Closer Readings Commentary

Q and A with Waller R. Newell on Tyranny

Professor Newell is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and a founder of the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His most recent work is Tyranny: A History of Power, Injustice and Terror.*  

First of all, how did you get interested in political philosophy?

Every society has different ideas about justice.  Societies like ours believe in equal rights. Other societies put more emphasis on our duty to a common set of values. Political philosophy is the study of these different understandings of justice and whether it’s possible to conclude that some are more reasonable, or more perceptive about human nature, than others. That’s what got me interested.

Why are you focusing on tyranny in your work?

Walter Newell

Throughout history, self-governing peoples have struggled to preserve their freedom against tyrants. You can go back to the ancient Greeks’ struggle against the Persian Empire and forward to the American colonies’ struggle for independence from England, or the alliance of America and England to defeat Hitler’s Germany. But during times of peace, we tend to get amnesia about the danger of tyranny. Then it suddenly hits us in the face, as with the terrorist attacks of September 11th, or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I wrote this book to provide a wake-up call. 

What is tyranny? How does it relate to the rule of law and constitutional government?

Tyranny is an authority that rules others as it wishes, unbound by law. Tyrants exploit their peoples as if they were the tyrant’s private property. Their subjects have no rights and if they protest they will be imprisoned or executed. Some tyrannies are one-man rule, like Assad’s Syria, or one party rule, like China. Entire countries can behave tyrannically, as did the Japanese Empire when it tried to conquer and enslave other peoples. Even democracies can oppress their fellow citizens, as during the era of Jim Crow that robbed African Americans of their rights. The Founding Fathers were just as concerned about this kind of tyranny of the majority over a minority as they were about one of the three branches of government tyrannizing over the other branches by usurping their authority.

What are the important types of tyranny that one must be aware of?

There are tyrants who are basically thieves. There are also rulers like Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte who use their absolute power to try to benefit their peoples. These two types have always been with us. Starting with the French Revolution and the Jacobins, we get something new — the use of terror and mass executions to wipe out large groups of people in order to create a classless society in which the individual is swallowed up by the collective. That’s the pattern of modern totalitarian revolution including Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao, the Khmer Rouge, and ISIS.

You argue that political philosophy plays a crucial role in warning against tyranny. Can you elaborate here?

All the way back to Plato’s Republic, political philosophy has tried to discover the best kind of political system, one in which citizens are able to flourish and fulfill themselves. Tyranny is the most dangerous foe of any self-governing society, which is why Socrates sounds a loud warning bell against the danger of would-be tyrants arising in our midst, often posing as the champions of the people. The American founders, followers of the political philosophers Montesquieu and Locke, cautioned their fellow Americans to watch out for a “Caesar or a Catiline” (to quote Hamilton) emerging as wolves in the sheep’s clothing of a friend of democracy.

What are some of the reasons the study of tyranny and tyrants has declined despite the existence of tyranny throughout history?

Starting with modern political theorists including Hobbes and Locke, continuing in the Enlightenment with Voltaire, people started to argue that ancient thinkers like Plato had been too obsessed with the danger of tyranny. They thought that if everyone had the right to pursue his or her material self-interest, the need to dominate and exploit others would fade away.

This assumption continues with the social sciences’ belief in the “rational actor” theory of human behavior. If people have a chance of getting ahead in life through their work and talent, they will behave reasonably and conclude that none of us should want to tyrannize over others, because that would put us all in danger. The problem is — tyranny didn’t fade away, and, in fact, tyrants of the modern era like Stalin and Hitler far outdid the tyrannies of the past in the scale of their destruction. So there’s a massive disconnect between the social sciences’ theory and the historical reality, including right now.

Tyranny through history slide show

Tyranny through the Ages, based on the book, presents a slide show of tyrants from Julius Caesar to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the ruler of ISIS, for World History classes.

Do you hope to bring the study back with your recent work?

That gets back to the point about amnesia. I’m trying to say—wake up. It might be true that economic prosperity works in a lot of cases to dispel the attraction of tyranny. But far from always. And sometimes people want to attack America not because they’re poor, but because they sincerely believe that their vision for the future will be better for everyone.  This utopian vision has animated all totalitarian tyrannies from the Jacobins to today’s terrorists.

How would a history teacher use your work to help students under world history better?

My book is a pocket history of tyranny from ancient times to the present. Beginning with Achilles and the rise of the Roman Empire, continuing through the great state-building despots of the modern age like Henry VIII, [and] finally discussing the new kind of tyranny that begins with the Jacobins, it is a portable one-semester survey course on the history of tyranny.

There’s quite a bit of political theory—I use Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Burke, Marx, and others. But a lot of the book is drawn from history, memoirs, eye-witness accounts, and novels. I want to provide students not only with a lively overview of the history of tyranny, but an easily digestible introduction to the history of political thought, as well as to the writings of famous historians and statesmen.

For government teachers, how would they use your work?

I argue that there are three main types of tyranny — the garden variety kleptocrat, the reformer (Caesar, Napoleon), and the revolutionary (Stalin, Pol Pot). Each of these three types corresponds to a form of government, analyzed by political thinkers such as Plato and Machiavelli. There is also a discussion of the American system of checks and balances, and how the Founders designed it specifically to thwart the danger of tyranny by dividing government authority among three branches, two of which could resist if one branch tried to assert its will over the others. I conclude with a “tyranny tour” to see how the forces of democracy are doing in today’s world and the different kinds of non-democratic governments they are likely to run up against.

How about literature teachers? Is there something for them in your work?

Tyranny is both a form of government and a form of human psychology, frequently outsized, bizarre and frightening (think of Nero, Gaddafi). That’s why the tyrant has always been a subject of fascination in literature. In the book, in addition to the political theory, I also highlight the discussion of tyranny in literary works including Homer, Castiglione, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Wordsworth, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Solzhenitsyn.  I argue that Henry VIII, advised by Thomas Cromwell, followed a script provided by Machiavelli’s The Prince. The difference between traditional medieval monarchy and this ruthless new technician of power-seeking is summed up in Shakespeare’s presentation of Henry Bolingbroke in Richard II, a steely Machiavellian manipulator in contrast with the flawed and poetic Christian King Richard.

*A Special Bonus…

Explore the captivating annotated booklist on tyranny Professor Newell created especially for EDSITEment here.