What Makes a Ruler a Tyrant, According to Juan de Mariana

"A tyrant enjoys power not on his merits but by force," explained Juan de Mariana. His notes and observations are still painfully valid.

A tyrant takes over everything without respect for the law,” said Juan de Mariana (Photo: Flickr).


This column will be remotely similar to the incomplete review of a book that has not been written )because I am writing it). Although I find myself far from concluding, I wanted to share a couple of things that might be surprising, and I hope interesting, about the astonishing timeliness for our time and circumstance of the voice of a seventeenth-century Spanish theologian whom we now more often call “economist” than “theologian.” The moral problems that he studied in the light of theology led him along the path that, for us, turns out to be -as long as we know the historical context and terminology that prevailed then- the path of the theory of contemporary economic science and political philosophy.

I once quoted Mariana on human rights at a conference. In a round of questions, an enlightened idiot took the floor and asked nothing, but merely stated that there were no “human rights” in the seventeenth century. I asked them whether or not we should translate “Iura humanitatis” (per quam homines sumus)” as “human rights” in a context such as: “Thus, the human rights that constitute us as men, and the civil society in which we enjoy so many goods and so much peace, must be attributed to the lack of many things necessary for life, to fear and to the awareness of our weakness…. And this is how a person, who in the beginning was deprived of everything, without even having weapons with which to defend himself or a home in which to protect himself, is today surrounded by goods thanks to the efforts of others in society, and has greater resources than all the other animals who originally seemed endowed with better means of conservation and defense.”

“But it’s not the human rights in the UN declaration,” the audience member insisted. I replied that I agreed. And they weren’t for the same reason as the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Of course, I was making a fool of myself. There is no point in discussing something like this with people who believe that rights are “created” by “decreeing” them because they were “taught” that this was “law” at university. It would be impossible for them to comprehend that what they consider “juridical theory” is not the only theory, but a theoretical paradigm in competition with others, whose existence and influence in law, jurisprudence, and legislation of a large part of present-day humanity decided to ignore in their own intellectual prejudice. Whoever acts whimsically to their own obvious detriment because they obtain some subjective pleasure is, by definition, an idiot. There is no greater idiocy than arguing with idiots.

Mariana is astonishingly topical in his economic theory, which is not an isolated phenomenon. There is an economic theory of subjective value, market prices, and competition as a creative process, ranging from Diego de Covarrubias to Juan de Mariana. Also, others who, like them, came to what we now call economics to answer that crucial question of classical antiquity philosophy (i.e., what is right, what in the light of Christianity reconsidered Western thought until recently).

Mariana explains the inflationary problem from a theory that is perfectly known to us. He explains inflation as we understand it today, as a phenomenon which is the product of monetary excesses with which we try to finance fiscal covert imposing a surreptitious and impoverishing “tax.” Yes, he qualifies inflation as a hidden tax (and whoever inflates the currency becomes a tyrant). However, it is in the definition of the tyrant (his ends, his vices, his ambitions, and his results) that his voice seems to speak to our times and our concerns.

“A tyrant, stained with all manner of vices, enjoys power not by his merits nor by the concession of the people, but by force. Moreover, even when he has acceded to power by the will of the people, he exercises it with violence and does not conform it to the public utility, but his pleasures, his vices. He strives to expel the best from the republic. Let what is highest in the kingdom fall. He attacks directly, or appeals to slanders and secret accusations to prevent the citizens from rising, try to ruin them by imposing new tributes every day, sowing lawsuits among citizens, and linking one war with another. He necessarily fears those who fear him, those he treats like slaves. He suppresses all his possible guarantees and defenses; he deprives them of weapons to crumble their self-confidence. He fears the tyrant, the very people who are his subjects have become his enemies and can take away power. He forbids them to speak of public business and uses spies so that they do not receive information or speak freely, which is the greatest limit that servitude can reach, and does not allow anyone to protest against the evils that affect them. He subverts the whole state and does so in such a way that all citizens feel oppressed by all sorts of evils and live a miserable life, and deprives them of their heritage to dominate alone in the destinies of all,” says Mariana.

Does it ring a bell? Of contemporary history books? Of popular press? Did you notice that those who propagandists accuse of being “the true tyrants” do not fill the portrait of the tyrant made by Mariana? Did you notice who fills it, and who does not? Because, in this regard, I would gladly quote Mariana about power flatterers. If I didn’t already arouse your curiosity about a 17th-Century economist so surprisingly modern, it would be useless. And if I woke you up, it was because it was unnecessary.

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