The Peril of Greatness

Brian Cox as Logan Roy in HBO's 'Succession.' (Photograph by Macall Polay/HBO)

(This article contains a major spoiler for Season 4 of Succession.)

“Politics is about who deserves to be more important,” political theorist Harvey Mansfield argued two decades ago. We are drawn to politics, classically understood (meaning not just elections, but even market and family dynamics), not just to distribute power, allocate resources, or even secure rights, but also because of what the ancients called thumos, “the part of the soul that makes us want to insist on our own importance.” Similarly, Hannah Arendt wrote in On Revolution that “freedom” in Greek political thought could be attained only through activities that “could appear and be real only when others saw them, judged them, remembered them.” “[The] life of a free man,” she observed, “needed the presence of others.”

This might be taken to portray politics as either anti-social or egotistical. This isn’t the case. Rather, Mansfield and Arendt recognized that politics depends on frequent human interactions. Politics pushes us away from others by inciting a desire to achieve greatness, but it also pulls us closer to others by making us want to be recognized as great. That paradoxical interplay helps us understand not only our politics, but also one of the most critically acclaimed television series in recent memory.

For four thumos-filled seasons, devoted fans of HBO’s Succession—which will air its series finale tomorrow—have watched the wealthy and influential Roys struggle over business deals, elections, familial tension, and more. Logan Roy (Brian Cox), the aging family patriarch, begins the series already having established his importance as the founder of the media conglomerate Waystar RoyCo, as well as its Fox News-esque media network, ATN. As his health worsens throughout the show, Logan resolves not to lose control of Waystar, while three of his children—Kendall, Shiv, and Roman—desperately try not only to make names for themselves, but to do so by taking control of the company in an attempt to finally win their father’s praise (and, more tragically, receive his love). The series has continually shown the Roys clashing with one another, craving to both excel and to be seen excelling. 

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