Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

What is the difference between Tyranny and Despotism?


During the early 19th century many political systems could be well explained by such terms like ‘despotism’ and ‘tyranny’. But with passage of time other terms such as dictatorship, totalitarianism, etc. started to be used more frequently to explain political systems, and the terms despotism and tyranny were pushed in to the back-seat. One reason of being so is that no clear demarcation between the two could be maintained.


The term despotism refers to a system of governance where a single entity rules with absolute power at its disposal. This single entity may be an individual like autocracy or a group of people as oligarchy. Despot, originally Greek word means a person with absolute power. The term has been used to describe different kinds of rulers in history, from local chieftain, tribal leader to king or emperor. In despotism, despot has all the powers to rule over others who are considered inferior or subsidiary. Despotism is best described by early statehood, like Pharaohs of Egypt.


According Plato and Aristotle tyranny refers to a system where the tyrant ruled without any law to fulfil his own interest without any concern for the subjects and used unethical and cruel tactics to torture the subjects and used foreign mercenaries as soldiers. In ancient Greece tyrants came to power supported by peasants and growing middle class. Although they had no legal right to rule but they were preferred to aristocracy.

Differences between tyranny and despotism

Political thinkers and writers have marked tyranny as the worst form of government-corruption. Tyrants and despots are seldom praised and always been looked at with hate and fear. A ruler with unlimited despotic power may turn tyrant. But it is not necessary that tyrant and despot mean the same. A despotic ruler can be benevolent, if he rules with fiat but for the benefit of the subjects. But a tyrant can never be benevolent because the tyrant always wants to fulfil his own interest. A despot ruler treats the adult subjects as his children, as if they need to be ruled by the ruler. Now if the despot rules for the subjects’ wellbeing, then he is a

‘benevolent’ despot where as if he treats them as his slaves and use them for his own benefit, then he turns in to a tyrant. Despot in Greek means head of the family who rules over the children of a family, or a group of slaves. But tyrant, also originally a Greek word signifies a head of the state or government. If the condition of the subjects of a tyrant and that of a despot is same then the line of distinction between the two is muddled.

In the view of both Plato and Aristotle, a monarchy would be treated as royal when the ruler or the king rules for the welfare of the subjects, and it would be treated as tyranny when the king uses the subjects for his personal welfare. Aristotle in his discussion on tyranny by few and many argued that in monarchy, a king can become tyrant, similarly in an oligarchy, the wealthy, and in law-less democracy, the poor can become despotic.

History has shown that a ruler with absolute power at disposal can be a benevolent despot and a tyrant at the same time since some of his actions are oppressive to the subjects, where as some actions may be considered by the subjects as conducive to their wellbeing, but in both the cases the ruler is supposed to apply his own rule without any legislative support.

Thus it can be seen that the term tyranny is quiet difficult to be precisely defined. Some authors have used it as synonymous with despotism, some have made distinction between the two again some have used the term only in reference to monarchy, while some have associated it with other forms of governments.


Though the terms tyranny and despotism have frequently been used interchangeably, both actually differ in meaning. Both tyrant and despot rule the subjects according to own fiat, but despotism can be benevolent but tyranny can never be benevolent. If the conditions of the subjects of a tyrant are similar to the conditions of slaves under a despot then the line of demarcation between the two is blurred.

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  1. Beautifully explained

  2. I think you mean “quite” rather than “quiet” in the last paragraph before the summary.

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