Christopher Berger Reviews Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, & Terror

April 27, 2018

"However many times decent people express the hope that mankind has learned its lesson, the drive to tyrannize is a permanent passion in human psychology." 
Progress is all the rage. I don’t mean simply that we’re fond of improvement – that’s a truism. What I mean, rather, is the tacit and ubiquitous assumption that where we are now is better, more “advanced,” than wherever it was we came from. We’ve progressed from narrow-minded, violent, superstitious prejudice to enlightenment, prosperity, and social justice for all. In other words, we do not simply like improvement – we believe the human condition now is different from, and better than, what came before. We have a narrative understanding of progress, one might say a grand historical story that informs who we think we are and where we think we’re going. Yet there’s one irritating wrench that keeps getting thrown into the works of that narrative: the unpleasant fact of recurring tyranny.


The perennial reality of potential for tyranny is the point of departure for the recent work of Waller R. Newell, a professor of political theory at Carleton University. This is Newell’s second book on the subject. His earlier work, Tyranny: A New Interpretation, is geared more toward the academically inclined, specifically those with some familiarity with key texts in the history of political philosophy. As you might imagine, it’s a more theoretical book. Tyrants, however, is Newell’s contribution to the everyday reader – those who make it their business to become civically aware but who may not have, nor be much interested in, an in-depth academic analysis of the matter. The result is an eminently readable and (oddly enough) frequently funny history of tyrants from ancient times to the present day.


Newell structures his genealogy of the tyrant on three key categories: the garden variety tyrant, the reforming tyrant, and the millenarian tyrant. Tyrants have been with us since the first recognizable political relationships appeared. The garden variety tyrants are those who wield power for their own base gratification and self-interest (think Nero or Saddam Hussein), and the reforming tyrants are those like Cyrus, Caesar, or Napoleon who wielded their absolute power, albeit unilaterally and often violently, genuinely to benefit their societies in the longer run. But the last of these, the millenarian, is a uniquely modern phenomenon, says Newell. Contrary to many other recent commentators, Newell argues that it is not their access to technology that makes modern millenarian tyrants distinct from their garden variety and reforming forebears, but their access to a more deadly tool: ideology. Millenarian tyrants regard it as their task to bring about a fundamental and comprehensive cleanse of humanity, to remake it in the image of an all-encompassing utopian vision. This is the culprit behind the horrors of the Jacobin Terror through to the apocalyptic wars and genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Newell takes an “old-fashioned” approach to his subject, understanding tyranny to be not simply a type of rule but a state of character, or more to the point, a defect or sickness of character (or soul). This hearkens back to Plato’s analysis in the Republic. Remaining true to this timeless insight, Newell ties his work together with an appeal to education, the cultivation of character to direct the passions and train the intellect. Viewed in this light, we might conclude that the modern social sciences and humanities are misguided in insisting to students that everything is ideology. If everything is ideology, there is no outside standard by which to adjudicate between ideologies, and in the best case to leave ideology behind and go it alone. Without this possibility, the strongest, the one that wins out, is the best. This is a recipe for decisionistic, zero-sum, all-or-nothing conflict. It’s an identity politics of ideas, in which mutual understanding and rational intercourse are impossible, so why bother? Given this, what are we doing other than nurturing the pool of prospective millenarians?


Newell’s book is a fascinating political history and astute work of political theory, but perhaps its greatest and most unexpected contribution is this call to look with a more critical eye to what our aims are in education, in terms of both pedagogical theory and institutional direction. It’s a remarkably timely book.


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