We say tyranny and despotism like they are one thing, but in reality history shows us many different forms of tyranny and despotism.
The Different Types of Tyranny and Despotism
With this in mind, we can at the least define at a type of tyranny for every classical type of government.
This won’t create an exhaustive list, but it will give us a solid foundation for understanding tyranny and the different forms it takes (in terms of politics).
What is Tyranny? What is Despotism?
To understand that there are different types of tyranny (and the closely related despotism), we have to understand what those terms mean.
What is tyranny? Tyranny is when special interests are put before the general will in the legislative, judicial, or executive. When the law doesn’t favor the people, but instead favors the despot(s), or when there is no rule of law, tyranny arises. If there is no justice, there is tyranny.
“The sovereign is called a tyrant who knows no laws but his caprice [self interest].” – Voltaire 1764
“Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” – John Locke 1689, discussing “correct” governments and inalienable rights.
“On the grounds that the law was desired to keep the king within bounds, not the king the law. And it is by virtue of the law that he is a king; for without it, he is a tyrant.” – George Buchanan 1579
What is despotism? Despotism is almost exactly like tyranny, but it denotes the accumulation of power specifically. Almost all despots are tyrants, but technically a despot can use total power to ensure the general will (like a benevolent monarch). So tyranny is always bad, as the laws are corrupted in favor of special interest, but despotism isn’t always bad (technically speaking; although in practice despotism almost never works out well, and generally results in “serfdom“).
“…a despotic government, that in which a single person directs every thing by his own will and caprice.” – Montesquieu on the types of governments 1747
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of TYRANNY.” – James Madison, Federalist #47 1786 (using the word tyranny to imply despotic tyranny)
Authoritarianism, Totalitarianism, and Dictatorships: According to the CIA World Fact Book. Authoritarian – a form of government in which state authority is imposed onto many aspects of citizens’ lives. Totalitarian is a government that seeks to subordinate the individual to the state by controlling not only all political and economic matters, but also the attitudes, values, and beliefs of its population. Dictatorship – a form of government in which a ruler or small clique wield absolute power (not restricted by a constitution or laws). In other words, the term “Authoritarian Totalitarian Dictatorship” works well to describe most despotic and/or tyrannical government forms. With that mind authoritarian, totalitarian, dictatorship, despotism, and tyranny all have slightly different connotations (despite speaking to the same general concept of tyranny).Tyranny Definition for Kids. The leaders of any sort of despotic movement are tyrants.
The Types of Tyranny
The simplest realist distinction is saying there are three types of tyranny and despotism:
- The tyranny of the many
- The tyranny of the few
- The tyranny of the one
In other words, either a single despot rules (ex. a despotic totalitarian dictatorship), a few despots rule (ex. plutocracy), or the many rule despotically (ex. anarchy).
With that said, it helps to consider a few more forms of government and to better define their lawful and corrupted (tyrannical) forms. For that, let’s look to Plato.
Evolving Plato’s Five Regimes to Define Five Tyrannical Regimes: The Forms of Tyranny and Despotism
The table below was created from our studying of Plato’s work, his Republic and Laws
NOTE: Plato treats Oligarchy as a flawed but lawful system in which money equals power. For these purposes, we can see oligarchy as being more akin to a benevolent Capitalist State like Athens or America. To consider the corrupted form, the tyrannical form, we’ll denote it as a “plutocracy,” a tyrannical form of oligarchy where monied interests rule in their own interest.
This table below is our own theory extracted from Plato’s work meant to illustrate the different types of tyranny:
|Plato’s Five Regimes Expanded||Correct (lawful; Ruled in Line With the General Will)||Deviant (Special Interest Before the General Will)|
|One Ruler or Very Few Rulers||Monarchy /Aristocracy (intellect and wisdom based)||Despotic Tyranny or “despotism” or “tyranny of the one Monarch” or “tyranny of the few Aristocrats,” a totalitarian dictatorship (fear and power based)|
|Few Rulers; the Ideal Polity||The Polity (a Mixed Republic the draws from the “correct” and lawful forms to protect against tyranny).||A Despotic Republic (a Mixed Republic that is not balanced enough to protect against tyranny).|
|Few Rulers; a Military State||Timocracy (honor and merit based)||Tyrannical Timocracy (Military State gangsterism; like a despotic Junta)|
|Few Rulers; a Capitalist State||Oligarchy (wealth based)||Tyrannical Oligarchy (greed based; a Plutocracy)|
|Many Rulers||Democracy (pure liberty and equality based)||Anarchy AKA “Tyranny of the Mob” or “Tyranny of the Many” (pure liberty and equality based)|
NOTE: Monarchy and Aristocracy can be considered apart or together (like Plato did). The reality is a Prince essentially must always delegate power, but certainly we can denote them apart (like we do below). We’ll consider them apart again below when we discuss “despotic princes.”
NOTE: In his theory Plato says each form degrades into the next (start at Monarchy, skip Polity, go down to democracy, then up through anarchy skipping the “despotic republic”), but I’m fairly certain that each form can itself become tyrannical (it can degrade “sideways,” where an Oligarchy becomes Plutocracy without any sort of Democratic revolution to spur it on). Like with many things Plato, this is part metaphor and groundwork. Rousseau mirrors our line of thinking of how the forms can degenerate “sideways.”
The four governments of which I spoke, so far as they have distinct names, are, first, those of Crete [monarchy] and Sparta [timocracy], which are generally applauded; what is termed oligarchy comes next; this is not equally approved, and is a form of government which teems with evils: thirdly, democracy, which naturally follows oligarchy, although very different: and lastly comes tyranny, great and famous, which differs from them all, and is the fourth and worst disorder of a State.
– Plato’s Five Regimes From his Republic (where a Republic mixes the forms to avoid tyranny).
“When the state is dissolved, the abuse of government, whatever it is, bears the common name of ‘anarchy’. . . ., democracy degenerates into ochlocracy [= ‘mob rule’], and aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy. I would add that royalty degenerates into tyranny, but ‘tyranny’ is ambiguous and needs explanation. In the everyday sense of the word, a tyrant is a king who governs with the help of violence and without regard for justice and the laws. In the word’s precise sense, a tyrant is an individual who grabs the royal authority without having any right to it. That is how the Greeks understood the word ‘tyrant’: they applied it even-handedly to good and bad princes whose authority wasn’t legitimate. . . . ‘Tyrant’ and ‘usurper’ are thus perfectly synonymous terms.
Given the above, we can say there are the following forms of tyranny/despotism:
- A Despotic Prince: The classical tyrant. Sometimes this is called tyranny or despotism or totalitarianism. Ex. Stalin or Hitler.
- A Despotic Aristocracy: It is rare that a despot can really rule alone, thus they must either delegate to aristocrats (a corrupt senate) or to a military state. Ex. George III’s Tories.
- A Despotic Republic: These despots call themselves republicans (classical republicans, not the political party), but they don’t rule in the general will (there is likely a lack of “balance” between “powers”). Their Republic has become corrupted. Ex. The “Corrupt Senate” of the Roman Republic.
NOTE: Republics tend to have an aristocracy (for example George’s Tories or Rome’s supposedly corrupt Senators), thus both these examples speak to both despotic aristocracies and despotic republics. Next we will cover a despotic military state. We could offer Hitler as an example of a tyrant, and his NAZIs corruption of the German Republic an example of a despotic aristocracy and republic, and their rule as an example of a corrupt military state. In other words, types of tyranny can layer on-top of each other and bleed into each other.The Roman Senate during the Republic.
- A Despotic Military State: Did the military rise up from a Democracy, or did a despotic prince give his military a little too much power? Either way, this corrupted timocracy is hard to deal with given its arsenal. Ex. The NAZI military state or Mussolini’s fascist republican military state.
- A Despotic Oligarchy: The plutocrats are bound for tyranny if their power isn’t kept in check. Greed may be good, but not as a form of government. If the rulers come to power by wealth, and if the laws reflect special interest and not the general will, then it is a form of plutocracy. Ex. The American Gilded Age.
- A Despotic Mob: The tranny of the many or tyranny of the mob (anarchy without even basic rules) can result in a well-ordered Republic in the best of times (via a revolution), but typically it results in lifting a tyrant to power. Only “a strong man” can calm the many headed beast and restore order. Ex. the Jacobin Reign of Terror.
REIGN OF TERROR: The French Revolution, Part III. Why Socrates Hated Democracy.
“Under what tyranny should you like best to live? Under none; but if I must choose, I should less detest the tyranny of a single one, than that of many. A despot has always some good moments; an assemblage of despots, never. If a tyrant does me an injustice, I can disarm him through his mistress, his confessor, or his page; but a company of tyrants is inaccessible to all seductions.” – Voltaire on the Many Headed Beast AKA Tyrannical Democracy
Do you want the state to be solid? Then make the wealth-spread as small as you can; don’t allow rich men or beggars. These two conditions are naturally inseparable: ·any state that has very wealthy citizens will also have beggars, and vice versa·. And they are equally fatal to the common good: one produces supporters of tyranny, the other produces tyrants. It is always between them that public liberty is put on sale: one buys, the other sells.
– Rousseau’s Social Contract explaining the historical effects of economic inequality. Economic inequality breeds the populist revolutions, be they led by the many, few, or one, that topple and change eras.