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Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror

Tyrants: A History Of Power, Injustice, And Terror

Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror. Waller R. Newell. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016.


Tyrants is the third book by Waller Newell dealing specifically with the subject of tyranny. As such, it is the product of lengthy, thoughtful, and careful scholarly study spanning a number of decades. Newell’s work as a whole has been the study of the statesman and the tyrant, and the essential difference between the two.[1] Needless to say, he does not agree with Hobbes that the difference is one based simply on the emotional disposition of the ruled towards their ruler. I think Tyrants may therefore best be viewed as the third volume of one extended study on tyranny. It is an excellent book, and one is hard put to describe briefly the richness Newell’s history brings to his ever-deepening study of the nature of the tyrant and the political phenomenon of tyranny.

The first of these three books, Ruling Passion (2000), is a study of the phenomenon of tyranny as elucidated in crucial works of Plato: the Gorgias, Symposium, and Republic. Its focus is on the Platonic psychology of tyranny by way of an analysis of the interwoven and complex elements of eros and thumos as they transform the soul’s characteristics. His distinction between primordial and transcendent longing and the relationship between the former and thumos goes a long way to explaining tyranny at its most fundamental psychological level.

The second book, Tyranny: A New Interpretation (2013), is a study of the most important elements distinguishing the modern from the ancient understanding of tyranny, and of the way in which tyranny takes on a new character in modernity. Machiavelli is at the heart of this book. A new understanding of human nature and hence politics gives rise to a new kind of tyranny as we seek to impose our will upon the world. One wonders, for example, how the view that we should strive to become the masters and possessors of nature could lead to anything but a dangerous temptation towards tyranny.

In his latest book, Tyrants, Newell builds upon and extends his earlier analyses of tyranny in three important respects. First, he further develops his three-fold typology of tyrants and tyranny that spans human history, albeit focussing on the West.[2] Secondly, he extends and deepens the earlier analysis in Tyranny of the specifically modern kind of tyranny, showing how modern political philosophy gives rise to a fundamentally new form of tyranny: the millenarian. Thirdly, Tyrants opens a new chapter in his study of tyranny by elaborating the connection between millenarian tyranny and contemporary terrorism.

Newell has thus written a thought-provoking intellectual history of tyranny, interwoven with a historical analysis of “the strange career of tyranny from Achilles to Al Qaeda” (210). His argument is persuasive, and the book succeeds nicely in illuminating the disturbing millenarian character of Islamist terrorism. He demonstrates the connection between the ideas of the great modern thinkers, particularly Rousseau and his historicist step-nephew Marx, and the ideologies that form as a result. The book is thus a fine combination of political philosophy and political history. As it powerfully demonstrates, ideas have consequences.

Newell argues that tyranny is “a permanent feature of the human landscape.” It is an ever-present danger in human life, always either actually present or potentially just around the historical corner. Why? Human nature. He agrees with Lincoln that those who are from “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle” are always with us, never satisfied with mere high political office or a medal for distinguished service (230). As Lord Bryce observed in “Why Great Men do not become President,” there is not much lasting fame accruing to one simply because they were the 22nd or the 44th President of the United States. Such an achievement pales in comparison to that of Washington or Churchill or Napoleon or Ataturk. Statesmen or tyrants, these men are determined to be world historical.

Newell explains that tyranny is not a simple and straightforward idea. Recognizing tyranny for what it is gets complicated when we turn to the examination of the “reformist-tyrant,” the one who seems to long for and achieve both empire and glory. While we should therefore consider Lincoln as a statesman and distinguishable from a tyrant, because he was elected to political office and concerned primarily with justice and the public good, what of the tyrant who brings about great political reforms and benefit to those ruled? Where only infamy awaits Nero, glory goes to Augustus. One is forced to ask: can tyranny ever be a constructive or beneficial force? Newell poses this question at the outset, describing it as a powerful and disturbing theme of the book. The reader is forced to consider whether there are not some forms of tyranny that have proven beneficial to those living under them or perhaps those coming after. While these tyrants’ methods may have been brutal and unjust, the results may have proven beneficial to either a particular nation or to humanity. This line of thinking is indeed disturbing and perhaps even dangerous, for it leads one into the ends/means calculation so damaging to everyday moral thinking. But it is surely a question worth pondering.

We are thus presented with a distinction between petty despots and minor tyrants on the one hand, and reformist tyrants on the other. However, when we carry this distinction forward into the modern world, tyranny comes to light as an even more complex phenomenon. For we find that the character of reformist tyranny changes. So while tyranny is always with us, the character of tyranny has changed in the modern era. Modern political philosophy made possible a new kind of politics and hence a new form of tyranny. To put the argument simply: great and small tyrants have been with us since human beings formed political communities. The great ones made a name for themselves as having been something more than mere petty despots. Often they brought about tremendous political reforms, founding whole new political orders. The “garden-variety” tyrant – Nero and the like – maintained themselves in power and little more.

How has modernity given rise to a new form of tyranny? It has done this in two ways. One is a consequence of the invention of the modern state, due in no small part to the thought of Machiavelli. For the establishment of the modern nation state brings about a marked change in the nature of reformist tyranny. There is a very real difference between the reformist tyrannies of the ancient and medieval world that we see exemplified in Alexander and Augustus, and that of the modern nation state builders of rulers like Henry VIII and Napoleon (128-32).

Newell thus sets out an interesting matrix by which to understand tyranny. On the one axis we find the distinction between petty tyrants or “garden-variety” despots as compared to reformist-tyrants and state builders. On the other axis we find the crucial conceptual distinction between ancient and modern politics, as evidenced by the birth of the idea of the state. And while there is not much to choose between Caligula or Nero on the one hand, and Samoza, Papa Doc and Idi Amin on the other, that only goes to show that at the low end of human existence greed, lust, unbounded ambition and the like remain the simple psychological root of tyranny at its basest level. This is all very well captured in Newell’s analysis of Platonic psychology of tyranny in Ruling Passion.

But Newell expands his fourfold matrix to include a new axis, one that is uniquely modern. Tyrants leads us into consideration of millenarian tyranny, a tyranny that derives from the idea that politics has no limits that might come from either an eternal divine order or a natural order. There is no cosmos, only a chaos. Human beings must therefore create an order where there was none. With this thought in mind, Newell provides a typology of tyranny consisting of three main types: “garden-variety” or petty tyrants; reformist tyrants or enlightened despots; and millenarian tyrants. The first two types have been with us throughout history, although reformist-tyranny now has a somewhat different character. Millenarian tyranny is the radically new development. Hence learning to distinguish the various kinds of tyranny and tyrants is critical for modern politics.

Let us turn then to Newell’s history. In Part One, Newell examines tyranny in the ancient, pagan world. It spans the period from Achilles and the Homeric heroes to Augustus and the decline of the Caesars. The motivation to be king of the world, with the goal of “glory and empire,” moved such men to great things – to both great deeds and great injustice. Newell identifies a crucial world historical moment in the development of tyranny: “At the crossroads between the ideal of Achilles, and the Greek love of liberty, and the threat of the Great [Persian] King is where a fascinating combination of historical forces took place” (69). The Greeks began to wonder: perhaps they needed to consider whether the small, self-governing and hence free republican Greek cities “might learn something from the vast, multinational, powerful, and centralized Persian Empire” (69). The fusion of the unbounded ambition of Achilles with a new vision of world empire inspired by the Persians, gave rise to a new ideal, perfected by the Romans with their republic-cum-empire. One might here detect the seeds of what is to come in Machiavelli’s revival of the Roman political ideal.

Part 2 of Newell’s history is a study of tyranny in light of the inception of Christianity and the modern understanding of the state. These historical developments open up the possibility of the tyrant as state builder. In the modern era we thus find a panoply of garden-variety despots, but at the same time we find enlightened despots who brought about world historical reforms and advances for humanity: Louis XIV, Peter the Great, Frederick the Great, Ataturk, Henry VIII, and even Napoleon, for example. In many respects, these men ruled tyrannically but with a view to historic change. In many cases, the basis of their ruling was not legitimate; they often held themselves to be either outside or above the law; they did not shy from the brutal use of force against their own people; and their rule was often times unjust. What they did not do was attempt to bring about a whole new kind of human being. Their understanding of change was securely rooted in a view that human nature was a permanent being, and something that established the limits of politics.

Martin Diamond famously described the American revolution as a “revolution of sober expectations.” As such, it was fundamentally different from the French revolution, a revolution of the greatest imaginable expectations. Why the difference? Drawing upon the writings of English and French rationalists like Locke, Hume, and Montesquieu, the American founders did not seek to change human nature but instead built a political order based on what they viewed as an accurate understanding of that nature. That nature provides both the foundation of, and permanent limits to, politics: insofar as it is unchanging, the attempt to bring about a political order that goes against human nature, or tries to transform human nature, can only result in repressive violence, tyranny, and ultimately failure. The outcome of the French revolution thus remains the original and archetypal “millenarian tyranny.”

What was it in modernity that gave rise to this new kind of tyranny? To put it simply, history replaced nature as the focus of our understanding of what is human. The rise of historicism, which followed from the profound upheaval of modern rationalist liberalism by Rousseau, is at the heart of this new wave of political philosophy (138). As Rousseau makes clear, Hobbes was on the right track: we must go back to the state of nature to provide an understanding of the natural. But Hobbes and Locke did not go back far enough. We must come to understand our nature in terms of its historical development. Hobbes was thus profoundly wrong when he says that our passions are everywhere and always the same, and it is only the objects they attach themselves to that are different. Instead, our passions and our very psyche alter over time. We are, in essence, a product of our historical development and circumstances. We are radically malleable beings, and as such our “nature” does not provide the limits on politics. Instead, politics becomes the means by which our natures can be transformed. A new human being is possible if only we have the vision and power to create the conditions that will give rise to such a being. This “omnipresence formerly reserved for God” is the basis for a new kind of politics and hence a new kind of tyranny (165).

Someone once observed that Rousseau’s works were bound with the hides of the French aristocracy. Historicism as a philosophical view gave rise to millenarian politics. From Rousseau comes Robespierre; from Marx, we get Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot; Nietzsche inspires National Socialism and its perverted view of a new “superman”. Human nature has no permanent characteristics, and hence politics has no permanent boundaries. We can transform humanity and bring about Heaven on earth. In our efforts to do so, we have come close to bringing about Hell instead.

With this new addition to his typology of tyranny, Newell opens up a new line of analysis: the millenarianism of Islamist extremism and Jihadi terrorism. On the face of it, one might find this to be an odd fit. For does Islam, like the other two Abrahamic religions, not look to a permanent human nature and an eternal order of the world? As Newell observes, all three “deny that man can save the world through secular political action much less through mass violence. For pious people, only God can redeem the world” (210). This crucial fact illuminates the millenarian character of Islamist ideology and the extent to which this kind of extremism actually marks a fundamental break with Islam. Newell here provides an excellent exposition that explains why and how Islamism is certainly not to be confused with Islam. And his analysis of the connections between the main Islamist ideologists, Sayyid Qutb and Ali Shariati, to the radical historicism of European existentialism, a la Sartre and Heidegger, merits careful consideration.

It is for this reason that Newell concludes that terrorism is tyranny in waiting. But is this always the case? In his book, Newell is focussed on Islamist terrorism.  However, we have witnessed other kinds in recently past decades: the IRA and ETA for example. These terrorists seem bent on achieving the goals of political independence and recognition; they have no great millenarian aims. One might thus consider these more old-fashioned terrorists to be the other side of the coin from the reformist tyrants who look to state-building. And with the achievement of their political goals of self-rule, this terrorism disappears. Perhaps the PKK and the PLO also fit this category. But perhaps not. Newell’s analysis forces us to ask this question: what type of terrorism are we confronting?

What Newell provides is a philosophically accurate and politically indispensable way to consider contemporary terrorist movements. It would be a fundamental mistake to think that millenarian terrorism can be understood and negotiated with in the same manner as an organization like the IRA. For what Newell makes clear is that there is no room for negotiation with millenarian terrorism. There is no Sinn Fein waiting in the wings to take part in some decent form of republican government. Millenarian tyranny gives rise to a kind of tyranny that outlasts any particular tyrannical face. It is not simply that there is no appeasing a Hitler; it is that there is no appeasing National Socialism or any other millenarian political ideology, whoever may be its current leader. Hence, in dealing with contemporary terrorism, we need to see clearly its essentially millenarian character. One hopes that Newell continues to advance his investigation of tyranny. Liberal democratic regimes desperately need to apply the kind of penetrating conceptual analysis he provides to the phenomenon. We are, as Newell rightly suggests, far too sanguine about the dangers of millenarianism terrorism and these “tyrants in waiting.”  His book leaves us to wonder if millenarianism does not conclude with the distinctions between politics, tyranny, and terrorism being ultimately erased. It also leaves us to wonder about the increasingly millenarian character of our own politics and the danger that poses to ability to recognize tyranny for what it is.



[1] On this point, see Newell’s The Soul of a Leader (2008), which provides a concise account of the requisite qualities of the statesman.

[2] Newell first presents this typology in Tyranny: A New Interpretation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013. His discussion of millenarian tyranny there provides further philosophical depth to the concept as it is used in his latest book. It is well worth reading the two books together.

Patrick MalcolmsonPatrick Malcolmson

Patrick Malcolmson

Patrick Malcolmson is Professor of Political Science at St. Thomas University. He is author, with Richard Myers, of Liberal Education and Value Relativism: A Guide to Today’s B.A. (UPA, 1996) and The Canadian Regime (Toronto, 2009).

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