Professor Andrew Fiala on how our own human nature, combined with fools, sycophants, and citizens, is the force that could give rise to tyranny.
A headline from The Washington Post this week states that historians have warned President Joe Biden that democracy is teetering on the edge. Rarely in one week have we heard so many references to tyranny: from Viktor Orbán at CPAC, to the theft of government documents, to the threats of violence and rebellion that have overwhelmed social media.
To put some of this in perspective, on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast I speak with Andrew Fiala, a professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno, and the director of its Ethics Center. A respected scholar of ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion, he is the author most recently of Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Tyrants, Sycophants, and Citizens.
Fiala provides a simple yet powerful way of understanding our present dilemma. He reminds us that ultimately the fault is not just with would-be tyrants, but with ourselves. According to Fiala, we say we want freedom, but that often runs counter to a powerful human desire to be taken care of, which typically involves being told what to do.
Fiala makes the case that because of this contradiction, democracy alone is not enough to prevent the onset of tyranny. We also must appreciate and defend the virtues of education, enlightenment and wisdom.
He sees tyranny as a three-legged stool made up of would-be tyrants, their sycophants, and mobs or crowds. It’s like a chemical reaction, he argues, where a fateful combination of conditions must come together to give rise to tyranny.
He also details what he observes as an unstable system of influences in our politics and society as a whole — a culture of celebrity, oligarchy, and extreme inequality that adds fuel to potentially tyrannical conditions.
In the end, he offers no false optimism. He views humans as flawed beings in a world where most democracies have not survived, and where history and philosophy tell us that sometimes problems don’t get solved
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. While we are at a dangerous inflection point for democracy and calls to arms have reached a fevered pitch this week, it’s best to remember that as long as there has been governance, there have been tyrants. The powerful conflicting forces in human nature of the desire for freedom and self-rule battling the desire to be directed, to be told what to do, set this stage for our current moment. A moment when democracy may not be our only salvation, that we also need to leaven it with education, enlightenment, and wisdom.
Add to this the innate need amongst some for power and control, and even, in some cases, the proliferation of evil. And we understand in a very simple, fundamental way how tyrants and tyranny can come to be. In this sense, we do well to paraphrase Cassius in that the fault may not be in our tyrants, but in ourselves. Studying this in a most granular way is our guest today, Professor Andrew Fiala.
Andrew Fiala is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Ethics at Cal State University, Fresno. He has a PhD in philosophy from Vanderbilt and is a respected and renowned scholar of ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. His most recent work is Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Tyrants, Sycophants, and Citizens, and it is my pleasure to welcome Professor Andrew Fiala here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Andrew, thanks so much for joining us.
Andrew Fiala: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me on.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s great to have you here as we think about tyranny and tyrants. Do we make a mistake when we put all the blame on them, as opposed to realizing our role and our responsibility in all of this as citizens?
Andrew Fiala: Yes. That’s a great question to start with. The fact of the matter is, a tyrant doesn’t come alone, he comes along with a whole bunch of characters who support him, including, as you mentioned in the subtitle of the book, the sycophants. Those people who suck up to him, and whisper in his ear and make it possible for him to manipulate the legal system.
And then in the background are the masses, the mob, the tyrants’ crowd, those who go along with him and fill the rallies and go to the election booth and give him support in the streets. It’s rare that you see someone just rise to power by themselves. There’s this whole team, I call it the tragic trio: the trio of the tyrant, the sycophants, and the mob.
Jeff Schechtman: Are there a set of conditions that almost inevitably give rise to tyrants or to tyranny? Can we define what those conditions might be?
Andrew Fiala: Yes. So, one of the things I argue in the book is that the American system is pretty good at resisting tyranny because we have a separation of powers, and checks and balances, and a legal framework that defends free speech and individual rights. With that framework in place, it’s pretty hard for a tyrant to consolidate power, which tells you the answer to your question is that a system that lacks those constitutional limits is going to make it much easier for tyrants to grab power.
And what tyrants want is they want to be gods on earth. They want to be able to do whatever they want with impunity, without limits; and a legal system that allows that to happen is basically where the tyrant comes to power. And you can see that sometimes it happens where the tyrant seizes power and overthrows a constitution like a Julius Caesar kind of moment.
And then there’s other cases where there’s a weak political system that allows the system itself to be transformed into the will of the tyrant. And I think part of the good news story that I tell in the book is that the American system is really designed to prevent that from happening. And I think the founders knew that. The founders set that system up with tyranny in mind. One of the main goals of our legal system is to prevent any single person from amassing power and ruling over us in that way.
Jeff Schechtman: The other side of that is that the founders could not have imagined some of the ways in which our institutions operate today in this 24/7 social media world, and in ways that really help the tyrant come to power.
Andrew Fiala: Yes, things are different. So, 200 and some-odd years ago, people had to ride around on stagecoaches and horses, and it took a long time to get word around about what was happening. And here we are in a world of instant communication and networked communication, and we have these silos that form as a result of social media and the algorithms that manipulate what we see and what we hear. And it’s unprecedented where we are today in terms of communication technologies.
And the tyrant’s playbook actually includes the manipulation of ideas, images, communication. So, it’s possible to imagine someone taking advantage of the system in order to manipulate public opinion, manipulate the mob. And then, of course, the middlemen, the folks, the lawyers, the legal advisors, the politicians who help the tyrant rise to power can use that system also to put out messages to discredit other messages.
So, all the stuff we’ve been hearing about and thinking about in the last few years about fake news and alternative facts and so on, misinformation, disinformation — all of that is made possible by our networked communications. So, that’s why we have to pay attention, because we are in a system that’s unprecedented in terms of the way that ideas are manipulated and flow; and clever tyrants, tyrannical types will know how to manipulate that and use it against us.
Jeff Schechtman: What about the nature of societies where the people, for whatever reason, because of insecurity, because of external events, want to be controlled, are looking for that kind of tyrannical father figure?
Andrew Fiala: I think this is actually a tendency that we all have. History tells about the human spirit. Human beings do have this tendency to be stupid, to go along with the crowd, to be fascinated by violence, to be seduced by lies. This is a long story about human nature. We all have this tendency. You can see it, for example, in the schoolyard bully. There’s a bully on the schoolyard who’s a little mini tyrant, and he’s pushing someone around and then the crowd gathers around and cheers it on. It’s a dark part of our humanity, but we hope that we can educate ourselves and overcome that.
So, as you suggest, there may be some people or some systems in which human beings are not educated in that way, where we just fall in line behind the leader. And again, I think, part of the solution and maybe part of the hope here in the United States, is that we can avoid that. Maybe Americans shouldn’t be like that; we should know better. We should educate ourselves in liberty and truth and human rights, and we should know better than to cheer the tyrant on.
But, of course, there’s no perfect human, so we all succumb to that tendency. And I think you see that in our country, some of the stuff associated with January 6th and the riot at the Capitol and people were seduced, and often willingly seduced, by lies and misinformation. And I think it’s bipartisan, we do this on the left, we do it on the right, and it’s a constant struggle to overcome that feature of our human nature.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet there’s also an inherent feature of democracy that tends to foster citizen apathy, citizens to be removed from actively participating in the political process.
Andrew Fiala: Yes. So, Plato, the Greek philosopher, Plato was not a fan of democracy. And one of his arguments against democracy is as you’re putting it, that we, the people, the masses, the mob, tend to be unvirtuous, unwise, uneducated, disengaged, and we often vote against our own self-interest. It’s an ongoing problem in democracy, I think. Now fast forward to our era, we know that there are lots of folks who don’t even bother to register to vote, let alone vote, and then when they vote, they vote in an uneducated way.
And, again, we all do this, it’s hard work to educate yourself about our system, about who’s running for office, about what the policies are. And some critics of democracy have pointed out that’s the fatal flaw, that we put power in the hands of people who are disengaged and unwise, and the outcome can be terrible. So, we have to be cautious. And I guess my point here is that democracy is not the only solution to the problem. Instead, what we need is democracy plus education, enlightenment, engagement, wisdom, virtue and those sorts of things.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that’s so remarkable is why tyranny has happened so rarely or attempts at tyranny have happened so rarely in our democracy.
Andrew Fiala: Again, I think the American system is set up in a way that’s designed to prevent the worst of tyranny. This is a modern development. So, the Founders, they studied ancient Greek philosophy and history and they knew the problem of tyranny from the ancient world. And then they learned from modern political philosophers John Locke, Montesquieu, and others. And they came upon this interesting solution, which is there should be no single entity that has absolute power.
So, the checks-and-balances system that we all learned about in 11th or 12th grade history in government classes: powers are separated, there’s checks and balances, and then we have, of course, a Bill of Rights that basically says people are free to speak out and dissent and disagree. So this system that we are in is set up to prevent tyranny, I think.
Of course, let me point out that part of our history is that tyranny was woven into the Constitution in the form of slavery. Slavery is kind of an obvious tyranny where the slave master lords it over the slave. And the good news is we fixed that. It took a terrible civil war and it took years and years, but eventually we overcame that original flaw of the Constitution.
We learned from that history. There were some mistakes in the founding; those mistakes were fixed and I think we need to continue to move forward and think about what do we need to do to fix our system to make it even better.
Jeff Schechtman: And when we look at the Trump presidency and this particular moment that we’re still dealing with, what do we learn from this that is either new or that has historical precedent that we can look at?
Andrew Fiala: So, I argue that Trump has a kind of tyrannical personality. And what I mean by that is that President Trump, really, it was only about him. He was motivated by ego, pride. In the Greek tradition, they use this word ‘hubris‘ which means over-weaning pride, arrogance. That’s a feature of Trump, I think, no one can deny. He’s a new person on the political scene in our world. And he begins as a celebrity and people are fascinated with his wealth and power. It’s an interesting character in that regard.
So, the American people, I think, need to wise up about those types of persons. We have a tendency in our culture to celebrate celebrities and to be fascinated by wealth. That’s a flaw that we all have. I think we need to work as human beings to overcome that fascination with celebrities and wealth. And then on the other side of this is a question about our institutions and the strengthening the separation of powers and maybe even making our democracy a bit more democratic.
So, there’s a lot of things we could talk about in terms of the structures and systems in the United States, but we have this clunky electoral college system. We have a Senate that is not really representative in terms of democracy. The state of Wyoming has two senators and Wyoming has, I don’t know, half a million people or something. So, there are ways we could tweak the system to make it more effective in terms of resisting tyranny.
And I think we saw, during the Trump years, especially leading up to that January 6th moment, there were issues about elections and the regularity of the transfer of power and the role of the vice president in all of that. And I think all Americans need to be thinking about how we could strengthen that system to make it more resilient, more resistant to the machinations of a celebrity president, someone like Trump.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet our divide is such that it makes it more difficult to tweak and make those changes that need to be made.
Andrew Fiala: Oh, yes. We are in a strange place, Jeff. We can’t agree about the facts, we can’t agree about who won that election in 2020. We don’t agree about science and vaccines and masks. These disagreements are right in our face every day, which is going to make it very difficult to move forward. The hope is that eventually Americans can come together and understand what our problems are, what our challenges are, what some of the solutions might be.
But let me say, as a philosopher who studies the history of philosophy and the history of the world, there’s a bad news story that no democracy lasts forever. And human beings are deeply, deeply flawed. We’re imperfect beings. So, while I’m hopeful that maybe we could solve these problems, I also know from what I learn from history that sometimes problems don’t get solved. I don’t want to be too alarming, but if we don’t start figuring this stuff out soon, I am worried about the future of our country and our democracy.
Jeff Schechtman: What does history tell us about the nexus between tyranny and economics? Can we find direct linkage between good economic times or bad economic times and tyranny?
Andrew Fiala: That’s an interesting question. One of the things that Plato tells us at the end of his most important book, The Republic, Plato tells us about the rise of the tyrant. And in that story is the rise of oligarchy, the rise of plutocracy. Part of the story that Plato tells is that at some point the wealthy rule and that creates an instability in the system.
Now, Plato story’s a little bit more complicated than that but I think you’re seeing some of this problem today with the rise of the billionaire class. It seems that we live in a world where there are some people that have a different set of rules and they’re able to manipulate the political system in a way that is really not in the interest of the vast majority. So, there’s a hint about that in Plato. And I think, again, back to our current situation with billionaires and celebrities ruling the day, it’s an unstable system and the billionaires and celebrities know how to pander to us.
They make us feel like we’re loved and special and empowered, but they’re taking advantage of us in the background, picking our pockets as they compliment us. So, this is an ongoing, a perennial problem, and studying the history of philosophy shows us that it’s not new. This was a problem the Greeks knew about as well.
Jeff Schechtman: In many ways, celebrity culture today has taken the place of the role that religion took I guess historically.
Andrew Fiala: Yes, I think you’re right. So our celebrities are like these demigods. We worship them. It’s a very strange idea that if someone is wealthy then also they’re better or good. We know that’s probably not true. I don’t want to say that everyone who makes a lot of money is necessarily evil but there are people who make their celebrity and gain their fame and their wealth in slippery ways. And yet we ignore that and we put them up on a pedestal and somehow worship them and they fill our brains with ideas and images.
And I think you’re right, there is a kind of weird religiosity to that. And maybe it’s that we’ve lost the rituals and the patterns of traditional religion. And so we’re looking for something to fill in that space in our spirits and we see a celebrity, we see, — again, left or right — we see a Donald Trump on the one side and, I don’t know, a Kim Kardashian on the other side. And that fills like a need we have for someone to admire, to revere, to worship, to follow.
Jeff Schechtman: And, of course, and I don’t remember who is it that said that behind every great fortune there’s a great crime.
Andrew Fiala: I think a part of the problem here is that the mere fact of being famous or wealthy doesn’t tell us anything about the moral character of the person. And we get confused sometimes, and we get confused about the difference between greatness and goodness. The idea of making America great again is about power and influence and fame and glory. But goodness is different from that. Goodness is about character and virtue and wisdom. And it’s easy to be confused about those things.
Jeff Schechtman: Does history tell us when you look at the history of tyrants that things have to get worse before they get better, that things do have to hit bottom before people come to their senses, so to speak?
Andrew Fiala: Wow, I hope that’s not true. So, I hope we are smart enough to solve our problems before they get very, very bad. But the historical record also shows us that there’s violence and war and rebellion and oppression, this is a common refrain. I guess I’m thinking of a couple of examples. Let’s think about slavery again, an obvious form of tyranny. It took a war to end slavery in the United States, and then the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was himself assassinated.
That’s a stark reminder in our own history that if we’re not careful, violence pops up, and it turns out there’s a good news story from that terrible episode of more than 100 years ago. It was a good news story, but it could have gone either way. And with the assassination of Lincoln and so on, anything could happen. History does show us that there are some really, really terrible things that occur. My challenge for Americans is, let’s be wiser than that. Let’s try to avoid the worst case. Let’s try to solve our problems before it gets to something as terrible as civil war.
Jeff Schechtman: Andrew Fiala, his new book is Tyranny from Plato to Trump: tyrants, sycophants, and citizens. Andrew, thank you so much for spending time with us.
Andrew Fiala: Jeff, thanks for having me on. It’s good to talk with you.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you’ll join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.