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despotism,government by an absolute ruler unchecked by effective constitutional limits to his power. In Greek usage, a despot was ruler of a household and master of its slaves. The title was applied to gods and, by derivation, to the quasi-divine rulers of the Middle East. In the Byzantine Empire, despot was a title of honor of the emperors and their relatives and of vassal princes of the tributary states and dignitaries of the Eastern Church. The Ottoman Empire perpetuated the term as applied to church officials and territorial princes. The 18th-century doctrine of the Enlightenment influenced such absolutist rulers as Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II toward a rule of beneficent intent known as benevolent despotism. However, despot is now a term of opprobrium.
See L. Krieger, ed., An Essay on the Theory of Enlightened Despotism (1975); K. A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1981); F. J. Maitland, The Theory of Despotism in Germany (1988).
despotismsee ORIENTAL DESPOTISM.
a form of government and administration in which an autocratic ruler exercises unlimited power, treating his subjects as if he were their master and lord. Classic despotic governments existed in antiquity in the Near and Far East (for example, Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, India, Iran, and China), where the basic power to dispose of land and the main means of production was concentrated in the hands of a central governmental power. Engels observed that “in the period when the commune works the land collectively or allows individual families to use the land only temporarily and where private ownership of the land has not yet developed, state power takes the form of despotism” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19, p. 497). Examples of feudal despots include the caliph of Baghdad (eighth through ninth centuries), the Great Moguls in India (16th-17th centuries), and the rulers of the Ottoman Empire (14th-16th centuries).
In the history of political thought the concept of despotism as a special form of rule was first proposed by Aristotle. Later , the concept was used by progressive critics of absolute and autocratic rule, unlimited monarchy, and elitist totalitarian states. Marx wrote: “The only principle of despotism is contempt for man and dehumanization of man” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 374).
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