Defining Tyranny Then and Now
In his May 2019 article, “Recognizing a Tyrant or Tyrant-to-Be,” Pierre Lemieux responds to a reply he received to his tweet claiming that the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán is a tyrant. The twitter user posted, “Have you ever asked some hungarians [sic] what they think of him? They adore him. He’s no tyrant. Angela Merkel is one.” The person construes that categorizing a leader as a tyrant relies solely on whether or not they are liked by their society as a whole. This article refutes this simple, one-dimensional definition of a tyrant that is widely accepted in modern society and does not comply with the multi-faceted definition of a tyrant in ancient Greece.
The word “tyrant” has become an incredibly watered down term in today’s age. Where does this dilution trace back to, and are we to blame for using the term so liberally? The first record of tyrants in Greece were written following the rise of democracy in Athens. Thus, our first primary sources regarding tyranny are incredibly critical based on the simple fact that the writers were unmistakably biased towards democracy. In ancient Greece, a tyrant was defined as a non-hereditary, extra constitutional ruler who took power, usually by force (however, there were also examples of tyrants elected by citizens). While tyrants often brought positive changes to a city-state initially, their rule stereotypically deteriorated into violence, greed, and sexual deviancy and would become further corrupted when a tyrannical rule became inherited and subsequent rulers took power.
Pisistratus, the first Athenian tyrant, was a textbook example of this definition. He was known for his domestic policies, promotion of art and religion, and projects to improve infrastructure. In The Histories, Herodotus, a famous Greek historian writes, “Pisistratus ruled Athens, but he did not interfere with the existing structure of offices or change the laws.” (Herodotus on Athenian Tyrants) Pisistratus also had his fair share of supporters. When he regained control of Athens the third time, he had significant financial and military support from communities who preferred tyrant rule over freedom. This fits Pierre Lemieux’s argument that tyranny relies on the consent of the people governed in order for a tyrant to take power.
Lemieux also recognizes that people who are considered tyrants in modern times also had positive impacts upon society and numerous supporters. He points this out saying, “Mussolini made the trains run on time… and Hitler fought tobacco.” He is careful, however, to clarify that society must not be viewed as an individual as there are groups of people that support a tyrant and those who do not. He also differentiates between a collective tyrant (where the supporters are members of the tyranny themselves) and supporters of a tyrant.
Lemieux also defines tyranny as when a section of the population is oppressed by the tyrant (regardless of whether they are the majority or minority group) and where the tyrant may govern arbitrarily and brutally. In the case of Pisistratus and his third rule of Athens, he actively suppressed his opposition. Those who were not killed as well as the children of those who died were exiled. This is also an example of how, as Lemieux writes, tyranny can be a gradual process. Much like how tyrants became more oppressive in subsequent hereditary generations in ancient Greece, modern day tyrants such as Hitler can become harsher overtime without people noticing until the last step towards tyranny is obvious.
I agree that Lemieux’s interpretation the word tyrant is accurate within modern context and that of the ancient Greeks. He conveys that tyranny is a gradual process and can include both negative aspects (oppression) and positive ones (improved wellbeing of the people). Lemieux does an excellent job in capturing the many dimensions of what it means to be a tyrant. Offhandedly declaring that someone is a tyrant in a tweet or everyday conversation is incredibly one dimensional and ignorant to the term’s history.
- Quin Ramos
Word Count: 598
The Histories: Herodotus on Athenian Tyrants
“Recognizing a Tyrant or Tyrant-To-Be” By Pierre Lemieux