In today’s context the word tyranny has a very negative connotation. We automatically think of mediaeval or generally pre-modern warlords and harsh rulers of whom are infamously remembered. However the original definition and understanding of who a tyrant was does not parallel with the modern context of the definition. Previously a tyrant was anyone who came into power without royal lineage or otherwise blood or marital relations to the previous leader. At this time, the idea of tyrants was often praised as many of them came to power with support of the people and often replaced an existing regime’s policy with something better. In this change of connotation we must study the timelines of tyrants to grasp what led to this shift in the vernacular.
In the archaic society of Ancient Greece tyrants where often seen as good for the society. In this period of time there were a rise in the number of tyrants in many of the city states. Tyranny itself in this time was not exactly sought out but the tyrants who found themselves in power often did a great job. An example of this being the Greek tyrant Peisistratos. Known for overthrowing the Athenian democracy he did so bringing about a very successful policy. Under his rule a stable coinage developed, arts, road systems, and other architectural feats. In this period tyrants were very successful and gained the following of those whom they came to rule. A shift in the idea of what it meant to be a tyrant came as the classical idea of democracy arose in Greece.
In 508 BCE the Cleisthenes’ Reforms brought about what we now know as classical democracy. In this revelation started the course that changed the meaning of tyranny to what we understand to be the definition today. In the article I read, The New Face of Tyranny, by Paul Rahe, he used the word in the context we understand tyranny to mean today. He speaks on how tyranny has been around for centuries and just how it has only evolved to fit in with the modern political structure we see today. Interestingly enough, without explicitly stating the same theme I’ve stated, he describes just how tyranny has changed and what led to this shift. “If we are to understand our present predicament, we will have to take into account just how fragile liberal democratic regimes are and the preconditions for their survival. In this regard, as Montesquieu insisted, size matters.” (Rahe, 1) In this statement he goes on to describe that the size of governments in reference to their increase in stature was the reason for a tyrant to be seen in a negative connotation. If a state is large then the tyrant must increase measures of fear or otherwise harsh tactics to keep people at bay, showing the weakness in a democracy. Rahe’s idea on tyranny relates directly to the theme that implies tyranny as a negative form of government.
Tyranny in general has shifted from a very neutral word to what we now understand to parallel with a dictator. Time and the growth of democratic civilizations have brought about this change in the connotation of the word.
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