Definitions

despotism

despotism

[des-puh-tiz-uhm]
despotism, government by an absolute ruler unchecked by effective constitutional limits to his power. In Greek usage, a despot was ruler of a household and master of its slaves. The title was applied to gods and, by derivation, to the quasi-divine rulers of the Middle East. In the Byzantine Empire, despot was a title of honor of the emperors and their relatives and of vassal princes of the tributary states and dignitaries of the Eastern Church. The Ottoman Empire perpetuated the term as applied to church officials and territorial princes. The 18th-century doctrine of the Enlightenment influenced such absolutist rulers as Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II toward a rule of beneficent intent known as benevolent despotism. However, despot is now a term of opprobrium.

See L. Krieger, ed., An Essay on the Theory of Enlightened Despotism (1975); K. A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1981); F. J. Maitland, The Theory of Despotism in Germany (1988).

Despotism is a form of government by a single authority, either an individual or tightly knit group, which rules with absolute political power. In its classical form, a despotism is a state where a single individual, the Despot, wields all the power and authority embodying the state and everyone else is a subsidiary person. This form of despotism was common in the first forms of statehood and civilization; the Pharaoh of Egypt is exemplary of the classical Despot.

The term now implies tyrannical rule. Despotism can mean absolutism (dominance through threat of punishment and violence) or dictatorship (a form of government in which the ruler is an absolute dictator, not restricted by a constitution or laws or opposition etc.)

However, in enlightened absolutism (also known as benevolent or enlightened despotism), which came to prominence in 18th century Europe, absolute monarchs used their authority to institute a number of reforms in the political systems and societies of their countries. This movement was probably largely triggered by the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment.

Even though the word has a pejorative meaning nowadays, it was once a legitimate title of office in the Byzantine Empire. Just as the word "Byzantine" is often used in a pejorative way, the word "Despot" was equally turned around for negative meaning. In fact, "Despot" was an Imperial title, first used under Manuel I Komnenos (1143–1180) who created it to his appointed heir Alexius-Béla. According to Gyula Moravcsik this title was a simple translation of Béla's Hungarian title 'úr', but other historians believe it comes from the ancient Greek, despotes (literally, 'the master'). In the Orthodox Liturgy, if celebrated in Greek, the priest is addressed by the deacon as "despot" even today.

It was typically bestowed on sons-in-law and later sons of the Emperor, and beginning in the 13th century it was bestowed to foreign princes. The Despot wore elaborate costumes similar to the Emperor's and had many privileges. Despots ruled over parts of the empire called Despotates.

The British government is cited to have reduced the American people under absolute despotism in the United States Declaration of Independence. "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

Contrast with Monarchy

According to Montesquieu, the difference between monarchy and despotism is that in monarchy a single person governs by fixed and established laws whereas a despot governs by his own will and caprice.

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