Plato failed. He failed three times in trying to establish his ideal philosopher-king in Syracuse, Sicily. But when we think of Plato, we do not think of failure; on the contrary, we think of one of the most accomplished people in history. After all, he did leave an impressive corpus of philosophical dialogues that proved to be indispensable in laying the foundation of Western civilization. He is in that exclusive club of the top five most influential philosophers of Western civilization that includes, aside from himself, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and Marx. But Plato also failed, and failed miserably. In this post, I want to talk about why this aspect of Plato’s life is relevant for us today.
Plato’s first visit to Syracuse was covered extensively in post 60. Please read that post if you would like background information of that visit.
Plato’s Optimism and His Idea of the Philosopher-King
After Plato left Egypt, he was primed to try putting his idea of a philosopher-king into practice. Philosophers, generally speaking, like to solve problems. The unjust execution of Socrates far from discouraged him; it made Plato even more determined to devise a system of government that was characterized by wisdom and virtue. Such a government, Plato surmised, would result in the happiness and prosperity of its citizens. The chief premise that would become the basis for Plato’s teachings was that unjust governments lacked virtue, and that they lacked virtue because they lacked wisdom. Therefore, if he could make a philosopher out of a king, or make a philosopher a king, then his ideal could be realized.
This optimism may seem a little foreign to us from a 21st century vantage point. Plato lived at a time when civilization was much younger. In modern times, we have the vantage point of looking back over almost 2,500 years of events since then, and the results are not impressive, if not downright discouraging, especially when viewed in consideration of Plato’s teachings. Along these lines, I have some bad news and some good news. First, the bad news.
Evil Atrocities by Modern Governments
In his book, Death by Government, R.J. Rummel makes the claim that in the 20th century, democide (death by government) was responsible for the demise of 262,000,000 people.1 Some claim that this figure is high. The generally agreed upon number is 100,000,000, and the majority of these were at the hands of communist and socialist governments.2 Rummel claims that this is six times the number of people killed in all of the 20th century wars combined, so these are deaths apart from casualties of war.
These were deaths perpetrated mostly by atheistic regimes, rank materialists who believed that the only existence is that which can be perceived by the senses. It only follows that without transcendent reality, there are no transcendent ideas such as truth, beauty, and goodness. And without those, there can be no virtue.
No one has capsulized this more poignantly than the philosopher Nietzsche:
The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond, leads to nihilism. ‘Everything lacks meaning’… Since Copernicus man has been rolling from the centre toward ‘x’ … What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The goal is lacking; the answer is lacking to our ‘Why?’– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, Book I: European Nihilism
Unfortunately, what has replaced transcendent realities is a godless universe that operates on the principles of time, chance, and matter. This is expressed most clearly in Darwinism, the main tenet being “survival of the fittest.” Without an ultimate authority in God, people and nations are left to vie for dominance through sheer power. And this itself is nonsensical because ultimately, there is no meaning and all things come to nothing. Regardless, destructive power has replaced divine benevolent authority as a basis of government.3 The end becomes subjugation versus the common good, and that despotic end justifies the use of any means, no matter how horrific.
The Rise and Fall of Virtue in the West
This brings us back to one of Plato’s key teachings – that a beneficent government is one characterized by virtue. The Greeks, like Plato and Aristotle, laid the foundation for this idea and the Catholic theologians and philosophers who came after built upon this foundation; that was, until the modern era.
The development of Enlightenment skepticisms started to chip away at this edifice of virtue until it came crashing down in the 20th century. Again we come back to Nietzsche, who, standing at the precipice of the 20th century, foresaw the violent revolution that would occur with the overthrowing of the old Christian order and the establishment of the new secular order. He saw this as a good thing that would eventually give rise to “grand politics on earth.” He was right about this, but not in the way that he was imagining.
In Ecce Home, Nietzsche states:
For when Truth battles against the lies of millennia there will be shock waves, earthquakes, the transposition of hills and valleys such as the world has never yet imagined even in its dreams. The concept ‘politics’ then becomes entirely absorbed into the realm of spiritual warfare. All the mighty worlds of the ancient order of society are blown into space—for they are all based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before. Only after me will there be grand politics on earth.
For Nietzsche, the “lies of the millennia” are nothing less than the ideas and teachings of Christian European civilization constructed by the Catholic Church. This old order had to be “blown into space” so that it could be replaced by the “Truth.” The transition from the old to the new would bring in such upheavals and wars “the like of which have never been seen on earth.” This radical revolution occurred in the 20th century, which is why it is considered the bloodiest century ever.
So, if Plato was naively optimistic while standing at the beginning of Western civilization, from our vantage point over two millennia later, are we justified in being cynical and pessimistic about ever having a virtuous government and civilization? In order to try to answer this question, we must revisit Plato’s failures with the petty tyrants of Sicily.
Plato’s First Visit to Syracuse, Sicily
Plato visited Syracuse over decade after leaving Athens, following the unjust execution of his teacher and friend Socrates. Prior to going to Syracuse, he traveled extensively, studying for about twelve years under the Egyptian philosopher-priests. Syracuse was his last stop before returning to Athens.
After arriving on the island, Plato befriended a young man named Dion. This was a match made in heaven, for Plato was excited to gather to himself eager students, and Dion had a hunger to learn philosophy that was unlike any of his peers according to Plato. But Dion came with the added benefit that he was brother-in-law to Dionysius I, ruler of Sicily, and thus part of the royal court. Dionysius was known as a tyrant and this is where Plato’s failures began.4
Plato eventually got an audience with Dionysius via Dion. Being a philosopher and not a politician, it did not take Plato long to offend Dionysius by stating that a ruler must have virtue in order to run a government correctly and that by-and-large, tyrants are lacking in the virtues, especially courage.
Dionysius went on to prove the point Plato was making about those in government by secretly plotting Plato’s murder. He placed Plato on a ship under the pretense of sending him back to Athens. He gave order to Pollis, one of his underlings, to kill Plato en route. Whether Pollis did not get the opportunity or was unwilling, we do not know, but he sold him into slavery when the ship docked at the island of Aegina. Unfortunately for Plato, since the Aeginians and the Athenians were bitter enemies, there was a law that any Athenian who set foot on the island was to be executed.
During interrogation by the people’s court, it was discovered that Plato was a philosopher. This softened their tone a bit, and so the prosecutor decided to sell Plato into slavery instead. It just so happened that Plato’s friend, Anniceris of Cyrene, happened to be present and redeemed Plato. Anniceris sent Plato back to his hometown of Athens and there, he started his Academy. Plato’s first visit to Syracuse was also covered in dramatic form in post 60. Please read that post for more details on Plato’s failures on that visit with Dionysius I.
Plato must have been smarting as his first attempt to institute a philosopher-king failed miserably. For the next twenty years, Plato kept his head down as he taught the students at his Academy, and then something remarkable happened.
Plato Invited to Sicily a Second Time
About twenty years after returning to Athens in 367 B.C., Plato received a letter from none other than Dionysius II of Syracuse, the eldest son of Dionysius I. The tyrant had died that year and after Dionysius II assumed the throne, he penned a letter to Plato requesting his presence in Syracuse. Plato, being a deliberate thinker, did not hop onto the next ship sailing for Sicily, but waited and most likely consulted with others. One of the main factors that made Plato tentative was no doubt his age – he was around sixty years old. Sea travel was difficult in those days, especially for older people.
Regardless, the letters from Sicily kept coming, not only from Dionysius II, but from his old friend Dion as well. On top of that, he even received letters from Pythagoreans in southern Italy, also encouraging him to return to Sicily. Why the urgency from so many? Well, it seemed that many people at this time, especially Dion, saw a perfect opportunity to establish in Syracuse a virtuous government lead by a philosopher-king as Plato desired, and the best candidate was none other than Dionysius II. There were two reasons for this, one negative and one positive.
The negative reason was that Dionysius II’s father – Dionysius I – had kept Dionysius II uneducated and in confinement for most of his young life, despite Dion’s pleas to the contrary.5 He did this because he thought that a highly-educated heir to the throne might become enlightened and impatient enough to attempt a usurpation of the throne. We see a similar phenomenon with modern governments that disparage critical thinking skills, opting instead to produce obedient, mindless workers.
Regardless, Dion and others felt that Dionysius II would be the perfect student to learn Plato’s teachings since he was more or less a blank slate. He wouldn’t have to unlearn anything. Having said that, as Dionysius II grew older, the courtiers would often ply him with alcohol and encourage him in debauchery, no doubt at the encouragement of his father.6 It is said that he once went on a ninety-day binge of drinking and revelry. A person given to dissipation is no threat to the king. This is also true for a citizenry. A population with a penchant for pleasure and a lack of self-control can be manipulated by a government, but they can never dispose of tyrants, for that requires virtue. But in Dionysius II’s situation, surmised Dion, this could be overcome with Plato’s teachings on virtue.
The positive reason for wanting to install Dionysius II after learning from Plato was that Plato’s friend Dion, who was like-minded with Plato in regard to virtue, philosophy, and government, was the chief adviser to the young Dionysius. This afforded the perfect opportunity to correctly form the mind of the young ruler and the chances were good that he would entrust himself to someone he had known since he was a young boy. Dion had already convinced Dionysius II to write a letter to Plato inviting him to Syracuse. But the timing was particularly urgent because without action soon, a literal power vacuum would form and most likely be filled with miscreants.
Plato Mulls the Decision to Go to Sicily
Plato was personally inclined not to go and have more dealings within that government, but the more he considered the situation, the more he sensed the call of duty above and beyond his personal discomfort. What pushed him over the edge was a letter he received from Dion that stressed the importance of immediate action:
…if ever all our hopes will be fulfilled of seeing the same persons at once philosophers and rulers of mighty states. (italics mine)– Plato, Seventh Letter
The philosopher-king! This had been Plato’s dream since his youth. How could he resist that? He states the following:
Therefore, I pondered the matter and was in two minds as to whether I ought to listen to entreaties and go, or how I ought to act; and finally the scale turned in favor of the view that, if ever anyone was to try to carry out in practice my ideas about laws and constitutions, now was the time for making the attempt; for if only I could fully convince one man…With these views and thus nerved to the task, I sailed from home, in the spirit which some imagined, but principally through a feeling of shame with regard to myself, lest I might some day appear as a pure theorist, unwilling to touch any practical task. Also there was reason to think that I should be betraying first and foremost my friendship and comradeship with Dion.– Plato, Seventh Letter
Plato learned from Socrates that a philosophy that cannot be put to any practical use is worthless. Besides these lofty ideals, the other strong motivation for him to take this trip was his loyalty to his friend Dion. I should note here that as Plato was preparing to depart, a new student joined his Academy. He was a nineteen-year-old man from Macedonia named Aristotle.
Plato Receives a Warm Welcome in Sicily
Even though Plato decided to go, he expressed his doubts about being able to correctly form the mind of such an impetuous individual as Dionysius II. After all, education is about more than knowledge gained; it’s also about virtue practiced. One of the biggest detriments in the modern age has been the separation of virtue from knowledge.
Once Plato arrived in Syracuse, he was ushered into the presence of Dionysius II. After a short discussion of philosophy, Dionysius became a student of Plato and eventually became the first philosopher-king. As a result of Plato’s teachings, he brought prosperity and happiness to the people of Syracuse for many years to come.
Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. As Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, “If life were only like this.” The truth is that the situation started out good and then deteriorated from there. Plato did receive a much more positive welcome than he had from Dionysius II’s father. When he disembarked, he was greeted with a special chariot and fanfare. Animal sacrifices were made in his honor.7
Other things gave him a sense of hope as well. The citizens Plato met seemed eager and hopeful to finally have reform in the government. The court was well-mannered in comparison to the debauchery he had witnessed years earlier, and there seemed to be a general interest in philosophy in the court and among the people. All of this no doubt trickled down from Dionysius, for rulers set the tone for those under their care. Plutarch states:
Modesty … now ruled in the banquets … their tyrant himself behaving with gentleness and humanity in all matters of business that came before him. There was a general passion for reasoning and philosophy, insomuch that the very palace, it is reported, was filled with dust by the concourse of the students in mathematics who were working their problems there.– Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, The Life of Dion, paragraph 13
The Situation Deteriorates
From Plato’s initial encounter, it appeared that Dionysius had a true change of heart and that he earnestly desired to learn from Plato’s teachings and be a philosopher-king. But there were those in the court who saw things differently. They saw power as an end in itself and not as a means to the end of the greater good for society.8 For people like this who seek raw power, ideas such as a philosopher-king and virtue are completely foreign concepts. Such nefarious people are attracted to power but always for the wrong reasons. In modern times, this perspective is most clearly manifested in the Neo-Marxist movements throughout the world. The end for them is not a worker’s utopia, for that is just a ruse to get what they really want – raw power.
So, apart from the majority of the citizens who were hopeful and optimistic about the reforms Plato could bring about, the minority of power seekers became extremely alarmed at Plato’s presence and his potential influence on their government. People having bad motives tend to see everyone else as having bad motives. They cannot conceive of desiring the greater good. Some saw Plato as merely a tool that Dion was using to persuade Dionysius to step down. Others said that since Athens could not conquer Sicily with an army during the Peloponnesian war, they would now use the craftiness of one man, the sophist Plato. The fears of a paranoid few eventually morphed into a full-fledged cabal.
Plato’s Failures in Syracuse (Again)
The courtiers stealthily hatched their plot. Their chief strategy was to drive a wedge between Dionysius on one hand and Plato and Dion on the other. Their chief lie was that Plato and Dion were conspiring to overthrow Dionysius.
Unfortunately, the strategy worked. Four months after Plato arrived, Dionysius II condemned Dion for conspiracy against the government and had him banished from Sicily, and he detained Plato in the acropolis of Syracuse. Plato was at one of the lowest points of his life. He was deeply disappointed with how quickly all of his plans came to nothing due to the machinations of the conspirators.
In the end, though, Plato remained somewhat skeptical of Dionysius’ earnestness. In the four months that Plato had been there, it seemed that Dionysius was only interested in having Plato praise him as a philosopher in his own right instead of trying to learn Plato’s teachings on philosophy. This was probably one reason the conspiracy succeeded, for if Dionysius had the true desire to present himself as a student of philosophy, he probably would have had the wherewithal to see though the court machinations. Plato states:
I put up with all of this, holding fast to the original purpose for which I had come, hoping that he might somehow come to desire the philosophic life; but I never overcame his resistance.– Plato, The Seventh Letter
Eventually, Plato petitioned Dionysius II to go back to Athens. Dionysius was hesitant. It was only through the mediation of Archytas the Pythagorean of Tarentum that Dionysius was persuaded to set Plato free.9
Plato’s Third and Final Visit to Syracuse, Sicily
Plato returned to Athens where he taught for another ten years. Finally, when he was seventy, he received yet another invitation to return to Syracuse by none other than Dionysius II himself. This letter was supported by an overture from Archytas of Tarentum. Dionysius claimed that he was now truly interested in coming to terms with philosophy.
The amazing thing was that Plato actually went a third time. Of course, he had the higher motive of being true to philosophy, but also he had the motive of helping his friend Dion, who was still exiled from Sicily and had his fortune taken away. Plato could possibly leverage this situation with the government to restore Dion to his original position. When we look at it that way, we shouldn’t be amazed at Plato’s decision for he was being guided by the principles of virtue rather than self-preservation. Plato’s previous failures were put aside in hopes of restoring his friend.
After he arrived, he was installed in Dionysius’ court as the resident philosopher. Dionysius seemed to soak up all of Plato’s teachings and the aura of philosophy filled the court.10 Dionysius even wrote a book, albeit a bad one, summarizing Plato’s philosophical ideas. But Plato was not seeking flattery; rather, he was trying to mold Dionysius into a true philosopher-king. As such, he tested him and plied him with questions along those lines.
Plato Tests Dionysius
Was Dionysius truly interested in becoming a philosopher? If so, that meant abandoning the pursuit of pleasure and power for its own sake and considering those things a means to a greater end. For example, we utilize the pleasure of eating in order to motivate us to eat so that we can obtain the end of good health. But when we live for the pleasure of eating, we end up damaging our health and even shortening our lives.
Becoming a true philosopher meant undergoing a radical transformation in lifestyle. Was Dionysius willing to do that? Plato said the following to him:
Those who are not really philosophers but have only a coating of opinions, like men whose bodies are tanned by the sun, when they see how much learning is required, and how great the labor, and how orderly their daily lives must be to suit the subject they are pursuing, conclude that the task is too difficult; and rightly so, for they are not equipped for this pursuit.
Plato also tested him practically. Was he willing to restore Dion’s fortune back to him? Plato knew that it is a concrete change of behavior that determines if real change has occurred in the soul. It reminds me of Jesus’ encounter with the rich man who desired to have eternal life. When Jesus asked the man if he kept the commandments, the man replied that he did. Then Jesus asked him to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and come and follow Him. The account states that the man went away very sad for he owned much property.11
Plato Ousted from the Government a Third and Final Time
Plato was upset when Dionysius reneged on his original promise. He decided to leave and go back to Athens. Dionysius, in his desire to have Plato stay, offered a compromise. He would sell half of Dion’s possessions and send the money to him. Plato would have none of it, for he saw right though his insincerity; he still insisted on leaving.
Then Dionysius’ true colors came out. He ousted Plato from the court and had him held in captivity. With the help of his trusted friend Archytas and some others, Plato escaped the government once and for all and set forth on a ship back to Athens.12 On the way, in Olympia, he met up with Dion, who was planning an invasion of Sicily. He asked Plato to join him. Plato declined, and Dion did invade and died in the attempt to overthrow Dionysius and his government. In this, it appears that Dion also never took to heart Plato’s teachings.
Plato’s Return to Athens and Death
Plato returned to Athens for the final time. He spent the rest of his life doing what he did best, teaching philosophy to those who would listen. He lived another ten years and died at the ripe old age of eighty.
Why did Plato fail? The answer lies not in Plato, but in Dionysius himself. Remember that Dionysius never received an education that included proper knowledge and personal discipline. Rather, as a youth, he was encouraged to indulge his pleasures. And though many people can and have overcome such a past, apparently Dionysius was unable, and this is ultimately what led to Plato’s failures in Syracuse. Having said that, I think that Dionysius was not all bad. I think he had a willing spirit, but was unable to surmount his fleshly desires that included, above all, a lust for power. It reminds me of when Jesus said to his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The question is whether Plato became discouraged and cynical at the end of his life or not. I think not for several reasons. First of all, Plato was an idealist and an eternal optimist. And secondly, Plato was also a realist. In his Republic, he talked about the philosopher being the one who escapes from the darkness of the cave and beholds the pure light of truth. His job is to go back into the cave and try to enlighten others. The problem is that when he does so, no one believes him and in fact, they try to kill him. Plato knows that many people, if not the majority, desire to remain in an unenlightened state. Plato knew human nature.
Fighting Tyranny in the 21st Century
Is it fair to compare modern tyrannies of the 20th and 21st centuries to the things Plato experienced with the government in Sicily? After all, by today’s standards, Dionysius I and Dionysius II would be at the level of tin-pot dictators in some Central American banana republic. That being the case, I think the answer is yes for two reasons.
First of all, we are dealing with the same human nature. To use a fortiori argumentation, if something is true on a smaller scale, how much more true is it on a larger scale? If human nature is corrupt in a small ancient city-state, how much more in a sophisticated modern global environment, especially as technology affords more opportunities to perpetrate evil?
Secondly, the study of history has borne out this fact time and time again. As I stated at the beginning, the track record of humanity in regard to oppression by corrupt governments is not reassuring. The reality of the situation is that there will always be bad people who lust for power.
One problem is that good people don’t understand this because they don’t think this way. Jesus exhorted his followers to be as innocent as doves and as shrewd as serpents. We may make progress in the innocent part, but unfortunately, we tend not to be adept in the shrewd department. Since we don’t spend all of our waking hours, like some people do, considering how to obtain, maintain, or expand power, we relax when times are good. This is wrong and reprehensible because it is abdicating one’s authority.
Consider the following quote:
It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.– Speech upon the Right of Election for Lord Mayer of Dublin, 1790, as quoted in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations
Do Plato’s failures mean that Plato himself was a failure? Not really. He was a success on two accounts. First of all, he demonstrated in his dealings with the Dionysius tyrants the dark side of human nature. With Dion, he showed that even good people can often be weak. Plato did everything right in trying to influence the government. It wasn’t his fault that the tyrants, who have free will, made bad decisions.
Secondly, Plato’s teachings pointed the way to the fact that there are higher transcendent standards of wisdom by which we are capable of governing ourselves. And even though he never succeeded in his dream of a philosopher-king, nevertheless he left a philosophical legacy for us to follow. Much of what we know about good government is made possible by the philosophical foundation bequeathed to us through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. And this is not just theory – history is rife with examples of benevolent rulers. The French kings Louis IX (1214-1270) and Louis XIV (1643-1714) are just two of many examples.
In addition to this, as I stated at the beginning of this post, the human carnage caused by the replacement of virtue with the godless materialism and secularism that characterized the 20th century illustrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Plato’s teachings were correct in their emphasis on virtue, especially as it relates to government.
Finally, despite many negative examples of tyranny in the world in the last century and the present one, there is much room for optimism and hope. Tyranny does not have to rule the day. There are effective ways to combat it. It is possible, in other words, to have societies run by good leaders, free from tyranny. This may sound pollyannaish, but there really are things that we can do to prevent and eventually eliminate tyranny. But, that is a subject for a future post.
Then I returned and saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and, behold, the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.– Ecclesiastes 4:1-4
Any thoughts? Please comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!
From Amazon: “This book is an introduction to the politics of Plato meant to be accessible to the everyday reader. Plato is the first canonical philosopher in the West with an extensive corpus that is widely studied. Almost every philosophy student will read Plato at least once in their life. This book offers a reader and student friendly exposition of Plato as he was: a political philosopher first and foremost.”
Footnotes and Endnotes:
- See Death by Government on the internet.
- Satter, David, 100 Years of Communism – and 100 Million Dead – The Bolshevik plague that began in Russia was the greatest catastrophe in human history, WSJ Opinion, Nov. 6, 2017
- Please see post 30 for a discussion on power versus authority.
- The world “tyrant” in ancient Greece had both a neutral and slightly negative connotation, meaning anything from a ruler who came to power illegitimately to a heavy-handed autocrat. In the classic sense of the word, then, not all tyrants were heavy-handed. As time went on, the world became increasingly negative and eventually, the word took on the absolute negative meaning that it has today.
- Romeo, Nick and Tewksbury, Ian; “Plato in Sicily“, Aeon
- Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, The Life of Dion, paragraph 7
- Romeo, Nick and Tewksbury, Ian; “Plato in Sicily“
- “Plato’s journeys to Sicily. Dion and Dionysius.” Encyclopedia of Plato
- Romeo, Nick and Tewksbury, Ian; “Plato in Sicily“
- Gospel of Mark, 10:17-27
- “Plato’s journeys to Sicily. Dion and Dionysius.” Encyclopedia of Plato
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (October 1, 2020)
Krause, Paul, The Politics of Plato, a Beginner’s Guide, Independently published (June 22, 2020)
Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One is, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin; New Ed edition (August 26, 2004)
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Will to Power: Complete Book Volumes I-IV, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 5, 2018)
Plato, The Republic, translated by Desmond Lee, Penguin Classics; New edition (September 14, 2007)
Plato, The Seventh Letter
Plato at Syracuse, edited by Heather L. Reid and Mark Ralkowski, Parnassos Press, 2019
Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, The Life of Dion
Rummel, R.J., Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900, 5th Printing Edition, Routledge, (January 30, 1997)
Satter, David, 100 Years of Communism – and 100 Million Dead – The Bolshevik plague that began in Russia was the greatest catastrophe in human history, WSJ Opinion, Nov. 6, 2017