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Dr. Larry Arnn on Totalitarianism As Discussed By Herodotus

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HH: Time for the weekly Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College. If you will turn over to, in fact, you will find the Hillsdale Dialogues’ the fall reading list. As we all come back from school, we are going to track Dr. Arnn’s seminar at Hillsdale College on totalitarianism. And interesting, Dr. Arnn, on Monday, we are replaying the Hillsdale Dialogue, the three hour Hillsdale Dialogue, on the American labor movement. But I just had on the deputy prime minister of Israel, Michael Oren. And the deputy prime minister and I were talking about foreign policy, but it occurred to me that Israel over its long history has been both a monarchy, a tyranny, a democracy, a vassal state. I’m not sure what it would have qualified under Aristotle’s Politics, the readings of this week, when it was run by the prophets. How would you describe it then?

LA: Well, I guess you’d call it a monarchy, right, maybe an aristocracy, or if it was unjust, you would call it a tyranny or an oligarchy. But I mean, like under some of the judges, they were not too good, right? And there are those instances in the Bible where the king did things for his personal good to the detriment of the state, which is what tyranny is all about.

HH: It is interesting to me in your seminar, and the reading list again is posted at This week, we’re talking about the Politics and a very fun story from Herodotus to get us started. But the subject of Israel doesn’t come up. Did it ever occur to you to include some of the readings out of the Old Testament as to how the governments of Israel, probably the best recorded government over time of any evolved?

LA: Well, sure, but you know, time is short. And so why, you know, first of all, we’re reading four, five modern authors who are contemporaries about a particular problem, and they’re really interesting, because you know, one of them was a British well-born man, one of them was an immigrant from Austria-Hungary, a Jew, let’s see, who were they? They were Orwell, was born in Britain, changed his name. This name was Eric Blair. He studied with Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World for a little bit. And then there was C.S. Lewis, a great academic and Christian apologist, and a very learned man, most learned of them all. And then there was Winston Churchill. And it’s interesting to me, first of all, that these people, there were a lot of overlap between them. They, I’m not quite sure right now that they all knew each other, but they all know more than one of each other. And they wrote books, oh, they were all over the political spectrum, too.

HH: Now we will get in week 13 to Winston Churchill, to two essays – 50 Years Hence and the Mass Effects In Modern Life. But since I just had on the deputy prime minister of Israel, he helped form the modern Israeli state. What kind of government did he imagine it would evolve into?

LA: Well, they were, the founders of Israel were socialists, and Churchill didn’t like that part. But he wanted it to be a representative government, which they have been consistently since they were founded, in fact, one of the rare things in the Middle East like that. And so they have a parliamentary democracy, and Churchill could see that forming, and he knew, Churchill knew, you know, Chaim Weizmann very well. And he met several of the others who founded the modern Israeli state, and he knew what their plans were, and he was for them.

HH: And do you think he would be amazed that it has survived in the sea of totalitarian regimes that surround it? And I think it’s fair to say they are all totalitarian regimes that border, although Jordan is a monarchy, and it may be a good monarchy, I think.

LA: Yeah, it, and totalitarian, what that, that’s a new word for tyranny, and that’s the phenomenon we’re studying in this class. How did it come to be that all of the tools of modern science would be used in an attempt to control everything in life? That is to say your own children are systematically recruited to be a witness against you. In 1984, people live in terror of their children. The children are not really their children. They’re the state’s children. And they watch everything you do and denounce you. And if they denounce you, you will certainly be imprisoned and probably tortured, whether you did anything or not.

HH: And I remind everyone, if you will begin reading 1984, you will be ready for the next few weeks on the Hugh Hewitt Show, because that is where we go next, to George Orwell’s famous book, 1984, not before we cover Herodotus and Aristotle after the break and how it leads us to the study of totalitarianism on the Hillsdale Dialogue, all of which are collected at, all things Hillsdale at But go and get your copy of 1984, and get it out and start rereading it for next week.

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HH: We have begun our study of totalitarianism, and we do so with the Ethics. We do so with the Politics, and we do so primarily with Herodotus, because Herodotus is what Aristotle uses in Book Five, Dr. Arnn. Tell us about the story that Herodotus uses that is actually quite charming?

LA: Well, there’s a grand old tyrant of Corinth who apparently, there’s some doubt about his history, but he was there a long time, and his name was Periander. And he apparently made Corinth into a great state. And there was an aspiring young tyrant named Thrasybulus who was in Syracuse, and Periander was unusual, because he was a man who was often called a tyrant, and he ruled for a long time. And one of Aristotle’s key points is tyranny doesn’t tend to last, and the reason is it doesn’t work. People don’t like it. They fight against it. They, it makes war on things in their nature that are worthy. And so how do they survive? And it turns in, in Aristotle, to a very grim teaching about what tyrants have to do to survive. Thrasybulus sends a messenger to Periander with the question, how’d you do it? And the story is that Periander is standing in a field. And he has a sickle, and there is grain growing, and he hears the question, and he doesn’t say anything. He begins to walk slowly through the grain and lop off the tops of the tallest sheaves. And that’s all he does. And the young man goes back and says he didn’t say anything. What did he go, says Thrasybulus, and he says well, he just lopped off the tall heads of grain. And Thrasybulus says I understand. So…

HH: And that, you know, the messenger, it’s so well told. It’s really less than a page in the Histories, right? It’s just a little paragraph.

LA: Yeah.

HH: But out of that whole book, which we assume Aristotle had access to the entire book, right? He picks that paragraph.

LA: That’s right. The Histories of Herodotus are earlier than Aristotle, but not a lot. And actually, probably the first book every written of history, and I love to say, it’s called the Histories, because the name wasn’t taken.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) It’s like Aristotle’s Ethics and Aristotle’s Politics. Nobody wrote those before, so yeah, it, that was a current, that was an old story. And the story is in some other pre-Socratic authors as well. But Herodotus tells it, and it is a currency. People know about that and talk about that story as an example of the kind of thing. In Aristotle’s time, when he was writing, Athens was ruled for a time by the 30 tyrants. In Aristotle’s typology, that would be an oligarchy. But they were, sure enough, a bunch of well-born people who seized power and ruled the state, and you know, did some harm. And so he, that story is topical when Aristotle writes.

HH: And Herodotus concludes, “At the time the young tyrant got the advice, he then changed his behavior. It was then that he exhibited every kind of evil to the citizens.”

LA: That’s right. Best as we know, he wasn’t good enough at it, because he, good enough at that bad thing, because he didn’t last very long, whereas Periander did.

HH: Now in the first week, your students when they, and by the way, when does Hillsdale reconvene and begin flogging its young charges again?

LA: Today is the third day of classes, and my first class.

HH: Oh, it is?

LA: Yeah.

HH: And so you’re teaching this today?

LA: Today, yeah. Yeah.

HH: And so how will you compress. I’m curious. It’s a lot of reading for one class. It’s a good chunk of the Ethics, it’s a few chapters out of the various books of the Politics. How will you compress that into one class?

LA: The short answer is I don’t know. (laughing) We’ll see. But class has a life of its own, and I’ve learned plans are very good to have, but they seldom unfold as you expected. And so first of all, we’re going to learn three things from Aristotle, and we’re going to do that today. This afternoon, by 5:30 East Coast time, we’re going to see why it is that whenever you see people living together for a long time, they start making laws and form a political community. It’s even as common, although it’s volitional, that is to say, they choose to do it. It’s actually as common as deer living in herds, or as, in fact, Aristotle claims it’s more natural for human beings to do that than it is for bees to live in swarms. And so why is that? What is that community? And what is it in us that makes that natural to us? And we’re going to try to isolate that. So the first thing is what is it in us? The second thing is what is that thing, the political community? What kind of community is it? Aristotle says it’s a unique kind. It’s not like other kinds. And then we’re going to look at this question of tyranny. And then we’ll be students enough of politics to start analyzing this new phenomenon, totalitarianism. We’re going to try to do those three things.

HH: In Chapter 13, and Kyle was kind enough to send me the translations you were using, Aristotle, in Book 3 of the Politics, he writes, “The judgment who should rule must always be made,” right? That’s always got to be a judgment that’s got to be made every time people get together in that community that you talk about. Someone’s got to be the boss.

LA: That’s right. And that, you know, and that judgment always reflects, by the way, the purpose, the political communities are all the same in some fundamental respects. But of course, they differ widely in other respects. And they set out to do things. You know, if you just read the Soviet Union history or story, which we will do through these two works of fiction that are about it, then you’ll see that it’s a very different kind of place than the United States of America, and it sets out to do very different kinds of things. I mean, it’s awesome and dreadful what it sets out to do and what it does. I mean, millions of people were killed. But many more than that, all of them, lived in terror of their lives all the time. And their inner thoughts were, they were even afraid to have them. And they managed to do that for 60 years plus in the Soviet Union. And so regimes differ a lot. And then to study them is to find out the many authoritative purposes that human beings might form.

HH: Now the claim that Aristotle makes is that if you get down to it and you study it, every government will fall into one of six categories. Now I, in the segment right before you came on, Deputy Prime Minister Oren and I talked about three countries not his own. We already talked about Israel being a democracy. We talked about Turkey. We talked about Russia. And we talked about Iran. We talked about Turkey, because Israel has just renewed a kind of relationship with Turkey. We talked about Russia and Iran, because Russia is now flying out of Iran for the first time in 50, 60 or 70 years since World War II. And Iran has entered into an agreement with us, but they’ve attacked our naval ships this week. Now those three governments each have a form. Do they fit into Aristotle’s categories?

LA: Sure. Yeah, they do. And it’s, you know, sometimes, it’s hard to tell, by the way, because the question you’re asking about Russia is…

HH: Yes.

LA: What are the Russian people, what do they value? What makes them a people? And what are Putin’s purposes? And Putin is a skillful, artful man. And so it’s, you know, that takes some figuring out. And of course, because he’s skillful, artful and a statesman, and a very strong ruler who doesn’t seem to be subjected to the rule of law all the time, whatever he says won’t, you can’t take it at face value. And I’ll give you an example of a modern political science that I think is profound. And I heard it the other day at a Hillsdale College event. There’s a man named David Goldman who blogs as Spengler, and he is a very intelligent and insightful man.

HH: Oh, yes, Spengler, yes.

LA: Yeah, and he, he’s a riveting guy, actually. He’s fun to know. And I met him for the first time in the last two months. But what did he say? He said that Americans are pioneers, explorers in their nation. We set out across a continent to settle it and take over it. And we’re always going somewhere, we Americans. He says Russians are different. He says they’re always pilgrims. They’re always on a journey of atonement. And this makes them strong, he says. He, I will extend what he said by one step and maybe be wrong, but look at, you know, why did the Bolsheviks succeed there in Russia where they didn’t in very many other places, except by force? Why did they get a grip on that place for so long and to use it to their purposes for so long? Well, the Russian people think of themselves as correcting themselves all the time. But also as, they have to do that. It gives them strength. It’s their calling, right? And so Goldman’s presentation is that Putin is capitalizing on that. And he doesn’t regard, he regards Putin as dangerous but not evil or aggressive in the way that Stalin seemed to be.

HH: Yeah, can we, is it possible to think of Russia as almost a reversion to the Russia before the great war when it was simply one of the European great powers that would be dealt with as a matter of course, and sometimes would enter into alliance with Great Britain, and sometimes wouldn’t, and sometimes would be allied with France, and sometimes would be at war with it, but wasn’t totalitarian? At least, it wasn’t understood as totalitarian, because there was the Church.

LA: Yeah, possible, also, I think, helpful and accurate. Remember, Churchill said that famous thing. The Soviet Union, he said, is a riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a, I forget what, a mystery, inside a mystery. Then he went on, but I think there is a key – the Russian national interest. And so Churchill after the, you know, Churchill had, he went through phases with the Soviet Union, all of which were consistent. In the beginning, he tried to strangle it in its crib. That is to say when it got born, he thought it was a terrible evil. And then that failed, and they got established, and so what he tried to do was have, you know, relations with it that protected Britain and didn’t make a war. And then in the Second World War, he was their ally, you know, after they had been allies of Hitler. Hitler attacked them, and they became allies with Britain. And he tried to recruit them into a system that would be dominated by the West, but the Soviet Union would cooperate with it. And he didn’t get that. And so he turned out to be the one in Fulton, Missouri who declared, more or less, the opening of the Cold War.

HH: And when we come back, we’ll talk about that. We’ll also talk about why the three countries – Turkey, Russia and Iran, all wish to be understood to be democracies, and none of them actually are with Dr. Larry Arnn. The Hillsdale Dialogues are all at

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HH: Dr. Arnn, I said next week, we’re doing 1984. We’re diving into 1984. But before we go there, as you’re introducing your students today, all of these regimes I talked about today with the deputy prime minister of Israel – Turkey, Russia and Iran. They all want to be known as democracies. That’s what they all say they are. And voting actually occurs in all of them. And in Turkey, that voting actually has consequences. It doesn’t in Iran, and it’s questionable whether it does in Russia. But why do all three of them want to be known as democracies as opposed to the tyrannies or the oligarchies that they actually are?

LA: Well, there’s special reasons for each of them, but also in addition, there’s this old reason that’s in Aristotle, and that is he says that generally, kingships arise from the nobles who want to protect something they have – their station and their titles and their wealth. But tyrannies arise generally from the people. And that’s, and they are built to attack the nobles and to put the people in charge. And one of the reasons they’re virulent is they can claim that they’re representing everybody, or as really what they do, they’re doing to everybody. I mean, we’re going to see in 1984 that the most miserable thing in the world to be is a member of the outer party, because that is who the regime works on, and that’s a lot of people. But there’s a class below them that the regime basically leaves alone in their poverty and their old way of living, the Proles.

HH: And it occurs to me if we look over Turkey over the last 100 years, we have seen the evolution from a monarchy that became a despotism that then was reformed by Ataturk, a dictator, into a democracy that functioned with the occasional intervention on the military that then elected a would-be tyrant who has used a countercoup as an excuse currently to take the tops off of all the grain.

LA: Yeah, and you know, I think that in those three places you’re talking about, there are artful and determined people who are ruling, and you know, and in the case of Iran and Turkey, they are ruling in the interest of Islam. I think that’s clear in Iran. It’s a cloudier thing in Turkey. Turkey, you know, Turkey was, modern Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which means head Turk.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And you know, they’re used to a strong guy up at the top. And Ataturk’s purpose, and this got very embedded in the military from which Ataturk came, was to modernize Turkey. And that meant he banned the wearing of the head scarves and the burkas and stuff. And he wouldn’t let the Sharia law take over or run Turkey. The new guy has loosened that up a lot, and of course, a lot of his conflict has been with the military. The reason coup attempt, there’s a lot of people who say that it was staged by him in order, to give him an occasion to purge the military more than he has.

HH: Did Aristotle deal at all, last big question, with a monotheistic-backed tyranny, because there was not monotheism when he wrote, except in the case of the Jews, and he wouldn’t have been concerned with them too much. He really didn’t have to consider, did he, tyranny backed by claims of monotheistic, all-knowing, all-powerful God?

LA: Well, no. There wasn’t such a thing, but it’s still true that the Greek cities were generally very pious. And what piety meant was respect to the gods, especially the gods of the city. And that meant that the strongest god, you know, and there’s a really great book by Fustel de Coulanges called The Ancient City. That’s a classic commentary on classic times. And what he describes there is the way the city functions. And prime in his description is what he calls The Lares, or what the Greeks called the Lares, and that’s the ancestors. And so every house in Greece, and if you go, by the way, to the ruins of Pompeii, you can see the same thing in Roman houses much later. You have to keep a fire burning all the time. And think how hard that was in the ancient world. We didn’t have gas. They didn’t have gas jets back then. And so they had to tend this fire. It had to burn all the time. And it was the fire on which they sacrificed to the ancestors, which meant they cooked some of the food that they ate for the ancestors to eat. And so they were, and you know, the strongest and longest-lived of the rulers in earlier Greece, that is to say by Socrates’ time and Aristotle’s time, this is weakening some, they are very pious figures. And Numa, in early Rome, who helped to consolidate Rome into the thing it became, was a very pious man.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, we will continue next week with 1984. How much should people read of it by next week?

LA: Well, if you get started reading it and you can stop, you’re a better man than I am. But read all you can.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, have a great Labor Day weekend.

End of interview.


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