Looking at the Demagogue Within
“A distant mirror” is an expression coined by historian Barbara Tuchman (1978) to describe the correspondence between the conditions of turmoil in Europe in the 14th century and in the second half of the 20th century. Tuchman’s idea is that looking at past events can provide us with a mirror to better understand our contemporary social, economic and political situation. In this paper, I will use two biographies from Plutarch’s “Lives” (2014) as distant mirrors for our present times. Through the lives of Alcibiades and Sulla, orators and generals that lived in classical Athens and the Roman Republic, I will try to shed some light on the actions and motives of contemporary influential leaders such as Donald Trump.
I will suggest that, to maximize our possibilities to learn from our past, we need to observe both the actions of these men and their deep psychological motivations. But as we do that, those distant mirrors become also reflections for our own inner world, forcing us to look deeply within and confront our own shadows.
A Distant Mirror
Plutarch (2014) is a vivid, if not always historically accurate, collection of biographies of prominent men from the Roman and Greek culture, written most probably around the 2nd century AD. Forty-eight famous statesmen, orators, and generals pass before the reader’s eyes in a succession of victories and defeats, glories and miseries.
More than a historian, Plutarch is a moralist. He intends to educate us on human nature by examining the character and moral stature of men whose actions influenced society. For this reason, the biographies are arranged in such a way as to compare the lives of two characters, measuring the moral virtues and faults of both against one another. Plutarch himself emerges from behind the scenes as a moderate man of sound moral principles, who upholds common sense against ambition and pride, but who is also careful not to pass too quick a judgment on any of the characters he examines.
Plutarch’s willingness to go into the minutiae of the adventures, the military deeds, the intrigues that his characters take part in can sometimes be slightly overwhelming. Nevertheless, thanks to his attention to detail, Plutarch manages to present to us with complex characters inhabiting a world rich with intrigues, passions, conflicts, heroism and cowardice, honor, and treason.
I will focus on the lives of Alcibiades and Sulla, two prominent statesmen and generals that lived, respectively, in Athens in the 5th century BC and Rome in the 1st century BC. Although Plutarch does not put the life of both men in direct comparison, the similarities between their biographies are striking. Both lived in times where their homeland was ruled by democracy, dragged Athens and Rome into a series of external and internal conflicts, and in their quest for power, shook the fundaments of those democracies to the core.
There are also significant differences between Alcibiades and Sulla’s lives. Plutarch (2014) informs us that Alcibiades was of noble origin, handsome, and endowed with exceptional grace and charm (p.258), but also that his character was marked by strong ambition (p. 259) and that he was exposed to flatteries from a young age (p. 260). Sulla was also of noble origin, but his was an impoverished family that had fallen from the heights of society (p.607). We can imagine Sulla’s desire for redemption, his urgency to climb back the heights from which his family had fallen.
Common to both was a passion for conflict and conquest: for Alcibiades and Sulla’s personalities, peace was a much lesser fertile ground than war. War and discordseemed to follow them wherever they went. Like predators in the wild, they lived and thrived in a state of almost permanent conflict.
Sulla was an incredibly skilled general that, after having successfully guided numerous foreign military campaigns, marched on Rome twice to crush his opponent Marius, and rose to dictatorship. During his short time as an absolute power holder, Sulla was the instigator of a mass purge of all his political enemies that took place in 82 BC, submerging Rome in a state of mass terror.
Alcibiades was not any less of a warmonger. Through the skilled use of rhetoric, he undid the peace of Nicias, a delicate treaty that had marked a truce in the bloody Peloponnesian war fought between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BC), and plunge the Athenians back into war. According to Plutarch (2014), the real motivation behind Alcibiades’ efforts to undermine the peace treaty was jealousy towards Nicias, the general that had negotiated the truce (p. 266). Just a few years later, Alcibiades “inflamed the desire” (p. 270) of the Athenians to embark on an expedition of conquest to the far-off island of Sicily. This military venture brought Athens into a series of misfortunes of war and prompted Alcibiades himself to change camp multiple times, siding with the Spartans, the Persians, and then again with the Athenians, dragging his people in a series of lengthy and costly conflicts.
Alcibiades and Sulla represent incarnations of the archetype of the demagogue, the strongman who is thirsty of power and able to influence the will of many to his advantage. They were masterful at influencing people, using rhetoric and personal charm to sway the public opinion one way or another. Their charisma was such that Plutarch (2014) says of Alcibiades, quoting Aristophanes, that the people “love him, and hate him, and cannot do without him” (p.269). Both Alcibiades and Sulla showed uncommon bravery, spirit of conquest, greed, and belligerency—what I will later on refer to as “predator” energy—both on the battleground, and in their private life.
From this standpoint, Alcibiades and Sulla’s lives allow us to have a look at today’s world politic arena, dominated by powerful male figures like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The similarities between modern and ancient strongmen are suggestive. Trump and Johnson, too, have an innate instinctthat enables them to find and exploit the power fault lines in the system. Applying leverage in the right points, they can shake the bases of those systems to maximize their own power and influence. They, too, are alpha males, acting as predators both in public and in the private sphere — and they have an uncanny capacity to influence masses of people.
How can we explain the popularity of Trump, the loyalty of Sulla’s troops, or the formidable influence Alcibiades had on the Athenians? These men are so popular because they express subconscious longings and secret desires common to many. Characters like Alcibiades, Sulla, or Trump become projection screens for some of the most basic instincts of human nature: the desire to possess, devour and consume, and the desire to be liked, adored, worshipped by the masses. These powerful figures draw their power from their capacity to reflect, in an almost caricatured way, parts of our psyche that we are afraid to look at. Understanding those parts, meeting the demagogue and the predator within each one of us may be the only way to free ourselves from the influence of the demagogues of the world.
The Predator Within
As we have seen, both Alcibiades and Sulla were top-of-the-food-chain animals that built their empires by crushing their enemies, whether through sheer military power, cunning, or rhetoric. While Donald Trump will probably never have the opportunity to prove his bravery on an actual battlefield, his skill and success as a predator in the real estate business is legendary.
But Alcibiades, Sulla, and Trump’s predator was equally visible in the private sphere, particularly in these men’s relationship with women and sexuality. If Trump’s antics and derogatory expressions towards women are all too well-known, Alcibiades and Sulla’s relationship with the Feminine may not have been all that different. Plutarch (2014) tells us that Alcibiades spent fortunes in luxury and dissipation (p. 323), so much so that his wife Hipparete wanted to divorce him (p. 263). He also tells us that one of the versions about Alcibiades’s death is that he was killed by the brothers of a young girl he had debauched (p. 290). The connections between predatory behavior in war, politics, business, and sexuality seem quite obvious.
And yet, although it is easy for us to judge these men as sexual predators because of their unabashed desire and gross expressions, I believe that the problem with characters like Trump is that theirs is an expression of an unhealthy, unintegrated Masculine—one that both desires and despises the Feminine, that craves and simultaneously hates, stuck in a dangerous and explosive ambivalence. Is there a possibility for a more integrated, mature version of masculinity, one that honors the Feminine without renouncing the healthy aspects of the predator?
My experience of years of working in the field of self-development and shadow work has compelled me to recognize the predator as part of the psychological baggageof every healthy human being. Moreover, upon closer examination, we discover that alongside the more masculine, direct, aggressive predator, there is also a “predatress”—a more feminine version of the same energy. If the masculine predator acts like a wolf or a hyena, jumping on his prey with unswerving ruthlessness, the feminine predator invites her prey into her lair by arts of seduction and attraction, using her beauty and irresistible magnetism. Both the masculine and the feminine versions of the predator exist in all beings of any gender, although we may be culturally and individually accustomed to recurring to one more than the other. To a certain extent, these are healthy archetypes that allow us to survive, to get the nourishment we need, and to thrive in an environment that is not always benevolent.
Because the masculine and feminine predator exists in different degrees in all of us, we need to find a way to work with them, and neither suppressing them nor letting them run our lives is a wise choice. If we allow the predator in us to run unchecked, we can lose empathy towards others and eventually fall into unethical and destructive behavior. Distant mirrors like Alcibiades and Sulla remind us exactly of that. However, if we do not allow the predator in us to be expressed at all, we risk curbing our capacity to affect the surrounding environment powerfully. We may find ourselves unable to attract the resources, relationships, and opportunities that can support our full unfoldment.
Anne Baring (2013), following the traces of great psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, teaches us that the more we repress any psychic content into the unconscious realms of the shadow the more powerful and distorted it becomes (p. 267). If we are not able to express our inner predator consciously, it will not disappear; instead, it will lurk in the shadow and get its need met when our consciousness is not on watch.
What practical steps can we take to bring the inner predator into the light and integrate it? In my offerings and workshops, I facilitate embodied processes to bring the predator energies under the light of consciousness and take them out of the shadow realms of the psyche. By inviting the participants to express their masculine and feminine predator through dance, movement, and role play, we access those energies in a way that is empowering and safe. People who take part in these experiences consistently testify that the work they did on their inner predator has allowed them to feel more integrated and empowered. But what is truly astounding is that in every case, once the predators have been acted out, everybody in the group reports feeling safer.
I doubt that men like Alcibiades, Sulla, or Trump had ever access to tools that allowed them to express their predator in a healthy way, without damaging or hurting anybody. They were probably raised in a constrictive moralistic system that, among other factors, contributed to pushing their desire for power—and their sexual drive—in the shadow, where it fostered and adopted gigantic proportions.
However, by studying the lives of Alcibiades and Sulla, we realize that they were not just predators but also great influencers, able to seduce thousands of people, harvest their dreams and hopes, arouse their fears and desires. These men were not only skilled generals: they were also masters of rhetoric, the art of persuasion.
The Modern Agora
The societies most of us live in, governed by elaborate representative systems, may seem to be very different from the direct democracy of Athens or Rome’s republic. We may be tempted to believe that it was much easier for a demagogue to influence the masses when public discourses were pronounced in the central square and every citizen could attend in person. However, in today’s hyper-connected world, social networks like Facebook and Twitter have become a sort of modern agora, virtual plazas where communication strategists work hard to swing the public opinion. Recent electoral campaigns like the United States 2016 presidential elections or the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom in the same year show that voters are easy to sway, ready to believe in almost anything with no factual check, and extremely responsive to emotionally charged content.
Politicians like Trump and Johnson have worked hard to develop new and sophisticated ways to influence the masses efficiently and quickly, using expressions that, just a few decades ago, would have been deemed utterly inappropriate for the political conversation. Trump, in particular, has adopted a new form of communication with the public opinion, based on short and frequent messages, mainly broadcast through the Twitter social network. In this new format, that instantly reaches not just the houses, but the mobile phones of hundreds of thousands of people, depth of meaning and factual accuracy matter little.
In one of my papers for Ubiquity University, titled “Compelling Vision Versus Shock Doctrine”, where I reviewed Naomi Klein’s book “No is Not Enough” (2017), I argued that a vision devoid of emotional content does not stand a chance against the emotionally charged messages of the demagogues of our times. I also claimed that the progressive camp needed to intelligently use communication to inspire, not just educate, the global audience.
With the creation of a global agora through the massive use of social media, we are entering an era where rhetoric becomes essential again. If we do not want to leave our destiny in the hands of the likes of Trump, we need to cultivate the capacity to inflame souls for causes that are in alignment with the common good. As leaders of a global change, we need to walk a razor’s edge, the fine line of being in full integrity with the content of our message, while curating its form so that it touches people’s hearts.
There are examples of individuals and collectives that are walking such a fine line. One of these collectives is Extinction Rebellion, a global movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience to prompt governments to take action in the areas of climate change, biodiversity loss, and social inequality.1 Not only are Extinction Rebellion’s motives understandable and ethically sound; its communication is also visually appealing, inspiring, and able to influence the hearts of thousands of people. To start with, “Extinction Rebellion” is a great name. It communicates urgency, action, power, and, in a certain way, it touches the legitimate fear of irremediably damaging our planet Earth. Would this global movement have the same enormous reach if it was called something like “Movement to avoid the destruction of our ecosystem by climate change”? Probably not. Extinction Rebellion sounds much better and is much, much easier to remember. Choosing this name, as well as creating a catchy abbreviation (XR) and a logo, an hourglass with an X in the middle, is an example of powerful, effective use of communication to promote ethical action.
We should all learn from movements like Extinction Rebellion, movements that are driven by the minds and hearts of passionate people, many of them teenagers or young adults. These activists have grown in the era of social media, and the new style of rhetoric is as familiar to them as political discourse was to Alcibiades or Sulla. Whatever message we choose to broadcast, if it is not appealing to the young, it is a message destined to disappear all too soon.
Looking at the distant mirrors of Alcibiades and Sulla’s lives prompts us to observe with a critical spirit both our political systems and the depths of our psyche. Although historical conditions may have changed, the psychology of these strongmen is remarkably alike even after two thousand years. The same predatory instinct, the same capacity to influence the masses, the same instinct for power, the same supposed proximity to “the people” and enmity towards any intermediary body, such as the Parliament, characterizes both the ancient and the modern demagogues.
There is no doubt that Alcibiades and Sulla, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson pertain to a category of powerful human beings. Their hunter instinct, combined with the capacity to seduce the masses, is dangerously effective. But the power they have on us is rooted in their capacity to arouse our unconscious fears and desires. By bringing our own predator and demagogue into the light, by acting these characters out in ways that are conscious and aligned with the higher good, we have a much better chance at staying in our integrity than by repressing them. As we fiercely oppose the actions and politics of these demagogues, it behooves to us to continue doing our inner work with impeccability and humbleness, so that we can identify, heal and integrate the Alcibiades, the Sulla, and the Trump within us. Bringing the predator into the light, though, is hard work; it requires a commitment to looking into the darkest corners of our psyche, there where we rarely want to look.
At the same time, the life of Alcibiades and Sulla reminds us that rhetoric and the ability to arouse the hearts of our fellow humans are essential traits and that we would be wise not to leave them in the hands of the power-hungry. Public opinion has been the target of demagogues since at least the inception of democracy. Looking at the effect that one skilled orator can have on entire nations, we can and should feel motivated to take part in a communication that is ethical, effective, and inspiring. We need to rethink rhetoric and focus on inspiration rather than persuasion, on developing a communication that elevates the soul rather than evoke the darkest fears and desires of the listeners.
We live in an interconnected society where individual self-work or inquiry and collective action need to be more aligned than ever. Institutions like Ubiquity University know this well, and their curriculum covers the individual as well as the collective, the subjective as well as the objective. If we manage to align deep internal soul work with intelligent coordinated collective action, then the modern agoras of social networks become an impressive tool. Positive messages can ripple out at an incredible speed, which is our only hope to effect global changes rapidly and respond to the ongoing ecological and social challenges our world faces.
In many ways, the dilemmas and conundrums that the society of ancient Athens and Rome faced are the same that confront us today. War and peace, abundance and poverty, sexual desire and social norms, democracy and tyranny—these may well be unsolvable dichotomies of the human condition.
In order to embrace those paradoxes and create a meaningful synthesis, what is required of us is nothing less than a full commitment to deep inner work as well as to a compassionate global vision.
 Further information about Extinction Rebellion can be found at https://rebellion.earth/
Baring, A. (2013). The dream of the cosmos: a quest for the soul. Dorset, England: Archive Publishing.
Klein, N. (2017). No is not enough: resisting Trump’s shock politics and winning the world we need. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Plutarch (2014). Plutarch’s Lives, Volume 1 (Illustrated) [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Tuchman, B. (1978). A distant mirror : the calamitous 14th century. New York: Knopf.