I use Cambridge online dictionary as my reference. In this dictionary, the explanations say:

  • dictator: (disapproving) a leader who has complete power in a country and has not been elected by the people.
  • tyrant: a ruler who has unlimited power over other people, and uses it unfairly and cruelly.
  • despot: a person, especially a ruler, who has unlimited power over other people, and often uses it unfairly and cruelly.

What confused me are the examples given for despot (excerpted from the dictionary page):

  • an evil despot
  • The king was regarded as having been an enlightened despot.

I want to confirm whether my following understanding is correct or not:

  1. It looks to me that a dictator or tyrant is always a bad ruler who abuses the power, but a despot is not necessarily bad (as the example says "an enlightened despot"). Am I right?

  2. Although a despot is not necessarily a bad ruler, when some ruler is described as a despot, it is usually implied that the ruler is an evil one unless some positive adjective such as "enlightened" is used. Am I right?

  • See the related, possibly duplicated, question Is “dictator” a negative word? Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 18:40
  • The definition of "bad ruler" is certainly opinion based. Despite that, dictators, tyrants and despots are always bad rulers. No matter how efficiently they run the economy, they will always have to crush any opposition and abuse human rights to stay in power.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 19:00
  • Benevolent dictators are both good and popular (but they never actually win the popular vote, obviously! :) Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 19:26

2 Answers 2

  1. No. See below.
  2. Yes, usually.

While all terms refer to absolute authority, and in this day where democracy is widely accepted all have negative connotations, these functions have a long history and started out being perfectly respectable.

Dictator originated as a Roman function of absolute authority for a short period in times of war. It simply means "one who gives orders". Sulla was one of the first persons to abuse these powers.

Tyrant originates from Greek tradition and refers to anyone, good or bad, who obtains executive power in a polis by unconventional means. Athens gave the title of tyrant to Peisistratus in 546 BC and prospered.

In its classical form, despotism is a state in which a single individual (the despot) holds all the power and authority embodying the state, and everyone else is a subsidiary person. It was a common form of early statehood and civilization, a well-known example is the Pharaoh of Egypt.

Fear of abuse made the principle of absolute rule controversial from ancient times onwards.

Enlightened absolutism (also known as benevolent despotism), came to prominence in 18th century Europe where absolute monarchs used their authority to institute a number of reforms in the political systems and societies of their countries.
This movement was quite probably triggered by the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment. But it never really took hold in a world on the way to more representative forms of government.

These days absolute rule irrevocably holds a negative meaning. In actual fact someone like Niccolò Machiavelli would rejoice.


  • +1 for terms pre-existing cultural views towards absolute rule
    – Unrelated
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 23:25

I would suggest they are typically used to describe different types of dictator.

A tyrant controls with force, often giving brutal punishments.

A despot is more of a ‘control freak’ with absurdly detailed rules ( like what time you should go to bed, or the colour of your front door, for example).

Dictator however, is simply a general classification including many more precise types (which are usually bad!). The leader with an autocratic structure in contrast to one with a democratic (or consultative) structure, where both classifications cover many sub-types.

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