The Tragedy of Politics

In his Parallel Lives, Plutarch links Theseus, the legendary King of Athens, with Romulus, the first (legendary?) King of Rome. As is the case with most of the paired Lives, Plutarch offers a comparison at the end. He notes that both Theseus and Romulus were statesmen, but both erred with respect to their power–just the sort of thing for which we have all too many parallels of our own. Though they erred in different directions (Theseus toward democracy, Romulus toward tyranny), their error had the same root: a misunderstanding of what their authority was and was for, leading to dissension in the body politic. Same as it ever was, one guesses. Thus Plutarch:

Although Theseus and Romulus were both statesmen by nature [τῇ φύσει πολιτικῶν], neither maintained to the end the true character of a king, but both deviated from it and underwent a change [μετέβαλε μεταβολὴν], the former in the direction of democracy [δημοτικήν], the latter in the direction of tyranny [τυραννικήν], making thus the same mistake through opposite affections [ταὐτὸν ἀπ᾿ ἐναντίων παθῶν ἁμαρτόντες]. For the ruler must preserve first of all the realm itself, and this is preserved no less by refraining from what is unbecoming than by cleaving to what is becoming. But he who remits or extends his authority is no longer a king or a ruler [οὐ μένει βασιλεὺς οὐδὲ ἄρχων]; he becomes either a demagogue or a despot [ ἢ δημαγωγὸς ἢ δεσπότης ], and implants hatred or contempt in the hearts of his subjects. However, the first error [ἁμάρτημα] seems to arise from kindliness and humanity; the second from selfishness and severity.

In the Life of Romulus, Plutarch had already detailed Romulus’s transformation in anticipation of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting effect of power:

This was the final war waged by Romulus. Thereafter, like most men, or, more precisely, like nearly all men who have risen to power and importance by way of striking and unexpected good fortune, he, too, was deeply affected by the experience. His accomplishments increased his boldness and he became haughty, abandoning his popular manner and taking on in its place the airs of an autocrat, and this change was made odious and offensive from the start on account of the apparel he donned.

Trans. Jeffrey Tatum

As I say, same as it ever was, except in our case the autocrats are conspicuous by the apparel they don’t don–say, for instance, if you’re the Mayor of San Francisco, a mask.

The way in which Plutarch describes the transformation of ruler to demagogue or despot has provocative parallels with Aristotle’s theory of tragedy in the Poetics: a change occurs (μετέβαλε μεταβολὴν) due to a mistake (ἁμαρτόντες; ἁμάρτημα). Compare Poetics 7 (where a related word for “change” is used):

And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change [μεταβάλλειν] from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.

Likewise, Poetics 13 uses a related word for “mistake” in discussing the ideal tragic protagonist:

A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes–that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty [ἁμαρτίαν]. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families.

The connection between Aristotle and Plutarch is not fortuitous. Plutarch’s conception of character, for instance, is deeply indebted to Aristotle. But that is not the only reason. More broadly, history ioften has a tragic structure, as Plutarch knew. So did many of his readers, like Shakespeare. More narrowly, it is worth wondering, with respect to this particular comparison, whether politics itself is–at least in the world as presently constituted–fundamentally and essentially tragic.


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