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Tyranny: Ancient Histories & Modern Paradigms


Admission requirements

This course is available for students of the Honours College Humanities Lab.
Students in the first year of their bachelor’s programme who achieve good academic results and are very motivated, may apply for a place in Humanities Lab.


Tyranny. The word conjures images of dictators, whether in military uniforms or togas, that, thanks to many dark periods of human history, have become all too familiar to the average citizen of the modern world. But tyrants have had and continue to have their fair share of popular appeal: one man’s tyrant, after all, can be another man’s beloved leader. Then there is also the matter of metaphor: where tyrants are invariably understood to be people, tyrannies can be the work of abstract agents: time, numbers, merit (Sandel), custom, distance, nostalgia, metrics, and, famously, the majority (Tocqueville). But is there a conception of tyranny that undergirds them all, and what exactly makes them tyrannical? If—as it invariably is—tyranny is understood as undesirable, how might we recognise, resist, escape, or cope with it, and how have others in the past done so? What distinguishes tyranny from other undesirable regimes of power, and what, above all, is its opposite?

This course thus encourages participants to delve deeper into the conceptions and representations of tyranny, from antiquity to the present. It begins with a provocation: behind the pliability of what counts as tyrannical, it might be said, lurks the sinister and discomfiting idea that our grasp of what we want in our political worlds is perhaps far weaker than we realise. Over six meetings, we will explore examples of and responses to this challenge from the realms of the visual and performing arts, of politics and philosophy, and of food and football. Ultimately, a lateral, cross-disciplinary approach to the question of what constitutes tyranny prompts us to reassess the slipperiness of the slopes between legitimacy and legality, service and servitude, assent and acquiescence, command and coercion, care and cruelty.

Course objectives

  • To introduce students to theoretical approaches to the study of political ideas and cultural concepts, from both historical and contemporary perspectives, through the lens of tyrants and tyranny;

  • To prompt students to reflect on the historical roots and value-ladenness of contemporary discussions of what might constitute tyranny and its alternatives;

  • To cultivate a capacity for lucid, discursive engagement through both short- and longer-form written work on the subject of the course;

  • To encourage students to engage thoroughly with others through dialogue and debate, as well as advanced, articulate presentations.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.
Humanities Lab courses are usually scheduled on Friday afternoon from 13.30 to 17h.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method


Participation 20%
Oral presentaitons 40%
Written portfolio 40%


As shown above


Attendance is compulsory for all meetings (lectures, seminars, excursions, etc.). If you are unable to attend, notify the lecturer (listed in the information bar on the right) in advance. Being absent may result in lower grades or exclusion from the course.


If the final grade proves insufficient, students will be offered one further opportunity to resubmit their written portfolio.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Please refer to the reading list on Brightspace.


Students participating in this module will be enrolled in MyStudymap by the Education Administration Office of Humanities Lab. Students can register for the Humanities Lab modules about two to three weeks before the start of the module through an online form provided by Umail. On this form students indicate the modules in order of their preference. The coordinators assign students to a module based on their preference and bachelor’s programme, in order to create a diverse group of students and equal amount of students per module Usually students get assigned to the module of their first or second choice.
General information about MyStudymap is available on the website.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga


This course is part of the Humanities Lab programme, visit the website for more information.
Visit the Honours Academy website for more information about the Honours College.