The Apostle and the Wild Ducks/A Theory of Tyrants

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The Apostle and the Wild Ducks by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Part III. The Making of History, A Theory of Tyrants

A Theory of Tyrants[edit]

I have come to be convinced of late of a certain theory of the nature of tyranny. It may be right or wrong, but I think it is at least worthy of thought in connection with a highly interesting matter. Broadly speaking, the common theory of tyranny has been this: That men have groaned under some system for centuries, and have at last rebelled against it. But I think that men have actually done quite otherwise; they have rebelled against the system against which they have not groaned. But the matter is so mixed and also so acute that I may be permitted to state it in a more explanatory manner.

Let us take, for the sake of argument, the two risings against tyranny most commonly considered in current literature-- the English rebellion of the early seventeenth century and the French Revolution. According to the common theory, Charles I should have been the heir of at least twenty intolerable despots. The truth is that he was the heir of one tolerable despot (who had not quite effected despotism), and beyond that everything was different. Queen Elizabeth was not tolerable, and she was not tolerated. In so far as she was endured she was adored. Cavaliers and Puritans alike looked back to her reign (most mistakenly, doubtless, but most certainly) as a midsummer of popular monarchy.

In short the English Puritans did not rebel against an old system; whatever else it was it was not old. Even if Charles I had been a much worse king than he was there would not have been enough time for him to have created a complete and cruel tradition against the tradition of Elizabeth. A few years before Charles' head was cut off, most Englishmen would have died to keep Elizabeth's on. If you turn to the case of the French Monarchy before the French Revolution you will find exactly the same thing. A very short time before the Revolution the French Monarchy was the generally accepted French symbol. The King before Louis the Guillotined was Louis the Well Beloved. The Monarchy (in France as in England) became the most unpopular thing very soon after it had been the most popular thing. There was no weakness, there was no long decline: the defeat of the thing followed swiftly on its first victory. Charles I was not the last of the English despots. He was one of the first of the English despots-- only there happened to have been no more of them. Encouraged by the arrogance and popularity of Elizabeth, who had stood for patriotism and Protestantism and the defiance of Spain, Charles tried to work with Elizabethan England and found that Elizabethan England was not there. It was not too old to last, it was too new to last. Louis XVI was not the last of a line of unpopular kings. On the contrary, he was the first of a line of popular kings to be unpopular.

I can only explain all this by my private theory of tyrants; which is this. Men do not rebel against the old; rather they rebel against the new. They turn upon something when they find that it has them in a trap. They do not revolt against something that has been unpopular. They revolt (and very rightly) against something that has been popular. They hated Charles I because they had loved Elizabeth. They killed Louis XVI because they had been killed for Louis XIV. In fact, this is probably what is meant by that seemingly meaningless phrase, the fickleness of the mob. It probably means that the mob is quicker than other people in discovering that man has walked into a man-trap. England went mad with joy for the English Monarchy, because the Armada had not conquered England. And then England suddenly went mad with rage because it discovered that (during that exciting interlude) the English Monarchy had conquered England. We had escaped the snare of Philip; we walked into the snare of Elizabeth; we broke out of the snare of Charles I.

This is the essential mark of tyranny: that it is always new. Tyranny always enters by the unguarded gate. The tyrant is always shy and unobtrusive. The tyrant is always a traitor. He has always come there on the pretence that he was protecting something which people really wanted protected--religion, or public justice, or patriotic glory. Men staring at the Armada; did not watch the King; so they strengthened the King. Later when they watched the King they unconsciously strengthened the aristocracy. Again, when they attacked the aristocracy, they did not watch the big merchants who were attacking it-- and who wanted watching. All tyrannies are new tyrannies. There are no such things really as old tyrannies; there are hardly any such things as old superstitions.

There is one moral to these evident facts of history. When you look for tyrants, do not look for them among the obvious types that have oppressed men in the past--the king, the priest, or the soldier. If you do, you are merely looking at the Spanish Armada while England is being turned into a despotism behind your back. Monarchy was once a popular organ; yet it was turned against the people. Remember that newspapers are popular organs that may be turned against the people. Whatever the new tyrant is, he will not wear the exact uniform of the old tyrant.