Tyrant or Leader?

In Chapter 5, “Dawn of the Empires”, the author defines tyrant as a “ruler with absolute power, sometimes granted through election in times of crisis, sometimes seized through force of arms”. The author also refers to a tyrant as a “single autocratic ruler” (Spodek 141). However, the modern day definition of “tyrant” is a cruel and harsh ruler who obtained power through force. Many common stereotypes associated with tyrants include dynasties, prophecies, sexual deviancy, and greed. As stated in “Herodotus on the Athenian Tyrants”, Pisistratus “became a tyrant again” because he did not have sex with his wife “in the usual way” (26). Sexual deviancy appears in the ancient definition of tyrant but has disappeared as the definition has evolved over time. In addition, many tyrants started out as fair and effective leaders. However, as their power grew and descended their sons, they became corrupt over time. Although “tyrant” has a negative connotation in modern English, tyrants could be either effective leaders or unfair leaders during the time in Ancient Greece. The term “tyrant” that appears in a news article about President Trump does not represent the definition from Ancient Greece because it only associates Trump with cruelness and does not include the possibility of a good tyrant.  

In “America Takes the Next Step Toward Tyranny”, Andrew Sullivan examines the definition of “tyrant” and makes a case that President Trump is a modern day tyrant. However, Sullivan fails to acknowledge the positive side of the word in relation to its origin in Ancient Greece. Sullivan accurately describes how tyranny rises after the fall of democracy; “a late-stage democracy… with elites dedicated primarily to enriching themselves…morphs so easily into tyranny” (Sullivan). Sullivan accurately describes the rise of tyranny which is not included in a modern definition of the term. This proves true in Ancient Greece when Peisistratus took control of the government as a tyrant after the fall of Solon’s reforms. 

After recognizing that tyranny proceeds democracy, Sullivan makes the case that Trump goes into a period of free giving. After the calm period of ruling, Trump “just gives away stuff: at first he promises much ‘in private and public, and grant[s] freedom from debts and distribute[s] land to the people and those around himself’” (Sullivan). The idea of freeing people from debts connects directly to Solon’s reform known as seisachtheia. Seisachtheia cancelled all debts and outlawed debt slavery which is exactly what Trump did. Solon advocated for democracy so this connection supports Trump as a democratic ruler rather than a tyrant. Sullivan, gives into the other side of his argument without even realizing it.

Sullivan claims that “our president is a man who revels in his own cruelty”. The depiction of a tyrant as cruel is a modern day stereotype but does not hold true when looking at tyrants from the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece. As mentioned before, there were tyrants who were fair and effective rulers in addition to the obvious, cruel rulers. The author describes those that helped the tyrant rise to power eventually fall apart leaving the single ruler with all the power. After the tyrant settles into his rule, he removes all constraints to his power. The tyrant casts out anyone who gives advice that goes against the tyrant’s agenda. The author makes the case that Trump emulates this aspect of tyrant because he fired Rex Tillerson and Andrew McCabe due to a conflict of interests (Sullivan). Sullivan claims that “no one with these instincts for total domination over others is likely to moderate the longer he is in power…It only gets worse” (Sullivan). This claim aligns with the fact that as tyranny progresses from the first tyrant to the next, the leaders become corrupt. Here, Sullivan’s argument matches the modern day definition of “tyrant” as well as half of the ancient definition. 

Plato describes a tyrant as someone who is “always setting a war in motion, so that people will be in need of a leader…it’s necessary for a tyrant always to be stirring up war” (Sullivan). John Bolton, an advocate for war, replaced McMaster causing people to wonder about Plato’s definition of a tyrant. Sullivan goes on to say that Trump has to dominate other countries in the same way he likes to dominate people. Trump’s desire for power and control are prime examples of the motives that tyrants value. 

Sullivan concludes the article stating, “part of me, of course, has long worried and hoped that my assessment of Trump as truly the tyrant of Plato’s imagination is melodramatic overkill” (Sullivan). Sullivan assumes that “tyrant” has a negative denotation, but in reality, it could have a positive meaning. Although the vast majority of readers associate the word “tyrant” with a cruel, greedy, and unjust ruler, scholars that have studied ancient Greece recognize that the word has two sides. Now it is up to the reader to determine which side President Trump falls on.



Chapter Five, “Dawn of the Empires” by Spodek

“Herodotus on the Athenian Tyrants”

2 thoughts on “Tyrant or Leader?

  1. Adam Davis analyzes the perceived similarities of ancient tyrants compared to modern “tyrants” as referred to by media outlets. He provides a tremendous look into Andrew Sullivan’s interpretation of Donald Trump, and his reference to Trump as a tyrant. Adam highlights that Mr. Sullivan is referring to the word tyrant with a negative connotation when describing Donald Trump, and he then highlights that in ancient Greek history, a considered tyrant would not necessarily be considered a tyrant by today’s interpretation. Mr. Sullivan claims that Donald Trump “just gives away stuff” and that he gives advantages to those who support him. Adam does a fantastic job at countering this argument referring to Solon’s reforms known as seisachtheia. These reforms freed people from debt, much like Donald Trump frees people from debt. Adam recognizes that Solon was a large advocate for democracy, and that in Solon’s eye, trump is a democratic leader, rather than a tyrant.


  2. Adam, I agree with many of the excellent points that you made. I also thought that you used an incredible number of valuable quotes, which helped to lend authority and legitimacy to your paper. However, I did not see any mention of legitimacy in your paper, which I think is a very important point to make – President Trump was elected by the voting system of the United States of America, and he can only remain in power for 4 years before he has to pass through that system again. Additionally, I disagree with your statement that President Trump gave away many things during the calm months of his presidency. I would argue that first of all, there have been no calm months of his presidency, and second of all, he actually has been consolidating power to himself more than giving anything away, such as when he restricted the national parks and turned it into federal land. While there are many controversies surrounding President Trump, one thing is for sure – your blog post is superb.


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