On Tyrants, Despots and Dictators

The Roman Dictator Sulla

In contemporary political discourse, there is not much difference between the tyrant, despot and dictator. All seem to be a variation of the same non-democratic or anti-democratic phenomenon. Alongside the non-democratic nature of these categories is the notion that they are all characterized by unlimited and arbitrary power. Dictator seems to have more traction in popular discourse while tyrant and despot is reserved for the flambouyant. This was not always the case, however. In classical political thought the terms represented significantly different political phenomena.

We can start with the term tyrant. An insightful discussion of the tyrant is found in Aristotle’s The Constitution of Athens. In the text, Aristotle discusses the rise to power of Peisistratus, a man with the “reputation of being an extreme democrat”. Aristotle characterizes Peisistratus as a “tyrant” because he attained power through extraordinary or illegitimate means. But what is interesting is that his tyranny was characterized by political rule that adhered to the rule of law. Aristotle notes that the administration of Peisistratus was “more like a constitutional government than the rule of a tyrant”.  There is, therefore, nothing intrinsically unconstitutional about the rule of the tyrant. What constitutes the tyrant is the means by which he has seized power, not by the character of his rule. Rousseau reproduces this understanding of tyranny centuries later in The Social Contract, where he writes that, in the “precise sense of the term, a Tyrant is an individual who arrogates the royal authority to himself without having any right to it. … The Tyrant is one who insinuates himself contrary to the laws and governs according to the laws; the Despot is one who puts himself above the laws themselves. Thus a Tyrant may not be a Despot, but a Despot is always a Tyrant.” This contrasts with the “vulgar sense of the term” which believes that a tyrant is “a King who governs with violence and without regard for justice and the laws.”

As Rousseau suggests, the despot is significantly different from the tyrant. For Rousseau, the despot was the “usurper of the Sovereign power” which grants him the power to conflate the law with his own will.  Again, we can turn to Aristotle for an insightful definition of despotism. The despotes literally refers to the slave owner who enjoys absolute and unchecked power over his slave. In Latin, the despotes is translated as dominus, implying a relationship of domination. Aristotle characterizes this as a non-political relationship because it is a relationship relegated to the private sphere of the oikos and is intrinsically understood to be a relationship between unequals. He corrects those who think that “the management of a household, and the mastership of slaves, and the political and royal rule … are all the same.” In contrast, the “rule of a master is not a constitutional rule”, says Aristotle, for “there is one rule exercised over subjects who are by nature free, another over subjects who are by nature slaves.” In a certain sense, it is an economic relationship because the slave is the property of the despot – “a living possession”. The term “Oriental Despotism” was used to signify the way in which, from the perspective of the Greeks, the states of the East (in this case, the Persians) were not properly understood to be political states because the relationship between the king and his subjects was analogous to the relationship between the despot and the slave. The subjects were not proper citizens because the king enjoyed proprietary rights over the entire populace. It may be the case that the king was benevolent; that does not change the fact that he is a despot. The case of Cyrus fits this example. What made Cyrus as despot was not his wickedness; in fact, most anti-democratic Greek and Roman writers, including Cicero, believed Cyrus to be “the most just and wisest of kings”. The problem with this form of government, according to Cicero, is that “the property of the people” (the res publica) “is administered at the nod and caprice of one man”.

The dictator is something that is further distinguished from these previous terms and refers to an official constitutional office that grants extraordinary powers to the office holder for a limited period of time (typically six months). As Rousseau states, “only the greatest danger can counterbalance the danger of disturbing the public order”. Therefore, only in extraordinary times of crisis, “when the salvation of the fatherland is at stake” and the existing laws and institutions prevent the resolution of such crisis, should the powers of the dictatorship be bestowed upon “the worthiest person”. In these cases, the dictator becomes “the supreme chief’ who “silences all the laws and provisionally suspends the Sovereign authority”. The important point for Rousseau is that the dictator suspends the sovereign power (in this case, the General Will), he does not abolish it; and during its suspension, while he has unlimited executive authority, he has no authority to make new laws or repeal existing ones. In this sense, the dictator does not usurp executive power; he has it bestowed upon him through constitutional means and is therefore not a tyrant. At the same time, however, his executive power is unlimited in scope but limited in time, unlike the tyrant. On the other hand, the dictator does not usurp the sovereign or legislative authority like the despot. His will does not become law and his power is not arbitrary. While the differences between dictators, despots and tyrants have lost all meaning in contemporary political discourse, given our tendency to view the world through the dichotomous lens of democratic versus authoritarian systems, they remained very clear for classical political theorists. This is something to keep in mind when we revisit the classics.


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