What is a Tyrant?

Most of us probably have our own definitions for the word nowadays, but throughout history, the term “tyrant” referred to a ruler wish relatively unrestricted power. He could do whatever he wanted, and usually, he wielded this power with little regard for those lower on the totem pole. He was considered cruel by any standard of the rule, and he squashed those who opposed him like bugs–if he could. Historically, tyrants often meet sometimes justifiably violent ends. It’s difficult to prevent other outcomes through other means.

A tyrant usually gains this kind of power outside of the traditional processes already established. For example, in a democracy, a tyrant would have to acquire office after removing the previously elected official in the highest office. A coup would need to take place in order for this to happen, which means a tyrant requires substantial support–at least temporarily–or well-placed chess pieces in order to get it done.

In ancient Greek society, a tyrant was no more and no less than an authoritative sovereign. So early on in history, the term had not established the purely negative connotations that would become attached to it later. Even so, some Greek philosophers like Plato obviously did not approve of the type of power which a tyrant held or the kind of influence he wielded. According to him, the tyrant was one who ruled outside of the traditionally held values of law. Before the rise of militaristic dictatorships in Sicily during the fifth and fourth centuries BC, tyrants often held power while the government transitioned from an oligarchy to a polity with slight democratic undertones.

What most people might not realize is that there are other forms of tyranny that can occur and that our current democratic form of government could easily fall to any one of them. One form of tyranny not often considered is one in which the minority rules. The more obvious counterpart to this form is that in which the majority rules. Technically, a tyranny in which the majority rules is called a democracy (gotcha), while one in which the minority rules is an oligarchy. Any of these types of tyranny can lead to oppression of other groups within such a society, which can, in turn, lead parts of history to be excluded or undervalued and underrepresented.

We already see some of the shortcomings of this tyranny of the majority in the form of democracy we currently have, and actually, it’s the entire reason that the two parties inside of the U.S. government are often at war with one another.

There are those who use democratic means to place their own interests above all others, and then there are those who believe that we should use our government for the good of all. In the former, the tyranny of the majority leads to rampant racism and xenophobia. Ironically, the founding fathers of the U.S. were well aware of this inherent weakness of democracy and constructed the electoral college system of determining a president in order to dampen the possibility of this outcome.