Tyrants, degenerate kings who ruled according to their own will and not the law, occurred relatively frequently in the history of ancient Greece (with the exception of Sparta) and Rome. They are also the protagonists of tragedies, dialogues, and histories written by classic authors, from Herodotus to Tacitus, from Plato to Cicero. The ancients found the term “tyrant” appropriate as a descriptor for a corrupted form of political regime based on personal rule, as well as a useful analytical tool. They were correct then. More importantly, they are still correct now.
Regrettably, modern language and thought have effectively expunged the word “tyrant” from our lexicon, diminishing our ability to assess many of our enemies. In modern times the simple definition, as mentioned above, is deemed to be unsophisticated. It puts a lot of emphasis on the individual leader, whereas we prefer to seek explanations in large impersonal forces, ranging from contests of ideas and economic systems or the élan of the masses. We are also wary of embracing a “great man” view of history because this assigns responsibility to an individual for political outcomes, and there seems to be a widespread allergy to accountability. (Hence, “mistakes have been made”, rather than “I made a mistake”, is a common talking point for today’s leaders.)
Furthermore, to call a political leader a “tyrant” is to impart a nefarious connotation and to render judgment that a leader is personally responsible for the brutality of his state in its domestic as well as foreign acts. The modern presumption, since perhaps Weber, is that political analysis ought to be pursued not so much sine ira et studio (as Tacitus put it in the first lines of his Annales) but without expressing moral judgments. Calling somebody a tyrant expresses a “value judgment,” and carries a tinge of anger and partiality too. For the well-heeled modern mind, “tyrant” is a slur, not an analytical concept. Hence, we prefer to study the institutional arrangements that may be less than optimal for freedom, to measure the material conditions that impede the exercise of freedom, or to ignore in toto the reality of a tyrant by adopting euphemisms such as “rogue state” or “strongman.”
Another source of the modern skepticism toward the term “tyrant” is the belief that the 20th-century version of dictatorship has been marked by the lethal and unique combination of ideology and science. The modern dictators—Hitler and Stalin come to mind—are essentially deadly managers of ideological dogmas and scientific tools (giving rise to a “dark age, made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science” as Winston Churchill famously said)—racial purity and paganism combined with armored divisions and gas chambers, atheistic materialism prodded by the atom and industrial power. The resulting totalitarian systems were thus more than anything an individual tyrant could erect. They were all-pervasive political systems, and could not sustain themselves by the sheer will of one tyrant.
But there is still an analytical place for tyrants. In fact, many of today’s strongmen—say, Vladimir Putin—resemble…