The Ides of March: Is Putin a tyrant?

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Senator Lindsey Graham recently called for the murder of Vladimir Putin. He invoked the history of tyrannicide when he asked in a tweet, “Is there a Brutus in Russia?” Critics were outraged.

But the logic is simple: If Putin is a tyrant, tyrannicide is a plausible response.

To call someone a tyrant implies they are evil and incapable of change. Violence often follows. In my new book Tyranny from Plato to Trump, I demonstrate how widespread the accusation of tyranny is. John Wilkes Booth shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” when he assassinated Abraham Lincoln—”thus always to tyrants!” quoting Brutus as he plunged his knife into Caesar on the Ides of March.

Most Americans view Booth as a villain who murdered the Great Emancipator. But Booth was praised as a hero in Southern states. And so it goes. Tyranny is politicized and polarizing.

The epithet is easily thrown. Senator Ted Cruz accused then-President Obama of acting tyrannically. During Trump’s second impeachment, Representative Rashida Tlaib said Trump was a tyrant. Last year, Representative Loren Boebert called Biden a tyrant.

Now Putin’s aggression in Ukraine opens a new chapter. In response to Russia’s invasion, President Biden suggested that Putin was a tyrant. Nancy Pelosi said something similar. Given this rhetoric, Senator Graham’s call for tyrannicide is not surprising.

But let’s tread carefully. We are often loose with our language. In times of crisis, critical thinking gives way to violence and emotion.  

Is Putin a tyrant?

Tyranny is defined in various ways throughout the Western tradition. One obvious point is that tyrants tend to have a god complex, wishing to rule the world like a god, as Plato put it. This is a sign of hubris, which Sophocles said “gives birth to tyranny.” Milton further explained that a tyrant “reigns only for himself and his faction.” Locke added that the tyrant’s rule is lawless, saying that “tyranny is the exercise of power to which nobody can have a right…Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.”

Building on these insights, we might say that a tyrant’s hubris leads him to pursue and possess absolute, God-like power, without concern for morality and the law.

This rules out would-be tyrants, who lack unlimited power. It also rules out benevolent despots whose power is not selfish or prideful.

So is Putin a tyrant? Well, he does seem to have unbridled power. Protestors are jailed in Russia. Dissidents are poisoned. Putin’s power is not constrained by a constitutional system like our own.

It remains unclear, however, whether Putin views himself as a benevolent despot or if he is a self-aggrandizing tyrant with a god complex. Not that benevolent despotism is much better than prideful tyranny. But there is a difference.

A benevolent despot is more of a rational agent who seeks ends that he believes are good for his nation (however misguided he might be). But a tyrant is not concerned with those goods. He is only concerned with his own ego and power. Benevolent despots can be brutal and cruel. But with them, there is a possibility of negotiation.

With tyrants, things are worse. Their pride and narcissism are out of touch with reality. They do not care about the harm they inflict upon their own people. And they surround themselves with flatterers and yes-men who reaffirm them in their hubris.

So is Putin, an arrogant narcissist, surrounded by sycophants, who keep him out of touch with reality? Some commentators suggest that something like that is the case. But others suggest he is a disciplined tactician, playing chess in the world of realpolitik. The world is desperately trying to figure this out.

Is tyrannicide justifiable?

And what then of tyrannicide? If a tyrant is an irrational narcissist, then the only way to end tyranny may be through violence. The Greeks implied that tyrants were like wild animals. Plato said a tyrant was a “man transformed into a wolf.” Wolves cannot be negotiated with. They must be killed. The Greeks saw tyrannicide as noble work. Aristotle said, “high honors are awarded to one who kills a tyrant.”

But violence is risky and unpredictable. It can provoke backlash and lead to more tyranny. After Julius Caesar was murdered, notorious tyrants followed him including Caligula and Nero. And those of us who value human rights and the rule of law should remain skeptical of extra-judicial killing. Nonviolence can be effective—and is preferred whenever possible.

History’s final judgment has yet to be written. John Wilkes Booth is a villain who thought himself a hero. And even though we tend to admire Brutus as a tyrant-killer, Dante put him in the lowest circle of Hell, alongside Judas—because in murdering Caesar he betrayed a sacred friendship.

As we approach the Ides of March, it is useful to study literature and philosophy, as well as the news. Historical and literary models cause fear and trembling. History will judge us by what we do, and don’t do, as we write to the next chapter in the history of tyranny.

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