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 writes about Periander, the tyrant of Corinth, who had learned that some nobles in his kingdom were conspiring against him. But, having become a tyrant recently, he was not sure who the rebellious nobles were, and what was the best way of suppressing their rebellion. So, Periander sends 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 of Thrasybulus is that Periander must usher a regime of equality by chopping of the heads of all the best people in his kingdom, in the same way that one might cut off the tallest ears of wheat. When the best men are gone, everyone in the kingdom becomes equal, and there is no one left with the capability and the will to oppose the tyrant.

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