Tyranny, Theory of

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TYRANNY, THEORY OF. The characteristics of tyranny were defined by Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) in his Politics. Tyranny was seen as a corrupt form of monarchy where the ruler acted despotically and preferred his own profit and pleasure to the common good. Tyrants were reputed to be greedy, lustful, and distrusting. They provoked flattery and conspiracy and employed foreign guards.

Among medieval thinkers whose writings on tyranny remained influential in early modern times were the jurists Bartolus of Sassoferrato (13141357) and Baldus de Ubaldis (13271400); the papal agent John of Salisbury (1115/11201180), whose Policraticus (1159) made the important distinction between a tyrant-usurper and a legitimate king who chose to rule by force rather than law; and the great Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (12251274), who allowed tyrannicide in extreme cases, but only if the consequences were likely to be better than the preceding oppression. A less inhibited attitude to tyrannicide was held by another Dominican, Jean Petit, who justified the 1407 murder of Louis of Orléans, brother of Charles VI of France. Petit's assertions were criticized by the chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Charlier de Gerson (13631429), who persuaded the ecclesiastical Council of Constance (14141418) to ban tyrannicide except in the circumstances outlined by Aquinas.


Little was said about tyranny in the century following Petit, but the doctrine again became important during the Reformation, even though Martin Luther (14831546) taught that a tyrant was God's punishment for a sinful people, who should suffer and obey. Two Protestant exiles during the restoration of Roman Catholicism in England under Queen Mary I (ruled 15531558) had a different view. John Ponet, bishop of Winchester (15141556), was the author of A Short Treatise of Politic Power (1556), and Christopher Goodman, professor of divinity at Oxford (c. 15201603), wrote How Superior Powers Ought to be Obeyed (1558). Ponet answered his own question "whether or not it is lawful to depose an evil governor and kill him?" in the affirmative, and Goodman expressed similar views. A tyrant was defined not only as one who despoiled the people and refused them justice, but also as one who broke divine law.

Another advocate of tyrannicide was the Scottish Presbyterian humanist George Buchanan (15061582), who composed De Jure Regni apud Scotos (1579; Concerning the law of the kingdom among the Scots) when Mary, Queen of Scots, was deposed in 1567. Buchanan repeated the Aristotelian marks of tyranny and defined the concept as the treatment of a free people as if they were slaves. Among his classical authorities was Marcus Tullius Cicero (10643 b.c.e.). His examples of tyrants were drawn from the Old Testament and Scottish history. In his posthumous Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582; History of Scottish affairs), he made much of the deposition and killing of Scottish tyrants. He described tyrants in general as predatory wolves that any private individual could put to death.

During their armed resistance in the 1560s, the Huguenots made little use of the rhetoric of tyranny. However, their foremost polemicist, the Calvinist jurist François Hotman (15241690), employed such language against the Ultra-Catholic statesman Cardinal Charles de Lorraine in his Epistre envoiée au tigre de la France (1560; Letter sent to the tiger of France). In the late 1560s he drafted his celebrated Francogallia, demonstrating the long continuance of an ancient constitution in which the assembly of the realm could judge and depose tyrannical kings. Hotman cited several Frankish depositions, but his principal tyrant was a more modern king, Louis XI (ruled 14611483), who had allegedly subverted the constitution. When the Francogallia was published in 1573, the year after the massacre of St. Bartholomew, he added a preface listing the tyrants of classical antiquity and suggesting the relevance of tyranny to his own times.

The massacre of the Huguenots endorsed by Charles IX shifted their theory of resistance into a radical phase. However, the two other best-known works in this vein, Du droit des magistrats (1574; The right of magistrates) by Calvin's lieutenant Théodore de Bèze (15191605) and Vindiciae contra Tyrannos (1579; The defense of liberty against tyrants) by the Huguenot statesman Philippe Duplessis-Mornay (15491623), both displayed some caution about tyrannicide. Although Bèze said he would not discuss the Old Testament idea of God summoning an individual to kill a tyrant, he did provide some examples to this end. He distinguished between the tyrant-usurper and the legitimate king who became a tyrant, but he insisted that private individuals could not act without the leadership of lesser magistrates. In the case of the usurper, however, they might take arms if the magistrates failed to do so. Mornay's argument was similar in many respects. His greater juristic subtlety was probably due to the influence of Bartolus. While he stressed the need for collective action, he allowed greater freedom to private individuals under the natural right of self-defense.

Other Huguenot tracts responding to the massacre were less reticent about tyrannicide. The many-authored Le reveille-matin (1574; Alarm bell) directly attacked Charles IX as a tyrant and compared his mother, Catherine de Médicis, to Jezebel in the Old Testament, who had been killed by Jehu, the instrument of God in several tyrannicides. The Italian queen mother was also denounced for introducing the supposedly perfidious doctrines of Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527), whose Prince was seen as a guidebook for tyrants. Perhaps the most remarkable tract on tyranny at this time was the Discours de la servitude volontaire (Discourse on voluntary servitude, also known as the Contr'un ) by Michel de Montaigne's friend, Étienne de La Boétie (15301563). La Boétie's humanist essay was composed well before the religious wars. It was called into the service of Huguenot propaganda when it was published in part in the Alarm Bell and in full in a collection of resistance tracts titled Mémoires de l'estat de France sous Charles neufiesme (1576; Memoirs of the state of France under Charles IX). La Boétie rehearsed the vices and cruelties of the tyrants of antiquity, concentrating on the Roman tyrants portrayed by Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55c. 120 c.e.).

In the second half of the religious wars the Holy Catholic League replaced the Huguenots as the main opponent of the French crown. After the murder of its leaders in 1588 by Henry III, the league's polemicists became enthusiastic proponents of tyrannicide. The league's best-known work on the theme was De Justa Henrici Tertii Abdicatione (1589; The just deposition of Henry III) by Jean Boucher (c. 15481644), rector of the Sorbonne. Apart from its religious and secular arguments about tyranny, the book was a violent personal diatribe against the last Valois king, who had in fact been assassinated by Jacques Clément shortly before it was published. In 1594 Boucher came out with his Apologie pour Jean Chastel (Apology for Jean Chastel), who had failed in his attempt to kill the next king, the Bourbon Henry IV. At this time the Jesuits were somewhat unjustly accused of preaching tyrannicide. The practice was, indeed, endorsed by the independently minded Spanish Jesuit Juan de Mariana (15361624) in his De Rege et Regis Institutione (1599; On the king and the education of the king). Henry IV was to be murdered by a fanatical believer in the doctrine, François Ravaillac, in 1610.


The next notorious regicide was the execution of Charles I of England in 1649. The theory of tyranny, however, was seldom invoked against him before his trial, although it received mention in general works on political authority. Some so-called "Levellers," such as John Lilburne (16151657) and William Walwyn (16001680), made use of the concept, but they applied it to all and sundryking, Parliament, church, and Cromwellian army council. In his An Arrow against All Tyrants (1646), for instance, Richard Overton (c. 1600c. 1664) chose as his main targets the House of Lords and the Presbyterian clergy.

The strongest attack upon Charles I as a tyrant came from the pen of the republican poet John Milton (16081674). His Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) was followed by his Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1650; Defense of the people of England), written in answer to the justification of Charles I by the French scholar, Claude de Saumaise (15881653). Milton discussed the tyranny and deposition of other kings, including those listed in the Francogallia, but his venom was reserved for Charles I and his champion.

In the next generation two renowned Whig republicans discussed tyranny in the context of the attempt to exclude Charles II's brother, the future James II, from the succession because of his Catholicism. Plato Redivivus (1680; expanded in 1681) by Henry Neville (16201694) and Discourses concerning Government (composed 16811683, first published 1698) by Algernon Sidney (16221683) showed familiarity with the Aristotelian tradition and the French resistance literature of the preceding century. They supported what had become known as "the Gothic constitution," based on Hotman's idea of the control of government by the sovereign assemblies of the Germanic peoples who had invaded France, Spain, and England in the fifth century. Like Milton, they both cited Hotman on the subversion of the ancient French constitution by Louis XI. They saw the tyranny of Charles II and his brother as likely to lead England to a regime comparable with Louis XIV's in France. Sidney had long been obsessed with tyranny. In 1660 he had inscribed the visitors' book at the court of Denmark with his Latin motto: "This hand, opposed to the sword of tyrants, seeks peace under liberty" (frontispiece to The Works of Algernon Sidney, 1772). Peace was not his forte. In 1683 he was tried and executed for plotting the assassination of Charles II, leaving to posterity the manuscript of his summation of the long tradition of the Aristotelian concept of tyranny in his Discourses.


In the eighteenth century it was the writings of John Locke (16321704), rather than those of Sidney, that influenced the political thought of the Enlightenment. Locke described the tyrant as one "whose commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion" (Two Treatises of Government, 1690). However much they admired Locke, the French philosophes tended to discuss the theme with a certain irony. In his De l'esprit des lois (1748; Spirit of the laws), Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (16891755) suggested that there was another kind of tyranny beside monarchical oppression: the force of cultural tradition. Voltaire (16941778) declared in an entry on tyranny in his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764; Philosophical dictionary) that there were no tyrants left in the Europe of his day, and in any case he preferred a royal tyrant to the tyranny of an assembly.

Thomas Paine (17371809) took tyranny more seriously in the context of the American and French Revolutions. His Rights of Man (1791) reduced all governments to two types, the hereditary ruler and the representative assembly. All hereditary government, he argued, was intrinsically a tyranny that had repressed natural rights in past centuries. Far more extreme were the ferocious accusations of tyranny leveled by the Jacobins Antoine Saint-Just (17671794) and François-Maximilien Robespierre (17581794) against Louis XVI in the proceedings that led to the king's execution in 1793. In the following year the accusers were themselves labeled tyrants and sent to the guillotine, an event that rendered Voltaire's preferences prophetic.

See also Absolutism ; Authority, Concept of ; Autocracy ; Bèze, Théodore de ; Catholic League (France) ; Charles I (England) ; Democracy ; Divine Right Kingship ; English Civil War Radicalism ; Henry IV (France) ; Law ; Liberty ; Locke, John ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; Mariana, Juan de ; Milton, John ; Monarchy ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Natural Law ; Political Philosophy ; Reformation, Protestant ; Republicanism ; Revolutions, Age of ; Rights, Natural ; St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre ;Sovereignty, Theory of ; Voltaire ; Wars of Religion, French .


Primary Sources

Aylmer, G. E., ed. The Levellers in the English Revolution. London, 1975. Extracts from Leveller tracts.

Beza, Théodore (Théodore de Bèze). Du droit des magistrats. Edited by Robert M. Kingdon. Geneva, 1970.

Buchanan, George. The Powers of the Crown in Scotland. Austin, Tex., 1949. A translation of De Jure Regni apud Scotos by Charles Flinn Arrowood.

Franklin, Julian H., ed. Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century: Three Treatises by Hotman, Beza, and Mornay. New York, 1969. Extracts from Francogallia, The Right of Magistrates, and Vindiciae contra Tyrannos.

Goodman, Christopher. How Superior Powers Oght to be Obeyd of Their Subjects. Edited by C. H. McIlwain. New York, 1931.

Hotman, François. Francogallia. Edited by Ralph E. Giesey and J. H. M. Salmon. Cambridge, U.K., 1972.

La Boétie, Étienne de. Le discours de la servitude volontaire. Edited by P. Léonard. Paris, 1976.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988.

Milton, John, The Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Vol. 4, 16501655. Edited by Don M. Wolfe. New Haven, 19531982.

Mornay, Philippe Duplessis. Vindiciae, contra Tyrannos: Or, Concerning the Legitimate Power of a Prince over the People, and of the People over a Prince. Edited by George Garnett. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1994. Earlier English translations also known as A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants. See Franklin, above.

Neville, Henry. Plato Redivivus. In Two Republican Tracts. Compiled by Caroline Robbins. London, 1969.

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man. New York, 1961 [1791].

Ponet, John. A Shorte Treatise of Politike Pouuer. In John Ponet (1516?1556): Advocate of Limited Monarchy, by Winthrop S. Hudson. Chicago, 1942.

Sidney, Algernon, The Works of Algernon Sydney. London, 1772.

Secondary Sources

Ford, Franklin L. Political Murder from Tyrannicide to Terrorism. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Kelley, Donald R. François Hotman: A Revolutionary's Ordeal. Princeton, 1973.

Kingdon, Robert M. Myths about the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, 15721576. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

McFarlane, I. D. Buchanan. London, 1981.

Morrill, John. "Charles I, Tyranny and the Civil War." In The Nature of the English Revolution. London, 1993.

Ranum, Orest. "The French Ritual of Tyrannicide in the Late Sixteenth Century." The Sixteenth Century Journal 11, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 6382.

Scott, Jonathan. Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis, 16771683. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1991.

Walzer, Michael, ed. Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI. Translated by Marian Rothstein. Cambridge, U.K., 1974.

J. H. M. Salmon