The philosopher Philo of Alexandria, in the second book of his treatise On Dreams (II.18.123), relates a story about a despotic governor of Egypt. “It is only a very short time ago,” he says, “that I knew a man of very high rank, one who was prefect and governor of Egypt, who, after he had taken it in his head to change our national institutions and customs…was compelling us to obey him, and to do other things contrary to our established custom.”
Philo lived from about 20 B.C. to A.D. 50. He was a prominent figure in Alexandria’s Jewish community in his day, and he would have been well-placed to observe the policies of this Roman governor, whom he does not name. But he makes it very clear that this governor tried to crush the cultural identity of the Jews with a deliberate policy of cruelty and repression. “And as he saw that those to whom he offered violence did not yield to his injunctions, and that the rest of our people was not disposed to submit in tranquility, but was indignant and furious…and was mourning and dispirited as if at the enslaving…and utter destruction of their country, he thought fit to endeavor by a speech to persuade them to transgress [i.e., submit].” So this Roman governor of Egypt, when he was unable to accomplish his goals with violence, turned instead to the use of persuasion.
What did the governor say to Philo’s besieged community? He offered nothing but more arrogance, coercion, and explicit threats. In frustration at the failure of his policies, he lashed out at this insolent minority which had the temerity to resist his dictates. He described the destructiveness and evils of war—as if they were unfamiliar with them—and then added ominously:
And indeed I myself am all the evils which I have just enumerated. I am a whirlwind, I am war, and deluge, and thunderbolt, and the calamity of famine, and the misery of pestilence, and an earthquake which shakes and overthrows what stood firm before, not being merely the name of a necessity of fate, but actual, visible power, standing close to you. [II.18.129]
Imagine hearing someone call himself whirlwind, war, or deluge! His purpose in speaking in this hyperbolic way was to cow the Jews into submission. If so, his words accomplished just the opposite, for Philo reacts with scorn and disgust at the governor’s heavy-handed, oafish methods. “What then can we say that a man who says, or who merely thinks such things as these, is? Is he not an evil of an extraordinary nature? He surely must be some foreign calamity, brought over the sea, or from some other world, since he, a man in every respect miserable, has dared to compare himself to the all-blessed God.” Philo’s assessment is certainly true; this governor was able to do nothing but inflame the national identity and cohesion of the very nation he sought to crush.
Not only does Philo despise this sort of “leader,” but he also pours scorn on those who would follow him and serve as his lackeys. “Let us now in turn look at their followers by themselves. These men are always laying plots against the practitioners of virtue, and when they see them laboring to make their own lives pure with guileless truth…they endeavor by deceit, or even by open violence, to hinder them, trying to drive them into the sunless country of impious men, which is occupied by deep night, and endless darkness…and then, having thrust them down, they compel them to fall down and worship them as masters.”
So it was in Philo’s day, and so it is in our own. Yet the tyrants and oppressors of the modern era are more subtle and cunning that those of ancient times. The twenty-first century despot has more tools at his disposal to shape his public image, to control the thoughts of his subjects, and to hide his injustices and cruelties behind protective screens of various sorts. All the instruments of the modern technological state are now brought to bear on those who refuse to submit to the arbitrary dictates of unjust emperors and sawdust kings: “social credit” systems, biometric controls, economic incentives and punishments, physical restrictions, and finally, when all else fails, overt physical force.
Philo uses the Persian king Xerxes as another example of this kind of ruler. In order to strike terror in the hearts of the Greeks, and frighten them into surrender, Xerxes carried out immense projects that would showcase his power and resources. He joined the Hellespont with a massive pontoon bridge; he broke up Mount Athos, we are told, into gulfs and ravines, which then became filled with seawater; and he marched huge armies across the land, laying waste to whatever he could find. Yet it all these efforts came to nothing, because his purposes were fundamentally unjust. In his insane projects of conquest, Xerxes offended both men and Fortune; and so futile were his goals, that his arrows and javelins might just as well have been launched at the stars in the firmament.
But it is very different when a people is fighting for its homeland and its basic rights. The moral equation is entirely reversed in this situation, and he who seems strong may find himself not very strong at all. Livy (XXI.43.11) spoke the truth when he said,
Often an enemy seen as contemptible has caused a bloody fight, and famous nations and kings have been defeated with very light effort. [Saepe et contemptus hostis cruentem certamen edidit et incliti populi regesque perlevi momento victi sunt].
He who is fighting for his identity and survival is favored by Fortune; the rectitude of his cause earns him a storehouse of moral power that can shape external events. Livy (X.27) describes an incident that perhaps illustrates this principle. Around 290 B.C. the Romans were engaged in warfare with the Gauls, who posed a constant threat in early Roman history. During one engagement, as the Roman and Gaulish forces lined up for battle, suddenly a wolf chased a deer down from some surrounding hills in the Italian countryside. The two animals made their way across the no-man’s land between the military forces facing each other; as they did so, the deer turned towards the Gauls, and the wolf towards the Romans.
The Gauls killed the deer; but the Roman force parted ranks to allow the wolf to pass through unmolested, thereby showing reverence for the animal as a divine symbol. A Roman soldier shouted out to the Gauls, “Over there, you have killed an animal sacred to [the goddess Diana], and so slaughter taints your purpose. While here, we know how to show respect for the wolf of Mars, who is also the founder of Rome!” Here of course the soldier was referring to the special place that the wolf held in legends about the foundation of the city.
And even when tyrants apparently win, when they are seemingly able to accomplish their purposes, their actions generate so much hate that they can never really profit from their enterprises. It was Winston Churchill who said that nations which go down fighting eventually are resurrected, while those that surrender may find themselves blotted from the pages of history. The fundamental cruelty of tyrants defeats their purposes. Livy (VIII.37) describes how, around 324 B.C., the people of Tusculum supported two tribes (the Veliterni and the Privernates) in their war against the Roman people. When the Romans prevailed, as they usually did, the citizens of Tusculum came to Rome to seek peace and forgiveness. They made a great display of contrition by hugging the knees of Roman citizens.
A tribune named Marcus Flavius had proposed to punish the Tusculans for siding with Rome’s enemies; but after the Tusculans had shown their desire to make amends, almost no one wanted to punish the Tusculans. “Thus mercy was of more value,” says Livy, “in enabling them to obtain a stay of punishment, than were the reasons for dismissing the indictment.” Only one of Rome’s allied tribes, the Pollian, voted for harsh retribution against the Tusculans; they thought every man should be put to death, and the women and children sold into slavery. This brutal and cruel proposal engendered such resentment with the Tusculans that their bitterness against the Pollian tribe endured for centuries.
What point did such vindictiveness serve? Do they not understand how hate feeds on hate, and evil on evil? Here we can appreciate the true profundity of that subtle Arab of medieval Sicily, Ibn Zafar Al-Siqilli, whose political acumen has probably never been surpassed. In his Consolation for the Ruler amid the Hostility of His Subjects, in the tale of the two foxes, he says,
Hence it is said that the unjust man goes of his own accord in search of the knife that slays him, and his own feet bear him to the brink of the abyss into which his evil conduct will precipitate him. It was said, ‘Sovereignty and injustice cannot share a throne, which cannot be left vacant.’ Every sinner will find one to pardon him, except the unjust, in whose fall all rejoice with one accord. As much as injustice gives you, so much does it take from you.
The unjust leader becomes, in effect, both a hunted and haunted man. His actions only serve to isolate him more and more from what is good and right; and eventually, nothing can save him from toppling permanently into the abyss. We will close with a final relevant comment from Philo of Alexandria, who said, in his essay On the Virtues (XXXV.190):
For every bad man is destitute of a house, and destitute of a city, having been driven from his proper country, namely, virtue; which is the real, genuine country of all wise men. And ignobleness does of necessity attach itself to such a man, even though he be descended from grandfathers and great-grandfathers whose lives were wholly irreproachable, since he studies to alienate himself from them, and detaches himself from and removes to the greatest possible distance from real nobility in all his words and actions.
Read more in the essay collection Digest, which includes all essays from 2016 to early 2020: