Monday, February 1, 2021

Herodotus: On the Doctrine of Equality

The doctrine of equality has been used as a political weapon since ancient times. In his Histories, Herodotus wrote about Periander, the tyrant of Corinth, who had learned that some nobles in his kingdom were conspiring against him. Having become a tyrant recently, he was not sure who the rebellious nobles were, and what was the safest way of suppressing their rebellion. Periander sent his assistant to Thrasybulus, the wise longtime tyrant of Miletus, to seek advice on how to rule. Here’s Herodotus's description:

“Thrasybulus invited the man to walk with him from the city to a field where corn was growing. As he passed through this cornfield, continually asking questions about why the messenger had come to him from Corinth, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until the finest and best-grown part of the crop was ruined. In this way he went right through the field, and then sent the messenger away without a word. On his return to Corinth, Periander was eager to hear what advice Thrasybulus had given, and the man replied that he had not given any at all, adding that he was surprised at being sent to visit such a person, who was evidently mad and a wanton destroyer of his own property — and then described what he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander seized the point at once; it was perfectly plain to him that Thrasybulus recommended the murder of all the people in the city who were outstanding in influence or ability. Moreover, he took the advice, and from that time forward there was no crime against the Corinthians that he did not commit.”

The advice that Thrasybulus gave was that Periander should usher a regime of equality by chopping off the heads of the best people in his kingdom, in the same way that one might cut off the tallest ears of wheat. When the tallest men are gone and everyone in the kingdom becomes equal, there will be no one left with the capability of opposing the tyrant.

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