On The Tempests Of Misery

The Roman writer Aelian, in his Varia Historia (X.5) credits the following parable to Aesop the Phrygian, although I have never heard it mentioned in collections of his stories.  He said that a pig squeals when it is touched by man for a good reason:  it does not produce fur or milk for human use, as a goat or sheep, and has nothing to offer except its own meat. 

For this reason the pig is constantly troubled by visions of its impending death.  Tyrants, said Aesop, are of the same ilk as the squealing pig.  They are constantly on their guard, and never have a moment’s rest; everyone they meet could be an enemy, and they are tormented by images of a violent fate.  We might substitute “any man of authority” in the place of “tyrant,” for in ancient times the word tyrant did not mean precisely what it means now.  The parable is to a great extent true: but leaders make things worse for themselves by failing to learn from philosophy.  They often refuse to control their desires, to restrain their appetites, and to adopt the correct perspectives on things; and these omissions turn their lives into an inescapable tempest of misery.  From every side, they are blasted by the cruel winds of fate, yet fail to recognize that the solutions to their problems are within their grasp, if only they would submit themselves to the teachings of that saving mistress, philosophy. 

Simonides of Ceos and Pausanias the Spartan, says Aelian (IX.41), were once attending a dinner party.  When Pausanias asked Simonides to say something wise, the latter responded, “Remember that you too are human.”  But Pausanias considered this a comment of no importance.  He continued to rush around, this way and that, and became oblivious to the counsel of others.  He was proud of his standard of living and of the luxuries he was able to amass.  But fortune eventually turned against him, as always happens.  He eventually was reduced to poverty and found himself in the Temple of Athena in Sparta, begging for his food; his life had become a raging tempest of misery.  It was at this point that he thought again of what Simonides had told him, and said to himself, “Comrade from Ceos, you spoke very wisely, and I foolishly failed to reflect on your words.”

In this same spirit, let us reflect on the life of Dionysius II of Syracuse.  He lived from around 397 to 343 B.C., and ruled the city of Syracuse in Sicily for two terms:  the first from 367 to 357 B.C., and the second from 346 to 344 B.C.  He was the son of Dionysius I, who was also a Syracusan ruler.  When his father died, Dionysius II was still a young man and not yet ready to assume the responsibilities of command.  The historians tell us that the youth was impetuous, undisciplined, and hot-tempered; for this reason his uncle Dion was brought in to act as a moderating influence.  Dion did all he could to train the youth and guide him on the right path.  He even brought in Plato from Attica to instruct the young Dionysius on the necessity of wisdom and moderation. 

But these efforts came to nothing.  Dionysius resented what he saw as impositions, and began to listen to the schemers who always hovered about the throne, the types who cater to a ruler’s worst impulses for their own personal gain.  Dion was eventually forced into exile in Greece; the vindictive Dionysius confiscated his property and even gave his wife to another man.  With the departure of Dion went all moderating influence on Dionysius.  His rule grew increasingly arbitrary and tyrannical; soon he was hated by the majority of the Syracusans.  It is never a good thing for a ruler to have too many enemies.  Eventually Dion began to plot a return to Syracuse to avenge himself against the tyrant.  He formed an army and returned to Syracuse in 357 B.C., forcing out Dionysius, who was compelled to flee to the city of Locri in southern Italy. 

But even there, the undisciplined Dionysius reverted to his old habits.  He began to abuse the people and generated a well of hatred against himself.  He requisitioned the houses of private citizens for his own use; he wasted the people’s money; and he took unwanted liberties with the daughters of many Locrians.  When Dion in Syracuse was assassinated in 346 B.C., Dionysius saw an opportunity to return to power in his old stronghold.  He left Locri.  But the resentment he had kindled there exploded soon after.  The Locrians took a ferocious revenge against the wife and daughters he had left there; we are told that they forced the wife and daughters of Dionysius into prostitution.  Even this could not placate the Locrians’ rage; they eventually killed his wife and daughters, possibly consuming some of their remains, if we are to believe the historians.

Dionysius was actually able to regain power in Syracuse after the assassination of Dion, not because of any love the people had for him, but because of the opportunity presented by the existing political turbulence.  Eventually the people rose up against him again, and combined their efforts to overthrow him with an invasion of Sicily by the Corinthian leader Timoleon.  By 344 B.C. Dionysius realized that the game was up.  Surrounded by enemies on all sides, and with nowhere else to go, he negotiated a deal with Timoleon whereby he would leave for Corinth in a voluntary and permanent exile.  He ended his days in “extreme poverty,” according to Aelian, working as “a mendicant priest of Cybele, playing the drums and accompanied by the aulos.”  Such is the final destination of those who travel the roads of arrogance, indiscipline, and unrestraint.   

It was Dionysius’s lack of self-control, his failure to accept any restraints on his desires, that led ultimately to his downfall.  He had charisma and some ability, but these alone were not enough.  It is only philosophy that can provide the underpinnings of the self-control required to avoid life’s tempests of misery.  Aelian tells us (IX.33) that a pupil of Zeno the Stoic once went home to his father, and the father asked his son what he had learned from long attendance of Zeno’s lectures; the boy’s response was only that he would soon show him.  When no further explanation was forthcoming, the father grew angry and began to berate his son.  The boy remained patient and unperturbed in the midst of this parental outburst.  He then told his father that he had learned to master his passions, and not to lose his temper when provoked by others. 

Another anecdote dealing with this same subject is one related to Socrates and Alcibiades.  When Alcibiades would send Socrates lavish presents during festivals, Socrates’s wife Xanthippe was adamant that the gifts should be accepted.  But Socrates disagreed, saying that it would be wrong to accept such things.  Someone then told him that it was a great thing to receive what one desires.  “Perhaps,” replied Socrates, “but it is even a greater thing not to desire them in the first place.” 

Any man of authority will quickly see his life turn into a raging tempest of misery, as I like to call it, if he does not develop the capacity for relentless self-discipline.  It can be a severe rule, but in its absence, self-destruction is all but certain.  Demands are made on the man of authority all the time.  Petitioners, clients, friends, hangers-on, associates:  all of them have their own agendas and plans, and a leader must strike that balance between satisfying them and keeping them, when necessary, at arm’s length.  It is said that the statesman Themistocles saw himself as an oak tree:  men took shelter under his branches during rainy weather, and appreciated his sturdiness, but during sunny times, when there was no need of his shelter, passers-by would think nothing of clipping off his twigs, branches, and leaves.  This is the price of leadership, the demands of the office; and no man should accept such a position unless he is prepared for this reality.  If he cannot deal with this truth, his life will become, as Dionysius II of Syracuse’s life became, a swirling tempest of misery consuming all before it; and it is only by embracing the lessons of philosophy, which teaches us how to live well, can this terrible vortex be avoided.    

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