Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror
by Waller R. Newell.
Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 264 pages, $30.
Russell Kirk, writing in Prospects for Conservatives, described what enlightened conservatives know but the tyrant does not: that love is the object of life, the backbone of any good society. The conservative, Kirk said, “knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt.” It is to Carleton University Professor Waller Newell’s credit that he gives us a map of Love’s corruption, the better to resist its advances.
And resist we must. As Newell argues, “the drive to tyrannize is a permanent passion in human psychology.” Tyranny, then, is deserving of its own particular study. Professor Newell traces the career of tyranny in the persons and characteristics of those imposing it. He sketches broadly and in fine detail, highlighting the many fascinating intersections of tyranny between East and West. Newell demonstrates compellingly that tyranny, though a constant presence, is a dynamic force. Over millennia, tyrants influenced politics, philosophy, art, literature, music, and architecture and, in turn, were influenced by them. A particularly enjoyable aspect of the book is Newell’s ability to tease out the consequential accretions to tyranny as it evolved in time and place. Tyranny’s terrain iscontrolled, Newell argues, by three different—though not always distinct—types of tyrant.
The first is a “garden-variety” tyrant, most prominent in the ancient world (Nero, Tarquin) but who still exists today (Duvalier, Hussein). He rules the realm or country entirely for his own gain. All profit and pleasure accrue to the tyrant and his friends. He can be a strong military leader, and even bring his people a measure of comfort, but his main purpose in power is to enrich himself.
The second is the “reforming tyrant,” typified, Newell argues, by “men who are indeed driven to possess supreme honor and wealth, and power unconstrained by law or democracy. But they are not mere hedonists or profit seekers. They really want to improve their society and people through the constructive exercise of their untrammeled authority.” Older examples include Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. More recent examples are perhaps Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and Ataturk. The archetype of the reforming tyrant is Henry VIII. Arguably the father of the modern nation-state, Henry demonstrated supreme honor-seeking and lust for wealth and women, but he was also determined to remake England as he alone saw fit. Newell credits the intellectual influence of Machiavelli in changing the conduct of tyranny in the person of the reforming tyrant.
The third is the “millenarian” tyrant. This type is an exclusively modern manifestation, the intellectual groundwork having been laid by Rousseau. The millenarian tyrant is “driven by the impulse to impose a millenarian blueprint that will bring about a society of the future in which the individual will be submerged in the collective and all privilege and alienation will forever be eradicated.” Paradoxically, Newell argues, the “coming world of perfect harmony of tomorrow will require prodigious excesses of mass murder, warfare, and genocide in the present.” To this category of tyranny belongs Robespierre and his Jacobins, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the jihadists. Millenarian tyrants, according to Newell, are the worst because their tyranny “differs in the scale of its violence and the fantasy of its aims from the reforming tyrant even at his most ruthless.” It is the most dangerous type, to be sure, and the most common in the last two centuries.
One difficulty in Newell’s discussion of millenarian tyranny pertains to his understanding of Jihadism as an aberration of Islam. His otherwise sharp analysis, truncated since an exploration of the subtleties between Islamist organizations exceeds the scope of the book, is undermined by his view that Jihadism, a millenarian tyranny that moved in revolutionary currents during the twentieth century, is not Islamic. This is as absurd as it is inaccurate. As recently as 2014, the leading Sunni cleric, Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb, refused to declare members of ISIS apostates. And while there is disagreement amongst Muslim clerics as to what constitutes jihad, it is nevertheless a part of Sharia law. Newell’s argument that “tracing the connection between Jihadist terrorism and its totalitarian predecessors stretching back to Robespierre is the path to true clarity about the nature of the foe we are facing” is therefore substantially weakened and only partially correct.
Professor Newell is to be commended for writing such an erudite and accessible book. Apart from a few clunky sentences (Cambridge is an academic press after all), and an inexplicable error confusing King Harold for King Alfred, it is superbly written. And lest the gravity of the subject weigh the reader down, Newell lightens the load with well-placed humor.
He is given to colorful, though not always useful, descriptions: Spartans were “a bit like the Klingons,” Inquisition Spain a combination of “Mordor, Darth Vader, and Voldemort,” Peter the Great was “both a pinhead and weirdo,” and Stalinist architecture “something from the subconscious mind of Ayn Rand.” Newell’s occasional lightheartedness does not detract from his scholarly depth which is on full, albeit humble, display. But the truly extraordinary thing is that he is able to cover so much ground, so well, in less than three hundred pages. Brevity and scholarship in readable prose is a rare pleasure these days.
Newell ultimately concludes that tyranny is an indelible expression of fallen man, and can never be eradicated. Tyrants come and go, but the impulse for tyranny is always with us. However, he argues, tyranny must be resisted despite its temptations and temporary benefits. He avoids specific solutions to current geopolitical crises wrought by tyrants, like the catastrophe in Syria. But he does follow a neoconservative line of thought, with respect to foreign policy, that we may have to accept a cruel, garden-variety dictator (i.e. Gaddafi, Mubarak) if, as happened in Libya and Egypt, millenarian jihadists are waiting to fill the vacuum of power.
More importantly, since Newell’s book is not a policy study, he recommends a liberal education in the Western tradition as a bulwark against tyranny. This is not entirely surprising since he is a co-founder of his university’s Great Books program. But it is a powerful recognition that tyrants, even of the murderous millenarian kind, must be met with the moral imagination. Freedom is not merely the absence of tyranny, but the fruit of a society built on love, preserved by prudence, and governed by wisdom.
The question, though, is whether our current politics—which so often conflate power with natural authority—blind us to tyrants and their danger. We have only to look at the weeping masses gathered in Grant Park after the election of Barack Obama, awaiting his promise to fundamentally transform America, to know that freedom’s vigil is never ending. Professor Newell, in an interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities, offered some cautionary advice that the progressive left—always seeking to enforce a debate-ending agenda—will no doubt ignore:
“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.”
This utopian vision is still with us today. And so we are fortunate to have Professor Newell’s book with us too. It is a book that will provoke thought, stimulate debate, and educate for freedom.
Timothy D. Lusch is an attorney and writer. His work has appeared in Saint Austin Review, Crisis, New Oxford Review, New English Review, Chronicles, and CatholicExchange.com. He blogs at pityitspithy.com