it in his famous funeral oration for Athenians killed in the first year of the Peloponnesian War: 'We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law.' The actual boundary, both in law and in people's attitudes, between what is public and what is private is, of course, constantly changing. Homosexuality and religion, which used to be publicly regulated, are now largely private, while rape within marriage and abuse of children are increasingly subject to law. It is the fact of recognizing such a division which distinguishes politics—we may loosely identify it with freedom and democracy—from despotism.

In the classic despotisms everything in society was the private property of the despot, but in the modern world this basic distinction has been steadily eroded from the other side: ever larger areas of private life have come to be publicly regulated. 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 government. This argument has not been universally accepted, but it has been the basic premiss of twentieth-century totalitarianism, and its effect is clearly to lock 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.