The Tyranny of the Many is (Perhaps) as Bad as the Tyranny of One

The Tyranny of the Many is (Perhaps) as Bad as the Tyranny of One

When we think of tyrants or dictators, I think many of us conjure up either Orwellian or, rather, Stalinist-type regimes; but as these are steadily disappearing from the world, we must watch for the other type of tyranny: the many-eyed beast that is growing in our backyard, feeding on our placidity within a comfortable existence. We should be turning toward its glare, listening for its approach, which is, given our current situation, an ever-growing concern.


When describing the growing dangers of public scrutiny, John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty that “in political speculations ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.” Mill described it as follows:

“The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power.”

A society that forces its citizens to be shaped into the mould of whatever prevailing opinion thinks true or good, by virtue only and through the use of majority viewpoints, is as dangerous as any oppressive regime. Just because the weapon is prevailing opinion doesn’t mean it is any less oppressive of those who happen to dissent.  Instead of a powerful individual throttling the freedom of the many, it is now the many who, by virtue of number, become powerful enough to throttle the freedom of the individual.

The reason we ought to be on our guard, then, rests in the incredible power tyranny fueled by prevailing opinion has. It rivals any of the great tyrants and tyrannies of history and today: it’s a tyranny that has built into it a watchdog alertness to individual activities, requiring no cameras or bugged houses, only paternalistic quidnuncs with idle hands, assertive self-righteousness and morally sensitive personalities; it’s a communication device with a thousand tongues, willingly able to turn into a vengeful arm of enforcement through coercion and ostracism; it sustains itself in, for example, media outlets that are twisted to take its form, as these are businesses who do not want to lose their clients and so will feed what most of them, being the majority, want to hear and see.  (This is similar to Nicholas Carr’s idea of the “crazy quilt of Internet media” which shapes everything around it, including media outlets.)

Why this should be particularly of concern is that the tyranny of majority can really only arise in places which are supposed to be as far removed from typical tyranny as possible.

Cold Irony

Mill put it, as usually, very beautifully and succinctly.

 “Reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.” (Emphasis added.)

By “soul”, the atheist Mill was not referring to anything other than one’s entire life and existence. Mill points out here that acting on laws or mandates are not required by the tyranny of majority. And it is for this reason that it might be, in some cases, worse than a bad law. Law, after all, is not required to influence what does and does not arise in societies; mandates fueled by prevailing opinion, enforced by the tyranny of majority, is perhaps equally effective.

Unlike laws, there is almost nothing to attack under the tyranny of majority. We can fight bad laws – like the criminalisation of marijuana use - or promote good ones – like legalising prostitution – but you can’t change prevailing opinion on the rightness or wrongness of drugs and sex workers for most people. Law doesn’t equal morality. For example, though abortion is legal in the US, this does not reflect what some polls found of Americans’ opinions.

It is therefore inescapable. Prevailing opinion can’t be tangibly fought, it can only be consistently opposed where it is wrong. Testing prevailing opinion is part of the nature of this blog, after all. Remember: it is not that prevailing opinion is automatically wrong; it is that prevailing opinion can never be justified as right or true just because it’s the prevailing opinion. This would be an appeal to majority fallacy: it is right because so many say so.

People have sacrificed and do sacrifice much to prevailing opinion to stay employed, to maintain friendships and family, to seem part of a society. What people believe therefore becomes enveloped within the tyranny: they are shut up either through coercion or self-inflicted censorship (think of writers who refuse to criticise religion because it will hurt people’s feelings); they become conformed because they can’t escape their family, their job, their current life despite realising they no longer think the values or ideas true. And, too often, we read of ideas being silenced for the sake of peace or stability. But the contours of diplomacy are, when we step back, nothing but the curves on a body of lies. It is not unfathomable that prevailing opinion can be held not because the majority think it true but because they think all others, who might also disagree, will ostracise them. We could land up with a society who all disbelieve in the prevailing opinion on a subject, but maintain it for fear of a punishment that will never arise.

Thus, the best weapon the tyranny of majority uses is the silence of dissenters, the quiet succumbing of new victims swept into its clutches. (One is reminded of the most famously misattributed quotations in history, not said by Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”)

This means one of the only ways we can combat this tyranny is to use our voices, constantly, loudly, and where it matters. If I didn’t think this effective, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

Image Credit: jaddingt/Shutterstock

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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