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The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy

Tyranny: Ancient and Modern

Friday, May 14 and Saturday, May 15
Swift Lecture Hall Swift Hall (1025 E. 58th St.), the University of Chicago

The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy
The University of Chicago

Conference Schedule


The problem of tyranny is at once a classic problem of political philosophy and a pressing issue of contemporary foreign policy. The recent war in Iraq, and the sharp debates it set off around the world, offered yet another reminder of just how confused our thinking about the nature of good and bad regimes, sovereignty, legitimacy, human rights, and the use of force has become since the end of the Cold War. As Mark Lilla has suggested in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, this confusion may have roots in the nineteenth-century, when classic notions of tyranny and despotism were abandoned in the face of new developments in world politics and political thought. However that may be, it is certainly the case that developments in the twentieth-century -- communism, fascism, decolonization, fundamentalism -- convinced many that the concept of tyranny was no longer useful for understanding global political phenomena.

We wish to reopen this question by approaching the concept of tyranny from two angles: that of the history of ideas, and that of contemporary politics. The first day of the conference will be devoted to examining the history of the concept of tyranny (and related ideas), from the Greeks down through the nineteenth-century, and then in the twentieth-century, when it was replaced by terms like "totalitarianism." Among the questions we will be asking is whether dramatic changes in political experience have rendered the original idea of tyranny fruitless, or whether, on the contrary, it remains essential for distinguishing types of political regimes.

The second day will be devoted to contemporary issues, beginning with a roundtable on tyranny and human rights, which we hope will generate a discussion of the relative usefulness of the two ideas for understanding and responding to oppression and injustice in the world. We will then conclude with a more wide-ranging discussion of tyranny and foreign policy, focusing on whether sensible policy needs to distinguish tyrannies from other sorts of regimes in order to set and achieve its aims.

All sessions will be held in the third-floor lecture hall of Swift Hall (1025 E. 58th St.) on the campus of the University of Chicago. Questions about this event may be directed to Stephen Gregory (773-702-3423, Stephen-gregory@uchicago.edu).

Conference Schedule


University of Chicago
Swift Hall
May 14-15, 2004

Friday, May 14


9:30 A.M. - 12:30 P.M. Ancients and Moderns
Chair: Ran Halévi, C.N.R.S., Centre de Recherches Politiques Raymond Aron

Tyranny From Plato to Locke
Nathan Tarcov, University of Chicago
Response: Josh Ober, Princeton University

A Family of Political Concepts: Tyranny, Despotism, Bonapartism, Caesarism. Dictatorship, 1750-1917
Melvin Richter, Hunter College, CUNY
Response: Mark Lilla, University of Chicago

2:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m. The Twentieth-Century Challenge
Chair: Jeffrey Herf, University of Maryland

"To Proclaim the Strength of Collective Man": Totalitarian Aspirations and Practice in Europe
Charles Maier, Harvard University
Response: Jan Gross, Princeton University

Postcolonial African and Middle Eastern Tyrannies: Combining the Worst of the Classical and Modern Traditions
Daniel Chirot, University of Washington
Response: Marina Ottaway, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace



Saturday, May 15


9:30 A.M. - 12:30 P.M. Tyranny and Human Rights
A Roundtable Discussion
Chair: Jean Elshtain, University of Chicago

Aryeh Neier, Open Society Institute
Marc Plattner, editor, Journal of Democracy
Samantha Power, author of "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide

2:00 P.M. - 5:30 P.M. Tyranny and Foreign Policy
A Roundtable Discussion
Chair: Nathan Tarcov, University of Chicago

Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism
Pierre Hassner, Centre d'Études et de recherches internationales
John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago

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©2003 The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, University of Chicago
Revised: October 10, 2003