Three Forms of Tyranny

Three Forms of Tyranny March 1, 2016

Tyranny is a constant in human history, argues Waller Newell in his forthcoming Tyrants. But the character of tyranny is not constant. Newell analyzes three forms of tyranny.

The first is the “garden-variety” tyrant, most common in the ancient world: “These are basically men who dispose of an entire country and society as if it were their personal property, exploiting it for their own pleasure and profit and to advance their own clan and cronies.” Newell acknowledges that it’s “not inconceivable that such a ruler can benefit his country – he can be a vigorous leader in war, and help expand the economy. But at the end of the day, it’s all about and his and his family’s profit and pleasure.”

The second type of tyrant is the “reforming tyrant”: “These are men who are indeed driven to possess supreme honor and wealth, and power unconstrained by law or democracy. But they are not mere hedonists or profit seekers. They really want to improve their society and people through the constructive exercise of their untrammeled authority. Examples include Alexander the Great , Julius Caesar, the Tudors , ‘enlightened despots’ such as Louis XIV, Frederick the Great , Napoleon , and Kamal Ataturk. . . . They want nothing less than to impose order on a chaotic world for the benefit of mankind, with eternal fame as their reward, an impulse that emerged early on with aspiring world-scale tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar or the Pharaohs of Egypt . In their personal lives, they are often ascetic or at least restrained, employ violence for concrete aims rather than whimsical cruelty, and are willing to endure the same hardships as their soldiers.

The third type is uniquely modern, the “millenarian” tyrant, who is “driven by the impulse to impose a millenarian blueprint that will bring about a society of the future in which the individual will be submerged in the collective and all privilege and alienation will forever be eradicated.” This form of tyranny begins with the French Revolution and Robespierre, and continues through Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and, Newell argues, contemporary Jihadists.

Newell sees Marchiavelli as a crucial turning point in the history of tyranny. According to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the solution to tyranny was the guidance of a “philosophical mentor” who would teach a young prince to rein in ambition and desire. Machiavelli dispenses with the mentor: “a successful ruler must be the source of his own prudent judgment, not dependent on a counselor.” Only when he is guided by his own will does the ruler resemble Fortuna’s ability to “re-shape the world according to their blueprint.” Machiavelli advocates ruthless ambition, but ultimately in the service of reform, to ensure the “security, wealth and greatness” of the people.

Rousseau, Newell thinks, is the source of millenarian tyranny, which came to political reality in the Jacobin phase of the French revolution, which was “bent on returning to an alleged Golden Age of pure collective equality without private possessions or individual self-interest, to be achieved through the destruction of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie and anyone else who was loyal to them, aspired to their status, or shared their values.

Newell traces the tyrannical impulse to anger, specifically anger at injustice. Both reforming and millenarian tyrants are outraged by injustice, often by an injustice (or perceived injustice) they suffer personally, and they determine to impose their will on the world to make it right. Since it has its roots in the angry soul, tyranny is a permanent feature of politics, and it is one of the delusions of liberal democracy and global capitalism that universal prosperity will remove the threat of tyranny forever. For Newell, tyranny is an independent factor in human life, impossible to predict or prevent, an evil that, when it arises, must simply be resisted.


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