What must be endured

In his essay On Kingship, Aquinas tells the following story, which comes from Valerius Maximus, a 1st century Roman:

Whence in Syracuse, at a time when everyone desired the death of Dionysius, a certain old woman kept constantly praying that he might be unharmed and that he might survive her. When the tyrant learned this he asked why she did it. Then she said: “When I was a girl we had a harsh tyrant and I wished for his death; when he was killed, there succeeded him one who was a little harsher. I was very eager to see the end of his dominion also, and we began to have a third ruler still more harsh — that was you. So if you should be taken away, a worse would succeed in your place.

The lesson Aquinas draws from this story is that it is dangerous to kill a tyrant, and against the teaching of the apostles besides. The old republican wisdom — that it is beneficial and heroic for “strong men” to try to kill a tyrant — is wrong for Aquinas, because overthrowing a tyrant is inherently full of dangers. It may be that the attempt fails, and the tyrant will “rage all the more”, because to his greed is added fear, or because he now has another pretext for oppression. Or the disorder caused by a successful overthrow may lead to civil war. And there is no guarantee that those who are willing to face the danger of attacking the tyrant do so out of benevolence. Willingness to face death in order to strike at power can come from ambition, too.

So the hope of saving the community by tyrannicide is a dangerous optimism, for Aquinas. His argument reminds me of the famous, bad (but alas, not famously bad) argument in Jefferson’s letter to Madison, on Shay’s Rebellion. Jefferson writes (on Jan 30, 1787) that political rebellions are

as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

So: rebellions are necessary. But they are often counter-productive, namely when they are unsuccessful, because they give bad governments a reason for oppressing the people. So good governments shouldn’t punish rebellions too harshly, so as not to discourage rebellion too much. But the assumption upon which the rebellion is based is that the government is not in fact good, but bad! So when rebellion is most needed and justified, it is most likely to backfire, and lead to more oppression. But when it is most needlessly destructive, it is more likely to be met with leniency (and, for Jefferson, should be met with leniency). For this very reason the needless and stupid rebellions are more likely to be followed up by more needless and stupid rebellions! This is a poor defense of the necessity and goodness of “a little rebellion now and then”.

The proposed medicine for a political pathology is often another kind of disease. The remedy for tyranny is (often) assassination, violent overthrow and even civil war. To fight gangrene, a limb must be amputated. Hobbes’ reference to tragedy (in De Cive) is appropriate: like the daughters of King Pelias, who were tricked by Medea into cutting up their father, in order to make him young again through witchcraft, those who try to reform the state can impose their own even more violent remedy, which fails to achieve its end. For Hobbes, the defect (old age) is due to nature. But the false medicine is violence that springs from a lie.

The implication of the arguments of Thomas Aquinas and Hobbes, is that some bad things in politics must simply be borne. Tyranny must simply be born, if the alternative is rebellion, civil war, or revolution. Corruption must be born. Injustice must be born. Indeed, we should sometimes pray for it to continue, so that a worse thing does not come in its place. But in modern political campaigns, we tend not to entertain the idea that some things must simply be borne. Then, we can’t help but agree that the bad thing must no longer be borne. We need some destructive event to come, if only to “shake things up”. This is true even if there’s not much to do about it. The Midwest will not re-industrialize. Middle-income factory jobs in the U.S. are not returning to 1970 levels. The West won’t be Christian and certainly not white in the way it used to be, anytime soon. International disorder and uncertainty aren’t disappearing, anytime soon. But we are not told these things. We are told the opposite. Medea has not played her final trick.