August 29, 2008

Tacitus and Idi Amin

Having just seen a film about Idi Amin- not the last king of Scotland but another that I shall review soon- and reading John Pocock's analysis of the way that Tacitus contributed to the history of Rome written by Gibbon, a thought struck me about the nature of tyranny. What Pocock highlights and what the film obliquely suggests is that at the door of the tyrant public rhetoric stops. That is true because politics is discussion- there is no point in having an ideology unless you have an argument. In Republics and Democracies, argument is key: it is the way that you convince others to support your cause. In a tyranny that is not how the political system works- rather than working out what your argument is, rather than adopting a rhetorical structure to embody the virtues of your position- you have the task of adapting to the tyrant's moods. Your political activity turns from a study of political argument into a study of a personality. Consequently the study of courts- from Tacitus to Castiglione- emphasized the way that a courtier had to behave in accordance with his master's wishes. Optimists like Castiglione beleived that the King could be twisted towards a rational argument, pessimists like Sir Thomas Wyatt thought that that was impossible and the court was just a struggle for preferment (Sir Thomas More's position in Utopia is curiously poised between the two). But the point is evident- in the quietness of the court, as opposed to the loud hubbub of the public fora, something happens to the way that political arguments are couched. They become less rhetorical, more personal and in the minds of the great republican theorists, less political. The words of the tyrant are the expression of the law- not the contribution of one individual to the forming of a collective mind- and in that system it is the personality of the tyrant that governs the nature of the argument, not the truth or the fallacy of the propositions advanced.


The Organic Viking said...

Where would you place monarchy in this discussion? My impression has always been that medieval monarchies in any case (as if I know about much else) sit somewhere between your tyranny and democracy. Debate and public opinion undoutbedly existed in a kind of 'consultative kingship', yet at the same time they had to coexist with the immense authority invested in the king himself and the resulting influence of his own personality. Any thoughts?

Sal (up to her neck in Charlemagne, as usual!)

Lord James Bigglesworth said...

Public discussion most certainly stops there.

Sorry not to have been over and thanks for the great post.

Gracchi said...

Sal- I just realised that was you! How are things going? But yes I think medieval monarchy has a complicated relationship both to tyranny and to a republic. Its interesting to read Fortescue and see him calling England a political kingdom. I always when I think of medieval kingship hearken back to a slogan of James I, when he was asked by one of his parliaments to obey precedents- James thought hard and responded that he would obey the precedents set by William I, Edward I, Edward III and Henry VIII- but not those set in the reigns of John, Edward II, or any of the other weak monarchs of English history. I also wonder about the practical constraints on medieval kingship- particularly in terms of their comparative wealth and the ease of taking their thrones off them.

James not a problem- was a pleasure!

The Organic Viking said...

Things are good thanks. PhD still plods on, but I reckon I am reasonably on track to finish in a year or thereabouts, and I am enjoying blogging about more practical matters. How are things with you? Hope the job is still going well.

an Estonian reader said...

Thank you very much, nicely done. Very observant and incisive.