'Despotism' and 'Tyranny' Unmasking a Tenacious Confusion

Terms such as 'despotism' and 'tyranny' which proved efficacious in clarifying political debate until the beginning of the 19th century, have been eliminated from the vocabulary of political science because of a confusion that has muddled their sense. This vocabulary has thus become impoverished to the advantage of terms like 'autocracy', or yet others, especially 'dictatorship', equally vague and imprecise. This article demonstrates (through the adventures of the term 'despotism' during 23 centuries) that we have forgotten a distinction between these two 'conceptual terms' which was clear in the past, and it attempts to understand at which moment in history the confusion occurred and why. There is no question of restoring the distinction in contemporary political vocabulary. This work would simply like to encourage people to reflect on the political terminology inherited from tradition, on the correct use of concepts and of their definitions, in order to reintegrate political vocabulary and render it more useful in decrypting contemporary reality, which remains often complex and even undecipherable.

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