Diseases and Remedies of the Ailing Tyranny

Having discussed the causes and cures for instability in democracies, oligarchies, and aristocracies, Aristotle next circles back around to monarchies and tyrannies, in chapters ⅹ–ⅻ of book Ⅴ of the Politics.

Aristotle

Aristotle begins by describing a kingship (the good sort of monarchy) as being like aristocracy, but a tyranny as being “a compound of extreme oligarchy and democracy.” The first of those descriptions isn’t hard to follow (an aristocracy is rule of the most virtuous people; a kingship of the most virtuous person), but the second one was less intuitive.

A tyrant is a sort of like an oligarch in that he rules for the material benefit of the powerful (in this case, of himself) and he mistrusts and subdues the common people. But the tyrant does not share power with others in the oligarchy or rule on their behalf, so he depends on popular support to obtain and to remain in power, which he obtains through the abusive means of democracies (seizing property from the rich in order to dole out favors to the masses) and uses as his excuse to chop rival oligarchs down to size.

Aristotle goes so far to say that a big part of what makes a kingship good and beneficial, in comparison — indeed often the reason why it is established in the first place — is that the king effectively subdues and prevents democracy.

Most tyrannies, Aristotle says, have begun with demagogues arising from the ranks of the people and railing against the rich oligarchs. But some result from the decay of virtue in royal families, or from powerful oligarchs accumulating increasing power in an oligarchy, or from “temporary” appointed supreme leaders who stuck around past their invite.

The causes of instability in monarchies include:

  • Resentment of injustice and/or ill-treatment.
  • Fear of what might happen if things continue as-is.
  • Contempt of the character of the tyrant.
  • Loss of possessions.
  • Ambition for some of the honor and riches the tyrant is hoarding.

Some of these causes are common to a variety of government types. One difference is that in a tyranny, things are more personal. People who are ill-treated under any form of government may as a result target the constitution itself and try to alter it, but under a tyranny they may instead target the tyrant and be relatively indifferent to the constitution. People who are motivated by anger, Aristotle says, “are keener on vengeance than on supremacy.”

This can make anger more potent than, say, contempt or ambition. Angry people will take more chances, and will attack to injure another even when the likelihood of personal gain is low.

Here Aristotle inserts a number of examples of haughty tyrants who have abused or insulted one time too many and have then been attacked, and sometimes overthrown or murdered, for it. Apparently history in Aristotle’s time was full of interesting examples of decadent tyrants getting their comeuppances, as this chapter is packed with them.

Neighboring constitutions that differ from tyrannies can endanger a tyranny. Democracy and tyranny do not make for good neighbors, Aristotle says, precisely because they are so similar. Nearby aristocracies and kingships also are destabilizing for tyrannies.

All of this is interesting to read in light of the Donald Trump phenomenon. Trump is no tyrant, but he’d clearly like to be, and it seems he imagined that was going to be part of the package when he became president — it frustrates him to no end whenever he finds out otherwise. When he rails about “the swamp” or those who thwart him, he tries to play the part of a tyrant railing against the oligarchy in the name of the people. He also seems uncomfortable around the bureaucratic leaders of republics, or of oligarchies like China; he seems most able to relax in the presence of tyrants like Erdoğan, Kim, Putin, or Salman. He adores flattery and surrounds himself with sycophants, as Aristotle predicts of such a man.

Kingships, the good sort of monarchy, are more stable. They are less vulnerable to outside attack, but are instead more likely to rot from within. This can happen when royal advisors form factions, or when kings are tempted to behave tyrannically, or when the heir to the throne turns out not to have talent or character. Because a kingship relies more on consent than a tyranny does, it is easily toppled once it is no longer worthy of such consent. However Aristotle largely considers kingship to be a thing of the misty past. When people assume the crown in his day, he says, they are usually mistrusted from the get-go and are considered tyrants rather than kings.

In chapter ⅺ Aristotle turns from discussing how monarchies decay to considering strategies for shoring them up:

  • The more moderate the monarchy and the less power it exercises, the less envy and resentment it will evoke. This amounts to preserving the monarchy by making it less-monarchical. The British Crown, I suppose, might be an extreme example of this, having outlasted many European rivals by having reduced itself to a more-or-less decorative role.
  • There are a variety of methods tyrants have been advised to follow (some of these also work for demagogues at the head of democracies):
    1. Identify and eliminate prominent, independent people.
    2. Ban independent organizations and schools.
    3. Discourage fraternity in general.
    4. Make people dependent on the government in frequent small ways so that they become accustomed to servility.
    5. Have plenty of spies among the people so nobody knows who can be trusted.
    6. Keep the people at each others’ throats so they won’t come for yours.
    7. Keep the people poor through such means as taxation and extravagant public works so that they are preoccupied with making a living and are more easily bought off.
    8. Be often at war or on the brink of it, for this will keep people’s minds occupied and make them more accepting of the idea of an absolute ruler.
    9. Encourage the dominance of women in the home and slack control of slaves. Women and slaves will plot not against you as the tyrant, but against the men who run the household; this in turn will keep those men preoccupied so they won’t turn against you.
    The point of all of this is to make sure that the tyrant’s subjects “(a) have little spirit of their own, (b) have no trust in each other, and (c) have no means of carrying out anything.”
  • A less-machiavellian way of preserving a tyranny is for the tyrant to become more king-like: holding on to his power but exercising it more wisely and less self-indulgently. In the absence of a genuine change of heart, the tyrant can at least try to mimic king-like dignity and actions. Make a show of submitting to the law or the courts now and again. If you can’t even do that, then at least keep your decadence behind the palace doors and don’t rub everybody’s noses in it.
  • The tyrant should attempt to appear especially pious (in an earnest but not a slavish way). Subjects will give the benefit of the doubt to someone they think is more pious than they are.
  • The tyrant should bestow honors personally and in a flattering way, but should delegate the imposition of punishments to others.
  • If you raise anyone to prominence, make sure they aren’t too ambitious, and raise some other rivals nearby to keep an eye on them. If you have to take power away from someone, do it gradually.
  • Humiliate or abuse people at your peril. They’ll be the ones most likely to throw caution to the wind in order to destroy you.
  • Identify whether the common people or the propertied are the most powerful, and then declare yourself to be on their side.

Aristotle next criticizes Plato’s opinion, as given in the Republic, that there is a natural lifecycle of constitutions in which they begin as aristocracies and then progressively decay through the stages of timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and finally tyranny. Aristotle says that this is oversimplified and doesn’t make a whole lot of theoretical sense, but even so, it fails the empirical test of looking at how regimes have changed in the historical record. History shows a much larger variety of transformations than these have taken place.

And that concludes book Ⅴ of the Politics.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics
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