The Duterte Charm

By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

The cuss words that punctuate Duterte’s sentences and targeted at every corrupt person actually become appealing as they add to the drama of our seemingly hopeless situation and the people’s desire for change. His anger becomes charming as it also expresses the exasperation of the ordinary person. Even the expletives against the Pope (which Catholics are up in arms against) is in fact an expression of everyone’s frustration with the hopeless traffic situation.  That is why Duterte appeals to taxi drivers, barbers, labanderas and tinderas but also to young students, office workers and some professionals. If tyranny is necessary to change the world, let the tyrant come.

It is not the first time that a “benevolent tyrant” appears in history. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle was already confronted with this dilemma.

During his time, the philosophers pontificate on almost everything from their ivory towers without connection to the ordinary lives of the people. Appearing to be erudite and knowledgeable, they in fact lead detached isolated lives, consequence as they are of the narrow enclosures of their socio-economic and cultural locations. Such a position describes the lives of other Presidentiables who try so much—but almost to no avail—to identify with the people, with the poor, with every kind of poor.   

Against the quietism and elitism of this dominant ideal is the hyperactive model of a politician: the benevolent tyrant. The philosopher Simonides presents the symbol of Jason, the tyrant-ruler of Thessaly, who thinks it is his duty “to do some unjust acts in order to be able to be able to do many just ones” (Rhetoric 1.12). If human rights need to be suspended in order to protect society from crime, drugs or corruption, the tyrant would not hesitate to do. The “little pleasures of food, drink, and sex” are insignificant; the tyrant can willingly deny these to himself.  What is more important are the greater things that tyranny can do for society.  (Duterte’s life is truly mortified on the first two; though he takes exception on the third). The benevolent tyrant’s appeal is found in his promise to pool all resources and channel them into a noble cause for the greater good of all. In a situation as frustrating as ours, the Duterte charm is very tempting.

But Aristotle’s response was straightforward: “Perhaps someone may still maintain that supreme power is the best of all things, because the possessors of it are able to perform the greatest number of noble actions. But this can never be. Their hypothesis is false… He who violates the law can never recover by any success, however great, what he has already lost in departing from excellence/virtue” (Politics 7.2).

The good life that every humane society pursues (that which Aristotle calls “eudaimonia”) is founded not on detached useless knowledge nor on unbridled dictatorial strength but on reliable and steadfast virtue—the practical excellence necessary in order “to act and act well” in the rough grounds of life. “As in the Olympian games,” Aristotle writes, “it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete [in the agreed rules of the games]; so those who act rightly win the noble and the good things in life” (Nicomachean Ethics 1.8).

Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M.,
St. Vincent School of Theology, Adamson University