Friday, November 16, 2018

Dealing With the Tyrant

The lingering question I have had since being introduced to and reading Althusius’ work is…what happens at the top?  How is one to deal with the tyrant?  We have seen in my previous post that Althusius has offered building blocks in society that are voluntary and / or offer means of secession.  His building blocks recognize man as he is – starting with the family and forming relationships based on subjective values.

But now, what about at the top?  What happens at the level of the commonwealth?  Althusius addresses this in a chapter entitled “Tyranny and Its Remedies.”  I will say up front: parts of Althusius’ construction is confusing to me in detail; however, on the important points of remedy, I believe his message is clear.

A tyrant is therefore one who, violating both word and oath, begins to shake the foundations and unloosen the bonds of the associated body of the commonwealth.  A tyrant may be either a monarch or polyarch that through avarice, pride, or perfidy cruelly overthrows and destroys the most important goods of the commonwealth, such as its peace, virtue, order, law, and nobility…

The tyrant is one who overthrows the fundamental laws of the realm, or acts in a manner contrary to piety and justice; he plunders in the same manner as a conquering enemy.  Althusius goes on to discuss various levels and types of tyranny, and remedies short of what could be considered an ultimate remedy. 

My focus will be on the ultimate remedy / remedies, as it is here where the last and most important building block of Althusius’ theory will be weighed by those who look for a decentralized and voluntary society.

…we are now to look for the remedy by which [the tyrant] may be opportunely removed.

It is left to the ephors – let’s call them senior figures who have responsibility to support the supreme magistrate in properly fulfilling his duty and correcting and resisting him – or removing him – if the tyrant does not return to proper governance.  If they cannot correct the tyrant, “they depose him and cast him out of their midst.”

These ephors can work collectively or individually to resist the tyrant “to the best of their ability.”  However, “resisting” should not be assumed the same as “removing.”

Subjects and citizens who love their country and resist a tyrant, and want the commonwealth and its rights to be safe and sound, should join themselves to a resisting ephor or optimate.

Those who refuse to assist in this resistance are also to be considered enemies.  Again, resistance is one thing; removal is a different issue: this can be done only by the ephors as a whole, not by one or some subset of ephors.  All is not lost, however, for the subset of ephors who find the magistrate a tyrant:

However, it shall be permitted one part of the realm, or individual ephors or estates of the realm, to withdraw from subjection to the tyranny of their magistrate and to defend themselves.

So, it is in theory possible to secede from the realm of the tyrannical magistrate – and it should be recalled from my prior post that it is possible for the lower levels to secede from a province.  In other words, secession or withdrawal is, in theory, possible at all levels of society under Althusius’ concept.  Althusius states this plainly:

Thus also subjects can withdraw their support from a magistrate who does not defend them when he should, and can justly have recourse to another prince and submit themselves to him.  Or if a magistrate refuses to administer justice, they can resist him and refuse to pay taxes.

Private persons do not have the rights of the ephors; they cannot resist directly.  They can, however, submit themselves to another prince.  Private persons can also resort to defense if they find themselves forced to be servants of tyranny or forced to do something contrary to God.

Althusius recognizes that those so choosing to secede – whether via the public ephors or whether as a private person – must “defend themselves.”  Tyrants do not, after all, easily let others leave freely. 

Althusius also raises the possibility of tyrannicide:

In one instance only can he justly be killed, namely, when his tyranny has been publicly acknowledged and is incurable...


Althusius has done a commendable job of recreating the governance model of the European Middle Ages within the reality that the universal Church no longer existed as an institution of authority.  I can only return to my thought that this missing piece is the critical piece, as without such a universal authority – one that had the respect of the kings and nobles – there was no institution powerful enough to keep the tyrannical ruler in check.  Excommunication mattered.

The closest we can get today?  Christian leaders that start speaking as if they believe the Bible and Christ’s message.  Those who do will lose many, but from what’s left perhaps an ethic can be restored.

I discovered Althusius thanks to Gerard Casey.  I will conclude this examination with Casey’s assessment of Althusius’ political philosophy:

Had the Althusian and not the Bodinian conception of the locus of sovereignty prevailed, the course of political history might well have been very different.


  1. Great one to end on. I definitely enjoyed your in depth look at Althusius' political philosophy. Bravo. Have a great weekend!

    1. Thank you, ATL. I have a couple of other books on Althusius; if I find anything unique and worth discussion, I will write something more.

  2. I think a return to the days when the church held sufficient power to counter tyrants is extremely unlikely in any of our lifetimes. And honestly, most of the churches I've visited are more likely to back the tyrant than the people.

    I am still optimistic that technology will ultimately provide individuals with that kind of power. Social media, for example, is not all bad, even with the censorship.

    I started writing more about technology but realized how far off topic I was, and deleted it. I don't see a lot of libertarian discussion on it, though, mostly just complaints about how government is using it to enslave us. I have the opposite opinion. As the saying goes, "God created men and Sam Colt made them equal".

    1. I generally agree with your first sentence. It would be tremendous just to witness a few more churches speak the truth about the government.

      As to technology, for the most part there are two sides to this, as you note. That the technology allows the remnant to find that there are many of us is perhaps a good enough prize.

      But some technology is unequivocally bad - and most of this is in technology available only to states and most of this is related to war.

    2. I am mostly done with churches. I support some of their community activities, but shy away from services. I can easily see myself losing control and heckling the minister - like a feminist at a Jordan Peterson lecture. It wouldn't be pretty.

      If by unequivocally bad technology you mean machines of war, they are less useful today than they once were. You have to know where your enemies hide to use them, assuming you aren't just interested in killing civilians - e.g. Saudis/US in Yemen.

      In other areas government/police/military routinely falls behind these days. Parallel processing, for example, was driven mostly by the video game market despite the vast sums spent/wasted by governments to produce similar results. Now that technology is cheap and available to everyone, and it's being used in a big way to undermine fiat currencies.

    3. "...assuming you aren't just interested in killing civilians - e.g. Saudis/US in Yemen."

      Which describes perfectly the most consistent, constant, and "successful" outcome of the wars of the last 200 years or so.

  3. Jeff, I like your quote. I will add something. It takes a Jack Hays to actually make them equal. The Texas Rangers ended up saving Colt's gun company and it was Hays and his suggestions that improved upon the original design.

    I also agree, there isn't going to be one unified Church that will check state power. The fact is that was only relevant for a short time in history. The Church helped in politics but 2 things happened. One, the Church continued to rot theologically. It treated people as poorly as state actors. Two, kings stopped caring what popes said. There was a French king not sure who it was sometime in the 1300s decided the pope couldn't stop him and excommunication didn't matter.

    Any resistance the Church will provide against the state will have to be decentralized and organic. It will have to be a true Spiritual movmement.

    Thanks bionic for discovering Althusius and sharing your learnings with us. I think his views provide a pragmatic path to checking state power. But like I said at the beginning, it is going to take some men like Jack Hays to actually do it.

    1. "It will have to be a true Spiritual movement."

      Spiritual movement in the US doesn't sound all that great, to be honest. Too much Calvinism still around.


    2. I for one would love the irony of a grass roots Spiritual movement of Calvinists.

      Plus Calvin's soteriology was pretty good.

    3. Would love it too. I'd bring beer and popcorn and enjoy the spectacle from afar. Whenever the Bible (over and above the apostolic Church) was taken as Christianity's sole foundation, the potential to fragment Christianity into an infinite number of sects and subsects was almost instantly realized (the Reformation reforming nothing but changing everything). So right away, there goes any kind of hope for a unified movement, unless one redefines the term to include the "movement" seen in a fragmentation bomb ;)

      But since this apparently concerns the US, and I don't really care how things pan out, provided the end result is a most welcome disintegration of that ghastly Union, I'd very much like the spectacle of say, a Sharia-style Calvinist agitator like Gary North joining hands with Tom Woods (let's be ecumenical here) in a grand Spiritual movement.


  4. I am not really sure what to do with this. My first thought after reading is: "this sounds reasonable".

    Then again, its just theoretical. A framework. But for what? The praxis is something else. Organising against a tyrant? (in this day and age?) good luck...

    So about the only thing left is to take this as a moral justification. Which is nice, but honestly, do we need it as such? Will not everyone reject a tyrant instinctively?

    So I am back to my "not really sure what to do with this".

    Btw: When is a democracy a tyranny?
    Can only a ruler be a tyrant?

    1. "When is a democracy a tyranny?"

      This is one of the problems with any discussion of tyrannicide today (which is why I think any discussion of it is nonsense); there is no one to shoot.

    2. Hi Rien,

      Tyrants in the strict political sense are sooo last century ;) A political tyrant can usurp the state, but these days economic tyrants can do that as well. Take Russia for instance, and the post soviet gang of ((oligarchs)) who ran the show (no problems with the US back then). Putin kicked them out, no shooting, only booting.

      It seems that Russia has slowly recovered as a nation. At the very least it still manages to keep out the SJW/LGBT/multiculturalism onslaught that comes with Americanization. Of course, after the ousting of the oligarch gangsters, Russia has been rewarded by a sudden US driven reboot of the Cold War with Putin portrayed as the new "Hitler".

      As far as shooting goes, I'd say that the billionaire specialized in colour "revolutions" and the controlled demolition of whole nations, would serve as decent target practise with a high symbolic value.


  5. Rien: "Will not everyone reject a tyrant instinctively?"

    I wish that were true, but in my lifetime at least the love of one's tyrant has seemed a nearly universal human trait. It shadows every conversation and defeats all appeals to reason.

    1. That opens the question: who defines who is a tyrant?

    2. The oppressed.


      Oh, @Rien

  6. I've appreciated this look at Atlhusius's thoughts on polity, thank you.

    I'm reminded of Nock's reference to the remnant in reading your final article on Althusius and his ideas.

    The recurring theme of which in the Bible, and elsewhere, requires the collapse of the previous "order" in order to make way for the remnant to have it's impact on society and polity.

    1. The inevitability, since something has to replace the Triune God the Bible reveals, is that people will turn to this contradictory, irrational chimera of Democracy to provide definition of crime and punishment. Someone has to do it, and obviously the individual is not an adequate authority (Why this man and not some other?). Neither private person nor dictator will do. In ethical matters, neither minority nor majority will do either (Why this group and not that one?). Whether before or after a "collapse" the ratio of those who subject themselves under the Emperor, Jesus the Messiah, and His revealed definitions of crime and punishment -- to the rebellious population -- will be definitive on whether the culture rights itself to the freedom and prosperity normative to spiritual faithfulness to His ability to bless and curse.

  7. 1) There will always be tyrants/psychopaths who sing a hypnotic song, swaying masses of people.
    2) There will always be resistance to tyrants/psychopaths, usually coming from those of a higher order spiritual nature.
    3) Occurring now, we have unprecedented insight into the operation and vulnerabilities of the human mind, coupled with astounding amplification of the ability to exploit those weaknesses, due to the boost of technology.
    4) Technology also offers unprecedented ability to incapacitate numerous human beings quickly and easily, while destroying incredible amounts of infrastructure in one blow.
    5) As well, technology provides unprecedented ability to psychologically distract (bread and circuses), morally confuse (situational and whimsical ethics, etc) and physically break down (non-nutritive food and multiple levels of nervous system disruption) the population.
    6) Thus, the scales are wildly tilted in favor of the psychopaths, their sycophants and their legions of armed and blindered human drones.
    The questions remain, "How can a spiritual renaissance emerge from within this morass? What might it look like? Upon what premise(s) would it rely?"
    Goin' back to "that old time religion" just doesn't seem likely. A step backwards will not gain serious traction, IMO. Even if it did, there's a good chance that the revivalist leaders themselves would be closet tyrants.

    1. I will settle for a few sermons against killing brown people by the hundreds of thousands. This would be a good start toward liberty.

      I don't see how this will happen, but eventually it will happen. God will not forever be mocked on Sundays in His house.

  8. What a superficial understanding of "tyranny" Althusius has. Allow me to pose a question by Machiavelli, whose central value was "liberty" from oppression and coerced tributes (money or goods) by foreign invaders: would it be better to maintain a nation's liberty by allowing a strong man tyrant who can fight and resist occupation by foreign invaders? In other words, is a patriotic "tyrant" a lesser evil than a foreign occupier?

    In the case of the Renaissance city-state of Florence, whose people wanted its leaders to do the killing, coercing, lying, deceiving and betraying so they could remain "innocent", uncorrupted and untainted by evil wars, and wanted mercenaries to fight their wars for them, if they didn't legitimatize the rule of Cesare Borgia of the Medici family, they would face takeover by the French or Pope Leo and his army? Preceding Borgia, was the people's democratic Catholic government led by the monk Savaronola, who Machiavelli called an "unarmed prophet" who could not protect the people even though he allowed Plebians, and not Tyrants, to rule.

    (Was Machiavelli a teacher of evil? No. He never wrote the ends justify the means but that "SOME ends justify the means" - such as fighting wars to protect liberty, reforming corruption, quelling insurrections, halting invasion by migration, etc. In all other things, Machiavelli said conventional morality (Christianity) should prevail. But in an emergency, and only in an emergency, it was permissible to do evil to protect the people's liberties).

    Note: Machiavelli was an apparent heretical Christian who believed a city-state could only be saved from itself by a leader willing to sacrifice themself for the good of the people (in a Christ-like image of the crucifixtion) and by people willing to not deny that they gave their leaders powers to do evil on occasion for their good, but otherwise should embrace conventional morality. Machiavelli advocated leaders making penitence after committing such necessary evils. To Machiavelli, the most important leaders were religious leaders who helped found a nation, founders of republics, those who lead armies and cultural leaders such as artists, musicians, etc.

    One can disagree with Machiavelli, but his thoughts about tyrants are more thought out and nuanced than Althusius'.

  9. Highly recommend Pastor Matt Trewhella's work on "Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate" and the first-ever translation he helped with of the "Magdeburg Confession".