Xerxes and Demaratus on Tyranny, Liberty, and the Law

Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC) in the doorway of his palace at Persepolis

Relief of the Persian king Xerxes (485-465 BC) in the doorway of his palace at Persepolis, public domain by O. Mustafin via Wikimedia Commons

I’m now reading Book Seven of Herodotus’ Histories which tells the story of Xerxes I of Persia and the second invasion of Greece, which he led to avenge the defeat of his father Darius, who led the first. Darius was defeated at the battle of Marathon when the Athenians and their allies the Plataeans, badly outnumbered, managed to drive away the Persians. In this story, I came across another interesting exchange I’d like to share with you.

After reviewing his massive forces, Xerxes calls for Demaratus, a former king of Lacedaemon (city-state of Sparta) who had defected to Persia after being deposed by a rival. He asks Demaratus if he believes that his fellow Greeks will dare oppose his invasion considering the size and wealth of the new Persian army. After all, Xerxes asks, ‘How could a thousand men, or ten thousand, or even fifty thousand come to that, possibly stand up to an army the size of mine, when all of them enjoy a similar degree of liberty, and have no one man in command?… Just perhaps, were they like us in having one man set in authority over them, they might indeed be prompted by their dread of him to conquer their own instincts, and under the compulsion of the whip to advance against a force much larger than themselves. Left to their own devices, though, there is no way they will do either of those things.’ (Histories 7.103)

Xerxes is speaking here of the land of Athens and Lacedaemon, cradle of democracy, a novel form of government at the time. Many of us moderns who are raised in societies which inherited that spirit of government would respond: ‘But of course! A free people who participate in their own government have a stake in the outcome of public enterprises. Therefore, in war or peace, free people have a reason to care about their outcomes and to be personally motivated to succeed, because the success belongs to each individual as well as the society. Those who are tyrannized and enslaved, however, have no personal stake in the outcome, and fear only motivates one to do the minimum needed for survival. Indeed, fear and resentment of tyranny can motivate the people to undermine the efforts of the tyrant, and to defect to another state at the first opportunity.’ I expected Damaratus to give some such answer.

But Damaratus takes a different tack. Though he begins by citing the courage and martial discipline of the Greeks, he tells Xerxes the main reason he believes the Greeks will stand up to him whatever the size of his army. They’ll resist, he says, because ‘Free as they are, you see, they are not altogether free. Set over them as their master is the law – and of that they are more terrified than ever your men are of you. Certainly, they do what it commands them to do – a command that never alters.’ (7.104)

I think it fascinating that Damaratus uses the expression ‘terrified’ when he describes the Greeks’ attitude to the law. I consulted two other translations and it used the word ‘fear’. I wonder: is this a fear or terror born of deep respect and awe, such as that due to the gods or nature itself? Of fear of their fellow citizens for breaking the social contract or upsetting the natural order of things? Why fear or terror? Then I realize: perhaps he uses this term because he wants Xerxes to understand what he’s saying, and the only thing Xerxes can imagine inspiring obedience is fear and terror. But it’s interesting that he holds on to that idea. After all, Xerxes knows that his father learned otherwise, and the hard way at that. A free

Or, do you think Damaratus means just what he says? That it’s possible that an otherwise free people can actually have a fear of the law itself? It’s not too far of a stretch, after all, that a religious, god-fearing society could fear something else that’s abstract which imposes order and its will on the world.

Or, it could be that Damaratus is talking about the fear of the Greeks betraying their own selves as living embodiments of the law. After all, if adherence to the law is instilled as a sort of sacred duty to the very thing that makes us both free and fully realized as human beings, then the thought of transgressing the law is as terrifying as the thought of destroying our very selves, of becoming something less than human. I suspect Damaratus is talking about something like this.

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Sources and inspiration:

Cartledge, Paul. ‘The Democratic Experiment‘. From History at BBC.com

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Tom Holland. New York: Viking, 2013

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by A. D. Godley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920, from Tufts.edu

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by G. C. Macaulay, 1890, from Project Gutenberg.

Is There Such a Thing as a Good Lie, and is Truth Merely a Tactic Anyway?

Mouth of Truth, Rome, Italy, by Serghei Topor, CC0 Public Domain

The Mouth of Truth, Rome, Italy, by Serghei Topor

‘A lie that serves a vital purpose, after all, is a lie that should be told. Whether we tell falsehoods or nothing but the truth, we all of us have the same objective: liars are always on the alert for the chance to profit by convincing others of their lies, just as those who tell the truth do so with the aim of ending up more trusted by everyone else, and thereby acquiring profit in their own manner. Different though our means may be, yet we have identical ends.’ (Histories, p 224)

In this passage from Herodotus’ Histories, Darius, a member of the royal guard and son of a Persian governor in Egypt, is justifying his plan to use trickery to enter the royal palace. He and six other Persians are planning the overthrow of Smerdis, a Magian who had taken the throne by deception after the death of Cambyses, son of Cyrus, king of Persia. Evidently, Darius takes the trouble to justify his plan of lying to the guards to gain entry because he knows his compatriots believe lying is wrong.

Darius is saying two very different things here. First, he suggests that there are some lies that are not only morally justified, but morally imperative. We’ve all heard the famous test case for when lying might be the right thing to do. Say you’re hiding a Jewish family from the Nazis under your floorboards, and they come up to your door and ask point blank if there are any Jews in your home. Other than remaining silent, which will likely be taken as a ‘yes’ and result in the Nazis storming the house and capturing the family, the only other options are to say ‘no’ and even to tell more elaborate lies which will convince the Nazis to move on. So even those who are generally committed to truth might allow that there are circumstances in which lying might not only be not wrong, but right, and furthermore, the only right thing to do, so long as it’s the only way to save the Jewish family from suffering and death. Darius is claiming that sort of thing here, but in his case, the vital purpose is to restore the Persian throne to its people, which had been stolen through deception in the first place and to whom it justly belongs. If he stopped here, I think many of us might agree he makes a fair point, even if we disagree with his assessment that there’s such a thing as a noble lie.

But he seems to doubt that his audience will accept will accept that this occasion justifies lying, so he goes on to say something far more radical. Darius claims that in fact, truth and lies are just two different ways of getting what you want anyway, and if that’s the case, the only reason you should choose truth over lies, or vice versa, is that it’s more effective. In this view, truth and lies are simply two means to an end, so the justification for their use is purely a matter of tactics. All we need to do, then, is figure out whether the end, the goal, is a worthy one, and what we say and in order to accomplish that end should be judged accordingly. Truth and lies are just as good, or just as bad, depending on the circumstances.

So what do you think? What do you think Darius gets right, if anything, and where do you think he goes wrong, if he does at all? Are truth and lies simply judged according to the intention of the speaker? According to how well they track available evidence? Are there different kinds of truth and lies, for example, ‘contingent’ versus ‘ultimate’ truth, and does that make a difference in Darius’ case, the case of saving the Jewish family, and other cases?

By the way, as Herodotus’ translator Tom Holland points out in his note to this passage, ‘Here Darius is made to speak like  a Greek rhetorician rather than a future Persian Great King, for whom any form of lying was officially anathema’.


Sources and inspiration:

Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Tom Holland, New York: Viking, 2013

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!