The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. – James Madison, Federalist 47
In this Federalist Paper, Madison takes on objections that the new Constitution fails to adequately distinguish the otherwise separated powers of legislative, executive, and judicial. While the notion of separation of powers and the notion of absolute power corrupting absolutely are plain enough to most of us today, it’s worth connecting Madison’s summary that the accumulation of all powers is “the very definition of tyranny” with Aristotle’s definition of tyranny, to help flesh out precisely why tyranny just is the accumulation of all power in the hands of either one person or one arm of government.
In his Politics, written 2000 years before Madison’s time, Aristotle describes a tyranny as a species of government which is deviant precisely because it cares only for the advantage of the rulers themselves. Based on monarchy, rule by One, tyranny treats those ruled as if they were slaves – a slave being a person who cannot think for themselves and so requires a superior person to think for them.
Note here that Aristotle does not consider monarchy per se tyrannical, because on his definition a monarch is One ruler who rules for the advantage of the people, not himself. Still, the American experience of monarchy was king as tyrant, so Aristotle’s distinction seems important to note.
At any rate, for Aristotle, tyranny is unnatural because it strikes at the final goal of the human being, a relationship of free association with equals for the purpose of seeking the good life. Free equals are to deliberate with each other about what is just and unjust, but this sort of free association cannot take place in a condition where all power has been accumulated by one person or one arm of government. Without rational deliberation about the just and the unjust between free and equal persons, Aristotle says there is no political life and human beings are merely animal-like and in the condition of being “injustice armed.”
This brings us back to Madison’s words in Federalist 47:
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
Tyranny makes it impossible for humans, the political creatures par excellence, to carry out the very activity that defines politics: free discussion between rational equals. Without separation of powers and balances between them, one arm of government may rule solely for its own advantage, not that of the people.