The Difference Between Tyranny And Despotism

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Tyranny and despotism are words that have been given different definitions by a few scholars. The famous philosopher, Hannah Arendt, defined tyranny as the exercise of absolute power by an unjust ruler. She also described despotism as the unlimited utilization of power by a collective entity or singular individual in charge of government (Kohn, 2002).

These two terms were often used by European scholars more than two centuries ago to describe the government of the Ottoman Empire. For these scholars, the term tyranny could be used to refer to the manifestation of both positive and negative qualities, but the word despotism could only be used in reference to negative characteristics within a government. The government of the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, is an example of modern-day despotic government (Office Of The Press Secretary, 2006).

Defining Differences Between Tyranny and Despotism

According to Kohn (2002), Hannah Arendt hypothesized that despotic power is used by a singular ruler or government to oppress the masses through the excessive use of force. This means that whether the despotic ruler is a single ruler or a government, all executive, legislative and judiciary power within the state is concentrated in the hands of this singular entity. In regards to tyranny, even though these characteristics may be present, the citizens may not be conscious of them due to mass deception (Kohn, 2002).

          While despotic governments are recognized by their citizens as being oppressive, it is not unusual for tyrannical rulers to operate through deceptive measures that convince the populace to accept their plight as a heroic undertaking that will benefit the nation. In nations that are ruled by tyrannical rulers, citizens will first lose their individual rights before losing their collective identity (Kohn, 2002). The tyrannical ruler uses elements of the mass media to manipulate the collective conscience to such an extent that people cease to challenge any questionable activities conducted by him or her. Citizens are encouraged to aspire to altruism, as defined by the ruler through propaganda, even as the government adopts militant measures to police the actions of the brainwashed citizens.

          While mass deception keeps tyrannical rulers in charge of the lives of citizens without having to use violence in many instances, despotic governments enforce state-determined regulations and norms through intimidation (Kohn, 2002). The citizens fear their ruler and obey him or her because they know that they will be subjected to violence if they do not. Despotic governments also employ numerous loyal workers to determine the best course for the private lives of citizens.

This was evident in Nazi Germany where all streets in German cities had a loyal Nazi official who was responsible for enforcing the Nazi Party’s regulations, while also ensuring that all families faithfully followed the rules that were ratified by Adolph Hitler (Gentner, 2008). Despotic governments may favor individuals who find ways of ingratiating themselves with the ruler by implementing programs that further oppress the populace. However, all power resides with the ruler even if he or she chooses to delegate different tasks to subordinates.


The main difference between tyranny and despotism lies in the methods that are used to oppress citizens. While despotic rulers or governments are direct in the implementation of repressive tactics, tyrannical rulers tend to use propaganda to deceive their citizens into accepting oppressive laws first. Tyranny is then visited on citizens who have already lost their individual and collective identities, and so are extremely vulnerable to the government messages that target them. Even though such citizens may suspect that they are being misused by their own government, it is harder for them to stage a rebellion because they are ambivalent about resisting the government.

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