Friday, September 16, 2016


Waller R. Newell, Tyranny: A New Interpretation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. x, 544. ISBN 9781107610736. $29.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Daniel B. Unruh, Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site


My first duty in this review is to apologize deeply for its lateness.

My second duty is to acknowledge that I have grave disagreements with the methodology of the book under discussion. Waller Newell belongs to a school of political science that looks at works of political thought largely in isolation, admitting only the influence of other works of political thought and largely ignoring the social, economic or cultural context. My own view as a political historian is that it is not possible to approach Plato, for example, without an understanding of the situation in fourth-century BCE Athens, or Machiavelli without knowledge of the broader world of fifteenth-century CE Italy. I will not belabour this point, but given that my review will be somewhat critical, it seems fair to inform the readers of this basic disagreement as early as possible.

Thirdly, I should mention that this book is clearly not aimed at Classicists. It does not engage with any of the current debates over classical tyranny, and indeed rarely cites classical scholarship at all. This of course does not necessarily mean that it can have nothing useful to say to Classicists, but it seems fair to warn readers hoping for a close engagement with, for example, Lynette Mitchell, Sian Lewis, or James McGlew, that they will find themselves disappointed.

These preliminary comments out of the way, I can move on to a discussion of the book on its own merits. Despite the promise of its title and early introduction, this book does not give a "new interpretation of tyranny" tout court. Rather, the majority of the book deals with a much narrower range of material: what Waller Newell delivers is a study of tyranny and power in the political thought of Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon and Machiavelli, with an emphasis on how the latter differs in his attitude to power and authority from the three classical writers.

After a long introductory chapter setting out his approach, Newell begins his exploration with a discussion of politics and tyranny in Plato (primarily Republic, with some discussion of Laws and Statesman as well) and Aristotle's Politics (Chapters 2 and 3). Both authors, he argues, share a view of Nature as a benign and transcendent order, which can provide a sure and safe guide for political life if properly understood. In this view, the tyrant is a ruler who has been led by his erotic (in the broadest sense of the term) desires to turn away from this order and seek solely the satisfaction of his own lusts for power, wealth, and sensual pleasure. The job of political philosophy in Plato and Aristotle is to redirect the soul's erotic longings away from mere sensual gratification and toward the transcendent beauty of Nature. Both authors, Newell argues, generally present the ideal state as an austere aristocratic republic, governed by individuals who have comprehended the beneficent natural order and who keep their own and others' passions in check by a rigid will, guided by reason.

Both Plato and Aristotle, however, are also aware of an alternative form of philosophical government, that of a single extraordinary individual, who, inspired by the transcendent image of nature and motivated by a desire for success and glory, will seize sole control of a state and even build it into a vast, rationally-ordered empire. Although such a ruler might, theoretically, be just as capable of providing a happy and harmonious state as their preferred republic, Plato and Aristotle both ultimately reject him as incompatible with their ideal of a union of autonomous citizens.

These chapters seem fairly uncontroversial: many, if not most classicists would likely agree with Newell's sketch of Platonic and Aristotelian attitudes. By the same token, however, Classicists will find little surprising or challenging here; Newell's goal seems more to be to reiterate the broad consensus about Plato and Aristotle so as to use them as a foil for the later writers.

Newell then moves on to Xenophon and the Cyropedia (Chapter 4). This work, he argues, represents a thorough exploration of the path that Plato and Aristotle feared to take. Newell sees Xenophon's Cyrus as a thoroughly admirable figure, who, raised in the kind of aristocratic republic that Plato and Aristotle praise, rejects its strictures and lets his desire for glory lead him to forge a vast, multi-ethnic empire that he then governs fairly and rationally. While Xenophon goes farther than Plato and Aristotle in investigating the possibilities of enlightened autocracy, Newell ultimately sees him as too much a student of Socrates to fully endorse such a regime: Cyrus' empire inevitably decays, as his successors find themselves incapable of maintaining his degree of rational self-control and awareness of the transcendent Good.

Here I believe that Newell would have benefited from more engagement with contemporary classical scholarship. The Cyropedia is a notoriously complex and difficult work, and Newell's presentation of it as a straightforward portrait of a virtuous Prince seems too reductive. While it is true that some classicists do see Xenophon's Cyrus as a largely positive figure,1 others have seen in Xenophon's narrative a bitter undercurrent that throws doubt upon the apparently benevolent despotism of Cyrus' empire.2 An engagement with such ideas is largely lacking in Newell's approach. Newell does open the possibility of such a reading in Chapter 5, where he argues that Machiavelli reads Cyrus as a cynical, manipulative, and indeed "Machiavellian" leader, but ultimately rejects this as Machiavelli's distortion of Xenophon's more optimistic work (p. 270).

Jumping forward nearly two millennia, Newell devotes the remainder of the book (Chapters 5, 6, and 7) to Machiavelli's innovations on the classical model. The chief difference between Machiavelli and the ancient authors, Newell asserts, lies in their differing attitudes to nature. For Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon, nature meant a benevolent order, with which mortals could align themselves and thus achieve personal fulfilment and civic harmony. Machiavelli, by contrast, represents nature as an impersonal, amoral, and chaotic Fortuna. The way in which humans achieve satisfaction is not by following a non-existent natural order, but by imposing their own order by force upon the raw chaos of nature. This domination of Fortuna is displayed by the Machiavellian Prince, who imposes his personal will on the chaotic world of human society. With no transcendent moral order, there is no difference between moral king and immoral tyrant: there are merely successful Princes, and unsuccessful ones. Newell also argues that Machiavelli sees communities as collectively able to exercise an ordering power over natural chaos. In Machiavelli's Discourses, Newell claims, the Roman Republic preserves order at home by maintaining a creative tension between Senate and People, while outside its borders treats other communities just as the Prince treated other citizens.

The chapters on Machiavelli are clearly where Newell's primary passion lies, and they contain some of the most interesting and original material. I was particularly struck by the insightful ways in which Newell links Machiavelli's all-powerful Prince with the infinitely creative God of St. Augustine. Nonetheless, I do think that Newell has overstated the novelty of Machiavelli's views. Newell frequently claims that Machiavelli's vision of chaotic nature shaped by the Prince's will is a complete departure from Classical models (e.g. p. 140, 294, 368). I suspect that if Newell looked more closely at works outside the Socratic tradition on which he focusses, he would find material that looks much more like his vision of Machiavelli. The chaotic, amoral universe in which enlightened self-interest is the only sure guide is, for example, a major feature of Thucydides' work, and can also be found in the works of some Attic orators3; the Zeus of the Prometheus Bound or the Atreus of Seneca's Thyestes both seem to me to approach the Machiavellian Prince in their desire to remake the universe in their image.4 These concerns aside, the three chapters on Machiavelli remain the most interesting and enlightening in the book, and in my view are where its primary interest lies.

Newell's Conclusion attempts to link the theoretical works he has discussed to historical politics and society. Taking Machiavelli as a foundational figure in modern political discourse, Newell identifies two "corridors" leading from Machiavelli to modernity. The "light corridor," focussing on Machiavelli's picture of a republic that gains energy from tension between social groups, leads through Locke and Montesquieu to the foundation of the United States of America, a dynamic and expansionist republic very much in the mould of Machiavelli's Rome. The "dark corridor" leads from Machiavelli's will-driven Prince, through Hobbes' absolute Sovereign, and concludes in the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century, which combined social control with technological mastery of nature.

The Conclusion is perhaps one of the least convincing parts of the book. To begin with, I am skeptical that the evolution of modern totalitarianism can be explained primarily by changes in political theory (a fact that Newell himself is obliged to concede: p. 478). Even if we accept that a change in political thought played some role and the centrality of Machiavelli in that change, I am not convinced that dictators like Stalin or Hitler are actually very reminiscent of Newell's Machiavellian Prince. Far from viewing themselves as stamping their own wills on a chaotic emptiness, Stalin and Hitler both saw themselves, or at least presented themselves, as guided by a vision of transcendent order: Stalin by the Marxist dialectic of history moving toward the Communist utopia, Hitler by the heroic destiny of the Germanic race. I would argue that these dictators in fact have more in common with Plato's philosopher-king, who uses sometimes brutal methods to reshape the state to fit the divine order into which he has been granted insight.5

If my coverage of the content of this book has been ambivalent, my view of its style is decidedly negative. Excluding bibliography and index, Newell's text comes to 511 pages. I believe that with more diligent editing Newell could have presented the same content in about half that length. Not only is the text verbose and at times convoluted, but it is extremely and constantly repetitious. Previous arguments are reiterated, new arguments anticipated, and the book's overall thesis re-expounded repeatedly, often several times in a single chapter. This unrelenting repetition often renders the book exhausting reading, and makes it very easy to lose track of the main argument of the chapter at hand.

Ultimately, readers looking for new perspectives on classical tyranny will find this book disappointing: the discussion of classical models is generally sound, but not particularly novel. Those looking for a thorough analysis of how modern autocracy differs from that of the ancient world will also, broadly, be disappointed: the focus is narrowly on political theory, and on only a small number of ancient and modern writers. Those interested in Machiavellian reception and use of Classical literature will, however, find much of value, provided they have the patience for the text's constant repetition.


1.   For example Vivienne J. Gray, Xenophon's Mirror of Princes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
2.   See James Tatum, Xenophon's Imperial Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 215-39; Deborah Levine Gera, Xenophon's Cyropaedia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 285-300.
3.   See Esther Eidinow, Luck, Fate and Fortune: Antiquity and its Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 119-54.
4.   Indeed, the near-complete absence of Roman material is a curious feature of this book.
5.   In fact, Plato even envisions the possibility of a tyrant claiming to be a philosopher king, cloaking his arbitrary violence with spurious claims of moral necessity (Statesman 301b10-c4). See Ann N. Michelini, "Searching for the King: Reflexive irony in Plato's Politicus" Classical Antiquity 19 (2000), 180-204.

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