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A form of government characterized by the deviation of political rulers from commonly accepted standards of moral and political behavior or by the illegitimate title to the exercise of power of the persons who actually rule. Government is the rule of men by men. But by what men, by what kind of rule? The concept of tyranny arose from early Greek experience. Originally, it had no pejorative connotation. The tyrant was a popular leader who arose either to combat external enemies or to represent the lower classes against oligarchy. As his rule became more permanent, it became also more oppressive, often being exercised against the citizens. For aristotle, tyranny was the degeneration of kingly rule into rule for the personal interest of the tyrant rather than for the common interest of the city.

The idea of tyranny has evolved along two lines. The more ancient line concerned the moral purpose of the exercise of power. Aristotle had established that rule had to be for the commonweal of the city. But how could this commonweal be recognized so that the citizens would know whether rule was in their interest or not? Three historical movements combined to give content to the public purpose. The first was the growth of the tradition of natural law associated with Cicero and the Stoics and later with the Christian theologians. This tradition held that there were certain principles of reason and life common to all men and that political rule would be tyrannical if it violated these principles. The second element was the acknowledgment of the primacy of the spiritual, best represented by Peter's response in the Sanhedrin: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5.29). On this principle, when a political ruler acts against a man's religious obligations and beliefs, he is judged to be tyrannical. The third contribution came from the Germanic notion of immemorial custom. The natural law and the Christian dispensation were in many respects vague and abstract in daily life. In the Germanic tradition, law was concretized. It was made up of the customs and procedures of the people. To be just, political rule had to be in conformity with these particular customs that practically identified each people.

The second and more modern line along which the notion of tyranny has evolved had its origin in a more liberal and dynamic notion of the state in relation to the commonweal. Since the problem of just rule involves not only the objective criteria of the precise content of the public good but also the actual persons who exercise authority, the modern issue arising from tyranny is the constitutional one, the regular and legal designation of who is to rule, for how long, with what limits.

Traditional rulers needed to be judged by their actual ability to promote the public good. Therefore, the actual ruler of the people, to be legitimate, had to be one who was duly designated by the people or approved by them to rule in accordance with the public interest. The people always retained the right to choose new rulers at stated times and to review the policies of rulers in the light of the public good. In this context, tyranny came to mean rule that was acquired, retained, or carried on by other than legal, accepted means.

Although the classical notion of tyranny is not in vogue in modern thought, the basic elements associated with this kind of rule are still often present and operative. The frequency of forcible revolutions in many parts of the modern world, notably in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, is constant witness to the presence of the problem of tyranny. Current revolutions are always justified on the basis of one of the two elements that have been gradually subsumed into the notion of tyranny violation of the objective content and promotion of the public good by present rulers, or the unjust title of these same rulers to office. Thus the problem of tyranny is still a significant political concept.

Bibliography: p. n. ure, Origin of Tyranny (Cambridge, England 1922). k. a. wittfogel, Oriental Despotisms (New Haven 1957). f. m. watkins, Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, ed. e.r. seligman and a. johnson (New York 193035) 8:135137. a. bride, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 15:194888. w. parsons, "Medieval Theory of the Tyrant," Review of Politics 4 (Notre Dame, IN 1942) 129143.

[j. v. schall]