February 12, 2018
David Livingstone Smith, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, wrote a piece titled “Why we love tyrants” that was recently published as the feature essay on Aeon, an online magazine of ideas and culture.
In the essay, Smith revisits the work of influential thinkers, including Plato, Sigmund Freud, Roger Money-Kyrle, and Melanie Klein, to understand how tyrannical, authoritarian leaders successfully rise to power.
Smith posits that psychoanalysis may reveal a systematic way in which tyrants, like Hitler, assume and maintain control over the masses: they prey upon a universal, human sense of helplessness to first depress their audience, making them feel a sense of loss; they then identify a scape-goat group of outsiders as being responsible for this loss; they offer a cure to the helplessness; and finally they appeal to their audience’s longing for unity, which involves “the subordination of personal self-interest to a greater cause.”
The result is a population mired in a group mentality that idealizes the leader as a representation of all that is good, right and moral. Like a protective deity, the tyrant offers followers a delusion of deliverance from human vulnerability in a quasi-religious manner. “Like God himself, the leader is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent,” writes Smith. “His words define the horizons of reality. He must be praised and appeased, but never challenged. His enemies are, by definition, in league with the forces of evil.”
Smith concludes that “analysis of the psychological wellsprings of the craving for authoritarian leaders is needed” if we want to avoid the paths that tyrants have led us down before. He writes, “Understanding the attraction of authoritarian illusions could help to inoculate us against it, and so avoid being led once again into the abyss.”
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