What is tyranny?

The original meaning of tyrannos is not bad/oppressive rule, although it did come to mean that, but rather rule by someone foreign to the jurisdiction in which he governs. Not coincidentally, the word itself seems to be a foreign term ingested into the Greek language, perhaps during some epoch of occupation by a foreign power. To cite one well-known example of this relation between tyranny and foreignness: Oedipus Tyrannos isn’t given that epithet for being evil but for being raised outside of Thebes — Oedipus for the most part seems to have been considered a good ruler. So how does the word “tyrant” come to mean what we now take it to mean?

Bad/oppressive/tyrannical rule is a failure to respect nomos, i.e. the custom or law, written or unwritten, specific to a particular society. One can imagine such failure to be an inevitable consequence of foreign rule, whether well-motivated or not: ruling as if indifferent/ignorant to the nomos in which a society’s people have been shaped, a nomos in which the good of order is operative and alive. Exercise of power which fails to take nomos into account, either through indifference, ignorance or malice, is tyrannical power.

Before continuing, I need to make clear the distinction between law and legislation, between nomos and taxis, since we tend to confuse them Legislation/taxis is not, in itself, “law” in the sense of nomos. Good legislation expresses nomos, which is prior to it. Bad legislation is that which acts contrary to the nomos of a people and is an expression of tyranny, not nomos. On the other hand, a resistance movement can be “lawful” and justified in breaking the “laws” of a ruler if those “laws” are not the expression of nomos, but rather a tyrannical taxis. A “law” not based on nomos is not a binding law, it lacks true authority, and only gets its force from an assertion of power from outside itself, from a power foreign to the nomos upon which it intrudes. Those who act by the light of nomos need no other law or guidance, and to coerce such activity is tyranny. Tyranny is lawlessness coupled with power.

This notion of tyranny as opposition to nomos can help clarify the definitions of justice/dikaiosyne and injustice/adikia in Republic, Book IV. The meaning of justice is articulated as “the having and doing of one’s own [work].” This definition may sound peculiar at first but makes perfect sense in the context of the negative relation between nomos and tyrannos. It’s opposite, injustice/adikia, is defined as polypragmosyne, or “meddling” in (or doing) another’s work/business. The root idea is that every craft, occupation, or activity is governed by a nomos peculiar to it. Skill in such activity is a matter of conformity/obedience to the law/nomos that guides and orders it. For example a musician has her nomos, a baker hisand the nomoi are distinct. Mastery of a skill requires being mastered by its immanent nomos. All purposive activity is lawful in this way. In the definition of justice cited above, “one’s own” delimits a regime in which a person understands and obeys the laws of that regime. Whenever I am invited into another’s house (or circumstances), I become acutely aware that I am a foreigner to the rules of the house and instinctively know that I must serve and submit to those who understand its customs and rules. To the extent that one does not understand the nomos of a place/occupation, then such a “place” is not one’s own and such a person cannot justly operate as a ruler there. If one acts in opposition to those who do understand and obey the nomos, then this is meddling/polypragmosyne and one is acting unjustly. The extreme case of such meddling is tyranny — the exercise of total power without respect for the nomos demanded by the situation. One cannot rule justly without being ruled by nomos.

This understanding of justice/injustice also helps us to understanding the Republic’s call for philosophical rule, stated this way in Book V:

Until philosophers rule as kings in cities or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcible prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race. (473c-d, Grube/Reeve translation, emphasis mine)

Plato understands the rule of the philosopher to be the polar opposite of rule by tyrants, the latter being the negative image or complete absence of the virtues present in the former. What is required for a well-ordered polity is for all varieties of nomos to be set free to do their job if they are to produce the good of order. What must be free are both the laws/nomoi of the respective parts and the supervenient nomos of the whole. But the good of the whole always depends on the nomos of the parts being secured. No one can fully understand/master all of the various forms of nomos present in a city and each person is reliant on the competence of others to survive and flourish. Totalitarianism is always tyrannical since it presumes to rule in regimes of nomos in which it has no competence, but it is just one extreme example at the end of a whole chain of analogous cases such as colonialism, micromanagement, nation-building, paternalism, etc.

Some virtues of a *true* philosopher fitting him/her to rule are: (1) an understanding of the difference between nomos and opinions-about-the-nomos; (2) a frank recognition within him/herself of ignorance in areas where knowledge of nomos is lacking; (3) a willingness to rule within the regime of his/her own knowledge/competence and to be ruled where it is still lacking,  and (4) an unwillingness to exercise power in service to any opinion that is not based on knowledge of the nomos threatened by that power. Whoever lacks these four is not a philosopher and whoever lacks them is also not fitted to be a just ruler — the two are coincident. This is Plato’s prime political teaching: that power and love of wisdom must be coincident for the good of order to flourish. Constraining the bad in the world is at best a means for a just order — and not the most important means. The most important duty of the just ruler is, in the words of Chesterton, “to give room for good things to run wild.”

ADDENDUM, added on Feb 6, 2014

I was looking back over Plato’s dialogue Statesman and came across this brief discussion on the nature of law that I think is germane to what I wrote above. “Law” as used in the quote obviously mean legislation confused with true law, using the terms as I have been. The quote is from the translation given in the Perseus Project English version (294a – c):

In a sense, however, it is clear that law-making belongs to the science of kingship; but the best thing is not that the laws be in power, but that the man who is wise and of kingly nature be ruler. Do you see why?

Younger Socrates
Why is it?

Because law could never, by determining exactly what is noblest and must just for one and all, enjoin upon them that which is best; for the differences of men and of actions and the fact that nothing, I may say, in human life is ever at rest, forbid any science whatsoever to promulgate any simple rule for everything and for all time. We agree to that, I suppose?

Younger Socrates
Yes, of course.

But we see that law aims at pretty nearly this very thing, like a stubborn and ignorant man who allows no one to do anything contrary to his command, or even to ask a question, not even if something new occurs to some one, which is better than the rule he has himself ordained.

Younger Socrates
True; the law treats each and all of us exactly as you describe.


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