The word ‘tyranny’ is usually accompanied by negative reactions. When we hear it, thoughts arise of countries where the citizens live in poverty and fear, and sometimes a picture of a “Robin Hood” scenario, with a nasty King John who squeezes everything he can out of his subjects, comes to mind. However, Plato (yes, the Greek philosopher), in his “Republic”, shows a new image of a tyrant, and it’s much different and much less confined than it is usually thought to be.

Most people will never rule a country. Phew. That puts most of us out of the reach of being a tyrant, then. One less thing to worry about—right? 

Plato says that’s wrong. 

According to him, there is justice and injustice in every person. Whether a person is a tyrant or a just ruler over himself depends on which aspect of him is allowed to reign. When injustice is allowed to rule a person’s thoughts and actions, the world has a new tyrant—whether that person rules a country or not. The definition of a tyrant is not a ‘special’ trap that only rulers can fall into; it is a dark pit accessible to anyone. Anyone could become a tyrant if they relax and let their guard down against injustice.

A ‘tyrant’ in what aspect? Obviously, being a personal tyrant is different from a tyrant who rules a country. Injustice/tyranny includes stealing from, harming, and unfairly cheating others. But again, tyranny is not limited to this. What about gossiping, being rude to others, or lying? Even something that seems as small as saying an unkind word to a family member makes us a personal tyrant.

Not knowing this, the limiting view that we don’t have to worry about being a tyrant could have unwelcome consequences. To assume we are beyond the capability of doing something wrong leads us to unwittingly do it. The question that should be on our lips before we decide to act in a certain way is this: “Is this action injustice, what would make me a tyrant?” And then choose accordingly.

To top it off, Plato says that a just person, who is ruler over himself, is the happiest person, while an unjust person, who is not ruler over himself, is the unhappiest person. A ‘tyrant’ in this manner never tastes of true freedom or friendship. He cannot be truly happy because injustice never brings happiness. A person who cannot rule himself is the real slave.

It may be uncomfortable, the thought that even ordinary citizens can be tyrants. But if we ignore the truth, what happens? How often do we blame others for the things that we should take responsibility for ourselves? How many times is it “the politician’s fault” for something we don’t like? How often is someone else the tyrant, while we are “blameless”? It’s easy to blame. No one wants to take responsibility for themselves, as ironic as that might sound. We unknowingly are letting others control our lives. “It’s their fault this happened. I can’t do anything about it.” So who is the real tyrant? Is it the person we blame? Or is it us, the people who are blaming? Are we actually the tyrants we like to make others appear to be? Discovering it for yourself is the first step out of the downward spiral. Take a step out of the bandwagon and see what the world is really like. It’s life-changing if you’ll let it be.