Tyranny, Towards a Definition

Over the past few months this author has taken some heat for an allegedly liberal use of the word tyranny. As I do not plan on using this word less liberally in the future, it is prudent to have on hand a succinct explanation for what exactly is meant when I speak of tyranny.

Tyranny, as originally defined by the Greeks, simply meant the rule of a man who attained a position of executive power by unorthodox means – that is to say, through means other than hereditary secession, constitutional procedure, or any of other types of power transfer traditionally sanctioned by the various Greek city states. It is easy to see how this definition slowly changed over the centuries. By the time of the Romans it came to mean any executive who ruled without clear limitations in the exercise of his power, regardless of how he obtained it in the first place. Today the word has moved quite far from its original definition, and is commonly used to describe any man or system that survives on the basis of unjust and harsh governance. Thus the most commonly consulted dictionary in the English-speaking world defines ‘tyranny’ as:

1. arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.
2. the government or rule of a tyrant or absolute ruler.
3. a state ruled by a tyrant or absolute ruler.
4. oppressive or unjustly severe government on the part of any ruler.
5. undue severity or harshness.
6. a tyrannical act or proceeding.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary provides a similar definition:

1. oppressive power; especially : oppressive power exerted by government
2. a government in which absolute power is vested in a single ruler; especially : one characteristic of an ancient Greek city-state b : the office, authority, and administration of a tyrant
3. a rigorous condition imposed by some outside agency or force
4. a tyrannical act

While ‘tyranny’ is most commonly recognized as an ornate substitute for ‘oppression’, it is not in this sense I use the word. Watering down definitions cheapen their value. Tyranny must be more than rhetorical ornamentation if it is to have any real utility. Failure to properly limit the word’s definition will leave it useful only to demagogues; if simply a fancy synonym for perceived injustice it can be used by no other.
However, I am wary of limiting the word solely to governments headed by a single absolute ruler, or even instances of illegal executive power. Doing so makes it impossible to use terms like “tyranny of the majority”, or discuss tyrannous laws passed by legislative bodies. It leaves us with a hole in our vocabulary when the need arises to discuss the present day’s most common forms of arbitrary coercion. The best definition of the word lies between the two extremes.
One such definition was provided by Noah Webster in his 1828 edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language. It reads:

Arbitrary or despotic exercise of power; the exercise of power over subjects and others with a rigor not authorized by law or justice, or not requisite for the purposes of government. Hence tyranny is often synonymous with cruelty and oppression.

I favor this definition for several reasons. The first is that it draws a distinction between behavior that is tyrannical and behavior that is oppressive. Tyranny is more than cruelty. It is more than Webster’s definition for oppression, “the imposition of unreasonable burdens“. Tyranny describes a relationship. There must be a subject and an entity capable of wielding power over him. Oppression is a matter of affliction and misery; tyranny is a matter of control.
This definition is still a very general thing. Suitable for a dictionary, perhaps, but lacking in practical utility. For how does one translate it the mess of reality? What constitutes “a rigor not authorized by law or justice?” It is one thing to know what tyranny is in the abstract and another thing altogether to recognize tyrannous power as it is exercised.
Any search for an operative definition of tyranny would do well to begin with a popular aphorism coined by John Basil Barnhill:
“Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty.” *

— John Basil Barnhill. “Barnhill-Tirchener Debate on Socialism“, Rip-Saw. (St. Louis, Mo: Rip Saw Publishing Company.) p. 64.
The worth of Barnhill’s law is found in its spirit, if not the exact letters used to write it. States and governments are tools of the citizenry. In an ideal world there would exist no more fear between the citizenry and its government than exists between a carpenter and his workshop. Alas, ours is not an ideal world, and our workshops are apt to become terrors in their own right. The central turning point in this process is one of control. A carpenter does not work for his workshop. A man must rule his tools. Likewise, governments – and those in its employ – must remain tools in the hands of the citizenry. If this relation is reversed the people are no longer citizens, but serfs.
It is thus my suggestion that an operative definition for tyranny read as follows:
Tyranny can be found in any policy, regulation, law, or action designed by those in a position of power to disenfranchise and violate the rights of the citizenry directly, or that causes, by intent or accident, such fear, apathy, or distraction in the minds of the people that they are unable to protect their liberties or exercise self government.
*This phrase is often mistakenly attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

Image credit: James Montgomery Flag. Unconditional Surrender to All Tyrants! 1943. Taken from artnet.com.

Leave a Comment


I love that this is your ‘succinct’ explanation :-P. Here is how I choose to define ‘tyranny’: a state in which a governing body is acting beyond the bounds established by the social contract it has with its citizens.

I like this one because it allows for tyranny to exist without necessarily having a tyrannical governing body; however a governing body may be deemed tyrannical if tyranny permeates its existence.

It also excludes the idea of abuse. For example, by my definition (which is not trying to establish ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ just my perception of events), when health care reform was pushed through, I would not consider that tyranny. The process that was used was within the context of the laws established within our society. I do not believe that the process was ever intended to be used in such a way, but it is contained within the social contract. I would call that abuse and not tyranny.

I do agree that ‘tyranny’ cannot be simply used in place of ‘oppression’. However, I would contend that oppression is not simply intertwined with affliction and misery. Oppression, obviously, is the idea of beating down or holding back which when enacted by people is done for the purpose of control on some level. It does not inherently have to be for control, but I am unable to think of an instance when it is not. I would even go so far to say that the ultimate form of oppression would be to have those who are being oppressed believe that everything is all right. I believe that this is what Kim Jong Il is trying to purport in North Korea.

Again, my goal is not to say that you’re definition of tyranny is wrong. It is valid and extremely well thought out. I just thought I’d make things interesting by throwing in a second view. I also greatly appreciate you striving to preserve the specificity of terminology. We’ve already lost ‘irony’. We need to fight to keep ‘tyranny’ :-D.

@Mind Tumbler-

By all means, if my definition is flawed do not fear to tell me as much! The Stage exists as a refining fire for good ideas. It is intelligent commentators that keep the flame burning bright.

Your definition is an elegant one. My only concern is that it describes a concept that is already clearly defined by other words – namely, illegal, and unconstitutional. (Assuming that the constitution embodies America's social contract, that is.)

In practical terms, what difference is there between the stating "the executive's actions were illegal" and "the executive's actions were tyrannical" when the proposed definition is used?


I see the difference between 'tyranny' and 'oppression' as one of emphasis. Tyranny is, as claimed by the post above, a matter of establishing and solidifying control. While a man oppressed is clearly a man being controlled, an act of oppression need not establish his servile state. It is for this reason "oppressed" can be used as a substitute for "afflicted", "abused", or "burdened" in almost all of their usages, but "tyrannized" cannot.

Excellent points made. Here is my approach to your concern. I would say that tyranny supersedes illegal and unconstitutional. Both of those terms imply that the action is against the social contract. I believe tyranny involves dismissing or disregarding the social contract all together. In an extreme example, an executive order issued to execute a prisoner without trial is illegal and unconstitutional. An executive order that makes it legal to execute a prisoner without trial is a display of tyranny. Tyranny is more than violating the terms of the contract. It is excising or altering the contract without the consent of the citizenry. This may be slightly off point, but it reminds me of the difference between immoral and amoral. Tyranny is when a government legitimizes itself rather than being legitimized by those who are being governed. I would like to posit that as my refined definition.