Sex, Tyranny, and the Presidency

Mackubin T. Owens

February 12, 1998

Allegations of sexual indiscretions have dogged Mr. Clinton since before the 1992 presidential campaign. In light of new allegations about an affair with a former White House intern, polls indicate that a substantial majority of the American public seem to believe that he should not be held accountable, even if the new charges are true. He is doing his job, they say. What does the president’s private behavior have to do with the people’s business?

But Plato, the greatest of the classical Greek philosophers, gives us a reason to be concerned about Mr. Clinton’s alleged behavior: a man who uses his power in the never-ending pursuit of “the pleasures of Aphrodite” possesses the soul of a tyrant, and this has important political implications for the health of our democratic republic.

We no longer take seriously the link between democracy and tyranny, but this is a conceit based on complacency. Plato, the American Founders, and Alexis de Tocqueville all understood that democracy is susceptible to a certain form of tyranny: the rule of a “benevolent” government, catering to the public’s needs and whims in exchange for their freedom. This “soft despotism” creates a servile people dependent on the largesse of government, happily abiding the tyrant’s pursuit of limitless desire as long as the tyrant’s government fulfills their own. The tyranny within the soul—the victory of unrestrained passion and sensual desire over reason, dignity, and decency—is transformed into public policy.

In The Republic, Plato explains this view by means of the story of Gyges’ ring. Gyges the Lydian discovers a ring that can make him invisible. Using the power of this ring, Gyges commits adultery with the queen, murders the king, and rules in his stead. The point of the story is to ask, “What would we be willing to do if there were absolutely no possibility that anyone would know about it?” Plato argues that the virtuous person behaves justly without being compelled, because he knows that it is noble to be good and not merely to seem so. But the person with a tyrannical soul would use the power of the ring to indulge his insatiable appetites, even the most lawless ones.

Gyges’ resemblance to Mr. Clinton is clear. The President is a very skillful politician, a master of evasive talk. Ever since his days as Governor of Arkansas he has squeezed out of every tight spot in which he landed. That, along with the phalanx of loyalists and operatives willing to defend him at any cost, may lead him to think he has a “Gyges’ ring” of invulnerability, allowing his passions and sensual desires to tyrannize over his reason and good judgment, without serious repercussions.

Still, his defenders say, “So what?” First and most obviously, there is the danger that a President’s adolescent pre-occupation with sexual gratification, regardless of the consequences, will divert him from the business of the people. The current confrontation with Iraq is a case in point. Second, tyrannical behavior cannot be “compartmentalized.” If the tyrant is lawless in one area of his life, why not another? Most of the other allegations leveled against this president and his administration involve abuse of power.

Third, the conduct of the President in office really does matter. Because of the power, prominence and prestige he has, the President will always be an example—whether for good or bad. The office legitimizes the behavior of the man who occupies it. And the character of the man shapes how we view the office of the presidency and the constitutional order it represents. Under our system of self-government, this is an important point. Political thinkers have always understood that without a certain degree of virtue in the people—at the very least, the virtue of self-control—democracy will devour itself. In Federalist 63, James Madison warned that in a democratic republic such as the United States, “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.” The source of this danger is “the tyranny of the passions.” In a democratic republic, the passions must be moderated by virtue and reverence for the law. If the Chief Executive demonstrates a lack of self-control, what message does it send to the citizens?

So, does the public’s lackadaisical response to these allegations mean that the United States has become the “soft despotism” that Alexis de Tocqueville warned about in the 1830’s? Have we struck a deal, allowing our leaders to pursue their insatiable appetites as long as they provide us with entitlements? This question is particularly pertinent in light of the modern ideology that holds that the purpose of government is not, as the Founders understood it, to secure and protect our equal natural rights, but to cater to our needs and wants.

Both Plato and Tocqueville were concerned that a lack of emphasis on virtue would lead a democratic people to abandon their independence, self-reliance, and liberty. In its place they would get a government that “provides for them security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry…[and] spares them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.” They would retain only the dubious consolation that had chosen their own masters.

The founders of the American Republic understood that virtue, both in the people and our leaders, is critical to the survival of a democratic republic. Our response to the latest Washington scandal indicates that we have lost sight of their teaching.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.