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despotism


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Autocratic rule by one person. Thus in its original Greek sense a ‘despot’ was the lord or ruler of an unfree state. The Byzantine emperor was routinely referred to as a despot, the title was transferred to Christian rulers in provinces of the Turkish Empire, and remains in modern Greek as an old‐fashioned word for a bishop, Thespotis.

Aristotle began an important Western tradition of thought by distinguishing Persian ‘despotism’ from Greek tyranny. Tyranny was usurped, unstable power, wielded coercively, while despotism was persistent and stable, depending on the acquiescence of the people, often the only authority they knew and therefore essentially legal. It was thus an oriental phenomenon because free, Greek peoples would not tolerate it for long. The category of oriental despotism is almost universal in Western political thought. Most notably, Montesquieu developed the category in his L'Esprit des lois, published in 1748. Even the most absolute of Western monarchies was not a despotism, he argued, because the monarch was bound by law whose legitimacy was justified by the same reasoning as was his authority. He did, though, note a tendency for the French monarchy to degenerate towards despotism, as did several of his contemporaries, and after the revolution of 1789 it became customary to refer to the ancien régime as a despotism.

Western theorists have used despotism as a limiting case, a reductio ad absurdum of the concentration of power. To Burke it was ‘the simplest form of government’, the domination of the will of a single man. To Bentham it was an evil form, the inverse of the evil of anarchy. Their shared assumptions about the actual working of the Ottoman, Chinese, Persian, and Moghul Empires can be said to be oversimplified where not actually wrong, and the use of the term has degenerated into a mere political boo‐word, not really distinguishable from ‘tyranny’, ‘dictatorship’, or ‘absolutism’.

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Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) — Politics.


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