Today, as in ancient times, tyrannical abuses of power—whether by one person, a few, or many—destroy individuals, corrode communities, and endanger democratic institutions. During the eighth through the fifth centuries BCE, however, ancient Greece witnessed an unprecedented movement away from tyranny and tribalism and toward civil society and broader forms of political participation. Democracy emerged as a consequence of gradual changes in social and political attitudes fostered by epic and tragic reworkings of Greek myths over many centuries. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus's Oresteia, and Sophocles's Antigone identify aspirations and skills crucial to preventing abuses of power in any and every era. The ancient Greeks never removed tyrannical abuses of power from their world or from themselves, but their stories show us why and how we could.
The Iliad's opening scenes depict a hierarchical, destructively competitive power structure familiar to the epic's earliest archaic audiences and not unfamiliar to us today. High achievers compete ruthlessly for honor, wealth, and supremacy at the expense of the community's welfare. Truth succumbs to violence and intimidation. Cruelty and bystanders' enjoyment of it constitute the emblems of tyrannical leadership and thoughtless subjection to it. By adhering to the principles of their own society, leading men harm their communities and themselves. The epic's human characters blame the gods for their suffering, but the audience sees that human choices are far more determinative than divine actions, and their consequences more predictable. Democracy was not even a concept when tales of the Trojan War began to circulate, but the Iliad begins by exposing the cost to everyone of exclusively self-serving leadership, and suggesting that the community bears the responsibility for defining "good" leadership.
The Odyssey begins by emphasizing that human communities need some form of mortal political authority capable of maintaining order. In the archaic world of Homer's characters and earliest audiences, "political authority" meant a king or a small group of powerful elites; but the epic begins to undermine the legitimacy of unfettered and unaccountable autocratic authority by suggesting that the powerful are responsible for the quality of life of everyone subject to their power. The Odyssey defines a "good" king as a ruler who benefits not merely himself but everyone in the community by promoting respect for reciprocal obligations among everyone, including himself. The ancient Greeks themselves failed to achieve this goal, but the Odyssey's portrait of communal order and happiness excludes all forms of tyranny. It offers both a challenge and an invitation to every human community.
Odysseus's adventures begin with his remarkable choice of reality over fantasy. This choice initiates his return home and permits him to recover his political authority and reestablish order and happiness for himself, his household, and his community. The seductions and deceptions of imaginative non-reality-based narratives can help cultivate our evidence-based reasoning skills. But Odysseus's example reminds us that a preference for fantasy, irrationality, and magical thinking over the reality of empirical lived experience can corrode our capacity for rational thought and prevent constructive political discourse and creative problem-solving. Preferring fantasy to reality, we risk empowering the tyrants and would-be tyrants in our own times, because they are hard at work in the real world while we amuse ourselves in imaginary ones. The rejection of tyranny originates in the realization that real-life problems require real-life solutions.
This section of the Odyssey reminds us that the distinction between "true" and "false" matters, and that recognizing the distinction is our responsibility. Instead of asking or permitting the audience to suspend disbelief, tales narrated by Odysseus evoke our skepticism and cultivate our empiricism because we have other evidence against which to measure them. The Odyssey suggests that the determination of "true" or "false" is not merely a matter of opinion. Truth must be objectively verifiable. Matching wits with Odysseus, we develop the skills to defend ourselves against authoritative speakers who bombard us with fictions, even contradictory fictions, so as to eradicate the very concept of objective fact.
The Odyssey's conclusion introduces a profoundly egalitarian challenge to any narrowly based or exclusive power structure, and to the primitive equation of vengeance with justice. Ingenuity, skepticism, empiricism, and self-restraint enable Odysseus to succeed in exacting violent revenge against the rapacious, shortsighted suitors. But the epic presents these essential survival skills as potentially accessible to anyone, and Odysseus's successful defeat of the suitors offers no guarantee of permanently benevolent leadership, political harmony, or future prosperity. The epic's unsatisfying ending reminds the audience that vengeance is not a solution but a problem, a source of greater conflict. Violent revenge manifests as a lethal threat to civil society, since it is likely to escalate and become interminable. Not violence but farsighted wisdom and self-restraint, symbolized by Athena's ultimate intervention, prove vital to individual and communal survival and success.
Athenian tragedies in the fifth century BCE challenged traditional, archaic tribal goals and promoted new ideals more conducive to preserving civil society and democratic institutions. The Oresteia undermines the age-old equation of revenge with justice, revising an ancient tale and dramatizing the devastating consequences of retributive violence. As each violent act in this new version derives from and produces others, Aeschylus exposes the common fallacy of assuming that because one side in a dispute appears deeply wrong the other side must be right. In the trilogy's conclusion, persuasive speech permits a zero-sum conception of justice and victory to evolve from a crushing conquest of one side at the expense of another into a conception of victory as a win for all concerned. The Oresteia presents the trial by jury as a healthier alternative to vengeance killings. Our great challenge is to make that vision a reality.
Like the Homeric epics, Athenian tragedies offer us, as they offered fifth-century Athenians, the opportunity to learn from others' mistakes. Sophocles's Antigone explores the great challenge confronting every human community: What do we do when we disagree? Antigone exposes the catastrophic consequences of a closed mind incapable of accepting new information or thinking creatively. Neither Creon nor Antigone is a constructive role model. The collision between Creon's rejection of the family in favor of civic loyalties and Antigone's "family first" certainty and disregard for civic loyalties destroys family, city, and the relevant individuals. Inflexible, hot-tempered, and impervious to reasoned argument, Antigone and Creon collide and self-destruct. Antigone learns nothing. Creon learns too late. They cannot be helped, but maybe we can be. Dramatizing how not to go about resolving disputes, Sophocles's cautionary tale reminds us that in every conflict our certainties may blind us to better ideas.
Twenty-first-century tyranny is merely the latest iteration of an age-old pestilence. The Iliad, Odyssey, Oresteia, and Antigone can help to inoculate us against it. These stories remind us that words have consequences and that discernment is our responsibility. They teach us to value evidence and expertise, and to choose leaders who will not sacrifice the welfare of the community to their own shortsighted greed. Exposing the tyrannical potential of a closed mind, these tales encourage us to resist the seductions of violence, assess facts, value diverse viewpoints, and resolve complex problems creatively. They not only fortify us against liars, magical thinkers, con artists, and thugs, but also remind us to beware of becoming liars, magical thinkers, con artists, or thugs ourselves. Fortified by ancient Greek tales against the tyrannical forces of today, we can learn to govern ourselves.