Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Tyrannos,” formerly “he who had contrived to draw the principal authority to himself”; as “king,” “Basileus,” signified “he who was charged with relating affairs to the senate.” The acceptations of words change with time. “Idiot” at first meant only a hermit, an isolated man; in time it became synonymous with fool. At present the name of “tyrant” is given to a usurper, or to a king who commits violent and unjust actions.

Cromwell was a tyrant of both these kinds. A citizen who usurps the supreme authority, who in spite of all laws suppresses the house of peers, is without doubt a usurper. A general who cuts the throat of a king, his prisoner of war, at once violates what is called the laws of nations, and those of humanity.

Charles I. was not a tyrant, though the victorious faction gave him that name; he was, it is said, obstinate, weak, and ill-advised. I will not be certain, for I did not know him; but I am certain that he was very unfortunate.

Henry VIII. was a tyrant in his government as in his family, and alike covered with the blood of two innocent wives, and that of the most virtuous citizens; he merits the execrations of posterity. Yet he was not punished, and Charles I. died on a scaffold.

Elizabeth committed an act of tyranny, and her parliament one of infamous weakness, in causing Queen Mary Stuart to be assassinated by an executioner; but in the rest of her government she was not tyrannical; she was clever and manœuvering, but prudent and strong.

Richard III. was a barbarous tyrant; but he was punished. Pope Alexander VI. was a more execrable tyrant than any of these, and he was fortunate in all his undertakings. Christian II. was as wicked a tyrant as Alexander VI., and was punished, but not sufficiently so.

If we were to reckon Turkish, Greek, and Roman tyrants, we should find as many fortunate as the contrary. When I say fortunate, I speak according to the vulgar prejudice, the ordinary acceptation of the word, according to appearances; for that they can be really happy, that their minds can be contented and tranquil, appears to me to be impossible.

Constantine the Great was evidently a tyrant in a double sense. In the north of England he usurped the crown of the Roman Empire, at the head of some foreign legions, notwithstanding all the laws, and in spite of the senate and the people, who legitimately elected Maxentius. He passed all his life in crime, voluptuousness, fraud, and imposture. He was not punished, but was he happy? God knows; but I know that his subjects were not so.

The great Theodosius was the most abominable of tyrants, when, under pretence of giving a feast, he caused fifteen thousand Roman citizens to be murdered in the circus, with their wives and children, and when he added to this horror the facetiousness of passing some months without going to tire himself at high mass. This Theodosius has almost been placed in the ranks of the blessed; but I should be very sorry if he were happy on earth. In all cases it would be well to assure tyrants that they will never be happy in this world, as it is well to make our stewards and cooks believe that they will be eternally damned if they rob us.

The tyrants of the Lower Greek Empire were almost all dethroned or assassinated by one another. All these great offenders were by turns the executioners of human and divine vengeance. Among the Turkish tyrants, we see as many deposed as those who die in possession of the throne. With regard to subaltern tyrants, or the lower order of monsters who burden their masters with the execration with which they are loaded, the number of these Hamans, these Sejanuses, is infinite.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01