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Aristotle's ‘science’ of tyranny

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Aristotle, who wrote on everything from politics to poetics and from physics to the parts of animals, wrote comparatively little on tyrannies. In all of the volumes of Aristotle's writings that have come down to us, one can find the word tyranny on no more than a few dozen pages, and he gave us a sustained discussion of tyranny, by which I mean only a section of perhaps four or five successive pages, just once in the Politics and once in the Constitution of Athens. Nevertheless, almost in passing, Aristotle formulated the ancient world's most enduring political analysis of tyranny, bequeathing this analysis first to key Roman thinkers such as Tacitus, then to Medieval and Renaissance political theorists, and ultimately to the eighteenth century where philosophes such as Montesquieu substantially altered it to suit their own pressing political needs. Such is the influence of history's most brilliant thinkers whose almost parenthetical thoughts serve as fundamental conceptual tools for subsequent generations. A single five-page chapter in the Politics, based most certainly on years of empirical observation of tyrannies, served as the best single study of the nature of tyranny (and perhaps even as the best advice to a tyrant wishing to create a lasting regime), at least until Machiavelli. In this article, we will distill Aristotle's analysis of tyranny from his wide-ranging writings.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Occidental College.

Publication date: 1993-01-01

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