Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ayn Rand on Dictatorship and Aristotle on Tyranny

By Diana Hsieh

In her 1964 Playboy interview, Ayn Rand identifies the four core qualities of a dictatorship as follows.

PLAYBOY: What is the dividing line, by your definition, between a mixed economy and a dictatorship?

RAND: A dictatorship has four characteristics: one-party rule, executions without trial for political offenses, expropriation or nationalization of private property, and censorship. Above all, this last. So long as men can speak and write freely, so long as there is no censorship, they still have a chance to reform their society or to put it on a better road. When censorship is imposed, that is the sign that men should go on strike intellectually, by which I mean, should not cooperate with the social system in any way whatever.
In Book 5, Chapter 11 of his Politics, Aristotle discusses the means by which the worst kind of tyrant maintains his power. Aristotle's comments delve into the psychology of tyranny, as opposed to its outer forms. On reading them again, I'm amazed to see how well his observations apply to modern tyrannies. (I've added extra paragraph breaks to make the text more readable.)
There are firstly the prescriptions mentioned some distance back, for the preservation of a tyranny, in so far as this is possible; viz., that the tyrant should lop off those who are too high; he must put to death men of spirit; he must not allow common meals, clubs, education, and the like; he must be upon his guard against anything which is likely to inspire either courage or confidence among his subjects; he must prohibit literary assemblies or other meetings for discussion, and he must take every means to prevent people from knowing one another (for acquaintance begets mutual confidence). Further, he must compel all persons staying in the city to appear in public and live at his gates; then he will know what they are doing: if they are always kept under, they will learn to be humble. In short, he should practice these and the like Persian and barbaric arts, which all have the same object.

A tyrant should also endeavor to know what each of his subjects says or does, and should employ spies, like the 'female detectives' at Syracuse, and the eavesdroppers whom Hiero was in the habit of sending to any place of resort or meeting; for the fear of informers prevents people from speaking their minds, and if they do, they are more easily found out.

Another art of the tyrant is to sow quarrels among the citizens; friends should be embroiled with friends, the people with the notables, and the rich with one another. Also he should impoverish his subjects; he thus provides against the maintenance of a guard by the citizen and the people, having to keep hard at work, are prevented from conspiring. The Pyramids of Egypt afford an example of this policy; also the offerings of the family of Cypselus, and the building of the temple of Olympian Zeus by the Peisistratidae, and the great Polycratean monuments at Samos; all these works were alike intended to occupy the people and keep them poor.

Another practice of tyrants is to multiply taxes, after the manner of Dionysius at Syracuse, who contrived that within five years his subjects should bring into the treasury their whole property. The tyrant is also fond of making war in order that his subjects may have something to do and be always in want of a leader. And whereas the power of a king is preserved by his friends, the characteristic of a tyrant is to distrust his friends, because he knows that all men want to overthrow him, and they above all have the power.

... the tyrant also has those who associate with him in a humble spirit, which is a work of flattery. Hence tyrants are always fond of bad men, because they love to be flattered, but no man who has the spirit of a freeman in him will lower himself by flattery; good men love others, or at any rate do not flatter them. Moreover, the bad are useful for bad purposes; 'nail knocks out nail,' as the proverb says. It is characteristic of a tyrant to dislike every one who has dignity or independence; he wants to be alone in his glory, but any one who claims a like dignity or asserts his independence encroaches upon his prerogative, and is hated by him as an enemy to his power. Another mark of a tyrant is that he likes foreigners better than citizens, and lives with them and invites them to his table; for the one are enemies, but the others enter into no rivalry with him.

Such are the notes of the tyrant and the arts by which he preserves his power; there is no wickedness too great for him. All that we have said may be summed up under three heads, which answer to the three aims of the tyrant. These are, (1) the humiliation of his subjects; he knows that a mean-spirited man will not conspire against anybody; (2) the creation of mistrust among them; for a tyrant is not overthrown until men begin to have confidence in one another; and this is the reason why tyrants are at war with the good; they are under the idea that their power is endangered by them, not only because they would not be ruled despotically but also because they are loyal to one another, and to other men, and do not inform against one another or against other men; (3) the tyrant desires that his subjects shall be incapable of action, for no one attempts what is impossible, and they will not attempt to overthrow a tyranny, if they are powerless.

Under these three heads the whole policy of a tyrant may be summed up, and to one or other of them all his ideas may be referred: (1) he sows distrust among his subjects; (2) he takes away their power; (3) he humbles them.
How much of these qualities do we see in America today? More than I'd like -- particularly in light of the ever-increasing meddling by the government with almost every facet of our lives. (Yes, that includes our food supply and our health!) Still, we have quite a ways to go before we're faced with the prospect of dictatorship. So what must we do to protect freedom in America? Talk, while we still can! Here's Ayn Rand again:
PLAYBOY: Short of such a strike [of refusing to "cooperate with the social system in any way whatever"] , what do you believe ought to be done to bring about the societal changes you deem desirable?

RAND: It is ideas that determine social trends, that create or destroy social systems. Therefore, the right ideas, the right philosophy, should be advocated and spread. The disasters of the modern world, including the destruction of capitalism, were caused by the altruist-collectivist philosophy. It is altruism that men should reject.

PLAYBOY: And how would you define altruism?

RAND: It is a moral system which holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the sole justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, value and virtue. This is the moral base of collectivism, of all dictatorships. In order to seek freedom and capitalism, men need a nonmystical, nonaltruistic, rational code of ethics -- a morality which holds that man is not a sacrificial animal, that he has the right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor others to himself. In other words, what is desperately needed today is the ethics of Objectivism.
Ayn Rand's essay on the foundations of her ethics is The Objectivist Ethics. That and other essays on her ethics can be found in The Virtue of Selfishness.

I just can't resist quoting this last segment:
PLAYBOY: Do you believe that Objectivism as a philosophy will eventually sweep the world?

RAND: Nobody can answer a question of that kind. Men have free will. There is no guarantee that they will choose to be rational, at any one time or in any one generation. Nor is it necessary for a philosophy to "sweep the world." If you ask the question in a somewhat different form, if you say, do I think that Objectivism will be the philosophy of the future, I would say yes, but with this qualification: If men turn to reason, if they are not destroyed by dictatorship and precipitated into another Dark Ages, if men remain free long enough to have time to think, then Objectivism is the philosophy they will accept.


RAND: In any historical period when men were free, it has always been the most rational philosophy that won. It is from this perspective that I would say, yes, Objectivism will win. But there is no guarantee, no predetermined necessity about it.

PLAYBOY: You are sharply critical of the world as you see it today, and your books offer radical proposals for changing not merely the shape of society, but the very way in which most men work, think and love. Are you optimistic about man's future?

RAND: Yes, I am optimistic. Collectivism, as an intellectual power and a moral ideal, is dead. But freedom and individualism, and their political expression, capitalism, have not yet been discovered. I think men will have time to discover them. It is significant that the dying collectivist philosophy of today has produced nothing but a cult of depravity, impotence and despair. Look at modern art and literature with their image of man as a helpless, mindless creature doomed to failure, frustration and destruction. This may be the collectivists' psychological confession, but it is not an image of man. If it were, we would never have risen from the cave. But we did. Look around you and look at history. You will see the achievements of man's mind. You will see man's unlimited potentiality for greatness, and the faculty that makes it possible. You will see that man is not a helpless monster by nature, but he becomes one when he discards that faculty: his mind. And if you ask me, what is greatness? -- I will answer, it is the capacity to live by the three fundamental values of John Galt: reason, purpose, self esteem.

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