Herewith, four definitions—
- sociopathic: personality disorder manifesting extreme antisocial attitudes and behaviour, and a lack of conscience;
- psychopathic: chronic mental disorder manifesting amoral and antisocial behaviour…extreme egocentricity…an inability to feel guilt;
- psychotic: severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are impaired to the point where contact is lost with external reality; and
- zealous: fanatical and uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals.
Tyrants the world over, since the dawn of history, have displayed one or more of these characteristics in dealings with their contemporaries. A catalogue of infamous names might illustrate the point. Caligula; Genghis Khan; Attila the Hun; Ivan the Terrible; Robespierre; Stalin; Hitler; Pol Pot; Amin—all deserving of the wonder, fear, and loathing they inspire even today. Under their regimes of terror, countless people suffered and died as a consequence of their perverse aspirations.
Interestingly, this small list of tyrants contains no names of leaders of the so-called civilized world. There is, for example, no Cromwell, no Elizabeth I, no Bolivar, no Lincoln, no Churchill, no Gandhi, no de Gaulle, no Roosevelt, no Mandela—no one, in fact, who is thought to represent the ideals we enlightened peoples cherish. Ideals such as liberty, peace, prosperity, and good government.
But could any of these worthies have been tyrants, too? Benevolent tyrants, perhaps, pressing forward their own ambitions, convincing us of their correctness? And do such tyrants exist in our world today?
We live on a planet fraught with peril, both in our local communities and globally. Granted, many dangers result from natural phenomena—earthquakes, floods, droughts, pollution, and epidemics. And for the most part, there is a cooperative, international effort to cope with these.
Too many of the perils, however, are brought on by foolish actions in the face of consequences we know to be severe, perhaps even catastrophic—
- the deliberate despoiling of our environment and atmosphere, knowing such actions are unsustainable;
- antagonistic expansion of national borders, provoking states of war and massive displacements of people;
- premeditated acts of terror, often visited upon innocents; and
- a relentless, worldwide drive to acquire ever greater wealth, enriching the few at the expense of the many.
Insanity, it has been said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. To that I would add: insanity is purposely doing something in the face of overwhelming evidence that the outcome will be ruinous; insanity is wielding power over others, for our own benefit, without regard for the effects it may have on them; insanity is living on a small, blue orb floating in a vast interstellar sea—a lifeboat, so to speak—and deliberately engaging in actions that will inevitably capsize it.
And insanity is the purview of tyrants.
Tyrants pursue their ends without regard for truth, careless of consequences, without attention to moral imperatives that govern most of us, never doubting the rectitude of their delusions. Uncompromising in their beliefs, they seek to foist them on the world they inhabit. As do sociopaths, psychopaths, psychotics, and zealots.
But an interesting thing about tyrants is that their actions are judged, not objectively, but through ethnocentric filters we all employ. We hold, many of us, a belief that the groups to which we belong—be they racial, religious, gender-based, age-related, economic, nationalistic, political—are superior to groups to which other people belong. It is all too tempting, therefore, to label the motives and actions of other groups’ leaders as tyrannical, even if suspiciously similar to those of our own leaders.
Tyranny, it might be said, is in the eye of the beholder.
With respect to the first list of tyrants referenced earlier, it is likely that consensus exists among much of the world’s peoples as to the evil of their deeds. Most of us share an abhorrence of certain actions—genocide, for example, or murder and rape. These are obvious and odious. But what of the smaller, less noticeable acts of tyranny we put up with? What are the checks and balances in place to restrain the leaders to whom we grant governing power?
When I look at the state of our planet, and at the people who have brought us to where we are, I wonder if they are all not tyrants of a sort. Whether elected, appointed, or self-installed, do our leaders act in the best interests of us, the people? Or do they pursue their idiosyncratic crusades, heedless of potentially harmful outcomes? Are there fifty, or more, shades of grey in the spectrum between insanity and rationality? Between tyranny and altruism? And if so, where on the scale do our current leaders fall?
I despair of the answers when I observe the follies they subject us to.
Benevolent tyrants are tyrants, still.