Why do tyrants always behave stupidly?

Why do tyrants always behave stupidly? July 1, 2020

Read about the downfall of any tyrant, even a less than awful one such as Napoleon, and you marvel at the increasingly foolish decisions the tyrant makes. If only they did not, if only they stopped, if only they did not say, but the tyrants do, go on, speak.

They cannot stop.


Plato suggests in Republic that a tyrant is afraid. He has what many of us want, but that something, power, has made him a target. He knows, how well he knows, what has to be done to get the power and to keep rule. Most tyrants ride a wave of popular support. History, or at least youth, are with them, but if they live long enough, they learn what they thought was history is a fickle thing. His generation raises the next and they reject the tyrant. Moral beliefs that were certain in his day are challenged as “obviously” wrong. The scientific point of view of his youth has become the “misuse of science.”

How is this possible? You cannot get “ought” from “is” and so one generation’s  certainty on an ethical issue can be the next generation’s horror. Oddly, the broad ethical consensus, the moral law, is obvious enough that errors, sometimes very serious errors, are made in particulars, applications of that law. Everyone is pro-life and everyone is for love, but each generation wobbles off the center in some version of the old ways of failing to respect life or to be loving. It is better to lose, if you are following the moral law, in the short term than to win as a tyrant.


The reaction to tyranny is always, justifiably, fierce. If perfect love casts out all fear, the will to power in the tyrant casts out all love. He ends up surrounded by transactional figures: people who work for treats, money, rewards, power. He knows this and slowly all the old loyalists are purged by his doubts. The tyrant has wanted power and if clever or lucky, gains power, but can only keep that power by increasingly counter-productive means. When the “new” might have come to the office with moderates in charge, he jails the moderates. When the “new” might have swept into office with some checks and balances on the radicals, he jails these leaders. Finally, the opposition becomes so radicalized, the government so dependent on mere power, that the tyrant falls.  If he is lucky, he dies first (see Lenin), but he is always afraid . . . even of his own followers.

Why say this?

Institutions, colleges, non-profits, and the government are changing. If the goal is power, then losing is frightening. If the goal is justice, then some losing is good for the soul and any movement. Losing purges the dross in all of us, sends us back to first principles, and reveals true friends. We love our enemies, pray for those who despitefully use us, and wait. Times change. Yesterday’s verities are tomorrow’s embarrassments: ask Woodrow Wilson. After all, if we are right, and persist, then the tyrants cannot win. The atheist Butchers of Beijing must clamp down, shoot, imprison the university students, the young people, the successful for being religious, for thinking differently than the tyrants. They are afraid.

Those that love need have no fear. Of course, in the course of time the moral anomalies in any nation, the progress that is really decadence, will fail. Our “values” will “win,” because “history” will once again sweep them into power. That generation will do her duty and her best and if she avoids tyranny, as much as she can, build civilization. If she becomes unwilling to lose, even a bit, then that generation will become tyrannical. No government is so good that it cannot be monstrous.

How can a person avoid tyranny? Find the dialectic. Engage in discussion. Practice Christian humility and live by faith. Realize that what seems most certain today may be swept away tomorrow if one is keeping score by the pieties of the “winners.” Losing, even being crucified, is better than one moment of injustice to avoid the same. Why? The courage of our convictions tells us to endure and leave victory to God.

Most of all, pray daily: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”



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