Marble Falls It was a bit over my head, but given the times we live in, our motto has to be “any port in a storm.” Anyway, I agreed to interview philosophy professor Andrew Fiala from Fresno State University in California to get an idea about his perspective on these times on Wade’s World based on his upcoming book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Fools, Sycophants, and Citizens. You can see where I’m going with this now. This is not a new problem, but one that dates thousands of years whenever people govern people and try to design governments in their best interests, rather than allowing the exploitation of tyrants.
Fiala, following the philosophers like Plato from ancient Greece and Aristotle, originally from Macedonia, argues that the tension in the polity is always between this “tragic trio,” as he calls it. Tyrants be they Alexander the Great, Hitler, Putin, or other wannabes in our time, are often abetted by the sycophants, the yes-people, either in agreement or going along to get along and the fools who will believe anything. The only restraints are citizens or citizen-philosophers those among us willing to seek virtue and the common good opposing the tyrant’s self-interest and fawning supporters. Don’t jump to conclusions and start patting yourself on the back and picking your favor side here. Fiala believes all three of these tendencies are within all of us, including the ability to be moronic. This isn’t just about Trump, Orban, the Saudis, and so many others. This is about all of us, and that’s the rub.
Seeking to be the buffer as citizens requires education, not just in school, but based on what we learn from participation in politics and society. Civic education is a problem in the United States now for several reasons. As budget constraints have hit public schools there has been a sharp reduction in teaching civics. I remember taking civics as a required course in junior high school along with speech as another elective choice. Both separately and together they were life changing. If students don’t have the requirement, we’re paving the way for tyrants. The other problem is the way public education is being politicized. Read any paper these days and be ready for the ranting, whether it is in favor of so-called “free enterprise” courses or against historical reckoning like the so-called “critical race theory.”
Fiala thinks that we have a default breaker in the US Constitution, but in some ways the case is thinner than we might hope, especially now with a supermajority of 6-3 in the increasingly politicized Supreme Court. The vaunted “checks and balances” designed to safeguard our liberties from tyrants evaporates when Congress is dominated by hyper-partisanship and the Supreme Court is not far behind. I tried to lure Fiala out on this “originalist” notion of the Constitution claimed by many on the right, including some on the Court, but he retreated under fire. In his book, he argued that the Constitution was evolving with the times, but arguments that anything not designed by the founders, who had their own multiple flaws in writing the document from slavery to sexism, classism, and beyond, would seem specious on their face.
His point is indisputable though. It’s all of our jobs as citizens to oppose tyranny in any shape or form it presents itself. There’s a price though, so more preparation and support for fulfilling such obligations is necessary, regardless of the divisions in our larger community and country. We need safeguards against being fooled or we’re nothing but fools, and then there’s nothing that stops the tyrants among us.