Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror by Waller R. Newell
Book Review by caldrail
In every walk of life you find experts. Sometimes it's one of those endless interviews the media delight in after an important event. Sometimes it's just a headstrong colleague with more opinion than commonsense. The issue is the same with regard to politics, always a subject to raise debates both rational and passionate. Loved or loathed, powerful individuals are always with us, always subjects for discussion or derision, and yet no-one seems to have a definitive view until, at some point, someone suggests that person is a tyrant, and the label begins to stick. Authority and tyranny are not seperable, but shades of grey, so where do we we draw the line? How do we define a tyrant?
Professor Waller R Newell has written Tyrants to outline the origins of oppressive government and how it developed into the modern world along with terrorism and regime change. Subtitled A History of Power, Injustice, & Terror, it is perhaps noteworthy that the cover displays a statue of Julius Caesar. The author does indeed underline how perception is part of the tyranny equation - one man's tyrant is another man's saviour. We so often regard the Roman world, perhaps unfairly, as an exercise in gross tyranny, yet according to the text Professor Newell provides for us, it's clear it was hardly the worst that Humanity has experienced. Then again, it is embarrasing to note that the book begins on a secluded palace on the Isle of Capri, where a misanthropic Roman Caesar has visitors thrown from the edge of a cliff for imagined insults.
Professor Newell broadly categorises tyrants in three divisions. Those that seek to reward themselves by domination, those that seek to reward society with somewhat less restraint than would be considered benign, and those who simply throw the rule book away and create an entirely new society with dreams of some future utopia, and for that matter, the relationship between utopian desire and contemporary struggle is not unique in human history. It turns out that the end justifies the means even if the end is always the one you find at the end of a rainbow. One might easily recall how certain oppressive regimes use constant struggle not merely as an excuse, but as the entire rationale of their society.
Further, and a point the author stresses, is that he views tyranny as part and parcel of the human condition. He does not dwell on the personal level, the ugly domination of strangers, colleagues, and family in everyday life, but refers to the tyrants who make it to the highest and most influential levels of political leadership. Considering how common tyranny is in human society, there is only a small proportion of them who rise to the fore, sometimes by propaganda and violence, some by sheer oppotunism. One wonders if an element of 'last man standing' applies, but sometimes there is an unfortunate reluctance in human societies to actually stop these people from achieving their desires.
The issue is very much of the wolf pack. Newell does not compare human activity with primeval social instinct as a rule, preferring this to remain a political commentary, yet it's difficult not to see the parallels. Something similar occurs over the subject of psychology, the spawning ground of human behaviour, yet Newell is less concerned about whether Hitler was a gambler or Augustus a control freak than the significance of their actions, which in some cases and especially in terms of people slaughtered is often the measuring stick of tyranny.
This book is written in an oddly conversational style considering the appalling states and individuals it describes. Professor Newell does a good job of guiding the reader through the various stages of tyranny with a style that is not only historically valid, but often illustrated with themes more familiar to the average reader like television shows or published novels.
Nonetheless, this is not a book most people would read in one sitting. Tyrants reveals uncomfortable truths about Humanity in a quite intense cavalcade of villains such that one has to know something about history to absorb the lessons quickly. For most of us, take a deep breath and plunge bravely into the next chapter before the mind reels at the onslaught. In fact, the author is well aware that many will find his book challenging, and toward the end jokes about there being anyone with enough staying power to be still reading it.
That said, the challenge is worthwhile and in an ironic way, an enjoyable experience. Those who reach the end of this journey will have a much wider and detailed grasp of how tyrannies operate. His insight reveals some very unexpected aspects of who becomes a tyrant and the mechanism by which they rise from obscurity to infamy. It must also be said that the challenge is hardly more than two hundred pages in length. You won't find maps, diagrams, or photographs. This is not a book to stare at the pictures. Whereas it is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a book that demonstrates how misleading imagery can be.
How should one regard this book? Not for bedtime reading if one wants peaceful dreams. Not for reference, for the coverage of such a cast of characters and periods necessarily means brevity. The thought occurs that Newell has written this book for everyone rather than a specific audience and yet has not relinquished his high standards. Tyrants is, more than anything, a book to learn from. It's as if an important television documentary series has been encapsulated in text, expanded and explained, the importance and relevance of various historical details all making a coherent point. The author has set a bar for this sort of narrative. Can you can rise to it? You really ought to try.
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Waller R. Newell is Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Carleton University, Ottawa, where he helped found and also teaches in the College of the Humanities, Canada's only four-year baccalaureate in the Great Books. He has held a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Teachers and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship.
His books include Tyranny: A New Interpretation (Cambridge, 2013); The Soul of a Leader: Character, Conviction and Ten Lessons in Political Greatness; and The Code of Man: Love, Courage, Pride, Family, Country. He served on the first Reagan Administration transition team in the areas of humanitarian affairs and human rights. He received his PhD in Political Science from Yale University, Connecticut.