Talking about Tyranny

In the 19th chapter of his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes dismisses tyranny from the lexicon of modern political science.

To speak of a ruler as tyrannical is nothing but name-calling. Enlightened persons cannot believe “that the government is of one kind when they like it, and another when they mislike it.”

Hobbes’s intention in emotionalizing the concept of tyranny is to reinterpret conscience as something wholly subjective and thereby eliminate its legal rights.

This in turn removes the chief obstacle to a consolidation of total power by governments, which exist to promote a way of life in which collective self-preservation is the fundamental goal, and material comfort the highest respectable aspiration.

If we oppose this heavy handed narrowing of human horizons, it is worth pondering what an objective definition of tyranny might look like.

In his On Kingship, St. Thomas Aquinas explains that government exists to help citizens coordinate our actions by the light of reason so as to achieve our potential as rational animals.

A legitimate government is one that tends to advance this goal. To the extent that a government subverts a way of life consistent with human dignity, that government is tyrannical.

As a rule, tyrants not only neglect but actively suppress the spiritual and moral welfare of their subjects. Anything that promotes human excellence—especially friendship with God and friendship among godly men—is a threat to tyrannical disorder.

Virtuous citizens make the tyrant look bad; refuse to cooperate in his pernicious schemes; and may be in a position to aid one another in casting off the yoke of oppression.

Clever tyrants have a bulging bag of tricks at their disposal, including threats, bribes, and propaganda. Prudence is necessary to see through their delusions, temperance to resist their seductions, and courage to overcome their intimidations.

As Plutarch teaches, the best way to tell a flatterer (that is, manipulator) from a friend is to be a friend (not a flatterer) to oneself.

Citizens resolute in their quest to live the truth are far more likely to know whether the political fare on offer is gathered from the nourishing fruits of wise judgment, or the poisonous berries of a deceptive despotism.

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