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I hear the word “tyrant” a lot—but what is a “tyrant”?

The Ancient Greek concept meant a man who ruled only in his own interests—a selfish man (a man who did not consider public safety, which, as Cicero observed, is the highest aim of the state).

To rule in such a way was to be arbitrary, because a man’s selfish whims follow no set pattern.

Hence the word implied a cruel and unjust ruler.

The word started with a neutral meaning—it just meant someone who came to power in an illegitimate way, whether their rule was good or bad.

But men who come to power in an illegitimate way tend to be selfish and arbitrary rulers too.

So the word didn’t refer to hereditary monarchies, the basileiai, but rather meant “the usurpers”.

The word was borrowed into Greek from the Lydian or Hittite for “king”—and is, perhaps, derived from the Etruscan for “mistress, lady” (turon).

So there is an idea that the tyrant is a capricious mistress, like a woman—without the consistent or objective nature required for justice.

It is also linked to the word for grandfather in Proto-Indo-European—“kukas”, and from there the name of the Lydian king Gyges derives.

He is the original tyrant, the mythological tyrant—he appears in Plato’s Republic as a shepherd who finds a ring that makes him invisible and then kills the king to assume the throne.

This is where the “ring of power” in The Lord of the Rings originates.

It’s the original test—if you were invisible, would you still be good (or would you sneak into the girls’ showers)?

Are you only good because you’re afraid you might be caught?

The girls’ showers are relevant because the historical Gyges was said by Herodotus to have been a bodyguard to king Archilochus.

The king had a beautiful wife, whom he believed to be the most beautiful on earth—so he arranged for Gyges to secretly see her undressed to prove the point.

Yet when the king’s wife found out she was so enraged that she demanded that Gyges kill her husband to defend her honour.

So Gyges bribed the oracle to say he should be king—he killed Archilochus, and that is how the first tyrant came to be.

A woman was the cause of the trouble—hence the etymological link to “mistress” is appropriate.

Tyranny’s essence is capacious and inconsistent rules—just like Covid-19 quarantines and “diversity” legislation.

And a tyranny can even be how a rail company tells people there’s “no excuse” not to have a ticket and insists on a fine when the ticket office is never open and the ticket machine always broken.

That’s what tyranny is.


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