The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

Tyranny is one of the oldest problems in western thought—and practice.

What is tyranny? It is agreed by almost all the philosophers of our tradition that tyranny is a form of bad government, and specifically bad in a way that exerts too much control over the governed, but beyond this things are less clear.

Approaching the question historically, in ancient Greece, a τύραννος (turannos) was an absolute ruler or dictator, usually put in place by some kind of popular uprising that overthrew a city’s previous government. The seventh and sixth centuries saw tyrannies in a large number of Greek cities; some remained well-liked thanks to capable and benevolent rule, while others lost their popularity, and were either overthrown in turn or turned to the backing of a foreign military—which, in that time and place, usually meant the Persian Empire, which was expanding westward toward the Ægean Sea. This culminated in the Persian Wars of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, which left tyranny an ugly reputation as something alien, arrogant, slavish, and violent.

Both Plato and Aristotle denounced tyranny in their political writings (though they occasionally also used “tyrant” in the older and more neutral sense of “absolute ruler”). Aristotle said in the Politics that while monarchy was a good system of government, in which a king ruled his subjects for their own benefit, tyranny was the corruption of monarchy, in which the tyrant ruled his subjects for his own benefit. The comparison to slavery was made explicit by the use of the word despotic, derived from δεσπότης (despotēs) meaning a master of slaves. Though the ancient world accepted slavery as an institution, to effectively enslave adult citizens as a tyrant did was in Aristotle’s view unconscionable. This hatred of tyranny was officially shared by the Roman world, though they freely identified kingship as such with tyranny; in consequence, even after the development of the Empire under the Cæsars, they refused to assume royal titles for centuries and maintained the legal fiction that they were merely “tribunes of the people.”

This loathing of tyranny persisted throughout the Middle Ages. Though we often vaguely think of Medieval monarchies as absolute, this was in fact rarely the case, both thanks to contemporary laws and customs and to the influence of the Catholic Church. No less an authority than St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa: “A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler … Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind … Indeed, it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely”.

Our ethical teachers write mildly against the power of millionaires; but we are not likely to see Mr. Rockefeller, or any modern tyrant, publicly whipped in Westminster Abbey.

Tyranny enjoyed some good press in Europe from about the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries; this was when the theory of the divine right of kings was most popular, and when writers like Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes were active; Hobbes went so far as to say that there could be no serious distinction between a tyrant and a monarch, based on his theory that the social contract involved a surrender of all rights to the sovereign. Yet there were critics of tyranny throughout this period as well, such as John Locke, who said that king who becomes tyrannical “has dethroned himself and put himself in a state of war with his people,” perhaps with the recent English Civil War in mind.

However, these scathing pronouncements do prompt a question: if they are so harmful, how do tyrants ever come to power? Historically, there are a few ways, and one of the commonest may also seem the most surprising: tyrants are often popular. After all, it is exceedingly difficult to secure enough support to claim absolute control over the state, so the few who succeed usually do so because people let them; Julius Cæsar was popular, and Adolf Hitler certainly fits the bill.

Another common means is by military or economic conquest, which normally puts a foreign tyrant in charge (or occasionally a native tyrant propped up by foreign powers). This was often openly rationalized by European political theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in order to justify the imperial expansion of their own countries; the rationalizations given were that the foreign peoples being subjugated were ignorant and immoral, and needed Europeans to enlighten them. John Stuart Mill, though theoretically in favor of democracy, wrote that “Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind has become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.” The fact that these self-appointed Charlemagnes exploited their resources and labor for their own benefit—the textbook definition of tyranny—was presumably just a coincidence.

Opposition to tyranny in the last few centuries has mostly sprung from various forms of democratic, socialist, and anarchist thought. The American and French Revolutions were both carried out in the name of ousting tyrannies, though the later career of the French included both the Reign of Terror and the military dictatorship of Napoléon. Similarly, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was opposed by anarchist writers such as Pyotr Kropotkin, who correctly foresaw the way the Communist government, having rid Russia of the tsars, would turn into a new dictatorship of its own. Tyranny remains as unpopular as ever on paper; what to do about tyrants will always be a terribly practical question.

Suggested reading:
Æschylus, Agamemnon
Tacitus, Annals
Magna Carta
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 71 (Dawson No. 70)
Pyotr Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread


If you liked this piece, check out some of our other content here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Virgil, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Frederick Douglass, or this reflection on the value of studying useless subjects. And be sure to check out our podcast Anchored for more great ideas!

Page image of Nero’s Torches by Henryk Siemiradzki (1876).

Share this post:
Scroll to Top