If the Libyans really do want to move from forty-two years of tyranny to a western-style ‘democracy’, i.e. an elective oligarchy, they will need a friendly tyrant to help them make the transition. In his Politics, Aristotle offers some top tips on the subject.
Aristotle distinguished two sorts of turannos: one who, knowing that the people hated him, rendered them incapable of moving against him (Gaddafi), and the other who manoeuvred to make the people unwilling to move against him. The former protected his rule by three main strategies: (i) stamping out anyone with any independence of mind or spirit, (ii) ensuring no one had any trust or confidence in anyone else, and (iii) depriving his subjects of the chance of building up a power base. So he kept the people leaderless, obsequious, uneducated, disassociated, poor, working and under a constant watchful eye
The alternative tyrant, Aristotle went on, wished no less to maintain his power over those who did and did not want to be ruled by him – ‘his permanent, fundamental principle’ – but did so by different means: (i) he appeared more like a responsible manager of a household than a tyrant, (ii) he led a life of moderation, as a trustee of public resources, and (iii) he embraced men of drive and ability so that they did not feel they could do better under a different regime. By the same token, he took care that his subjects did not feel ill-used by him, because such people did not spare themselves. Here Aristotle quotes the fifth century BC philosopher Heraclitus: ‘Anger is a difficult enemy: he buys with his life’. Finally, (iv) he did all in his power to keep both rich and poor onside and reconciled to him and to each other. In this way, Aristotle concluded, the alternative tyrant ensured that he ruled over ‘better men, because they are not reduced to impotent submission’, and therefore had a chance of staying in power for longer.
Aristotle strongly disapproved of tyrants. But if one was necessary, he thought it an improvement that he should be ‘not wicked, but only half-wicked’.