The hold that the worst of tyrants may have over his victim people is ever a fascination. Looking from afar at the rulers of Venezuela or Zimbabwe or Turkey or South Africa, a Briton, lapped in the benevolence, even if benevolent incompetence, that is the wont of government to us, we may be outraged that a tyrant may not only rule, but that so many of the people love them. We know that Robert Mugabe never won an honest election in his life but elections there were, and millions voted for him and his party.
Presentation is all, for the greater part of the people will believe outward beauty is goodness and ugliness is evil, as Hobbes observes:
The Latine Tongue has two words, whose significations approach to those of Good and Evill; but are not precisely the same; And those are Pulchrum and Turpe. Whereof the former signifies that, which by some apparent signes promiseth Good; and the later, that, which promiseth evill.
But in our Tongue we have not so generall names to expresse them by. But for Pulchrum, we say in some things, Fayre; in other Beautifull, or Handsome, or Gallant, or Honourable, or Comely, or Amiable; and for Turpe, Foule, Deformed, Ugly, Base, Nauseous, and the like, as the subject shall require; All which words, in their proper places signifie nothing els, but the Mine, or Countenance, that promiseth Good and evill.
So that of Good there be three kinds; Good in the Promise, that is Pulchrum; Good in Effect, as the end desired, which is called Jucundum, Delightfull; and Good as the Means, which is called Utile, Profitable; and as many of evill: For evill, in Promise, is that they call Turpe; evill in Effect, and End, is Molestum, Unpleasant, Troublesome; and evill in the Means, Inutile, Unprofitable, Hurtfull.
In this frame of mind, the failings of a ruler seen as strong and better still if he is a handsome man, will mask any number of actual failings – until the police arrive at your own door.
In 1 Samuel 16, the seer is rebuked: “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” All that said, five verses later the chosen king, David, is described “Now he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to.” Perhaps his healthy, outdoorsman appearance reflected his healthy outlook. In any case the people of Israel were more likely to follow a king who would inspire by his very appearance.
Poverty, induced famine, violent repression, the end of everyday liberties, all are simple to blame upon others. People are not stupid in general, but prefer to believe comfortable, neat fictions rather than hard, complicated truths, and those who do not understand the actual causes that drive away prosperity, cannot place the blame other than where the tyrant’s words place it.
Ignorance of naturall causes disposeth a man to Credulity, so as to believe many times impossibilities: for such know nothing to the contrary, but that they may be true; being unable to detect the Impossibility. And Credulity, because men love to be hearkened unto in company, disposeth them to lying: so that Ignorance it selfe without Malice, is able to make a man bothe to believe lyes, and tell them; and sometimes also to invent them.
We have now a multitude of sources which can inform, but only if we listen and if they are in the right language, and only if they are controlled by those with a care for freedom and prosperity, which is rare these days. Liberty has been a watchword for centuries in the English-speaking world but not all nations will have the same understanding. If their rulers cry out ‘Liberty’ it is liberty for themselves, like the word ‘Libertas’ carved on the turrets of Lucca and on the shackles that held the city’s galley-slaves. Reason then is not to be relied upon to moderate or to throw down tyrants. It is enough that they should smile, and smile, and be a villain, if they portray an outward appearance to win hearts, and wily enough to shed blame elsewhere.
- Hobbes and Liberty
- Mill on truth in its fragility
- Family, faith, flag, freedom
- Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
- The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, Parts I & II by Thomas Hobbes
- Behemoth: The History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England, and the Councils and Artifices by Which They Were Carried on from the Year 1640 to the Year 1660 by Thomas Hobbes
- Thomas Hobbes – Behemoth (Clarendon edition)
- By others:
- Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Thomas Hobbes by Timothy Raylor
- Thomas Hobbes: Political Ideas in Historical Context by J P Sommerville
- By John Stuart Mill:
- By Edmund Burke: