If we see that tyrants lack hope, making them myopic in their historical outlook, we might also argue that their actions are circumscribed to their dominions. Tyrants, in other words, may be only local thugs and thus have less impact on international stability than they might otherwise. Applied to today, this argument would suggest that a tyrant like Putin presents merely a local problem, and his decision to invade Ukraine creates at most a regional tiff.
But it is more complicated than that.
The theme of tyrants as local rascals rather than actors with a wider systemic impact stems in part from Thucydides. In the first book of his Peloponnesian War, while giving a brief historical excursus of the years before the great conflict between Athens and Sparta he explains that it was the tyrannical nature of Greek cities that limited their ability to fight large wars. “Wherever there were tyrants, their habit of providing simply for themselves, of looking solely to their personal comfort and family aggrandizement, made safety the great aim of their policy, and prevented anything great proceeding from them; though they would each have their affairs with their immediate neighbors.” (Thucydides, I.17).
Self-centered, preoccupied with their personal survival and wealth, fearful of domestic rebellions, and, even more, perennially watchful of ambitious members of their entourage, tyrants cannot go far away. A tyrant going on a distant expedition risks denuding his own lands of armed men who instill fear and prop up his power. Fear among the populace is much more real when the imperial guards are in the city, not outside of it. Any absence by the tyrant chips away at his hold on power. (It is not surprising that Putin’s recent disappearance from public view, irrespective of the reasons for it, called into question his hold on power. Being there is half of what it means to hold tyrannical power.) To use the classical analogy of a state as a ship, and of the political leader as the captain, a tyrant is perennially fearful of his own crew; the navigation of the ship to distant shores is an ancillary concern.
The additional risk of embarking on a war abroad is that it may bring glory to, and whet the political appetite of, the tyrant’s military commanders. The logic of tyranny insists that only a tyrant should be the author of martial success; a defeat, on the other hand, must be ascribed to the cadres in charge of operations. There are dangers in both victory and defeat, because the commanders may be jealous of the tyrant’s appropriating undue glory in case of the former, and they may be angry at being offered as expiatory sacrifices in case of the latter. Wars, in brief, are risky for tyrants, who as a result have strong incentive to stay home. In Thucydides phrasing, nothing “great” can come out of them.
The Greek historian, of course, did not claim that tyrants were peaceful. But they were geopolitically timid, and at most they engaged in “border contests,” and “of distant expeditions with conquest for object we hear nothing among the Hellenes” (I.15). Tyrants were also incapable of establishing large alliances: “there was no union of subject cities round a great state, no spontaneous combination of equals for confederate expeditions.” This meant that whatever wars a tyrant embarks upon tend to be small because they are limited to the means at the disposal of the political thug. Hence, “what fighting there was consisted merely of local warfare between rival neighbors.” (I.15) Tyrants are local, inward-looking thugs with limited means.
There is undoubtedly something to this view. But it may be incomplete and imperfect.
First, tyrants do expand, just not with distant projections of power but through contiguous lands. A democratic Athens, safe in its internal stability, could hop to distant islands. Tyrants have to be more gradual, seeking to project their dominions in concentric circles in order to keep their armies relatively close to home, ready to return to quell rebellions. Their constant concern about their domestic hold on power limits them to small wars—border contests, as Thucydides put it. But there is a risk that others perceive those small wars as insignificant little games rather than as a plodding aggrandizement as they may be in some cases. The geographic expansion of a tyrant’s dominion occurs through a sequence of local wars: each conflict in itself may be trifling, but the accumulation of them is anything but.
But perhaps more importantly the “tyrant as a local thug” view ascribes an overly calculating mindset to him. It assumes that the tyrant values his own personal safety enough to resist the allure of aggrandizement—not to mention it assumes that he is capable of cost-benefit analysis. He is geopolitically parochial because he is calculating. According to many classical texts, however, the tyrant is a different animal.
To go back to Xenophon’s Hiero, the tyrant has a rapacious mind. Hiero, the strongman of Syracuse, admits, “I believe myself that to take from an unwilling enemy is the most pleasant of all things.” (Xenophon, Hiero or Tyrannicus, 1:34) New lands and new populations present prime targets for the tyrants to seek this type of pleasure. Sure, he wants to survive and he fears that his subjects will begin to hate him more than they fear him. But the desire of personal safety must compete with the desire to seek the pleasure of ever-wider domination. As the blind Theban prophet Tiresias puts it to the increasingly tyrannical Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, “the whole race of tyrants lusts for filthy gain.” (Sophocles, Antigone, #1172)
Moreover, the tyrant is an archetype of immoderation, bringing a great deal of unpredictability to his behavior. A tyrannical man is, according to Plato, “one who, either by birth or habit or both, combines the characteristics of drunkenness, lust, and madness.” (Republic, IX, 573c). He is somebody who cannot control himself, but is in control of others—a combination that is lethal to the population under him and very risky to those in his vicinity. A lusting and mad drunk, the tyrant is in effect a slave to his passions, which can lead him in many directions, including in search of foreign conquests, despite all the costs that such adventures may carry.
The most famous of Sophocles’ heroines, Antigone, points out that tyrants have “ruthless power to do and say whatever pleases them.” (Sophocles, Antigone, #566-67). “Whatever pleases them” has few constraints, changes from day to day, and has a tenuous connection to any real assessment of existing conditions. We like to separate the personal behavior of leaders from their political behavior. In non-tyrannical regimes, the personal virtues or vices of a leader are curtailed by other individuals who hold position of authority and power—giving some grounds to the tenuous hope that crooks in private life can still produce decent policies, not because of their scant virtues but because of the countervailing presence of other political leaders. In a tyranny, there are no such individuals, because they have been eliminated by violence or blinded by the proximity to absolute power. We really cannot separate, therefore, the lack of moderation and lust for domination that the tyrant demonstrates in his private life from how he behaves in politics.
In domestic policy, the tyrant has almost no limits when it comes to seeking “whatever pleases him.” He pays no heed to written or natural law, has eliminated all competing sources of power, and treats his population as slaves (even if they are content with their lot). But such unopposed rule has also consequences on a tyrant’s external behavior. The lack of internal opposition may indeed lead to great immoderation in his foreign policy. He can pursue “whatever pleases him” up to the point that he finds a foreign power not subject to him that says “no more.” Unconstrained internally, a tyrant encounters resistance only abroad.
Sophocles described this contrast between a tyrant who faces no internal antagonism (and thus is likely to indulge in hubris, deadly to him, his subjects, and his neighbors) and a city that is characterized by internal strife (and thus, perhaps, more capable of self-restraint internally and externally) in the words of a Theban chorus:
“Pride breeds the tyrant
violent pride, gorging, crammed to bursting
with all that is overripe and rich with ruin—
clawing up to the heights, headlong pride
crashes down the abyss—sheer doom!
…But the healthy strife that makes the city strong—
I pray that god will never end that wrestling.”
(Sophocles, Oedipus the King, 963-970)
It is too simplistic, therefore, to suggest that tyrants are simply local, self-limiting nuisances. In that view, there is also a naive hope that a tyrant is self-defeating and thus needs no consistent and forceful opposition. The reality is different. Tyrants are prone to seek domination of ever-larger possessions, and the only constraint on their expansion, aside from internal strife, is effective opposition by external powers. If they are not combated, tyrants can indeed be highly disruptive of international stability.