Complexities of Tyranny

In our daily lives, we are constantly hearing about the horrors and atrocities of non-democratic government, such as tyrannies. We compare the freedoms that we take for granted to the unfortunate realities of people elsewhere and are taught to despise these ideals. Tyrannical governments possess authoritarian values where power is placed in the hands of a single ruler who demands unquestioned obedience. However, can tyrannies actually provide the growth that a state needs in order to thrive, contrary to popular belief?

However, before discussing tyranny any further, it is important to define what tyranny was during this time compared to what it is considered nowadays. Tyranny can be defined as rule by a non-hereditary ruler opposed to that in a monarchy. These tyrants were sometimes elected by the people or achieved power through violence. Today, tyrants can be defined as the lesser between democracy and non-democratic styles of government due to the restrictions they place on the individual. Although there are many differences between tyrants of the past and today, they had some similarities. Many authoritarian styled governments today provide structure in regions that cannot be attained through democracy, just as many tyrants provided structure in the past. Also, tyrants of the past even employed democratic processes under their rule as do tyrants today. For example, Solon organized districts in Attica to include more citizens and to foster stronger political identities.[1] Today, many authoritarian countries employ democratic processes such as elections, even though they are often unfair in many ways, according to the Menu of Manipulation by Andres Schedler.[2] Regardless of their democratic success, ancient and modern tyrannies are similar in many ways, but also very different in others.

Looking back to ancient times we can see the success that particular tyrannies had, specifically in ancient Greece. In ancient Greece many of the city states, known as polis, were led by a single non-democratic ruler. Tyranny within ancient Greece did away with aristocratic families holding the power of the region.[3] Instead, some tyrants advanced public services such as infrastructure and strengthened the economies. It is important to understand the benefits that tyrannical leaders had on these ancient societies. In the article, The Field Guide to Tyranny, by Adam Gopnik, tyranny is portrayed as an evil form of government that gives the tyrant unlimited power. Gopnik states, “Then comes the isolation of the dictator within his palace—friendless and paranoid—and the pruning of his circle to an ever more sycophantic few,” in order to show the harsh reality faced by tyrants.[4] This is similar to that of ancient times because it is explained that even in ancient Greece, some tyrants were removed by violence and were forced to rule with fear of removal.

Simply put, I think that the degree of tyranny a nation falls under is dependent on the type of leader that is in rule. We have seen examples of both good and bad. Tyrannical regimes that hold power are capable of producing beneficial things for their citizens. At the same time, these tyrants are capable of oppressing their citizens with harsh rule. Placing a “one size fits all” ideal on this cannot work in accurately measuring the degree of efficiency of a tyrannical regime. At the very least, ancient Greece has shown us evidence to support the fact that we should analyze an authoritarian government before categorizing it as negative. The questions raised are:

  1. Are the consequences that come from toppling a flourishing tyrannical government worth the benefits of spreading democracy?
  2. Is spreading democracy to a nation worth the instability that comes from the collapse of a prosperous tyrannical regime?
  3. Do we as democratic believers have a moral obligation to get involved with a prosperous tyrannical regime?

Jonathan H. Lopez

Word Count: 623, Quotes: 25


[1] Spodek, Chapter 5, Pg. 141

[2] Schedler, Andreas. 2002. “The Menu of Manipulation.” Journal of Democracy 13 (2):36-50. Pgs. 39-41.

[3] Spodek, Chapter 5, Pg. 141

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/12/23/the-field-guide-to-tyranny

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