Addendum onTyranny  

Posted by T. Greer in , ,

Recently I wrote a post where I attempted to define "tyranny" as the word is used here on the Stage. I have given the matter some thought since then, and would like to add few points to this earlier effort.

I concluded the post with the following operative definition of "tyranny":

Tyranny can be found in any policy, regulation, law, or action designed by those in a position of power to disenfranchise and violate the rights of the citizenry directly, or that causes, by intent or accident, such fear, apathy, or distraction in the minds of the people that they are unable to protect their liberties or exercise self government.

This definition is admittedly long-winded and clumsy. Simpler definitions can be found, but they suffer the downside of being both general in scope and subjective in application.  In this rare case, usefulness cannot come without long-windedness.

The definition can be split into two clauses. The first, "any policy, regulation, law, or action designed by those in a position of power to disenfranchise and violate the rights of the citizenry directly" describes the most obvious forms of tyranny. The tyrannies of the gulag, punishments ex post facto, censorship, torture, midnight searches and seizures, and government purges are clear. The abject despotism of each needs no explanation.

But it is not abject despotism we need fear. Tyranny of this sort is the province of autocracies, not the liberal, modern democracies in which most of my readers live today. Ours is a different danger. In the words of Tocqueville, "the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world" (Alexis de Tocqueville,  Democracy in America. trans. Henry Reeves. Vol II. p. 290).*

The second clause of the definition, " any policy, regulation, law, or action that causes, by intent or accident, such fear, apathy, or distraction in the minds of the people that they are unable to protect their liberties or exercise self government", captures the essence of this menace. While the end result of the policies described in the first and second clauses are the same (the arbitrary exercise of power over a group of people to the point where they no longer retain the ability to resist those wielding power) the means by which this end is attained are quite different. The first extends control over the physical. It destroys and confiscates property; it detains and murders persons. The second seeks control of the psychological. It does no damage to material objects or beings. It is an assault on the spirit of he or she it seeks to dominate.

Psychological tyranny is nothing new. Ibn Khaldun penned an accurate description six centuries ago:

As a rule, man must be dominated by someone else. If the domination is kind and just and the people under it are not oppressed by its laws and restrictions, they are guided by the courage and cowardice that they possess in themselves. They are satisfied with the absence of any restraining power. Self-reliance eventually becomes a quality natural to them. They would not know anything else. If however, the domination with its laws is one of brute force and intimidation, it breaks their fortitude and deprives them of their power of resistance as a result of the inertness that develops in souls of the oppressed.

-- Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. trans Franz Rosenthal. Vol I. pp. 258-259


Khaldun lived in an age defined by tribal feuds and extortionate kings. A man of the agricultural paradigm, Khaldun had seen no clan or man take power save through the bloodied sword. He could no more imagine a government without brutality than he could imagine a ship without a sail.

Though the days of violent kingships have passed, the basic pattern of psychological domination observed by Khaldun is still relevant today. Indeed, four hundred years after Khaldun's time, another man, this one living on the cusp of modernity, would come to very similar conclusions. The man's name was Alexis de Tocqueville. In his early years he traveled across the young American Republic, marveling at the self-reliance of the people who populated North America's interior. Tocqueville realized that such a people would never be tyrannized by the brute force of past ages. In a democratic world, "inertness of the soul" could not come through cruel oppression. Tyranny's vehicle would be a soft despotism.

Said Tocqueville:

It would seem that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them....

Democratic governments may become violent and even cruel at certain periods of extreme effervescence or of great danger, but these crises will be rare and brief. When I consider the petty passions of our contemporaries, the mildness of their manners, the extent of their education, the purity of their religion, the gentleness of their morality, their regular and industrious habits, and the restraint which they almost all observe in their vices no less than in their virtues, I have no fear that they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather with guardians....

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain....

Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions only exhibits servitude at certain intervals and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.


Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. trans. Henry Reeves. Vol II. pp. 290-293

This is tyranny. Its ultimate result is no different than a campaign of censorship, raids, and renditions:  a servile and inert people incapable of controlling their government or themselves. 

And it is against this tyranny we must remain the most vigilant.




*Readers will do well to note that this is an inferior translation. I much prefer Penguin Classic's Gerald Bevan translation.  Alas, as I am currently vacationing far away from my library, I have little choice but to use the Reeves translation, which is available for free online. For those who own a better copy of Democracy, all excerpts used in this post can be found in volume II, book four, chapter 8.

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