Democracy, Tyranny, and the Current Situation

To describe a regime accurately is often a dangerous enterprise. Yet it is a necessary endeavor to accurately describe the regime in which we live.

“The fact is that the greatest crimes are caused by excess and not by necessity. Men do not become tyrants in order that they may not suffer cold….”—Aristotle, Politics, II, 1266b14-15.        

“What is the purpose of government? … Based on what we observe our government doing, we…conclude: The real purpose of the government is to give people the sex lives they want, with a minimum of inconvenience. You want to have sex without having a baby? No problem, we’ll give you contraception at no cost to you. You want to have sex, you got pregnant, and you don’t want the baby? That’s inconvenient. We’ll give you an abortion. You want to have sex with someone you aren’t married to? Your spouse and children are inconvenient. We’ll give you a no-fault divorce…. You want to have sex with a person of your same sex and you want to have a baby? That is really inconvenient. We will restructure the legal system and subsidize the technology that will make it possible for you to obtain all the babies you want without the inconvenience of having to deal with the child’s other parent.” —Jennifer Roback Morse, The Ruth Institute, August 3, 2014. 


Aristotle described the various configurations that are found among civil states to describe the purpose of their rule and the institutions or divisions of power designed to foster it. He reduced them to three general types—monarchy, aristocracy, and polity—and their corruptions—tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. In addition, we have various types of “mixed regimes” that seek to combine the three simpler forms to counteract the inadequate elements in the other forms. Thus, a monarchy, while it had the advantage of singularity of purpose in a virtuous ruler, did not provide opportunities for other citizens to participate in rule. It was possible to counter this defect by providing, say, for the election of the ruler by the general populace. This election also limited the monarch/president/chancellor so he was not absolute but still had authority to decide and act. 

For Aristotle, all good regimes ruled for the good of all; all bad regimes ruled for the good of the ruling principle, but not for everyone. The common good did not mean some kind of collectivity, all of whose parts were ruled by the authorities. Rather it meant an order that allowed the purposes of individuals and groups to be what they are, not mere functionaries of a master-mind state and its purpose. 

The construction of the legislature, executive, and judiciary was designed to carry out most effectively the ends of the regime, be they good or bad. Aristotle also noticed that besides ruling principles according to numbers of one-few-many, each regime also had an intelligible end. The tyrant ruled for himself; the oligarchs usually ruled for money, and the democrats ruled in favor of poorer classes to obtain a liberty that had no purpose but what the individual wanted. The American founders were quite familiar with this background of Greek and Roman political thought. 

The modern use of the term “democracy” and the original Greek usage of the same term are not identical. This difference causes considerable confusion. The modern term has come to be a covert description of the “ideal state,” something that should be imposed on everyone if they do not choose it. Almost every regime wants to call itself “democratic”, no matter what its configuration. All states are to conform to this democratic model.  No room is to be left for good regimes that are not “democratic.” Democracy means majority rule, individual (not community) “rights,” power located in a central ruling body, freedom to do what one wants, and government support for this random freedom. No higher law or purpose is admitted. Nothing is permitted in the public sector that does not conform to state-established laws, themselves changeable. Such a state conceives itself, as it were, as “the kingdom of God” without God. 

Here, I use the term in the Greek sense—that is, a regime of the many that has no internal principle of rule other than the “liberty” or “freedom” to do whatever one wants. Obviously, a government composed of people who can do whatever each one wants can itself, as Hobbes intimated, do whatever it wanted. In addition, democracy is a regime of the poor who work through the government for the redistribution of goods without much realization of how they are produced. The government in such a democratic regime is conceived as a facilitator for the accomplishment of these distibutionist and free-choice ends. In practice, it is out of this chaos of unlimited choice that the rhetoric of the “leader of the people,” as Aristotle called him, arises. 

Democracies seem naturally to tend to tyranny in two senses. They need and choose a clever leader whose inner purpose is his own perceived good. He gradually or quickly learns, through a combination of flattery and coercion, to subject and discipline the people to his ends. People do not become tyrants, Aristotle said, to keep out of the cold. They have grandiose plans to save the people from their enemies. Also, there is such a thing as a “democratic tyranny.” Liberty without limits or principle undertakes to suppress any criticism of itself and its ways. The people are not citizens who rule themselves. They are state objects who are ruled for their own good. Rousseau’s famous law that everyone must be forced to obey because he only obeys himself is the essence of democratic tyranny and its justification.


Aristotle did not begin his political thinking with some mysterious and imagined man in the state of nature. He knew that wherever men appeared in history, they organized themselves in various ways. So he asked, on the basis of observation: What do all regimes have in common? How and why do they differ? Is there a “best” regime or a worst or something in-between? Aristotle was quite aware that the legal or constitutional description of a regime did not necessarily correspond to the inner order of the souls of the citizens. In fact, if we ever found a regime in which the actions of the citizens exactly corresponded to what the ruling authorities set down, we are more likely to be in a tyranny than in a regime of normal, fallible men.

To describe a regime accurately is, by objective standards, often a dangerous enterprise. Regimes and those who profit by them rarely like to know the truth about themselves. If there is a suspicion that their form and activity of rule are not legitimate, their critics are charged with being disloyal or traitors to the existing regime. Yet, it is a necessary endeavor to accurately describe the regime in which we live. How to approach this description? Aristotle understood that a civil society is made up of many different entities—families, tribes, villages, trades, religions, and organizations. The modern notion of polity from Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau—that the state is an organization made up of separate individuals over against the state—is foreign to Aristotle. In Aristotle’s tradition, human society is made up of many lesser communities, each with its own legitimacy, order, and purpose, none of which is formulated by the polity. The state does not “create” them but only at best recognizes them and provides for an order in which they can flourish. The state is the entity that gives order to other communities. They do not depend on the polity for what they are. 

In the modern state, these entities, including religion, do depend on the state for their public existence and definition.The primary difference between the regime in which we now live and that of the Aristotelian tradition is that, originally, the state was understood to depend on a right order or natural law. Man was by nature political. The state was not itself defined by or subject to its own arbitrary will. In other words, all regimes are subject to judgment even if their laws and customs are “freely” and “democratically” arrived at, even if they serve what the people “want.” Therefore, the distinction of good and bad regimes is based on the difference between good and evil in personal human action. The presence or absence of virtue in the souls of the citizens and their chosen ruler was the proper context of political things.


The United States today has a “constitution” but it is not “ruled” by a constitution. No branch of the government conceives itself to be really limited by the provisions of the constitution. The executive rules by decrees. He selects the laws he will or will not enforce. The courts decide by the will of the judges and their often odd philosophies. The legislature decides what is right by what passes into law. While there may still be some who “follow” the constitution, in practice, they are relatively insignificant. In this sense, Aristotle is a better guide to what we actually are than any of our thinkers, media, or politicians.  He understood what happened in political regimes of actual human beings. What he described is largely what we see before us, if we would but look. 

The country’s course is now explained by a “rights” theory of what it stands for. Man is not by nature a “social and political animal,” but a solitary one. Society is only needed to protect the individual’s “rights” against those of others. The state, an independent entity over and above the individuals, is comprised of individual units that have “rights.” They are not “citizens” in Aristotle’s sense. Everything is entitled to them. They belong to nothing but themselves, no family, association, church, or community. Government deals directly with them as isolated beings. These “rights” do not derive from nature but from the will of a people who recognize no limit to their individual freedom to do what they want with their lives. 

We thus have “rights” to abort millions of our own kind, to marry in the same sex, and to die when we want. “Rights” are not descriptions of what man is, but grants by the state of what a man may or may not do with his life. The state has power because “rights” conflict. Someone must define what “rights” will be enforced. We yield to the state all the power. The only good “rights” are those that are enforced. Ultimately, each individual becomes defined by what the state allows to him, not by what he is

The state rules its subjects by pleasure and pain. The state itself is a struggle for power, for who can promise most and control most. The ruler is beyond good and evil. He must be able to use flattery and force effectively. The ruler is lonely, with few if any friends. His greatest fear is that there is a truth to things, including human things. This is why the real enemy of the present regime is the claim that truth exists, that everyone, including rulers, is bound and judged by it. 

The tyrannical answer to truth is a form of “bread and circuses” wrapped in a self-righteousness that brooks no criticism. The political enterprise is conceived as taking care of the needs of the populace. It also makes the people dependent on the state and beholden to is. The populace is left in a condition of boredom and passivity, especially about ultimate things, which are mostly closed off from them. 

Therefore, they are of little danger to the autonomous rulers continuing in power. The relativist education espoused by the state leaves no room for a critique of it. This regime, then, is what we now live under, whatever we call it. Most people call it a “democracy” founded on “rights.” And if we have no criterion whereby we can judge what man is other than what the state enforces, then this is indeed what it is, the classical combination of tyranny and democracy.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.