Despotism is a form of government in which a single entity, called the 'despot', rules with absolute power. That entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy, or it may be a group, as in an oligarchy. The word "despotism" means to "rule in the fashion of a despot" and should not be confused with 'despot'.
Despot comes from the Greek despotes, which roughly means "master" or "one with power", and it has been used to translate a wide variety of titles and positions. It was used to describe the unlimited power and authority of the Pharaohs of Egypt, employed in the Byzantine court as a title of nobility, used by the rulers of Byzantine vassal states, and adopted as a title of the Byzantine Emperors. Thus, despot is found to have different meanings and interpretations at various times in history and can not be described by a single definition. This is similar to the other Greek titles basileus and autokrator, which, along with despot, have been used at various times to describe everything from a local chieftain to a simple ruler, king or emperor.
Colloquially, 'despot' has been applied pejoratively to a person, particularity a head of state or government, who abuses his power and authority to oppress his people, subjects or subordinates. In this sense, it is similar to the pejorative connotations that have likewise arisen with the term 'tyrant'. 'Dictator' also has developed nearly similar pejorative connotations, though 'despot' and 'tyrant' tend to stress cruelty and even enjoyment therefrom, while 'dictator' tends to imply more harshness or unfair implementation of law.
In its classical form, despotism is a state where a single individual (the despot) wields all the power and authority embodying the state, and everyone else is a subsidiary person. This form of despotism was common in the first forms of statehood and civilization; the Pharaoh of Egypt is exemplary of the classical Despot.
The term now implies tyrannical rule. Despotism can mean tyranny (dominance through threat of punishment and violence), or absolutism; or dictatorship (a form of government in which the ruler is an absolute dictator, not restricted by a constitution, laws or opposition, etc.).
However, in enlightened absolutism (also known as benevolent despotism), which came to prominence in 18th century Europe, 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 ideals of the Age of Enlightenment.
Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu was a philosopher during the enlightenment. He believed that despotism was an appropriate government for large states. Likewise he believed that republics were suitable for small states and that monarchies were ideal for moderate sized states (World History, Spielvogel J. Jackson. “Glencoe/McGraw-Hill 8787 Orion Place Columbus, OH” p.g. 520).
Although the word has a pejorative meaning nowadays, it was once a legitimate title of office in the Byzantine Empire. Just as the word Byzantine is often used in a pejorative way, so the word despot now has equally negative connotations. In fact, Despot was an Imperial title, first used under Manuel I Komnenos (1143–1180) who created it for his appointed heir Alexius-Béla. According to Gyula Moravcsik, this title was a simple translation of Béla's Hungarian title úr, but other historians believe it comes from the ancient Greek despotes (literally, the master). In the Orthodox Liturgy, if celebrated in Greek, the priest is addressed by the deacon as Despot even today.
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