Peter Jones

Ancient and modern | 3 September 2011

Two kinds of tyrant

If the Libyans really do want to move from 42 years of tyranny to a western-style ‘democracy’, i.e. an elective oligarchy, they will need a friendly tyrant to help them make the transition. In his Politics, Aristotle offers some top tips on the subject.

Aristotle distinguished two sorts of turannos: one who, knowing that the people hated him, rendered them incapable of moving against him (Gaddafi), and the other who manoeuvred to make the people unwilling to move against him. The former protected his rule by three main strategies: (i) stamping out anyone with any independence of mind or spirit, (ii) ensuring no one had any trust or confidence in anyone else, and (iii) depriving his subjects of the chance of building up a power base. So he kept the people leaderless, obsequious, uneducated, disassociated, poor, working and under a constant watchful eye.

The alternative tyrant, Aristotle went on, wished no less to maintain his power over those who did and did not want to be ruled by him – ‘his permanent, fundamental principle’ – but did so by different means: (i) he appeared more like a responsible manager of a household than a tyrant, (ii) he led a life of moderation, as a trustee of public resources, and (iii) he embraced men of drive and ability so that they did not feel they could do better under a different regime. By the same token, he took care that his subjects did not feel ill-used by him, because such people did not spare themselves. Here Aristotle quotes the 5th century bc philosopher Heraclitus: ‘Anger is a difficult enemy: he buys with his life’.

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