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The power of freedom against tyranny


By Dr Anthony Lewis, Chair of Windsor Humanists and Chair of the South Central England Humanists Network.

In this article, Anthony argues that the three freedoms of the individual, of assembly and of speech are our best defence against tyranny. Power emerges naturally whenever humans work together in groups. The resulting hierarchies are all vulnerable to capture by extreme ideologies that seek to divide and dehumanise sections of society. As a result, it is important that all of us get actively involved in civil society.

Humans are a social species and have flourished by working together in groups. Research by the Oxford University anthropologist Robin Dunbar into the fossils of early primates has demonstrated that our brains evolved to a sufficient size to enable early humans to build and maintain the necessary close relationships with up to 150 other human beings for productive collective action - the so called Dunbar number. Early humans were able to co-ordinate and plan joint efforts by communicating with each other using language - a distinctive human trait. In order to function, all groups, including these early tribal groups, needed leadership, direction, structure and co-ordination. Some form of dominance hierarchy automatically emerges when a group is formed, to enable it to operate effectively. Similar dominance hierarchies are observed in other social species, such as wolves, lions, and our close cousins the apes. This natural process was entertainingly explored by Arthur Ransome in his classic children’s novel ‘Swallows and Amazons’.

An image of the 'dark triad' of power in the style of Salvador Dali generated by AI

Power, in the sense of having the authority to make decisions and to control or influence the lives and behaviour of others in a group, arises naturally as a consequence of the formation of groups and their related hierarchies. As Seven Pinker shows in The Better Angels of our Nature, early hunter-gatherer societies were generally more violent than modern societies, some especially so. So it is likely that violence and the maxim ‘might is right’ played an important part in the exercise of power in human affairs right from the start. The monstrosities of the Inquisition, concentration camps, and the gulags were made worse by our capacity for violent and malevolent power. In contrast, the exercise of more benevolent and peaceful forms of power is often more dispersed and less dramatic, but nevertheless just as important. It has facilitated huge improvements in quality of life for most of us today, and even to our exploration of the universe and unravelling the nature of reality through science.

There appears to be an 'existential black hole' at the core of the human psyche, which can be exploited for ignoble ends by those with a tyrannical will and means, if we let them. On the other hand, we can also be moved to more noble endeavours by inspirational leaders - to improve the lives of others, and to take better care of each other and the planet. So why do we let ourselves, collectively, be lured so often into the violent abyss? How can we ensure in future that our levers of power are used by those with noble intent for the collective good, rather than for narrow and darker interests? What makes a good leader? Are tyrants born or made? Why does anyone want to lead in the modern world given how difficult leadership can be in today's complex societies, where there is a multitude of competing hierarchies and interlocking interests?

The power of emotions

The challenges of wielding and controlling power fairly and ethically were recognised in early human civilisations. For example, Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, Roman Emperors such as the Stoic Marcus Aurelius (who is considered by historians to have been one of the most powerful leaders in history), and the writers of ancient religious texts such as the Bible, all recorded wise insights and discourses into the exercise of power and the importance of leadership, which are still very relevant today. Aristotle observed that every human encounter involves influence and persuasion. He concluded that having influence on large numbers of people is ultimately the root source of all effective power. He defined three main elements of the processes of persuasion integral to the exercise of all power, as illustrated in the diagram below.

Aristotle's Influence Model

Ethos is the perceived reputation and credibility of the persuader, arising from factors such as their expertise, status, charisma, personality and inter-personal skills.

Pathos is the emotional state of the audience or group of potential followers, which can be driven by noble sentiments and emotions such as empathy and compassion, or by baser instincts such as fear and xenophobia. The emotional dynamics of all groups continuously evolve in complex, unpredictable and unstable ways.

Logos is the rational assessment of the actual arguments and ideas being considered and debated, using reason and logic.

Aristotle observed that our decisions are driven mostly by our emotions (Pathos), and that most of us justify the reasons for our decisions using logic and reason afterwards. Unfortunately for humanists, Ethos and Pathos often trump the Logos! His insights have been confirmed by modern psychologists and neuroscientists researching the process of human decision-making. Interestingly, Aristotle's insights and his influence model are still very much taught in modern leadership training courses today (see references to the Power of Persuasion by Westside Toastmasters below, as just one example).

Despots and Tyranny

Virtually every tyrant in history has been a master communicator and manipulator of people. All leaders, including despots and even business marketing departments, exploit human emotions. Most historic speeches such as Churchill's ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat' speech or Lincoln's Gettysburg address stir our emotions rather than our intellect. The importance of Pathos means that all leaders, whether malevolent or benevolent, must develop a deep understanding of human motivation and behaviour, if they are to build the supporter base needed to wield power effectively. All group hierarchies function with various degrees of consent and coercion but will cease to function if there is an insufficient number of adherents who support the leader, even an absolute ruler. In the ancient world, many emperors and kings had short life expectancies following their rise to power if they ignored the prime importance of maintaining sufficient levels of support. Even violent dictators need sufficient numbers of foot soldiers to do their bidding in order to implement their policies, because they are rarely the person who actually pulls the trigger.

"Most historic speeches like Lincoln's Gettysburg address stir our emotions not our intellect."

Since Aristotle’s time, human civilisations have become increasingly complex with the emergence of larger, more complex organisations and groups. It is interesting to note that most of today's larger organisations consist of stacked smaller subgroups, whose size is often governed by Dunbar's number. As a result, in today's pluralistic and connected world we are surrounded by many diverse hierarchies across very different types of organisation, from businesses to the military, NGOs, religions, political movements and of course politics itself. All these groups and subgroups require leaders at all levels of their hierarchies. There have never been so many opportunities for leadership for those with the aptitude and motivation to lead and exercise power as in our modern and more open societies.

What motivates a leader?

Being a leader is hard work, because Aristotle’s Pathos is a complex beast. All leaders need to be visible, and are rightly subject to intense public scrutiny. This is especially true in today's highly connected world, where the media can now record, judge and assess everyone's behaviour. It is a lonely existence, especially at the top of large competitive hierarchies.

Image of leadership generated by AI

The main task of any leader is to make decisions, often with insufficient data, that affect people, their well-being and their futures. There are always winners and losers; it is impossible to keep everyone happy all of the time. There will be those who support the decisions made, and those who vehemently disagree with almost every decision. There will always be an element of coercion needed in the implementation of all decisions, even in a democratic society. Effective leaders need sufficient emotional resilience to enable them to cope with competing interests and many unknowns and uncertainties. No one can predict the future and so leaders have to be robust and honest enough to cope with being wrong, at least some of the time.

"Sociopaths are strongly attracted towards dominance hierarchies for the status and prestige that such hierarchies provide."

So what drives anyone to want to be a leader, given how difficult it is to be in charge of any group hierarchy? There is an enormous amount of literature, research and advice on leadership - too much to cover in a short article like this. But much of this material and guidance can be summarised by recognising that all leaders are driven by a mix of three main motivators: status, purpose, and competence, as follows:

Status: humans are very competitive social animals. Social standing and prestige are important to us and they are two of the rewards of being a leader of any group hierarchy. Good leaders recognise that they have a responsibility to use this status and visibility constructively to improve their effectiveness and to be positive role models. However, individuals with sociopathic personality traits such as narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, often collectively termed the ‘Dark Triad’ by psychiatrists, are also strongly motivated to compete for the ‘top dog’ position in any dominance hierarchy, solely for the status and prestige such positions provide them. All leaders need to possess these 'dark' traits to some extent to be able to cope with the pressures of being a visible leader. Unfortunately, all hierarchies are vulnerable to capture by those with extreme sociopathic behaviours, especially if they are motivated by ideological fervour.

Purpose: All leaders need to be clear about what it is they want to achieve, and why, otherwise they will find themselves blowing in the wind of other's opinions and ideas. Given the vicissitudes of any leadership role, they also need to be guided by a set of overarching beliefs and principles about the world to steer their decisions. Leaders should always be transparent about their values and worldviews, so that these can be interrogated and debated. History is littered with the horrors inflicted on humanity when a society, its leaders and its hierarchies are captured by destructive ideologies such as fascism, socialism or extreme religious faiths. As Steven Weinberg the Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist has said, 'With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion'.

"History is littered with the horrors inflicted on humanity when a society is captured by destructive ideologies."

What all these destructive ideologies have in common is that they seek to divide, control and dehumanise large sections of society, whether a particular class such as the bourgeoisie, a particular race or ethnic group, or those holding particular political views. The only protection we have to weed out bad ideas, and find the best ideas, is the freedom to discuss them openly. Good leaders encourage such open dialogue and debate, and are rarely dogmatic about their own beliefs and principles. In contrast, when an emerging tyrannical regime first seizes power, it generally restricts freedom of speech and controls the press, and then progressively imposes its ideological rule using ever increasing levels of coercion and force.

Competence: leading a group to success brings its own obvious rewards and professional satisfaction for both the leader and their team. Most leaders start their career at the bottom of a group hierarchy, and progressively build their technical expertise and professional experience in return for a salary and recognition. Eventually, those with the motivation, track record of performance, and interpersonal skills will move into progressively more senior leadership positions with increasing responsibilities in terms of budgets, scope and team sizes. Ultimately, those with the charisma and aptitude will become inspirational leaders operating competently at the highest levels of large hierarchies, across their profession, industry or country.

"Nepotism eventually leads to the internal collapse of all tyrannical regimes under the weight of incompetence."

As an integral part of their role, the best leaders develop the overall competence of the whole organisation, and actively manage and encourage their successors to build their own personal abilities. Poor leaders, on the other hand, tend to be suspicious of and threatened by the growing competence of potential successors, and quite often will deliberately scupper their potential, to the detriment of the overall performance of their organisation and society. The sociopathic tyrant often promotes ideological supporters over those with the best skills and experience. This nepotistic tendency eventually leads to the internal collapse of all tyrannical regimes under the weight of incompetence. Unfortunately, this process of collapse is never fast enough to avoid the huge damage they do to their citizens and societies whilst they are in power.

Emmanuel Macron meets Vladimir Putin, 7 February 2022. Photo SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Preventing tyranny

Maintaining and defending our democratic institutions and group hierarchies from sociopathic leaders and ideological capture is a constant battle. The examples of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and the theocracy in Iran demonstrate the dangers of allowing single dominant hierarchies to become entrenched and unchallenged. These regimes all use divisive ideologies that dehumanise and deliberately disenfranchise large sections of their own populations. Russia is controlled by a nationalistic oligarchy under Putin (often termed a ‘thugocracy’) which has been in power now for over two decades. China continues to be ruled by a people's socialist dictatorship by Xi and the Chinese Communist Party, which has been in power since 1949. And Iran has been ruled since 1979 by a series of ayatollahs who have imposed a severe form of Islamic theocracy. Churchill pointed out that such tyrannies only end in one of two ways. Either they eventually collapse under the weight of their own violent internal contradictions, or they are brought to an end through war with neighbouring countries. Sadly, we have yet to see which of these will bring about the collapse of Putin's regime.

The three freedoms of the individual, of assembly, and of expression are fundamental to our liberal democracies. They provide a crucial defence against the rise of tyrannical leaders and extreme ideologies. As Churchill pointed out, ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms’. It is the only way we have developed so far by which we can peacefully remove those in government who wish to cling to power. Our modern, pluralistic and democratic societies contain a diverse and deep ecology of different types of hierarchies across the private and public sectors. This dispersal of power creates effective checks and balances against the rise of any single dominant hierarchy. It also provides a wide variety of ‘constrained’ leadership opportunities for different types of leaders - even those with strong sociopathic traits! It is important for society that we engage those with strong 'Dark Triad' dispositions in constructive endeavours that benefit us all, such as wealth creation and running organisations rather than waging war.

"For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing."

However, both the Trump-inspired riot on Capitol Hill In Washington in January 2021 and the Brexit struggle in the UK illustrate how vulnerable our democratic freedoms can be to forces that refuse to accept an election result. To defend against such threats to democracy, it is incumbent on us all to engage in civil society at all levels and get actively involved in the Pathos, taking up public leadership roles when necessary. We must not remain passive bystanders when we see injustices or abuses of power. Instead, we must speak out and use our democratic rights to challenge those who seek to undermine our freedoms. As the Holocaust survivor and author Simon Wiesenthal has pointed out, "For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing." We must all be willing to be the little boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes, because when satire dies, tyranny has won.

Links to Some Sources

Dunbar's number: Why we can only maintain 150 relationships BBC review of the book Human Evolution by Robin Dunbar (2014)

The Power of Persuasion by Westside Toastmasters in the USA

Psychology Today has the best overview on understanding human personality

Zmigrod, L. (2022) A Psychology of Ideology: Unpacking the Psychological Structure of Ideological Thinking. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 17(4), 1072–1092.

What are Personality Disorders? by Dr J Drescher, September 2022. American Psychiatric Association

The Problem of Pathocracy Sept 2021 by Steve Taylor in The Psychologist, a Journal of the British Psychological Society

Further references are available on request.

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